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Why Top Bar Hives?

One of the things that I find really interesting is how many types of hives there are. I'd always thought that Langstroth hives (those towering boxes one sees) were the only type currently in use, but how wrong I was! There are all kinds of hives, including woven skeps, Perone hivesWarre hivesKenyan and Tanzanian top bar hives, traditional Japanese hives, National hives, and possibly my favorite design -- the sun hive which is like a skep on steroids.


Isn't this a pretty beeyard? Look at those sunny Langstroth hives.
http://daily-survival.blogspot.com/2011/02/anatomy-of-honeybee-hive.html
Ideally, I'd love the Perone hive, but its lack of movable comb makes it illegal in my area. Through research, I narrowed my choices down to a Langstroth hive with foundationless frames or a Kenyan top bar hive (KTBH) because I wanted natural cell size bees. It doesn't hurt that both designs are legal in my state! After much careful consideration, though, I finally settled on KTBHs.

Inside a TBH
http://www.sustainlife.org/blog/tag/top-bar-hive/
I've found that many people have never heard of this hive design, and I've gotten lots of questions about it, so I thought I'd post a quick overview of my decision-making process. (Talk about the blind leading the blind!) This table outlines some of my considerations.

ConsiderationLangstroth
(with foundationless frames)
KTBHWinner
(for me anyway)
Bee HealthFrom what I've read, using commercial foundation in hives (which is what most people have), can make bees more susceptible to varroa mites due to the large cell size. However, this would not be an issue with foundationless frames.

Wax can be reused over and over, though, which may lead to an accumulation of toxins.
The natural cell size seems to help control varroa mites.

Wax is harvested along with the honey so that bees constantly draw fresh wax that doesn't have a chance to accumulate toxins.

From what I've heard, there are fewer reports of colony collapse disorder (CCD) as well.
Almost a draw. But because old wax is constantly cycled out, I give the KTBH the edge.
Disruption to hiveWhen you open a super, you basically open the whole hive at once. It seems very disruptive to suddenly change the temperature, lighting, etc. when they're nesting so cozily. Plus, it changes the temperature of the brood nest. Too much change for too long can result in weaker, even deformed bees.

Also, I'm not sure how keen I am on the idea of being faced with 60,000 bees all at once. 
One inspects a single bar at a time. The rest of the hive is kept closed.

Additionally, during an inspection usually, one inspects only up to the brood chamber, so the brood chamber generally doesn't get opened at all, which means conditions are more stable.

This seems a much less invasive approach to me. 
KTBH
MaintenanceActually, I'm not quite sure how often one has to check on the hive, but for some reason, I'm thinking it's a minimum of every two  or three weeks.I understand that bees prefer to build their nest downward, like in a Warre hive. It takes more work to coax them to build horizontally.

During a flow, checks are recommended every 10 days or so. During a strong flow, checks should be done weekly. However, during a dearth, no inspections are necessary.
Toss up. 

If I were a professional beekeeper with hundreds of hives spaced miles apart, I'd want Langs. But I'm not. My bees are in the backyard. I visit them several times a day just to see what they're doing. I have to sit on my hands so that I don't go in there more often than is good for the girls. 
WeightEach super (those boxes you see) on a Langstroth hive contains 8 or 10 frames. Depending on the size of the frames and how much honey is in them, the boxes can get really heavy. (48-90lbs!)One handles only one bar of comb at a time. So the max weight one has to lift is about 7 lbs.

*Bonus* The hive can be mounted to any height I like, so no bending. 
I'm short and don't want back problems. Plus, I have slight arthritis in my hands. I don't need to chance dropping a box of bees.

KTBH
NeighborsI don't know why, but some people are really touchy about having thousands of stinging insects living next door or down the street. ;-)

I think Langs are easily recognized and might make some people uneasy.
I think fewer passersby would recognize KTBHs. They could easily pass for a birdhouse or garden object.KTBH
StorageIt seems like one needs a lot of space to store equipment that isn't being used at the time, e.g., supers, frames, honey extractors, etc.There isn't really much to store. All the bars remain on the hive. As far as equipment goes, a veil is recommended, but the only thing you absolutely need is a knife for separating bars.KTBH
Messiness and comb strengthI used to think that Langs had the edge here, but after research, I think that comb in foundationless Langs are pretty fragile until the comb is actually attached to all four frame edges. After that, it's pretty stable.

However, there also seems to be an issue with making sure the comb meets all four edges. The hive has to be completely level to ensure this happens.
Top bars require a gentle touch, especially with new comb. Once the comb is hardened, it's quite strong. However, one still has to be careful not to break the comb off the bar or create micro-cracks through mishandling or over haste. The micro-cracks are a especially a killer because they can cause the comb to fall later.

If the weather is too hot, combs can collapse because they don't have frames to support them.
Draw

Wax ProductionI guess with foundationless frames, one has the option of harvesting wax just like with a KTBH. But this type of hive also gives you flexibility to reuse the wax because you can use an extractor.Wax is harvested along with the honey. I want wax for candles and lotion and other uses.

This is really close, but I'll say Langstroth because of the added flexibility.
Honey productionHere is where the efficiency of the Langstroth design shines.

One has the ability to expand the size of the hive to any size one wants. I once heard of someone with fourteen supers. This means more space for bees and honey.

Reusing comb also helps bees make more honey.
Because the hive size is not expandable, I've read that TBHs may produce up to 20% less honey. I haven't seen where this is verified. Because honey in TBHs is harvested differently from honey in Langs, I'm not sure if it's true. 20% could be a low figure or a high one.


If lots and lots of honey is your goal, Langstroth is the way to go.

However, the mindset of most TBH keepers seems to be that honey is a secondary goal to bee health and well-being. Certainly, that's true for me. This is just a hobby, and I don't have to squeeze a profit out of my bees.
Honey ExtractionCrush and strain method can be used, but it seems like most people who use Langs like honey extractors.

Extractors are basically centrifuges that spin the honey out of two or more combs at once. They  allow combs to be reused.

Folks who advocate reusing comb say that it increases honey production because bees don't have to spend resources creating wax.
Uses crush and strain method, though I've seen video of people modifying extractors to accommodate bars.

Most people only harvest if the hive is getting too full, and then they take only two or three bars at a time -- just enough to give the bees room and suppress swarming. So an extractor isn't really needed. It's simpler to crush and strain or simply cut comb.
Reusing wax probably does increase honey production.
However, the jobs bees take on are age-based. So no matter what, there will always be bees drawing comb.

Secondly, I've heard that bees use up a lot of honey to make wax, but there is actually very little wax in a honey comb. By weight, I think wax makes up only 1/20 of the honeycomb. So if one thinks about how much potential honey is lost, I'm not sure if it's really something for an amateur beek to fuss over.

Draw.
CostThe packages I've seen run on average about $150 for a hive with baseboard, covers, two supers, frames, and some foundation. I wouldn't need foundation, but I'd still have to buy additional supers and frames all the time to expand the hive and replace broken parts.

I'd also have to invest in harvesting & extracting equipment like capping scratchers, uncapping knives, extractors, etc. Oh, I'd have to find a place to keep all this stuff, too, when not in use.
Designed for third-world countries, these hives are cheap. I've heard of people getting free pallets (with untreated wood) and building TBH's for under $5.

If you buy one, though, they seem much costlier than Langs -- probably because you never have to buy anything else. (I liken Langs to what I call The Swiffer Scam. The mop itself is cheap, but then you're locked into buying the stuff that goes with it, so you pay more in the long run.)

Harvesting requires a couple of bowls, strainer, and potato masher. I can make a wax melter with a styrofoam box, plexiglass, and a duct tape. Very low tech and mostly stuff I have on hand anyway. 
I did not see any TBHs online that had all the features I wanted, but I've got an ace in the hole. I'm lucky to have married a woodworker, so he's building them to my specs, which include observation windows with safety glass.

We purchased local wood from a lumberyard. With the wood, safety glass, and screen, we'll come out to about $80 per hive. If we weren't doing the windows, we'd probably cut the cost in half.

KTBH


*Since my original writing, I've taken over the woodworking, and I don't make screens or windows, reducing my materials cost considerably. Plus, I make nucs out of the scraps.
StandardizationNo matter where you go, these are built to standardized dimensions, so it's easy to buy nucs or swap between hives.There is no standard for these hives. Although most of the ones I've seen are a wooden box of some kind, some people weave them out of various materials or cobble them out of 55-gallon drums sawed in half.

This makes it hard to swap equipment, so one usually has to order a package of bees or catch a swarm.
Happily for me, we are making my hives, so the dimensions of my equipment will be standard for me. But the Langstroth wins this round.

I don't know if I'll change my mind later, and I'd still like to try out some other designs. For now, though, KBTHs seem a better fit for my personality. (Basically, they won me over with less lifting.) 

4 comments:

  1. Thanks, this really helps. I was also concerned about the weight of the langstroth frame.

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    1. Thanks! So glad that you found this helpful!

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  2. Nice site! I have just bought a book from a guy called Wyatt A Mangum "Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom & Pleasure Combined". Pricey at $45, but very very good info, much like a text book. He have 200 hives and uses interchangeable parts. He does use foundation strips which I have decided against, although he does recommend using old comb cut into strips as well if you have clean wax. Since he is commercial he has several types or lengths of hives (2',3',5') for pollination, queen rearing, and honey production. Overall I highly recommend it
    TIm

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    1. Hi, Tim! Thanks for visiting! It's funny that you mention that book; my husband gave me a copy of Mangum's book for Christmas, and I just finished reading it last week. You're right -- it's the best book on TBHs I've read so far.

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Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!