Dancing with Bees

With spring coming along steadily we thought it might be time to diversify our beehives into a more natural and sustainable medium. There are a number of designs available, but we wanted something simple and as natural as possible.

Beekeeper working a typical Langstroth apiary

Traditionally, the Langstroth design is a popular one, used mostly in commercial beekeeping. It has a bottom to top vertical arrangement, meaning the queen is in the bottom box and the extra boxes, or supers, are added on top. It also has removable rectangular frames making them easy to inspect and handle. The boxes can be stacked easily and loaded on trucks or pallets for long distances. Boxes can come in different depths, which make lifting a full box of honey much easier. The frames, which can come 8 or 10 to a box, are usually wired and have a wax foundation sheet attached. This begins to resemble more of an industrial agriculture system than a natural hive but can be productive, nonetheless. This is currently the design we use, but we’re curious about other alternatives.

Typical Warré Hives

The Warré design is also vertical and has a bottom entrance, similar to the Langstroth, but the boxes are added to the bottom, keeping the queen and the brood at the top, or furthest from the entrance, following the bees’ natural behaviour. In addition, the frames are given a wax strip along the frame, encouraging the bees to draw out the natural comb on their own. There are some great courses being offered through Milkwood here that teach the Warré beekeeping method.

Kenyan Top-Bar hive in the apiary

The Top-Bar hive is a horizontal design with plain bars instead of frames. The frames are identical to the Warré design with natural comb being built. The hive has a side entrance and no excluders are used to isolate the queen. This design has more resemblance to a hollow log. Traditionally, because of its simplicity, it is used in low socio-economic, less developed nations but is becoming more popular in urban areas of developed countries for hobbyists and backyarders.

Truck back at home after a pickup

Looking to start with something simple, we chose the Kenyan Top-Bar design and followed the plans from Phil Chandler, found here. We started collecting as many recycled wooden pallets we could find around and putting them to use.

Pallets being disassembled

Then we got a hold of the Biodynamic Research Institute in Victoria for some information about their standards with regards to solvents and adhesives. The Institute actually sent me to the minimum organic standards here, which have to be met first. They told me that I would have to exclude glues or solvents to meet biodynamic standards. So we followed Phil’s external coating of 20:1 raw linseed oil and beeswax heated in a double boiler and left out the wood glue.

The Dancing with Bees project is just getting underway and we hope to keep plenty of records of how the bees react, their productivity of honey and fighting pests and disease from different living spaces. Ultimately, we hope to find what is the most bee-friendly, sustainable, productive and practical design available, while still being managed by a human being. The dance with bees continues as the symphony of thousands plays in our ears.


  1. Great information Anthony (Muhammad).

    To everyone out there keen to get some Bees for there own in NSW Australia, contact Anthony. While he didn’t include it in his post. His new Permaculture Business – Honey Bee Permaculture is up and running. Education, consultation, Honey products and Bee hives direct to your door.

    I have a new hive coming to my place this week. Can wait!

  2. Hey Mohammad

    Have heard all about you and your lovely bees. I would love to see lots of articles from you if possible. I have some bees here as well but in standard Langstroth hives. We are currently putting together a top bar hive for our site. Love the bees and ‘dancing with bees’ really evokes a beautiful image.

    God bless

  3. Just a reminder to be cautious about the pallets and make sure you are sourcing pallets made of unpainted and untreated (or heat treated only) timber. Wood pallets can be treated by a number of toxic chemicals as preservatives, and in the disease and pest prevention fumigation process. These chemicals could leach into your honey and wax supplies, presenting a risk to your health and the health of the bees. You could ask where the pallets come from, trace them back to the manufacturer and get the treatment details from them.

  4. great artical Muhammad, yea anyone wanting to tap into the bee dance get on to Mohammad, he has a fantastic wealth of information and a real down to earth approach in explaining bee’s and there care!!!

  5. Hey Nick,
    Great to hear from you…looking forward to coming over this week…when’s this weather going to break but??
    @Joni: Great to see you’re looking for alternate beekeeping ways, we have lots to learn from these amazing insects! Just about the conversion, we’re looking at the Tanzanian model next, it is actually possible to build the specs from the Langstroth frame and transfer them right over…Happy beekeeping!
    @Tim: are you talking about the Beetltra? They work easy enough in a Lang but how would you put them in a top-bar? From what I understand one of the benefits of letting them build natural comb is that they only build the area that they need. One, there isn’t empty space for the beetle to congregate and two, they completely populate the space that is available and harass the beetle, which keeps the population down.
    @Ryan: good point, something we always look out for. Treated timbers, from what I understand, are easily identified. It wouldn’t be viable to treat pallets manufactured with the intention to be thrown out, because it is an added expense for the producer. But one can never be too cautious about the chemical treatments in anything!
    Thanks for all your feedback!
    Anthony (Muhammad)

  6. Hi Muhammad,

    I still get hive beetle in my TBH. There are gaps around the follower boards and between some top bars that I find difficult to eliminate. Perhaps you will have better results with different timber. I use a custom trap design which works like Beetltra: an oven tray with oil slides under a slotted metal plate. I drown dozens of adults and thousands of larvae in the trap.

    You can see photos of an early version on my Facebook albums here (I have evolved it to a slotted design): and

    Incidentally, I don’t recommend the method I used to transfer bees from Lang to TBH. Chandler describes an easier method of suspending a top bar in the Lang for a while to let them build it out. I’ve now got these frames stuck in my hive.


  7. Nice Anthony, one more hive to try out in the top bar theme would be the Perone hive. That will give you a complete set of hives to experiment with.

    I have had more success with my Kenyan Top Bar Hives (KTBHs) to date than with me Warre hive, although the Warre was more fun to build as it is a bit more challenging.

    Keep an eye on the Linseed Oil and Bees Wax finish. The harsh Australian sun cut through mine and down to the bare wood in about half a year when I was in Canberra. I am sure they would last longer under a shaded tree but I kept mine out in full sun and they thrived.

    I wish I had time this year to set up the bees again but after the move down to Vic, I’ve only had time enough to assemble one KTBH and leave it out as a trap hive with the old wax covered bars on it as I’m working on many other projects that need attention at the moment.

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