Wintering Your Top Bar Hive
Gold Star Honey bees® is a Maine company that manufactures top bar beehives. As the owner of the company and a beekeeper myself, shepherd I have seen a number of “bee-attitudes” come and go concerning top bar hives. We’ve muddled through “bees must go up”; “top bar hives make too many drones”; and “wax foundation gives bees a head start.” Currently we seem to be stalled at “top bar hives don’t over-winter.” Let’s take an in- depth look at this statement . . . and see what we can do to increase the odds of top bar hives overwintering.
Top bar hives have long been associated with Kenya, a sovereign state in East Africa. Kenya has many regions that range from tropical, hot and humid along the coast; to temperate regions along the plateau; and temperatures in the highlands that fall well below freezing. Still this association with Kenya appears to have fueled a belief that top bar hives can only succeed in hot climates. At Gold Star Honey bees®, we believe differently. We hear from top bar beekeepers all over North America and get and we have seen the results have received reports of top bar hives that have overwintered successfully in Maine, Idaho, Illinois, Colorado and Nebraska, just to name a few. We collect these success stories, and make YouTube videos to share some of these stories them with people who are curious about the subject. You can find them on the Gold Star Honey bees® YouTube channel on our Success Stories playlist. http://www.youtube.com/GoldStarHoneybees)
Because so much information is being collected been compiled on the successes of how to successfully overwintering top bar hives that an entire chapter of The Thinking Beekeeper, Chapter 7, has been devoted to the subject in (Hemenway 2013). We’re always interested in hearing from people who have successfully overwintered a top bar hive, and learning more about the methods used, so if you are one of those people and would like to share your story, please write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even though most any offers about top bar hives’ abilities to overwinter seem are exaggerated to us, but there are some valid concerns and some significant differences between overwintering Langstroth hives and top bar hives. Let’s talk about those . . .
The patterns of air movement inside these two hive types of are very different, due to their construction and inner workings. In a Langstroth hive, the top bars of the frames DO NOT touch. In fact, they CANNOT touch. They are purposely spaced apart, for two reasons: first to maintain the “bee space” between combs, and second, to allow the bees to move vertically between the boxes. In a top bar hive, the opposite is true – the top bars DO, and in fact MUST touch in order to maintain that same bee space. The bees in a top bar hive move horizontally, below the top bars. This is a big difference and affects many things about the workings of the hive.
In a Langstroth hive, with vertical airflow, moisture in the hive is a concern. Air comes in through the hive entrance, a slot at the bottom of the hive, and it moves upward as it is warmed by the presence of the bees. This works in the same way that a chimney “drafts” to move smoke from your fi replace upward and out of your house. In winter, this warm air passes between the bars, and rises to the top of the hive, reaching the inner and outer covers of the hive, where it comes into contact with cold surfaces and condenses, then freezes. Due to this condensation, in Langstroth hives, it is beneficial to install some sort of absorbent material, often a piece of homasote board, or perhaps a thick layer of newspaper, above the inner cover to soak up this moisture and prevent it from raining down on the brood nest in the Spring, killing the next generation of bees.
In a top bar hive, moisture above the bees is not a concern. In a top bar hive, with the bars all in contact with each other, the air moves horizontally around the hive but there is no upward draft. There is also nowhere above the bees for moist air to condense on a cold surface and then drip down in Spring. Top bar hives with a glass observation window, standard in Gold Star hives. This may experience condensation on the inside of the window but since the window is located below the bees there is no risk of this moisture dropping onto the brood.
When it comes to preparing hives for Winter, there are three important issues, each of which a top bar beekeeper would consider a “four-letter word.” These are WIND, FOOD, and COLD.
Our experience shows that wind is the single biggest threat to a top bar hive’s ability to overwinter. Wind increases the effects of cold temperatures, and saps energy from the cluster. Most successfully overwintered top bar hives have been protected from the wind in some fashion, either by the natural features of their location, or by some sort of protection created by the beekeeper.
The many ways of protecting top bar beehives from wind that have been devised by top bar beekeepers are truly a testament to beekeeping resourcefulness who. Methods range from tarpaper, a take-off on the once-traditional wrapping of Langstroth hives, to planting a circular grove of trees and locating the hive within that circle. Other effective methods include attaching foam board insulation to the outer surfaces of the hive body; wrapping the hive in a “tarp skirt”; building a hay or straw bale “fort” around the hives; or simply siting the hive in a protected corner of a privacy-fenced backyard.
We also use Pink Panther fiberglass insulation – bagged and tucked up inside the gable roofs of Gold Star hives. We do this partly for the insulating qualities but also to fill the space above the top bars. There is a small gap, designed in to each Gold Star Honey bees® hive, between the ends of the top bars and the edge of the roof. While this gap presents no problem provides benefits during the Summer season, and in fact it allows bees to exit the roof space after an inspection. However, in Winter we recommend filling these space to prevent the movement of cold air over the top bars inside the roof. It also helps to deter mice from moving in above the bars because the insulation blocks their access to that space.
Avoid using anything to protect a top bar hive from wind that causes the hive to sweat inside it; anything that completely eliminates air movement around the hive; or anything that absorbs moisture that can then be transferred to the hive. This would include wrapping the hive entirely with any sort of plastic wrap, or building a hay bale fort surround that is too close and transfers moisture from the bales to the hive body.
The second four-letter word is food. In top bar hives, just as in Langstroth hives, leaving adequate food stores for your bees during Winter is crucial to their survival. Then the question arises: how much food is enough? There isn’t much data available about the winter food requirements of top bar hives, a. Aside from a general sense that a top bar hive seems to require less than a Langstroth hive. There It is still plenty of up for speculation concerning whether this is because the bees in a top bar hive use their stores more conservatively; because they are able to heat the hive more efficiently; or because of some other reason altogether. In our experience in Maine, six to eight full bars of honey have typically been enough for a hive to make it through to Spring.
The third four-letter word is cold. Cold Winter temperatures are definitely a concern for bees, but with top bar hives, it is less of an issue than wind or food. comes since we have no control over how cold a winter will be, regulating managing for the wind and food supply, the other two factors we can control, becomes even more important. When you are able to lessen or eliminate the “wind-chill” effect, the cold is less of a problem than you might think. In fact, if there was no wind, and if the Winter would settle in to one temperature, and stay steady for the entire Winter, it’s likely that bees would have a much easier time of it than they do when the temperature fluctuates wildly from deep cold to almost mild. You actually prepare your hive best for the cold by protecting it from the wind and by leaving adequate food stores in the hive.
When to quit
I am often asked about when to quit working a top bar hive in the Fall. Since the bees use propolis to seal gaps inside the hive in order to prevent cold drafts, it is best if the beekeeper in a cold Winter region does not break this propolis seal. In Maine that tends to mean that you should not be working the hive much later than the first half of October. In your location, the timing may be different. Pay attention as you inspect – as the temperature drops, the propolis becomes more and more brittle, and you can hear it “snap” as you break it free. If you are hearing the propolis snap, you are probably inspecting later in the season than is prudent.
It was a number of years before we got a report of mice inside the body of a Gold Star Hive, but alas, it did finally occur. We have started recommend using a square of ¼” mesh attached over a single open hive entrance to prevent mice getting into hives during the Winter. This is especially important if you’ve chosen to use hay bales as wind protection, since the bales are likely to appeal to the mice as well.
Movement inside the hive
The question of whether the bees can move sideways in a top bar hive to get to food stores in Winter was answered dramatically one day, when I opened a hive, inspected a bar, and saw a hole almost the size of a dime at the top of the comb near the top bar. Since then I have seen many similar holes that seem to come and go at the whim of the bees.
Since bees must stay tightly clustered together during the Winter months, in order to combat the cold, there are special challenges to feeding a top bar hive in the Winter. The bees cannot stray from the cluster to visit a distant feeder, so the best option we’ve found is to provide fondant and install it directly against the cluster. This necessitates a cold weather inspection. You will want to be prepared with fondant in a fondant feeder of some kind so that you are able to get into the hive, install the fondant, and get back out quickly.
If you don’t have a fondant feeder Gold Star Honey bees® is developing a product we call the Flottum Fondant Feeder (Thank you, Mr. Kim Flottum!), which is available on our website in time. In a pinch you can fill a manila folder with fondant, staple it to a top bar, and cut several long slits in the side so that the bees can access the fondant, then put this top bar right up against the bees.
With all types of hives, it seems that April is always the cruelest month. Top bar hives are just as susceptible as Langstroth hives to what’s known as the this April phenomenon.. With the April phenomenon often in April, the hive has actually overwintered, and you think you’ve succeeded in getting them through – but then due to some poor combination of weather and hive events, the bees don’t “overspring”. Be sure that this loss is not due to lack of food and forage – as the weather warms, but before the dandelions bloom, you can turn to feeding 1:1 syrup if necessary.
As you can see, there are specific concerns with each type of hive when it comes to protecting the bees from Winter. Because since the interest in raising bees without chemicals and on clean natural comb in top bar hives is continuing to increase, I’m certain we will get better at overwintering in all types of equipment and have more success stories to share. I’m looking forward to hearing them.
~Christy Hemenway, Author of The Thinking Beekeeper series, including “The Thinking Beekeeper – A Guide to Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives” and the forthcoming “Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping – Next Steps for the Thinking Beekeeper.”