Not long after our teenage son started raising honey bees, a family friend built him a top bar beehive with an observation window using beehive plans from a homesteading book. It was such an amazing gift. I enjoy going out to the bee yard and watching the bees build their hive through the observation window.
However, we also have several Langstroth hives and they also serve a purpose in our apiary. I’m often asked which kind of hive is better and my answer is, “Well, it depends.”
The Top Bar Hive
For several reasons, top bar hives are not the hive of choice for most beekeepers. However, I think they are a great choice for many beekeepers, especially backyard beekeepers.
In a top bar hive, there are no frames. There are pieces of wood that hang on the top of the inside of the box and the bees build their comb off these bars. There are usually 20-28 bars which mean the bees can build that many combs. The box is wider at the top than the bottom and this slope is thought to help reduce the attachment of the comb to the inside walls of the box.
This type of hive dates back to the 1600s in Greece but instead of a box, the bars were housed in a wicker basket. The Vietnamese and Chinese used a similar setup but used hollowed out logs instead of a basket or box to protect the comb. In the 1960s this idea was adapted to use in Africa instead of the fixed comb hives they were using.
Sometimes you will hear the top bar beehive called Kenyan top bar hives. We have a friend from Kenya who told us that you will often see smaller versions up in a tree – not on the ground.
While the Langstroth hive is vertical, the top bar beehive is horizontal. The bees move in a systematic way from one end of the hive to the other filling up the bars with comb. The queen will use the first 10-15 for brood and the rest will be filled up with honey. There is no need for a queen excluder, the bees will keep it nice and tidy since it’s just a one story house.
Pros of the Top Bar Beehive
One reason I think top bar hives are ideal for backyard beekeepers is that since you cannot add on to them, the hive size will naturally be limited. The environment in most backyard apiaries cannot support huge hives or a lot of hives.
The top bar hive is a simple set up; a box, bars and top … that’s it. To harvest honey, you only need normal kitchen tools like a knife, colander and bowls.
Top bar hives cost less to make than Langstroth hives and you don’t need to be quite as exact since you won’t be joining two or more together. That makes this great project for even a beginning woodworker. The only critical measurement is that the bars need to be 1 3/8” wide (or slightly wider) since that’s how wide bees like to build their comb.
The comb is easier to harvest from a top bar hive than from a Langstroth hive because you don’t have to move boxes around. You just open the top and take out a bar of comb. A super that is full of honey can weigh up to 100 pounds. I know I cannot lift one on my own and I certainly could not lift one that was chest high or above. Right now, we still have several teenage boys at home, but when they are gone and as we age we will need to keep this in mind.
The top bar beehive can produce just as much honey as the Langstroth hive if you harvest regularly — especially during high nectar flow times.
Top bar hives allow bees to build comb in a natural way. Most bees will build comb in catenary curves (similar to a rope hanging by two ends forming a U) and will adjust their cell size based on the needs. Many beekeepers believe that keeping things more natural will help limit honey bees dying from mites and other pests.
With a top bar hive, there are no “extra” boxes to store during winter. This will help reduce the likelihood of wax moths overwintering in your hives.
The bees inside a top bar beehive overwinter better than bees inside a Langstroth hive. In order to stay warm, bees need to exert energy, in order to do that they need to eat honey. Since heat rises it will go to the top of the vertical hive while the bees are more likely to be hanging out at the bottom. In a top hive there is very little space between the top of the hive and the bottom.
Because you harvest the comb with the honey, you can get all the beeswax you need from a single hive.
Cons of the Top Bar Beehive
There is no way to add on to the hives and therefore, the hive cannot grow very big. That means once the hive is full, they will either swarm or stop producing honey. In order to keep them from swarming and to keep honey production going, you will need to regularly harvest the filled comb.
To harvest the honey you will probably have to harvest and destroy the wax also. There is a way to just uncap the honey and turn it gently in an extractor but the new wax is usually pretty fragile and the risk of it being destroyed is higher. Of course, there are some great uses for beeswax so it’s not like it’s not going to get used.
Top bar hives are meant to be fairly stationary. If your bee farming plans are to move your hives to different fields over the course of the year, the top bar hive is not what you want to use.
The last disadvantage is that it’s harder to get help with bees in a top bar hive since most beekeepers are only familiar with the Langstroth hives.
Lansgstroth hives are the most common bee hives in developed countries for many good reasons. Langstroth hives were designed by Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth in 1856. A year earlier he observed that if a 1cm space was left between the cover of a hive and the top bars that the bees would not fill it with burr comb or propolis – it was deemed walking around space. He realized that if he built a hive with this exact space he could have completely movable frames. This was something that had never been done before.
With this discovery, the bee industry boomed and by the turn of the century commercial beekeeping was well established. For the first time, hives could grow very large and, for the first time, they could be moved depending on where they were needed for pollination.
The Langstroth hive is basically a box with 10 wooden frames in it. The frames can have a foundation already installed or they can be foundationless. The bees fill one box at a time and when the box is 70% full, the beekeeper adds another box on top.
Pros of Langstroth Hives
I think the biggest benefit of the Langstroth hives is that their size is only limited by how many boxes the beekeeper is willing to put onto the hive to grow it. That is a huge benefit for anyone who wants to sell honey.
The honey is easier to harvest from a frame than from a top bar. You just uncap the cells and spin the honey out in an extractor. Also, since the wax is attached to the frame on three or four sides the risk of it falling off is lower than when it’s just hanging from the top.
With frames, you are able to give the bees their wax back. This means they don’t have to spend any extra energy rebuilding their comb. They can just start filling it with honey.
When something goes wrong, it is easier to get help from other beekeepers if you are using Langstroth hives since that is what most beekeepers know. Also, most beekeeping books are written from this perspective.
You don’t need to harvest honey to make more space for the hive; you just add another box on top.
Equipment for Langstroth hives is easy to find, new or used. Most of our equipment has been purchased from retired beekeepers in our area. Since the measurements are exactly the same, you can mix and match pieces from various sources.
Cons of Langstroth Hives
If you are building your own, the measurements need to be exact – or they will not fit with other Langstroth hive pieces. If your measurements are off you might not be able to add boxes on top to expand the hive.
Langstroth empty boxes and frames have to be stored for the winter. If not done properly, this can lead to a huge wax moth infestation.
The supers can weigh up to 100 pounds when full of honey. This might not be an issue when you are young and strong but as beekeepers age, this becomes one of the main reasons they stop keeping bees.
In order to inspect the lower boxes, you must remove the upper boxes which can be stressful for the bees. Also, when the box is put back on, there is the concern that you might squish bees that are in the way; causing even more stress to the hive.
There are quite a few parts to a Langstroth hive making it a little more complicated than a simple top bar beehive. You have the boxes (supers and deeps), the frames (with our without foundations), the bottom board, the queen excluder, the inner cover and the outer cover.
Which is your favorite; a top bar beehive or Langstroth beehive?