See, I told you I would get the the top-bar question eventually.
Why top-bar hives? To explain that, you have to know a little bit about a normal (Langstroth) hive. If you already know this stuff, just skip ahead. 🙂
I am including some pictures so this doesn’t get to dull (I think to many posts without pictures seems to be missing something). These picture are not mine since I haven’t gotten my bees yet (and I won’t have Langstroth hives). The pictures here were all found on Flickr, searched through Creative Commons. The Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides licenses and tools for those who want to share their work. It allows you to license your art/music/picture/writings/etc. in a variety of ways. The picture I am using here are all from nice people who allow other to share/use/reproduce their pictures. Thanks!
The Langstroth hive is named for L. L. Langstroth who invented an patented this type of hive in 1852. It was not the first movable frame hive, but it is probably the most common type used today. The basic idea is that an outer hive body holds movable frames in which the bees construct their beeswax comb. This allows the bees to attach the comb to the top, sides , and bottom of the inside of the frame while still allowing the frame to be easily removed from the hive for inspection. The frames are made to fit together will still leaving space between the combs. Bees naturally build comb to be a set distance from each other (called bee space). Having the proper bee space between the frames generally keeps the bees from building the comb in the “wrong” place. Plastic or wax foundation (a surface with the honeycomb pattern embossed for the bees to build the comb on) is commonly put in the frames. The frames and hive body also leave space at the top and bottom. This allows multiple hive bodies (with their own set of frames) to be stacked on top of each other. The bees are free to move between separate frames and hive bodies. Normally, one or more hive bodies (with frames) form basic hive. These hive bodies contain the brood nest where the queen will lay eggs and the brood will be raised. Depending on the seasons and the whims of the bees, there will also be pollen, nectar, and honey. During nectar flows (when the bees are collecting nectar), beekeepers will add additional hive bodies called supers meant for honey storage. These supers are where surplus honey is stored by the bees, and this is the honey that the beekeepers can harvest (being careful to leave the bees as much as they will need).
Top-bar hives (TBH) can be a good bit simpler (sorry, couldn’t find picture through the Creative Commons). They simply consist of some type of hive body with bars across the top. Instead of having spaces between the bars that the bees can come up through, these bars generally fit together forming a roof of the hive. The bars are sized so that the bees can hang honeycomb from each bar with the combs kept the correct “bee space” apart. This way, each top-bar can be lifted and removed for inspection (similarly to the frames in a Langstroth hive). Since there are no sides and bottoms like in a Langstroth frame, it is possible for the bees to connect the honeycomb to the sides and bottom of the hive. This would make it impossible to to remove the top-bar for inspection, so if the bees connect the comb in this way, it must be cut away from the sides and bottom. Most often, the bees should not reattach the comb once it has been cut (hopefully thats true 🙂 ). Since the idea is pretty simple, you can build top-bar hives in many different way and using many different materials. Top-bar hives are well suited to use in developing countries for this reason (can be made simply from whatever you have). If you would like to see pictures of different types of top-bar hives, check out Dennis Murrell website. Marty Hardison’s hive shows how simple one can be to be accessible to people in developing countries.
Okay, but I’m not in a developing country, and my design isn’t really all that simple. Why would I want top-bar hives?
First, I get to design it. I get to make it mine, built as I see fit. If I follow some basic idea (bee space, reasonable volume, etc) I should be able to make a workable hive the way I want it. I’ll be the only one who has hives like them. 🙂 Unless of course someone later follows my plans (which they would be welcome to do). I think the designing is fun, and the building should be fun too. On top of that, I like the idea of letting the bees build the honeycomb as they see fit (cell size, amount and placement of brood/drone/storage comb, etc.). If they are going to help me out by making honey, I like letting them do it how they would like. 🙂
Second, even though my design may not be really simple, its still relatively simple. I can build it with a table saw and widely available (and reasonably cheap) materials. Langstroth bodies may be simple, but making lots of frames would be more difficult. With top-bar hives, I just have to get the top-bar the right size (and no joints between the tops, sides, and bottoms like with frames). I should be able to build two hives reasonably cheaply compare to buying the Langstroth equipment needed for two hives.
Third, no supers. Top-bar hives aren’t usually made to take supers. You let the bees build their brood nest where they want (usually the front), and let them store their surplus honey toward the back. I live in a condo and will be keeping my bees on someone else’s land outside of town. I would have no place to store supers (they normally wouldn’t be kept on the hive year round and would have to be stored).
Fifth, simple harvest. When the bees fill and cap surplus honey, you simply remove the whole comb from the top-bar and replace it. You have comb honey that can be crushed and strained if you want liquid honey. Because you remove the honeycomb, the honey harvest should be less than that of a Langstroth hive (where the comb is returned), but as I explained in my last post, I don’t need a lot of honey. The beeswax that is harvested is a nice additional product too.
Sixth, hopefully it may help with pest management. This is a topic all to itself, and I will go into more depth later. Simply though, there are those who argue that allowing the bees to build their comb in the size that they would naturally help in the fight against the Varroa destructor. Foundation commonly used in Langstroth frames is embossed with a honeycomb patter, and can influence the size of the honeycomb bees build. By not using foundation I should be able to allow the bees to build their comb in a natural size.