In 2010 I started my beekeeping adventure using top bar hives. My intent was to get started in the least expensive way possible. The cost of making a top bar hive is much less than making a series of boxes, bottom board, inner and outer covers, and a hive stand. Plus, I had no intent of really collecting tons of honey (don’t kid yourself, you will want to collect all the honey you can) I just wanted to help out the bees. Plus, if I ended up not being able to handle all those bees (hated the critters up until I watched “Silence of the Bees” in the fall of 2009), the investment would be very small.
In 2010 I became a member of a local beekeeping organization. I attended the club’s picnic which had hive inspections which included: re-queening, pest inspection, honey harvest, and winter preparation. Seeing this, I noticed a few things that were much easier to do with a “modern hive”. Below I will list what I have found to be pros can cons of the top bar hive and the modern hive (langstroth).
Top Bar Hive Pros:
- Inexpensive to make. I made several for less than $25 each. Can be made from scrap wood laying around.
- No frames or foundation to purchase.
- No extractor to purchase as the combs are destroyed by crush and strain harvesting.
- The entire colony is not opened at one time. This allows for fewer bees to be aware of the beekeepers intrusion.
- Hive is built to the beekeeper’s wishes.
Top Bar Hive Cons:
- Combs are not easily exchanged between hives (unless each top bar hive is identical).
- Combs are fragile and can break easily. This is even more of a problem when the weather becomes cooler.
- The queen may lay in every comb in the hive as there is no way to exclude the queen into a “brood area”. The queen will normally not lay past a comb off all honey. However, I had 2 top bar hives that the queen laid eggs in all the combs in the hive. I had honey combs with a few brood cells scattered about. Not fun to cut out.
- During winter, there is no easy way to feed the hive. Combs break and crumble if the beekeeper tries to move them about to make room near the cluster to attempt a winter feeding.
- Did I mention that there is no practical way to feed the bees in the winter…?
- The hive are long and not easily moved from one location to another. Plus, the combs are fragile and can break during moving.
- No industry standard for the hive or other parts.
Langstroth Hive Pros:
- Most commonly available hive in the world.
- Frames are easily moved from one hive body to another.
- Combs are easily moved from one hive to another. This allows for good resource management to help with struggling hives.
- Hives are easy to feed in the spring, fall, and even winter.
- Many types of feeders are available.
- Combs are easily reused after extracting honey. Honey is easy to extract leaving drawn comb available for the bees to reuse.
- Faster inspections. 10 frames can be moved about by simply removing a box to get to the other boxes. To bar hives require each comb to be moved slowly over to get to the next.
- More tools and accessories available.
- Parts are interchangeable with other hives in the apiary. Hives are built to industry standards.
Langstroth Hive Cons:
- They cost more to build than a top bar hive.
- A honey extractor is needed to harvest honey. Unless doing crush and strain then there is no difference.
- Multiple boxes and frames are needed.
- More parts are required. Hive stand, hive bodies, bottom board, inner cover, outer cover, frames, foundation.
- The entire hive must be open for inspection. Not just sliding one comb over at a time as in the top bar hive.
I did my time with top bar hives. I will continue to use the top bar hives that I have, but I am moving to only langstroth hives for any future expansion. It is much easier to manage a hive when all the parts are interchangeable, easily handled, and easily swapped about. I cannot take combs from one apiary to another using top bar hives, they just break apart. I can see top bar hives being good for someone that only wants 1 or 2 hives and little honey production. However, if one wants 3 or more hives and/or has any interest in honey harvesting, get a modern langstroth hive, they are just easier to work with in the long run. One of my top bar hives produced no surplus honey in 2010 nor in 2011.
Top bar hives are inexpensive to build, and are a good way to see if one even likes bees. If I had not built my first top bar hives, I would not even have bees. When I started out, I could not justify the expense of starting with a modern langstroth hive. I was able to build my first top bar hives in my living room.