Top-bar hive

Top-bar hives are a style of beehive used for beekeeping. They are especially useful in areas where technology is limited, but are also increasingly popular among hobby beekeepers in industrialized nations. This article is primarily concerned with the application of these hives in non-traditional settings, such as prosperous countries as they offer particular advantages to beginning hobby beekeepers.



A top-bar hive has bars from which the honey bees hang wax comb, an array of hexagonal (six sided) cells. These cells may be used for storage of honey, pollen, or for the enclosure of brood (the egg, larval, and pupal form of this insect). Unlike the full frames used in a Langstroth hive, the comb on bars cannot be centrifuged to extract honey and then reused. This characteristic leads to a much lower production of honey (about 20% of a Langsthroth) but the honey from clear yellow comb (comb that has not been used for brood) is of the highest quality and can be used as in-comb honey product, highly prized by some users in preference to liquid honey. This may be spread on hot toast, melting the wax, or may be chewed as a treat, releasing the honey.


Top-bar hives have a long history as the concept is believed to be several thousand years old. The earliest hives are believed to be baskets with sticks lain across the top as bars. Most modern top-bar hives are found in Africa. Owing to the low cost and ease of construction these are especially appropriate for use in non-industrialized and impoverished locations.


Top bar hives are appropriate to locations with tropical or temperate climates. Owing to the extended and horizontal nature of the hive they are not generally believed to be appropriate for locations with severe winters.


Simplicity and generality of construction

The simplicity of the top-bar hive allows use of salvage materials and even boxes and containers such as half-drums, drawers and packing crates. Almost any container may be used as a hive, provided appropriate bars are placed across the top and a weather tight cover and a single defensible entrance are provided. While this is an advantage in impoverished areas, purpose-built hives offer certain advantages in pest control, durability, and defensibility. While hives in a beeyard should use identical bars for convenience in management, the construction does not require the precise construction of the Langsthroth type.

Ease of inspection

Unlike the Langstroth stacked box hive, there is no heavy lifting involved. Inspection of the combs can be carried out with far less disturbance to the bees than is the case with Langstroth hives, since only a small amount of the hive is exposed at any one time. This promotes more frequent inspection by the beginner as the bees are less prone to become defensive.

Reduced storage requirements

Since no seasonal storage of honey collection boxes ("supers") is needed, nor is a centrifugal extractor used, the storage requirements are also greatly reduced. Hobby beekeepers using specifically designed top-bar hives have been able to successfully keep bees without any medications, important since the medications are dangerous to humans and their use must be carefully managed.

No queen excluder required

It is not necessary to exclude the queen from the honey stores as is necessary using the Langstroth stacked box hive. Keeping a full bar of honey next to the brood plus appropriate introduction of bare bars adjoining the brood in early spring will keep the brood localized. Queen excluders and supers both tend to slow the ability of bees to quickly deposit nectar and resume foraging.

Types of top-bar hives

The two basic forms of top-bar hives (named after their countries of origin) are the Kenyan (KTBH, with sloped sides) and the Tanzanian ("Tanz", with vertical sides). The Tanzanian is easier to construct, while bees in a Kenyan hive will have much less tendency to adhere comb to the sides of the hive. Once adhered comb is freed from the side (leaving a beespace) the bees tend to not rejoin the comb, so this is not a significant problem for either hive. It is important in either type that end access or some free space without comb is available so adhered comb may be freed.

Modern designs

A purpose built hive may be designed for better ventilation and pest control. Usually protection against ants, hive beetles, and other predators (such as honey badgers in Africa or bears in North America) must be provided. An open, screened bottom providing both ventilation and varroa mite ejection appears more hygenic than a closed bottom. With all hives a dry, sunny location for wintering combined with good ventilation appears to reduce the incidence of nosema while regular culling of dark comb after two year's use appears to eliminate american foul brood. The culling of old comb is easier in the top-bar hive as a part of the managed progression of bar use.


Both types of hive may use similar bars. If no power tools are available, bars may be made from simple stock with a wax coated string adhered to the bar. It is important that the bees have a definite starting point for the building of comb. If a simple table saw is available the bars may have two closely spaced slots provided along the long axis of the bar. Either type of guide forms a convenient place for bees to hold on to with their hooked feet. This allows a substantial "drape" of bees to form, always the beginning process of comb building. The bar should also have a means of locating transversely. Each bar should be marked on one end and numbered or marked so that it may be replaced into the same location.


Unlike the conventional Langthroth hives, the entrance is not part of the hive's ventilation system. This allows a great deal of flexibility in both placement and configuration.


The provision of a single entrance with a landing platform at one end will help in restricting the placement of pollen stores. These will tend to be in the first two combs nearest the entrance. A single entrance is also more defensible and enables the bees to combat robbing by bees from other colonies. This entrance should be protected by some sort of canopy (or an extension of the roof) to reduce or eliminate the formation of dew on the landing platform — large drops of water will tend to trap early leaving bees until the water evaporates.

The entrance should not be placed high on the hive as this will allow the escape of winter heat. Rather than place the entrance in the center of the end wall it should be located near one of the sides of the hive, especially in the Tanzanian (straight sided) hive. This will allow the bees to access the side which they must use to access comb in the back of the hive for storing nectar.

An anti–robbing entrance

One very effective entrance configuration is to provide a landing pad which is an extension of a covered porch for the guard bees. All bees are prevented from flying directly into the hive by making the entrance a number of 5/16 inch (8mm) holes in the hive end wall. Thus any bee entering the hive must land on the pad, cross the sheltered porch and walk through one of the several entrance holes. The guard bees on the sheltered porch may here inspect and communicate with the arrivals and so reject any raiders, which are recognized by not carrying food and by carrying scents from a foreign hive.

Hive management

It is recommended that new or recycled empty bars be placed at each side of the brood chamber just before spring build–up as it is easier for the bees to make new comb than to move honey stores to make room for new brood. This will also ensure the maintenance of a well built honey barrier between the brood and higher grade stores. To prevent the build up of old comb in the brood chamber it may be advantageous to add new bars only on the entrance side of the brood chamber. This will cause a collection of older honey in re-used comb, which may be removed and used to produce a somewhat lesser quality of honey, as it will have additional flavors from the propalis used to strengthen and protect the brood comb. The progressive removal of brood comb appears, as noted above, consistent with control of AFB.

Obtaining honey

Raw (uncooked) honey is extracted by removing several adjacent bars (typically 3) containing honey filled comb. It is best if this comb is well filled and capped. Not only is this a properly dried honey, the taking of any empty comb does not respect the effort that the bees put into building this comb, which will have to be replaced but does not yield any honey. The several bars removed are replaced with a single empty bar — this is required as the shape of the newly adjacent combs no longer match properly. If both new yellow wax and dark reused brood comb are present these should be segregated to prepare two grades of honye. If any pollen cells are present these should be excised if a clear honey is desired. This pollen may then be mashed into a small amount of honey and put aside for anti-alergenic therapy. The removed bars are then crushed in a screen and the honey drained into a pot or bucket. Additional honey (of lower grade) may then be extracted from the wax by careful heating. Honey and honey-polen or in-comb honey mix should be conditioned for a day or so before use. This will allow the anti-bacterial effects of the honey to be effective. Note that comb honey should not be presented dry, but should be covered in liquid honey. This is because although the honey is anti-bacterial, dry comb is not so sanitary.

The wax may further clarified by heating in water and may then be used for candles or as a lubricant for drawers and windows or as a wood polish. As with petroleum waxes it may be softened by dilution with vegetable oil to make it more workable at room temperature, whence it may be used to create sculpture and jewelry models for use in the lost wax casting process.

Packing honey

While most conventional honey is packed in jars, there is an advantage with crushed comb honey to using clear poly tubs (8 or 12 oz. liquid measure). The tub may be filled to just below the top fill mark (the bottom edge recess that receives the cover). The cover is then placed and pressed down while tipping the container to allow the exclusion of air. Any small wax particles or bee parts will float to the top in about an hour. The top may be removed and replaced with a clean top, then the old top may be scraped clean into the wax leavings for further extraction. The top may then be washed and dried for future use. A 12 oz. tub will contain about one pound of honey. The exterior of the container may then be washed and dried. Stacking tubs of honey may promote leakage. If they are to be sent, the lids should be taped on and the entire tub placed inside a closeable plastic bag.

Characteristics of raw honey

Raw honey will have a much more complex flavor than the usual pasteurized commercial honey found in supermarkets. It will also have distinct flavors by season and location. Many people believe that raw honey from a local producer or a mixture of honey and pollen from a backyard hive will help to reduce pollen allergies.


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