Keeping Bees in Topbar Hives

Work of the bees in hive

Beginning beekeeping, Start keeping bees in a topbar hive

I kept bees in 100-200 Langstroth hives for about 20 years and began experimenting with topbar hives in 1980. In the mid 90’s I sold my Langstroth equipment and began keeping bees entirely in 100 -200 topbar hives. I will occasionally refer to Langstroth management practices that have equivalents in topbar hives. The Langsrtoth comparisons will mostly help people with Langsrtoth experience that are curious to read about or try topbar hives. Some people keep bees in both kinds of hive and there are hybrid Langstroth/topbar hives.

My management practices always veer me away from treatments, toxic or not, to help bees survive. I believe that bees can and always do adapt to disease and parasitism. Their ability to adapt may be limited at first and intervening to help the bees may be prudent until the resistance becomes widespread and  dependable. But as soon as a parasite or disease becomes a problem we need to begin searching for resistance in honeybees. Treatments breed resistance into the pest. Feral bees are demonstrating all over the world that bees can live without our “help”.

5I am a bit of a minimalist and my beekeeping reflects that. I like hives to be as simple and cheap to build as possible. I have made and used topbar hives made out of willows and mud, plastic blue barrels, and wood.

I am a permissive beekeeper, I exert minimal control and do not use queen excluders or try to deny drone production. Honeybees are adapting to the constantly changing world and we can trust that they are not stupid, that they have reasons to raise a lot of brood in many combs certain times of the year, and if they want drones they have their reasons. We should treat them with respect and trust them to run their biology. Our beekeeping practices should be based mostly on a good understanding of natural honeybee biology.

My experience in beekeeping has been primarily in New Mexico, a relatively hard place to keep bees. Cold winters with temperatures regularly 10 – 15 degrees below 0 and warm summer weather getting over 100 degrees with precipitation around eight inches per year make plants bloom fast and furious when they can. My travels to work with beekeepers in California, Arizona Texas, Latin America, Azerbaijan, Portugal, and Jamaica give me some ability to see that timing of operations depends entirely on the climate and flowers where the bees are being kept. Phoenix, Arizona and Taos, New Mexico are not very far apart but Phoenix has a winter honey flow and a hot summer dearth, Taos a long cold winter dearth and a short, sweet summer honey flow.

The best source of information about the timing of local flowers that are important to honeybees is a local beekeeper. Most areas have beekeeping clubs that meet regularly and exist to help us learn from each other. Topbar hives are becoming more common all over the world and most beekeeping clubs are friendly to topbar beekeeping.

Topbar design

There are many versions of topbar hive in use today, and although there are benefits to standardization there will not be a standard topbar hive any time soon. When choosing a topbar hive to build or buy keep these simple design considerations in mind. The first two are about making it easier and quicker to lift out the combs and put them back in the hive. Beekeeping is mostly lifting combs and putting them back. Saving a few seconds and some frustration every time really adds up.

  1. The angle the walls make with the floor makes a difference. The wider the angle the less the bees attach the combs to the walls. If the combs are attached it takes work and time to cut them loose before lifting them out. There are more opportunities to crush bees or get frustrated with bees that are slow to get out of the way when cutting the combs loose from the walls. Although vertical sided topbar hives are possible, if the top is at least slightly wider than the bottom the combs pull up and away without rolling bees.
  2. It is better if the top edges of the main hive body have a pointed ridge to rest the topbars on rather than a flat beveled surface for the topbars to sit flat on. A point-ed ridge is usually easier to make. There are often bees wandering over the top edge when the beekeeper wants to put the topbars back. Bees get crushed if they don’t get out of the way. If there is a pointed ridge and the topbar comes down slowly the bees quickly feel that they have to go one way or the other but can’t stay on the ridge. If there is a flat surface under them the bees cannot feel which way to go to get out of the way. They wander back and forth longer and that gets the beekeeper frustrated with the bees. Crushing bees gets the bees frustrated with the beekeeper.
  3. The depth of the comb from the underside of the topbar to the bottom of the comb makes a difference. Since the combs are not reinforced with wire, wood or plastic they can be fragile, especially in warm temperatures when the beeswax is soft. Deep combs full of honey get heavy and can break off the topbars more easily than shallow combs.

4Otherwise there are many options. I have kept bees in plastic blue barrels and some of those hives still have bees in them now, nearly 20 years later. I have made willow hives plastered on the inside with clay straw, a real wicker hive in Jamaica, stick and shade cloth hives, adobe mud hives, and I have seen a glass hive, bamboo hives and of course wood.

If there are topbar beekeepers in your area that pre-dominantly use a particular type of topbar hive it may be good to follow their example because occasionally you may want to buy, sell or trade a hive, a nuc or even just a few combs with the local beekeepers and it is easier if the combs fit from hive to hive without messy and destructive trimming of combs.

I like to keep hives as simple and cheap as possible. I can be a bit of a minimalist and often work with subsistence farmers. Beyond my keep-it-simple mantra I am a permissive beekeeper, I let the bees do what they want as much as possible. Lastly I believe that bees can and will adapt to disease and parasites and that we should intervene only as a last resort and strive to breed bees that are resistant rather than use treatments, toxic or not, to help bees survive. I try to keep in mind that my way is not right, just my way, and I welcome you to develop your way.

3Timing of operations depends entirely on the climate and flowers where the bees are being kept. Local bee clubs help us discus the local conditions important to bees with experienced beekeepers. Often topbar beekeep ers feel out of place due to the type of hive and the different terms used in langstroth beekeeping. Even though topbar beekeepers don’t have supers or uncap and extract, we are all harvesting honey from the local climate and flowers. Most clubs are topbar friendly, there are some clubs that have a general session and then breakout to topbar and langstroth groups.

The midst of apple bloom is when people get inspired and want to keep bees. Beginning beekeeping classes fill up readily at that time of year but for the most part they will not be ready to keep bees until the next year. There is plenty to learn, you need your hives ready, and you need to find as good a source of bees as you can and get them ordered in the winter. Getting a couple of hives set up on stands well before the swarm season or package  shipping season is important.

Bees need to be out of the way. Place them in an area with the least activity out their front door. A 5-6 foot tall flight barrier, (a bush, some vines, reed fencing etc.) about 6-10 feet in front of the hive can create a bee zone and they are less inclined to get defensive about what is happening in a garden or swing set over the other side of the barrier. When placing beehives be considerate of your neighbors who may be terrified of bees.

Hiving a swarm or a package in an empty topbar hive.

When bees swarm into a hollow space they usually start at the back or top, at the opposite end from the en-trance. The last few years I have been hiving bees in the back end of topbar hives. If you can get a comb or 2 with some empty worker size cells from another beekeeper, or get some empty drawn out langstroth combs that can be cut and tied under two topbars the combs will greatly encourage the swarm or package to stay in the hive once you have put them in it. Empty light colored combs are the best because they reduce the worry about possible disease transmission. Place any combs you get one topbar from the back end of the hive.

Hiving Packages

Some feeding can aid them until they get their bearing. The food is controversial. Some beekeepers say they should eat only honey, some say never feed bees honey that may carry foulbrood spores, only sugar. There are formulations that make sugar have a PH. more like honey. Use good clean white sugar, not brown or unrefined, no molasses, bees are not good at digesting impurities or burned sugar. There are recipes with essential oils or garlic extracts are not naturally found in flower nectar and have been found to reduce brood production. I drop a chunk of crystalized honey inside on the bottom when I have to and sugar syrup is better than letting the bees die. I only very rarely feed bees. A jar with a tight fitting lid with 10 or 11 1/16 inch perforations I make with a nail, set up on two sticks so the bees can get under the lid, makes a fine feeder of liquids. The feeder jar should fit under the topbars so the hive can be closed up snug.

Lift the can out or the cover off the package and pull out the queen cage. DO NOT OPEN ANY PLUG OR CAP THAT WOULD LET THE QUEEN OUT RIGHT AWAY. She may fall to the ground or fly out if you turn her loose. She is not the mother of the bees in the package so a few more days in the cage will help the bees get used to her. If she stays in the cage a few days that also reduces the chances that the bees will abscond, leave with her to live somewhere else. Remove any cork or cap that lets the bees outside the cage eat the candy that holds the queen in. If there is no candy some people put a piece of marshmallow in the hole or just come back after three or so days and then release the queen. A thin string like fishing twine will hang the queen cage between the combs or under a topbar if you were unable to procure a comb.

Shake most of the bees out of the package, they will cluster around the queen cage. Set the package box down in front of the hive so the stubborn bees can come out and join the cluster. In 3 days or so look in to make sure the queen is out of the cage and remove the cage. If the queen is still in the cage, open it up while holding the cage down in the hive. Don’t shake her out, just lay it down and let her come out calmly on her own.

Hiving a swarm

Swarms may be the best way to get locally adapted bees. If you are in an area where the feral bees are Africanized you should get help from an experienced beekeeper. You do not want fierce bees in an urban setting with minimal experience. Local beekeepers will have opinions about swarms and swarm season in your area. Swarms are queenright (with their queen) family units looking for homes. A swarm can be gathered into a well ventilated box or bucket, transported and poured into a hive on its stand or they can be hived right into the empty hive. I have a topbar box that only holds 8 combs that is easy to carry and most swarms fit in it fine. I just open the hive, shake them in and then cover the top and let them come in the entrance. Once they begin marching into the hive or box I do not worry about finding the queen. I give them enough time to gather most or all the bees in the swarm and trust the queen is with them. A comb or two at the back will help them decide to move in.

When flowers begin to bloom. Swarm prevention in topbar hives.

Your bees have been quietly living through a dearth, the winter in much of the U.S. The queen is laying a few eggs to keep the relatively inactive hive populated with a small dearth season cluster. The small population does not gobble up the honey stored many bee lives ago during the last bloom. Hopefully there is still some honey left when spring flowers begin offering your bees sips of nectar and loads of fresh nutritious pollen.  Once the bloom is blazing bright across the landscape tens of thousands of bees could be out in the field gathering. The hive needs to grow from 2,000 – 3,000 bees to 60,000 – 80,000 bees.

2The brood nest can grow toward the entrance in the empty combs but if there is honey left over from the last bloom in the back of the hive it will block brood nest expansion into the back of the hive. The bees do not like to have two brood nests separated by honey. If the brood nest cannot expand into the back of the topbar hive it will quickly fill the front, run out of room and feel the urge to swarm. Once I see the brood nest expanding in the spring I put any combs full of honey in the front of the hive. If it is warm enough I may put an empty topbar between the honey combs and the brood combs to give them space to build a new comb or two. I put any empty combs from the front behind the brood nest combs. This is the equivalent to reversing the boxes in langstroth hives. Now the honey barrier has been taken out of the middle of the hive and put to the front where it can still be eaten and the bees can expand the brood nest as far back into the hive as they want. The topbar beekeeper may fit a queen excluder in to restrict brood to a certain area if he/she wants cross -combing.

1During the expansion season the bee’s instincts are leading them to grow into a much larger population and cast a swarm. Reversing the honey with the empty combs got them started stretching into the full length of the hive. When the swarm season honey flow is happening I try to get to all my hives every two weeks to check on their growth and make sure they are growing on the topbars and not across them. I pull a few combs back and place empty topbars, or topbars with partial combs on them, between fully built combs to give the bees space to build new combs. Empty topbars in between built combs keep them building on the topbars instead of across them. These quick checks do not have to be long or invasive, just pull back the combs from the back until you see the brood, and put the combs back with 2-4 empty topbars alternating with built combs.

When spreading combs apart to get the hive to expand on the topbars is not wise to spread brood combs too far apart. If they are in a spring buildup and the tempera-tures are still cool at night the clustered bees may not be able to cover the brood greatly expanded with empty topbars. The empty topbars and comb building is best between partial combs and combs with honey or empty built combs. If the bees are building slowly I just pull back a few combs at the back of the hive, if there is a lot of building going on I put empty topbars between the combs at the front and the back of the brood nest. Often there are a few hives that did not make it through the dearth and they had empty combs left in them. If they are not full of wax moths or hive beetle larvae they can be taken out and used to give growing hives combs as templates to build new combs between.

Fat and Skinny Combs.

Some times in good honey flows we put a topbar in between nearly built combs but the bees continue building on the full combs making them bulge into the space of the empty topbar and hardly build any comb on the empty topbar.  In rich honey flows the bees are looking for any place to stash nectar fast. The combs they are building can be thickened easier than starting a new comb. This happens at the top of the comb more than the bottom. This happens with uncapped combs, honeycombs that are mostly capped across the top don’t usually get extended.  If a honey flow is strong I find it better to put the fatter combs together somewhere, usually at the back, and gently press them together (giving the bees time to get out of the way where the bulges touch each other). The bees will mine out and repair the bulges. If they bulge out a lot I sometimes gently brush the bees off them and lop off the bulge into a container or harvesting bucket, which I always carry to harvest broken or crossed pieces of combs in. In my circles there is always somebody happy to sweeten something with a little honey from my bucket. Really fat combs must be lifted with care because they are heavy and break off the topbar easily.

When I am spacing the combs in a strong honey flow I like to set up regions of construction in which the combs are fairly similar in width, for example, next to a comb with some capped honey at the top (not easily extendable) I might put an empty topbar, a topbar with thin bits of comb just started on it and another empty topbar.

Giving the bees plenty of room to expand is the langstroth equivalent of adding supers, getting more combs in the hive. Bees kept busy building and filling lots of combs are less likely to swarm. But honeybees have a natural tendency to swarm as part of their reproductive cycle. No swarm prevention is guaranteed, and it can even be encouraged. Once queen cells are started we can use the queens and queen cells to re-queen or make divides.  Now you have honey bees in a box, you are a beekeeper.

~Les Crowder and Heather Harrell Authors of Top Bar Beekeeping Available in bookstores and online.


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