The Grovestead

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Category: Honey Bees (page 1 of 2)

Building a Top Bar Hive

The Top Bar Beehive

We’re trying a new style of beehive this year called a top-bar hive. It’s new to us and most American beekeepers but is actually a very old style. It predates the common Langstroth box-and-frame hives by many centuries and is common in many parts of the world.

The main advantage is simplicity. There are only two components: the trough and flat pieces of wood (bars) that rest along the top of the trough. There is no wax foundation, bottom board, feeder frames, entrance reducers, etc, which makes storage and cleaning much simpler.  It is also makes much less expensive and easier to build. Whereas a starter setup for a Langstroth hive consisting of two deeps and a super can easily surpass $300 or take weeks to build from scratch, a top-bar hive can be built in a day for less than $50, and often less than that if you have scrap materials on hand.

The main reason I wanted to build a top-bar hive was that I didn’t like how invasive the Langstroth hives were to maintain. It’s easy to inspect the top box of a Langstroth hive, but if you need to go any deeper, which you often do to find the brood, that means ripping apart an intact colony. Other beekeepers may not mind it, but I’m not so sure about the bees. After two consecutive total losses each season using Langstroth, I wanted to try something different.

In a top-bar hive the box (or trough) is much longer, usually about 4 ft, and the bees build continuously in one horizontal run. Harvesting honey and inspecting brood can be done with minimal disruption. Check on the brood on one end of the hive, look for honey on the other. There are some drawbacks. Most harvesting equipment is designed for Langstroth frames so extracting honey at the end of the season will be more difficult. But at this point I just want healthy bees so I’m not so concerned about harvesting.

I based my design on the Kenyan Top Bar Hive. Expert beekeeper Michael Bush describes how to build one on his site. I highly recommend Bush’s website and books to anyone starting out beekeeping. His advice is rooted in practice and he has a lot of sage advice to share.

Materials

  • (2) 1×12 pine boards (cut to 4′ or desired length)
  • (1) 1×6 pine board cut to same length
  • (2) 1×12 cut to 15″ for the ends
  • (1) Any material for lid cut four inches longer and wider than the trough dimensions for a 2″ overhang (eg, 52″ x  19″)
  • (30+) bars cut 15″ by 1.5″ wide. Number of bars varies depending on how long your hive is. 48″ inside would require 32 bars.
    NOTE: Michael Bush suggests making both 1.25″ bars and 1.5″ bars, the former being better for brood and the latter being better suited to honey. In this case, you could cut 16 1.25″ bars and 18 1.5″ bars.
  • (30+) pieces of triangular corner moulding cut to 13″ to create a starting guide for the bees.

Steps

1. The first step is to decide how big of a hive you want to build. There is no required size, however most top-bar hives are around 4 feet.

Building a top bar beehive

2. Use a finishing nail gun (or finishing nails) to mount the 1×12 pine boards to the inside top of the 1×6 bottom board.

3. Next, pry the 1×12’s outward until the tops are about 15″ across.

Top bar hive angled sides

4. Nail the 1x12x15 end boards onto the ends of the 1×12 sides.

Top bar hive end

Top bar hive with ends

5. Next, make your bars. Decide how many of each bar you want to use (1.25″ or 1.5″) and cut. This was the only time-consuming part for me. Since I didn’t have a table saw, I had to re-measure each piece I cut, clamp on a guide and cut with my circular saw.

Bars across Kenyan Top Bar Hive

6. After you have your top bar pieces cut, it is highly recommended to add some triangular corner moulding (or you can make your own) so the bees have a guide on which to start their comb. The guide will also act as a stopper to keep the bar from sliding out of place. Center the guide on the bar and nail or glue in place.

Nailing guide to bar

 

Triangular guide for honey bees to build comb

7. (optional) Create a “Follower” board to keep the bees contained to one side. Generally, bees prefer the smallest space necessary to build their hives. Using a Follower board, you can gradually expand the space available as needed, instead of starting them out in a cavernous box.

Inside a top bar beehive showing feeder behind follower

Cut a triangular piece of plywood or pine or whatever scrap wood you have left. The piece will need to be about 11″ tall, ~13″ wide at the top and ~4.5″ at the bottom. It does not need to be air-tight. Nail the board to the bottom of spare bar.

My Follower board doubles as a food compartment. I drilled a 1″ hole near the bottom and keep a sugar water feeder just behind the Follower. This placement is ideal because its next to the brood chamber but inaccessible to robbers (other bees that come to steal honey and syrup). Also, since it is not a frame feeder, I don’t lose any bees to drowning.

8. (optional) I found it difficult to avoid smooshing bees every time I replaced the lid. As soon as bars are removed to inspect, bees crawl on top of the bars and its hard to get them all off before replacing the lid. I solved this problem by adding small strips of 3/8-inch wood on the underside corners of the lid. Now when I set the lid down there is only a small area where the bees might get crushed and its easy enough to keep clear.

9. The hive is now complete. Add 2×4 legs to desired hight, paint, add your lid and you’re ready to go!

Finished top bar hive

Top Bar Hive Entrances

A note on entrances. I followed Bush’s advice and did not drill any holes in the sides of my TPH. Instead, I leave a 3/8-inch gap before placing my first bar. I actually nailed a 3/8″ spacer in front of the first bar so I don’t inadvertently close the entrance when removing the lid. The big advantage of a top entrance rather than a bottom one is that it 1) keeps out rodents and other predators and 2) provides better ventilation, as warm air naturally rises.

Top entrance on a top bar beehive

When the lid is placed over the bars it rests 1″ above the entrance and leaves a perfect gap for the bees to come and go.


Queening the hives

Queen in her cage

Towards the end of last summer we discovered one of our two bee hives was vacant, a victim of Colony Collapse Disorder. We pulled frames with honey and added them to the other hive to give the remaining bees the best chance of surviving the upcoming winter.

But when spring arrived, the second hive had died off as well. We’re not really sure what happened, if it was something we did or if it was just a fluke. They are learning more about Colony Collapse Disorder and the link with neonicotinoid pesticides, one of the reason we started selling neonicotinoid-free flower seeds. Apparently 2014 was the worst year in a decade for beekeepers, with 40% of hives disappearing on average. With only two hives, the odds were already against us.

So that means this year we’re starting from scratch, again, except for the knowledge we’ve gained.  We’ve learned a lot and we’re determined to keep our hives healthy and thriving this year.

First, we relocated the hives from a shady tree-line to the middle of our apple orchard. We think the bees will appreciate the warmer, sunnier location.

Hives moved to a sunnier location in our apple orchard

Added 2 more hives this year

Second, we are supplementing the hives with more food, such as pollen patties and sugar water. There are differing points of view on this, but from the beekeepers I’ve talked to it doesn’t hurt.

Supplementing hives with extra food, like pollen patties

Finally, instead of 2 hives this year we invested in 4 colonies. Two of them came as “nucs”, just like last year, with the queens already included and a couple frames of brood. The other colonies were queenless—part of a split from another hive. The queen stayed with the original hive but I got several frames of brood and worker bees. This required me to introduce a new live queen bee into the hives.

Oddly, like many farm staples, I’m learning, live queen bees are something you order through the mail. I found a dealer and placed an order for two queens on a Monday. On Tuesday morning my queens were at the local Post Office.

New queen bees arrived by mail

Opening the box revealed two queen cages and about a dozen worker bees.

Queen bees inside the shipping box

To introduce the queen to the colony, I had to make room between the center frames, then insert the box.

Queen cage inserted into the hive

That is all there is to it! The queen cages are plugged with a hard-candy substance. Within a few days, the worker bees eat away the candy and free the queen. The whole while, the worker bees are feeding the queen through the screen mesh.

I left the hives alone for about a week and then inspected them again. Both queen cages were unplugged and the queens were out! It took another few days before I could see evidence of new brood. As of the last inspection there was plenty of new bees hatching and honey-making going on.

 


The Bee-Friendly Garden

The Grovestead's Bee Friendly Garden

A long time in the works, I am happy to announce our Bee-Friendly Garden seed collection is now on sale! This collection of annual and perennial seeds were hand picked for their visual aesthetic, fragrances, and ability to attract and feed honeybees.

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Purple Coneflower

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Sunflower

The Bee-Friendly Garden: Sweet Alyssum

Becca explained it this way on her blog:

I was thinking about how excited I get when I’m driving on an interstate and see one of those blue signs with a little sign for a Jimmy Johns. That’s my favorite place to eat on a road trip. And how basically each person who plants honey bee friendly flowers is setting up a little buffet for honey bees. Bees will fly for miles in a day looking for good pollen and nectar. I’m imagining them getting just as excited to find our little bee friendly gardens as I am when I find a Jimmy Johns.

The Beekeepers

We have a limited quantity made up, so if you are interested in starting a bee-friendly buffet this Spring, be sure to place your order soon!

Click here for details and ordering

 


Winterizing the bees

View of the insulated hives

A chore that has been hanging over our heads for a long time was winterizing the bees. After last year’s historic cold temperatures, and losing one hive to colony collapse, we wanted to make sure we did this right.

But the more we researched, the more confused we became. I read somewhere that if you ask 3 beekeepers a question you’ll get 6 answers. That has certainly been the case with winterizing beehives. Some recommended buying special insulating boxes and moisture-absorbing lids. Others used whatever materials they had laying around. Assimilating all this information I came up with a basic plan that falls under the “did our best” category.

Bees clustering between the frames

First I inspect the hive to make sure bees were still there! They were clustering deep inside, which is good. There was plenty of honey on the frames for them to consume this winter.

Siltfence around the hives to block snow and wind

After checking in with the bees, I wrapped the vicinity of the hives with a silt fence. If it looks like a hasty job, well, I dare you to go hammer giant stakes in the ground a few feet away from 30,000 bees. The fence will serve as a snow and wind break, although it should be about twice as high to block the wind. It should help with drifting snow at least.

Then I wrapped the hive boxes themselves in tar paper. This adds a layer of insulation as well as capturing more heat on sunny days. Bees need an occasional warm-up to reposition themselves inside the hives to honey stores.

Next I drilled a hole in the top box for ventilation and a second exit point. Generally, this should be done before bees are living inside. Had it not been such a cold day, I would have been dealing with a swarm of angry bees.

Drilled hole in top super to vent moisture

An interesting thing I learned about bees is that the cold doesn’t kill them, moisture does. In the process of consuming honey and keeping themselves warm through the winter, an average hive will evaporate 1 gallon of water. If the hive is not adequately ventilated, that water will condense and drip back into the hive, harming the bees.

Wire mesh at the entrance to keep mice out

Next, a piece of wire mesh / hardware cloth was placed over the entrance to keep mice out.

Shims on the top board to create another entrance

On the top of the hive I added spacers to keep the lid from sealing on the top completely. This creates another entrance/exit point for both bees and moisture. I still plan to add a moisture board under the lid, but the hardware store only sells them in 4 x 8-foot sheets, so I’m gathering up newspapers to use instead.

Secure the lid with a tiedown

Finally, I strapped the lid on with a tie down. This adds extra stability for strong winter winds. For some beekeepers, this is how they keep the bears out.

Beeswax pulled from one of the hives

Since we’re down to just one hive now, I cleaned out the other hive and stored it for use next year. Inside the feeder bin where we added sugar water at the beginning of the season, the bees had cleared out all the sugar water and left a beautiful honeycomb in its place (sans the honey).  A parting gift from our bees who didn’t make it.


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