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The Dance with Bees Continues

by Anthony Andrist

Go to the bee, thou poet: consider her ways and be wise.
— George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

Looking for simplicity and compatibility between styles, we moved next towards a top-bar design. Essentially, it is a wooden bar placed horizontally across the width of the hive and has a starter strip of foundation comb or a wax bead along the centre to encourage the bees to build comb. The bar can be flat on the bottom, have a notch along the centre to place a wax strip, a semi-circle, a triangle or even a comb footprint, to give the bees a starting point. The bars are set side by side across the top of the hive and can be any length. Most bars are between 3.175 to 3.5cm wide and from 40 to 50cm long.

Phil Chandler, from biobees, with a Kenyan top-bar hive

We looked at compatibility between top-bar and the Langstroth hives and chose the dimensions from a standard Langstroth frame. This allows us to change frames between the two. Also, the stability of the rectangular frame is beneficial support for the natural comb. It helps, when handling, to have a square frame or even just side support for the comb.

Top-bar from a Langstroth hive with a strip of wax foundation

Two of the hive shapes that we tried are Kenyan and Tanzanian. The Tanzanian top-bar is rectangular and a simple crossover between a horizontal top-bar and the Langstroth.

Tanzanian top-bar with cover

The Kenyan top-bar is an upside down trapezoid and took some manipulation to make fitted frames with sides and a bottom, but as a trial, it was something we looked into.

Kenyan top-bar with cover

Both styles represent a simple and basic horizontal living space for the bees and use a natural, sustainable comb management. Our Kenyan (KTBH) holds about 33 frames and a follower board to separate between the frames. The Tanzanian we made holds 25 frames and a smaller, 18-frame Tanzanian, is in the works.

Adapted top-bar for a Kenyan top-bar hive

Natural Comb Systems

Winnie the Pooh in a natural comb system

Phil Chandler describes natural beekeeping as “beekeeping for the sake of the bees, not the honey.” Using natural comb has many advantages. Natural comb leaves the bees to build what they need, to communicate through vibration across comb and the ability to select diverse cell size, such as worker or drone comb. The bees, being able to draw out and manage their own space, are less prone to pest invasion and comb space is less likely to be left unattended. Renewal through fresh virgin comb helps the hive to rid contaminants or toxins that may have been picked up from the surrounding environment.

The issue some beekeepers have is that honey production is significantly reduced. Because it takes the equivalent energy of 7 to 8kg of honey to make 1kg of wax, a hive may produce about a third of a conventional or “productive” system, but for the cost of a more resilient and stronger disease-resistant colony. This is kind of a no-brainer for those who are concerned about bee health and stability.

The sustainability of a natural system means that the use of available resources are not being exploited but are more in balance with the productivity of the environment. Emile Warré was referenced to have liked the top-bar design quite a bit and some have attributed his “People’s Hive” as a natural progression from the traditional horizontal top-bar style. As a top-bar system, the benefits are more than just the natural comb.

Kenyan top-bar without the cover

This design makes is easier to access the entire hive and inspect it at one time. Raising it to waist height avoids the problem of back strain from lifting boxes (especially ones full of capped honey which can weigh in excess of 50kg). The hive can be placed on a stand or have legs attached, making it harder for pests to enter the hive.

Overall, the use of natural comb is not exclusive to the top-bar design but can be utilised in other hive designs, including the Warré or Langstroth hive. The simplicity and basic functionality of the top-bar gives us inspiration that backyard enthusiasts, regardless of their background, age or experience, are able to participate in sustainable, simple and bee-friendly beekeeping. This enhances our interaction, pollinates our gardens and helps us to appreciate the social order found in nature.

With the growing number of bee enthusiasts, there are a growing number of questions. They can be found in the ongoing dialogue of the worldwide web machine. The discussions make evident the diversity of a global beekeeping community; they also highlight the simplicity of assisting or keeping bees and how through our engagement with this amazing insect people and communities are empowered.

For any questions please comment below or go to:

Editor’s Note: Those keen to gain more expert insights into beekeeping would do well to take Anthony’s upcoming 1-day Introduction to Beekeeping using Permaculture Principles course, to be held March 25, 2012 at Lansdowne in the scenic Manning Valley on the Mid North Coast of NSW, Australia.

Recommended Resources:

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  1. Good article, Anthony! I transferred my initial nuc from a Langstroth to a top bar using trapezoidal frames like yours, plus foundation. They were left in the Lang for 2 months. Now I am removing them from the hive for the following reasons:

    – The frames make niches for beetles and moths
    – They take up space in the hive that the bees can’t use
    – With careful handling of the combs they are not necessary
    – To regress the bees so they are building natural sized cells (foundation cell size is larger) and therefore raising natural sized bees which may increase resilience when varroa arrives

    For newer hives they would block visibility when used in a hive with a window, and add to the cost of making bars. Spare bars take up less room than frames. The significant storage requirements of Lang hives is rarely mentioned!

  2. Good point, Tim. I am trying to get away from the Lang system and all the extras, that are rarely necessary. Handling of the comb is something that seems to be a deciding factor for the frames without support. You would have more experience in this area, especially once they are full of capped honey. Did you find it easy enough without the sides?

  3. The major hazard with hTBH is when you expand the hive space too fast and/or have poor comb guides, resulting in cross combing. Correction by slicing and bending can be dangerous so best to avoid it in the first place. If you have to then do as little as possible and in cool weather or in the evening so the bees have a chance to re-attach it. With a few rules of thumb I’ve managed to avoid cross comb and collapses. I don’t know if frames alone (without foundation) would prevent it. Would be good to hear your experience.

    Handling well built, fully capped honey comb is no problem, you just have to gently slice side attachments from bottom to top with a knife and keep the combs vertical. Also cut the comb off in small chunks to avoid draping part of the comb over the edge of your bucket. I have weighed one comb with honey at 3.2kg and it held fast to the bar.

  4. A solution is not meant to bring more difficulty, decreased yields and worry.
    With little experience with topbar hives i have met some of the difficutlies that it can involve: demanding of attention (to increase inner volume of hive, in my opinion this being the primary cause of low immune system aka Varroa) and cross combing (when the bees use 3-4 bars to build a comb instead of 1.

    I see topbar hives as a way forward out of the degenerative way of the ‘convention’. I don’t see it as the ‘best’ or the end of the ‘new’ way.

    During my time with the hives i read the book ‘Bees’ by Rudolf Steiner, learned about returning bees to their original size and read the book ‘Permapicultura’ by oscar Perrone, which i highly recommend. Oscar discusses topics nots yet brought out by any other such as the need of the bees to form comb on the crossing of ley lines, their overwintering habits and their increased vitality when they have larger than ‘conventional’ colony size.

    I think this book has yet come to the attention of the Westerners as it is written in spanish (available online). Although i am sure Oscar would like somebody to get to work translating.

  5. To conclude –
    I see ‘Permacultura’ as the most evolved approach to beekeeping.
    The best solution yet – more simple, increased yields, less worry.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Legoat. I don’t think top-bar hives are an absolute solution. I only intend to demonstrate the variety in hive types. As for the Perone methods, I haven’t read a lot about it. But I don’t think beekeeping has the need to “evolve” a great deal. The issues you brought up, e.g. cross combing, increased demands and worry, seem more related to management then the hive system itself. The top-bar system has advantages as do the Perone and others. Ultimately, the beekeeper needs to feel comfortable with their method and make a decision as to how they manage and in what type of system. All that said, I hope you are able to enjoy what you are doing and share with the rest of us your experience!

  7. The main difference is that the Perone hive must be populated with a prime swarm and that the brood nest, which is huge, remains in the bottom 3 deep boxes with a deep honey box above and these 4 boxes are never touched unless the colony dies out. It is not designed to be inspected at all so may not be legal in many countries/states such as here in Australia. The top 3 boxes are for honey for the beekeeper and always remain on the hive summer and winter even when they are empty.

    This may help out:

    Video Perone

    Video Kenyan Tob Bar Hive

    Video Warre Hive

  8. “Five years ago, bees made headlines when a mysterious condition called colony collapse disorder decimated honey bee colonies in parts of the United States. Now bees are poised to be in the news again, this time because of evidence that systemic insecticides, a common way to protect crops, indirectly harm these important pollinators. Two field studies reported online this week in Science document problems. In bumble bees, exposure to one such chemical leads to a dramatic loss of queens and could help explain the insects’ decline. In honey bees, another insecticide interferes with the foragers’ ability to find their way back to the hive. Researchers say these findings are cause for concern and will increase pressure to improve pesticide testing and regulation.”:

  9. Hi, I know this is from a few months ago, but to follow up on some of the stuff people posted on the Perone hive, I live in Chile, where there are more than 600 Perone hives being used, and yes, Oscar has gotten his manual translated to English and updated. It will be available soon. There have been a lot of changes to the Perone hive system and the info has just recently started to make its way into the English speaking world the past few months. If anyone is interested in Perone’s ideas and system, you can check out his english site:
    Also here is a very recent video from the Natural beekeeping conference that occurred last weekend in the U.K.:

  10. Great post! Back in 2009 when we started selling top bar hives and Warre hives, Warre were only a small percentage of sales. Today, we’re seeing almost 50% of the sales being Warre. In addition, foundationless Langstroth hives have been picking up.

  11. I noticed you have created foundation-less frames for your top bar hive. I think this is a great idea to prevent building of comb to the sides of the hive. Do your frames fit tightly to the sides and bottom of the hive? or did you need to leave any room for them to move underneath? Thanks!

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