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Top-bar hive

Top-bar hives are a style of beehive used for beekeeping. They are especially useful in areas where resources are limited, but are also increasingly popular among hobby beekeepers in industrialized nations. This article is primarily concerned with the application of these hives in non-traditional settings, such as prosperous countries as they offer particular advantages to beginning hobby beekeepers.

Design Characteristics

A top-bar hive has bars from which the honey bees attach and hang wax comb, an array of hexagonal (six sided) cells. Unlike the full four-sided frames used in a Langstroth hive, the comb on bars cannot be centrifuged to extract honey and then reused. This characteristic might lead to a lower production of honey, but the honey from clear yellow comb (comb that has not been used for brood) is of the highest quality and can be used as in-comb honey product, highly prized by some users in preference to liquid honey. This may be spread on hot toast, melting the wax, or may be chewed as a treat, releasing the honey.

Top Bars

A beekeeper can make top bars from any plain wood. The top bars are usually 1 1/4 inches to 1 3/8 inches (32-35mm) wide, depending on local conditions and the type of bee to be housed. Combs can be handled individually. The depth of the bar and the length of the bar can be whatever the beekeeper wants, but usually between 17" and 20". The hive body can be a long box, covered by a series of top bars laid side by side like a wooden keys of a marimba.

It is important to give the bees a clear starting point to build comb on each top bar. Some TBH beekeepers fashion their top bars with a V-shaped bottom to guide the comb building. Alternately, using a table saw to cut two closely spaced slots along the long axis of each new top bar. Either type of guide, wax line or grooves, gives bees a place to hold on to with their hooked feet. This allows a substantial "drape" of bees to form, which is always the beginning of comb building.

Entrance

Unlike the conventional Langstroth hives, the entrance is not part of the hive's ventilation system. This allows a great deal of flexibility in both placement and configuration.

The provision of a single entrance with a landing platform at one end will help in restricting the placement of pollen stores. Combs with pollen will tend to be in the first two combs nearest the entrance. A single entrance is also more defensible and enables the bees to combat robbing by bees from other colonies. This entrance should be protected by some sort of canopy (or an extension of the roof) to reduce or eliminate the formation of dew on the landing platform — large drops of water will tend to trap early leaving bees until the water evaporates.

The entrance should not be placed high on the hive as this will allow the escape of winter heat. Rather than place the entrance in the center of the end wall it should be located near one of the sides of the hive, especially in the Tanzanian (straight sided) hive. This will allow the bees to access the side which they must use to access comb in the back of the hive for storing nectar.

One very effective entrance configuration is to provide a landing pad, which is an extension of a covered porch for the guard bees. All bees are prevented from flying directly into the hive by making the entrance a number of 5/16 inch (8 mm) holes in the hive end wall. Thus any bee entering the hive must land on the pad, cross the sheltered porch and walk through one of the several entrance holes. The guard bees on the sheltered porch may here inspect and communicate with the arrivals and so reject any raiders, which are recognized by not carrying food and by carrying scents from a foreign hive.

History

Top-bar hives have a long history as the concept is believed to be several thousand years old. The earliest hives are believed to be baskets with sticks lain across the top as bars. Most modern top-bar hives are found in Africa. Owing to the low cost and ease of construction these are especially appropriate for use in non-industrialized and impoverished locations.

The two basic forms of top-bar hives (named after their countries of origin) are the Kenyan (KTBH, with sloped sides ) and the Tanzanian ("Tanz", with vertical sides ). The Tanzanian is easier to construct, while bees in a Kenyan hive will have much less tendency to adhere comb to the sides of the hive. Once adhered comb is freed from the side (leaving a beespace) the bees tend to not rejoin the comb, so this is not a significant problem for either hive. It is important in either type that end access or some free space without comb is available so adhered comb may be freed.

A purpose built hive may be designed for better ventilation and pest control. Usually protection against ants, hive beetles, and other predators (such as honey badgers in Africa or skunks or bears in North America) must be provided. An open, screened bottom providing both ventilation and varroa mite ejection appears more hygienic than a closed bottom. With all hives a dry, sunny location for wintering combined with good ventilation appears to reduce the incidence of nosema while regular culling of dark comb after two year's use appears to eliminate american foul brood. The culling of old comb is easier in the top-bar hive as a part of the managed progression of bar use.

Geographical distribution

Traditional top bar hives are appropriate to locations with tropical or temperate climates. Owing to the elongated horizontal configuration of the hive they are not generally believed to be appropriate for latitudes with severe winters.

Some beekeepers are experimenting with short versions of top bar hives which have ~1cm notches cut in the center edge of the bars so that they can 'super' them (put another hive body above an existing hive body to stimulate bees to produce honey in it) with another short top bar hive, or even a standard Langstroth hive body. This method reportedly works well. These sorts of top bar hives could be insulated easily, as is done with Langstroth hives, for colder climates.

Another variant that may improve over-wintering in cold climates is a design pioneered by Phil Chandler in the UK, which has a central side entrance and two follower boards, between which the colony is confined. This leaves large, stationary air-filled spaces either side of the colony, which can be filled with insulation in winter.

Advantages over hive systems using standardized frames

Simplicity and generality of construction

The simplicity of the top-bar hive allows use of salvage materials and even boxes and containers such as half-drums, drawers and packing crates. Almost any container may be used as a hive, provided appropriate bars are placed across the top and a weather tight cover and a single defensible entrance are provided. While this is an advantage in impoverished areas, purpose-built hives offer certain advantages in pest control, durability, and defensibility. While hives in a beeyard should use identical bars for convenience in management, the construction does not require the precise dimensional control of the Langsthroth type.

Ease of inspection

Unlike the Langstroth stacked box hive, there is no heavy lifting involved (unless the entire hive is to be relocated). Inspection of the combs can be carried out with far less disturbance to the bees than is the case with Langstroth hives, since only a small amount of the hive is exposed at any one time. This promotes more frequent inspection by the beginner as the bees are less prone to become defensive.

Reduced storage requirements

Since no seasonal storage of honey collection boxes ("supers") is needed, nor is a centrifugal extractor used, the storage requirements are also greatly reduced. Hobby beekeepers using specifically designed top-bar hives have been able to successfully keep bees without any medications, important since the medications are dangerous to humans and their time of use must be carefully managed to minimise contamination of hive products.

No queen excluder required

It is not necessary to exclude the queen from the honey stores as is necessary using the Langstroth stacked box hive. Keeping a full bar of honey next to the brood plus appropriate introduction of bare bars adjoining the brood in early spring will keep the brood localized. Queen excluders and supers both tend to slow the ability of bees to quickly deposit nectar and resume foraging.

Hive management

It is recommended that new or recycled empty bars be placed at each side of the brood chamber just before spring build–up as it is easier for the bees to make new comb than to move honey stores to make room for new brood. This will also ensure the maintenance of a well built honey barrier between the brood and higher grade stores. To prevent the build up of old comb in the brood chamber it may be advantageous to add new bars only on the entrance side of the brood chamber just past the pollen stores. This will cause a collection of older honey in re-used comb, which may be removed and used to produce a somewhat lesser quality of honey, as it will have additional flavors from the propolis used to strengthen and protect the brood comb. Such honey may be especially appropriate for making mead and root beer, as additional flavors will predominate. The progressive removal of brood comb appears, as noted above, consistent with control of AFB.

Harvesting honey

Raw (uncooked) honey is extracted by removing several adjacent bars (typically 3) containing honey filled comb. It is best if this comb is well filled and capped. Not only is this a properly dried honey, the taking of any empty comb does not respect the effort that the bees put into building this comb, which will have to be replaced but does not yield any honey. The several bars removed are replaced with a single empty bar — this is required as the shape of the newly adjacent combs no longer match properly. If both new yellow wax and dark reused brood comb are present these should be segregated to prepare two grades of honey. If any pollen cells are present these should be excised if a clear honey is desired. This pollen may then be mashed into a small amount of honey and put aside for anti-allergenic therapy. The removed bars are then crushed in a screen and the honey drained into a pot or bucket. Additional honey (of lower grade) may then be extracted from the wax by careful heating, done most safely in a double boiler or by placing the pot in the sun under a clear cover. Honey and honey-pollen or in-comb honey mix should be conditioned for a day or so before use. This will allow the anti-bacterial effects of the honey to be effective. Note that comb honey should not be presented dry, but should be covered in liquid honey. This is because although the honey is anti-bacterial, dry comb is not so sanitary. Comb honey is commonly sold in European countries in plastic tray containers with clear lids, without being covered in liquid honey.

Raw honey will have a much more complex flavor than the usual centrifugated commercial honey found in supermarkets. It will also have distinct flavors by season and location. Many people believe that raw honey from a local producer or a mixture of honey and pollen from a backyard hive will help to reduce pollen allergies. There seems to be stronger evidence for the idea that raw, locally produced honey will help people who live in the area where the honey was produced reduce, or even eliminate, allergic symptoms caused by local pollen.

Packing honey

While most conventional honey is packed in jars, there is an advantage with crushed comb honey to using clear poly tubs (8 or 12 oz. liquid measure). The tub may be filled to just below the top fill mark (the bottom edge recess that receives the cover). The cover is then placed and pressed down while tipping the container to allow the exclusion of air. Any small wax particles or bee parts will float to the top in about an hour. The top may be removed and replaced with a clean top, then the old top may be scraped clean into the wax leavings for further extraction. The top may then be washed and dried for future use. A 12 oz. tub will contain about one pound of honey. The exterior of the container may then be washed and dried. Stacking tubs of honey may promote leakage. If they are to be sent, the lids should be taped on, the entire tub placed inside a closeable plastic bag, and further packaged to prevent crushing in normal handling.

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