Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Top Bar Hive Dimensions/Plans

Updated: New plans, updated link. Updated info.

In a previous post, I made some notes on certain dimensions to consider when building/choosing a top bar hive. However, I thought that I'd also make some notes on TBHs that are either commercially available or in use by well-known beeks.

NOTE: I'm not endorsing any of these products or receiving any compensation from these companies. These are simply comparison notes.

Gold Star Honeybees TBH
44 1/2"
15" at top,
6 3/16 at bottom

(Interior hive dimensions)
9 1/2"
Golden Mean Hive from
19" at top9"
I think they have a longer version as well -- 42"L x 16" X 10".

I think this hive is supposed to use Golden Mean proportions.

I've heard this hive referred to as "The Golden Swarm Thrower."
(Bottom board is 8" wide)
Phil Chandler's Hive
(This is the length of the top bars. His plans indicate using 1" thick wood, so the interior width is probably 15".)
His plans indicate using wood 12" wide.
August Cottage Apiary has posted instructions for building a TBH based on Phil Chandler's design. They are probably the most comprehensive instructions I've ever seen for building a hive.
Les Crowder's Hives
(This is the length of the top bars. His plans indicate using 1" thick wood, so the interior width is probably 18".)
His plans indicate using wood 10" wide.  Sides are angled at 120 degrees.

Wyatt Mangum's Hives
17 1/2" at the top
9" at the bottom
(These are exterior dimensions.)
His plans indicate using wood 12" wide.* 
Detailed instructions are available in his book Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping Wisdom & Pleasure Combined.
Michael Bush's KTBHs
46 1/2"
15" at the top
6" at the bottom
(These are exterior dimensions.)
His plans indicate using wood 12" wide.*

Sam Comfort's KTBHs
18.25” at the top
8.25” at the bottom
(accommodates a Langstroth top bar)


Per his website, these are all approximate internal dimensions using rough cut lumber.

Angle of sides: 120 degrees, gap left at bottom of side board makes the side 10.5"

* Being partly Asian, I could easily use math to figure out the interior height of the hives based on the info provided. However, I never liked math, so I'm not going to. I imagine that you can probably subtract at least 2-3" from the width of the board to estimate the interior height, though. (This figure should account for the angle of the hive sides and the board thickness -- usually about an inch.) If you're willing to figure out the heights and send them to me, I'll certainly post your calculations and give you credit for them! :-)

Here are some additional links to other online top bar plans.

If you have a favorite design or a plan you'd like to add to this list, please, let me know. I'd love to update this resource.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Two Awesome Talks by Mike Palmer

I really enjoy listening to Mike Palmer discuss beekeeping. He's been doing it for years, and he's obviously both knowledgeable and thoughtful in his approach. Here are two great talks by him given at the National Honey Show 2014.

The first topic is Keeping Bees in Frozen North America. In this video, he discusses three key factors for successful beekeeping in a cold climate:

  • Suitable bees
  • Population management
  • Timely winter preparations
The first 12 minutes or so of this video, he discusses his beekeeping calendar so that his audience can get an idea of the kind of conditions he deals with in Vermont. However, if you don't find that interesting, you can skip it. The rest of the video, though, was very informative. At least, I picked up all kinds of great tips.

BTW, as Mike was discussing requeening methods, I was reminded of a tip someone gave me last weekend. They said that when one introduces a new queen, it helps to kill the old queen and smoosh her over the new queen's cage before hanging it in the hive. I was told that the pheromones from the old queen all over the new cage will help facilitate acceptance. Obviously, I haven't tried that yet, but I thought that was an interesting idea and figured I'd pass it along.

In this second video, Mike discusses sustainable queen rearing using Brother Adam's method of simultaneously inducing emergency queen rearing and a swarm response.

Ghosts in the Hive

The following video has been in my YouTube queue for quite awhile, but I just finally got around to watching it. In this video, biologist Ricarda Kather gives a lecture entitled "Ghosts in the Hive - Varroa's life cycle inside a Honey Bee Colony" at the National Honey Show 2013. Wow! What an amazing insight into the varroa mite!

Once again, I am just amazed by the intricacies of nature. If I weren't a beekeeper, I would be impressed by the mite's ability to mimic bees and their cleverness in propagating in a colony. Oh, heck, I really am impressed. I may not like mites, but they are quite clever, really. 

Enjoy the show.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Urban Honey -- For Real, This Time

People are always surprised when I tell them that hives can not only be kept in cities, but they actually thrive. The warmth of the city, fewer pesticides/herbicides, and continual blooms from spring to autumn provide bees with a leg up in terms of producing brood and honey.

Here is an excellent TED Talk by Noah Wilson-Rich. He discusses the benefits of bees in cities and how urban beekeeping may be a way to save both the bees and us.

One of the things Noah mentions that really resonated for me is that modern-day children don't experience stepping on bees. I remember being a child and getting stung. In the past 25 years or so, though, it's never even been a thought. I've walked barefoot with abandon, but I can see how there is something wrong with that. There were simply no bees to worry about because they were being killed by chemicals, mites, and loss of habitat. It wasn't until last year when I got a hive that I started seeing bees in the grass (really on clover) again. I can't even begin to express the joy I felt seeing them there.

Here is another video showing Fortnum and Mason's hives in London. This isn't a particularly informative video like Noah's. It doesn't even show TBH's. I'm sharing this because I simply love looking at the hives. They're just gorgeous -- gotta love those skep-like finials!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Chris Harp

Updated: Added link for Naturally Grown Handbook.

Saturday was an amazing day. For about a year, I've been communicating via email and phone with some very dear individuals, and I finally got the privilege of meeting them in person at a meeting of the Connecticut Beekeepers' Association. That was the highlight of my weekend.

Also on Saturday, I got to hear beekeeper/bee doctor Chris Harp of speak. Chris Harp gives classes and lectures on beekeeping. However, he says that his main source of income comes from providing apiary services for clients like CSA's and private estates. (My husband didn't quite understand my description of apiary services. I guess the best way I can describe it is to imagine someone who doesn't have time/experience to care for a garden, so they hire a gardener. In the same way, there are people who don't have the time/know-how to care for beehives, but they want them on their property, so they hire a beekeeper.)

I can't say how much I enjoyed meeting him and his partner Grai. They such genuinely nice people and a wealth of information. My mind was just blown -- and Chris didn't even have a chance to give half of the info that he had prepared. Wow!

Thought I'd share a few of the notes that I took that day:

Chris mentioned that he manages over 200 hives for his clients. For people who say natural beekeeping can't be done, Chris has proved them wrong because he had only a 20% loss this past winter with his clients' hives. Among his own hives, which Chris compared to shoemaker's children that don't get nearly as much attention, he had a 35% loss this winter. (Author's note: I've been hearing reports of winter losses this year as high as 80%, so 20-35% seems spectacularly successful.)

Beekeeping is a relationship between bees and humans.
Chris talked a lot about how beekeeping should ideally be a relationship between the beek and the bees. Bees are smart. They can recognize individual human faces. They sense and react to human pheromones and emotions. So when beekeepers enter the bee yard, they need to be calm and "grounded." He mentions that he even talks to the bees before he performs any work in the hive.

"We should not alter the [group] soul [of the bee colony] to make things "normal" in order to make things easy for us."
Chris talked about how conventional beekeeping seeks to boost production & make beekeeping easy for the beekeeper, but it fails to take into account the group soul of the colony and how bees actually prefer to work and live. (He referred to A Spring without Bees by Michael Schacker.) In a hive, very complex coordination, cooperation, and communication are going on. For example, he mentioned Gene Robinson's work on the social life of genes. In an experiment, marked European honeybees were put into Africanized hives. In this experiment, the gentle European bees took on the highly aggressive characteristics of the Africanized hive. Then Robinson put marked African bees in European hives, and the Africanized bees chilled out.

Chris Harp's extended frame

One of the ways beekeepers make things easier for themselves, and worse for the colony, is in the way they manipulate the hive and, in particular, the comb, which is "the skeleton" of the hive.

  • In wild hives, the comb in the brood area is the longest comb in the hive. This facilitates the queen's ability to travel and lay more eggs. In a Lang, the comb queen has to travel the gap between brood boxes, and it hinders her. Chris Harp talked about how he uses extended frames in his brood box. (Extended frames can be built or ordered from Kelleys, I believe.) I think he said that the height of the exended frame equals the height of 1 deep frame + 1 medium frame + the space between the brood box and super. Sorry, my notes are not complete, and I'm pulling some stuff from memory.
  • Comb is pure fat, so it transfers heat, which is essential for warming brood and keeping the hive warm in the winter. When a bee is head down vibrating in a cell, she is heating up the six cells that surround her so that the brood can develop. Slight variations in heat determine the type of bee that emerges. 
  • Comb transfers vibration, which bees use to communicate during their waggle dances.
  • Bees use Housel positioning (which refers to the little Y in the middle of comb cells). In natural comb, the shape of the Y varies depending upon where the cell is located on the comb. This allows the comb to support the various weights of brood or honey.
  • "Comb retains the memory of past events." Comb is the liver of the hive. Old comb should be removed every 3-5 years.
  • Chris discourages the use of foundation because bees will build faster if they don't have it. When the bees form their daisy chains, they can build both sides of the comb at once. If they have to build on foundation, they have to build each side separately.
  • Chris says plastic foundation should NEVER be used because it doesn't transfer heat and vibration they way that wax does.
  • He says that commercially sold wax foundation should be used sparingly because it contains a cocktail of antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides, etc., including miticides like fluvalinate and coumaphos which are harmful to larvae and are known to contribute to the sterility of drones & queens. Testing of these chemicals is done according to the LD50 standard. However, these chemicals are tested in isolation. In the hive, when they are all mixed up together, they create a deadly synergy.
  • When Chris sets up his frames, he reduces the amount of wax foundation by using strips of wax. Strips can be inserted horizontally at the top of the frame, or they can be placed vertically. If using vertical strips, he mentioned that he will set up the frames so that one frame will have 2 strips. The frame next to it will have 3 strips. The next one has 2, then 3, and so on. This creates a visual "wall" for the bees so that they build straight comb.
Example of a frame with horizontal strip of foundation

Examples of frames with vertical strips. Chris alternates his frames in the box so that he uses Frame A, B, A, B.
This creates a visual "wall" for the bee.

Propolis -- The Gate of the City
Propolis, which literally means "before the city" -- has amazing properties. Bees use it to keep the hive hygienic. Chris shared research done by Marla Spivak (the researcher who developed the Minnesota hygienic line) which shows that hives that have been stained on the inside with propolis have greatly increased hygiene. For the stain, create a 50/50 mix of propolis and 70% isopropyl alcohol. (Just put the propolis in a jar with the alcohol. It will take some time to dissolve the propolis.) Chris says he simply rubs the stain on the inside of his hives using a rag.

* 70% isopropyl alcohol provides the optimal protection. Spivak's team also ran studies using grain alcohol and 90% isopropyl alcohol with less successful results.

Hive Maladies
Chris recommended a guide published by Penn State called A Field Guide to Honey Bees and Their Maladies. (Author's note: A free online pdf of this is available at:

  • Chris prefers Carniolans, Russians, and Buckfast bees for their hygienic qualities. He said that Italians do not deal with mites as well as Carnies and Russians which will actually abort larvae with mites. They just open up the cells and dump them out.
  • If he has to treat for mites, he uses oxalic acid vapors. He does NOT use oxalic acid drips. He said that oxalic aid vapors leave zero residue in the hive or honey, and they can be used with honey supers on. Oxalic acid is toxic to bees, but it will not harm capped brood. He mentioned that oxalic acid is not FDA approved because it is a product, not a medication. However, it is legal. (Author's note: Compare this to powdered sugar, which is not FDA approved, but it is legal.) If used, oxalic acid should be used with great care (goggles, respirator.) In a private conversation, Chris mentioned that 1 gram oxalic acid (no more than that) is enough to treat the hive. If my memory is correct, he mentioned that if he has to use it, he prefers to do so earlier in the year, before the colony is really into full-swing brood production.
  • In extreme cases, he will use formic acid vapors, but it is very toxic to brood (including capped broods) and young bees, as well as humans. Note: Grai said that she will never, ever use formic acid in her hives under any conditions.
Small Hive Beetles:
  • He said all hives will attract small hive beetles. However, strong hives have no problem dealing with them. He mentioned that he has not had great success with traps. He recommended either merging 2 weaker hives in order to create one strong one or turning the weak hive into a nuc.
Nosema ceranae
  • If you treat your hives with Fumagillin, you may notice short, stubby bees. This is one of the side effects of Fumagillin. Short, stubby bees are likely to have digestive disorders. (Chris explained why, but I neglected to take notes.)
  • Hives treated with Fumagillan end up with higher nosema spore counts six months later than they had prior to treatment. (Unfortunately, I don't remember what he said about what he does (if anything) to deal with nosema.)
Biodynamic Beekeeping
  • If you want to be a certified naturally grown apiarist, Chris shared a resource that he and a number of other natural beeks published called Handbook for Natural Beekeeping. It lists the requirements for a CNG certification. You can obtain a copy from Certified Naturally Grown's website.
  • Chris and Grai are biodynamic beekeepers, so they use the biodynamic calendar to perform various operations. For example, if he has to do a cut-out, he will only do it on root days. He said fruit days are also good for working with bees. Stella Natura produces a biodynamic calendar.

Apiary Services
Sadly, I didn't bring any paper, so my notes on biodynamics are sparse, and I didn't take any notes at all on Chris' second lecture. That lecture was fascinating because he discussed the business aspect of what he does. As I mentioned earlier, he manages hives for other people and provides complete apiary services which include setting up hives, managing them, treating them (if required), training hive owners, extracting, and even bottling honey. This second lecture included information about:
  • The types of clients he services -- CSAs, organic farms, estates. Note that he will not work with anyone who applies pesticides or chemicals. He will not move hives from one location to another in order to follow crops.
  • Pricing and cost considerations. For some clients, he trades services for produce. For paying clients, he has to consider things such as driving time; time spent on the hives; materials for the hives, bottling, etc.; emergency visits; training (if desired); family visits (he compared himself to a party clown who performs during family barbecues). He charges more for the first hour of each visit. Each additional hour was at a reduced rate of approximately $75/hr, depending on the client.
  • He went over some of the items that his contracts include, such as a minimum of 2 hives per site, 8-10 visits during the year with a minimum of 1 hour per visit.
I was so appreciative of his generosity in sharing this information because it really opened my eyes up to a completely different way to practice commercial beekeeping. Chris indicated that he does not sell any honey. Any honey from the hives he manages goes to the hives' owners. He said that he clients love getting involved with the hives and they sometimes take over the management of them. He claimed this was the greatest compliment he could get because his goal is to create great beekeepers.

Bear Fencing
During the Q&A portion of our meeting, Chris made some suggestions for bear fencing:
  • He likes Premier Solar PS 100, which is 8,000 volts and portable. He also recommended Parker McCurry Parmac Solar Ray R-12, and Rangemaster.
  • He said it was ok for a solar fence to be right next to the hive. He said fences operated with AC should be 10-12' away from the hive because they interfere with the bees' ability to use electromagnetism.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Urban Honey -- Sort of

I have been to NYC enough times to know how to behave -- wear sunglasses, walk briskly, don't block the flow of traffic, and don't look at the buildings. The thing is, I can't help but admire the architecture. So much imagination, time, and effort went into creating these gorgeous facades, I feel they deserve a minute of appreciation. I would be a less complete person if I didn't allow their beauty to fill me, so I gawk like a tourist in tribute to the architects and artisans that created the city.

So anyway, as I was walking along 42nd St. last weekend, I noticed this relief adorning a bank. Do you see it?

How about now in this closeup?

He's got a skep! Ah! Art and honey -- two of my loves in one place!

Yeah, to get this snap, I totally broke all the rules and embarrassed my family to boot, but it was worth it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Top Bar Hive Dimensions

Updated: Added link to another post.

I suppose that most beekeepers use the winter to build new hives, nucs, and bars (or frames if one has Langs). Even though I don't need any new hives at the moment, I do want some nucs, so I have been giving quite a lot of thought to hive construction. In particular, I've been thinking a lot about hive dimensions.

Unlike standardized hives like Langs, Warres, Nationals, etc., TBHs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I have a feeling that a lot of this diversity has to do with the dimensions of the materials people are using as well as their level of woodworking skill.

If you plan on building your TBH out of wood, you're going to have to make some decisions about the following:

  • Length
  • Width
  • Height
  • Angle of the sides 
  • If/how you will accommodate a feeder


Too short. I've read about a number of people with hives under 4' who have trouble because the bees fill the hive before they have a chance to cap any of it. This means that one can't harvest, and with nowhere to lay brood or store honey, the bees become swarmy and move out. I think Michael Bush and Wyatt Mangum recommend at least 4' long.

Too long. I'm not sure how long is too long really. W.A. Mangum has hives that are up to 5' long. I heard another beekeeper recommend 4' because that was the length that would fit in his truck. However, the key point seems to be that longer hives are harder to transport because of their weight and size.


Width is important because it determines how much attachment area there will be for each comb. The wider the hive, the longer the bars will be. This means, potentially, the comb will have a greater attachment area. Of course, the attachment area may vary depending upon how deep the hive is -- more on this in a minute when I comment on hive height.

I have seen recommendations that the hive should be wide enough so that you can stick a bar in a Lang, get a little comb built on it (not fully built though, because you'd have a hard time putting it into the TBH), and then put it into the TBH. This size would also let you put a fully built out top bar into a Lang.

When it comes to TBH widths, mentally I've started classifying hives as "universal donors" or "universal recipients." If your width is on the narrow side, it's much easier to transfer your combs to a wider hive. If your width is wider, it's much easier to accept bars from other hives. I think this has implications for a number of things, particularly if you want to get into the nuc selling business. For example, if you plan to sell nucs, you would want to be a universal donor.

From what I've seen, narrower hives are about 15-17" wide. The wider ones are anywhere from 21-24".

You can see how the shape of the comb is determined by the interior size of the hive.


The height (or depth) of the TBH determines the amount of comb that can be built downward. Why does this matter? It makes a difference because when the comb is full of honey, it gets really heavy and pulls on the part of the comb that is attached to the top bar. So the height and width of the comb should be proportional. This will ensure that the attachments are strong enough to support your comb.  

So the million dollar question is "What is the best ratio?" Honestly, I have no clue! Somewhere, I read that 11" is really the very maximum height one would want for a hive. However, you may need to adjust this height for various reasons, such as:
  • The length of your bars -- if you have long bars, you can have a deeper hive. If your bars are short, you might want a shallower hive.
  • If you live in very hot weather, you may want shallower (and therefore, lighter) comb
  • If you want to transfer the bars to a Lang, you'll want to make sure that the comb will fit the box (could be deep or medium).
  • If you want to sell nucs, you'd want a hive that is on the shallow side (again, so you can be a universal donor).
Angle of the Sides

Some people like the sides of their TBHs at a 90 degree angle to the bottom of the hive, which means the sides are straight up and down, like a shoebox. (This style is called a Tanzanian top bar hive, btw.) There are some benefits to this. For example, the hive is easier to build, and it can be made to accommodate frames from Langs. Detractors say that the bees make more attachment comb in these types of hives.

Kenyan TBH beeks use slanted slides in their hives. The premise is that bees don't like to  attach comb at the bottom of the hive. Slanted walls are supposed to feel more like "floors" to the bees and prevent more attachment at the sides of the comb. Is this true? I don't know. I found that my bees attached at the sides, but once I cut it, they rarely reattached.

I frequently hear people suggest a slant of 120 degrees because this works with the natural hexagonal shape of comb. On the other hand, lots of folks say that the angle really doesn't matter. Bees rarely build "perfect" comb, and they will build no matter what size box they are in. I have a feeling they're right since I've seen TBHs made out of 55-gallon drums, woven out of straw, using re-purposed fish tanks... you name it.

Accommodating Feeders

One other thing that might affect your hive dimensions is a feeder. Although you might want to avoid feeding as much as possible, there are times when you just have to. If you plan to use an in-hive feeder, that should be something to consider when designing your hive. It would be a real bummer to spend lots of time making a hive and then find out that the feeder won't fit inside.

I know this has been sort of a generic discussion of considerations. In another post, I've provided a list of various top bar hives I've seen online and their dimensions. If you have any thoughts about hive dimensions, please, feel free to weigh in on the discussion! I'd love to hear what works/didn't work for you.