Are top bar hives better than Langstroth Hive - Pros and Cons

Are top bar hives better than Langstroth Hive – Pros and Cons


For the purpose of beekeeping, you could either buy a ready-made hive or build your own. Many beekeepers prefer to build their own hives as this is more cost effective. If you are following a Top bar design, or even a Langstroth hive design for that matter, it is quite easy to build your own hive if you are a little handy with tools. Though, different materials can be used to build a hive, like wood, plastic or even concrete, wood is by far the most opted for, as this would give the bees a natural feeling environment.
We shall see how one can build one’s own hive cost effectively with as little effort as possible.

Equipment Required

Equipment Required to create hive

The best option for building the hive is to use a good quality wood. Some¬thing like a termite resistant teak would be ideal. Using naturally termite resistant wood serves the purpose of keeping the hive and the living colony of bees safe from termites and its attack and also prevent the wood from rot¬ting due to moisture or rain. As bees tend to build their hives on living trees, they do not usually face the threat of termites or rot, as the living tree is in itself resistant So it stands to reason that using good quality wood like teak, would ensure that bees are not exposed to hazardous experiences hitherto unknown.

Understanding the Langstroth Hive

A deep wooden box with wooden frames (or plastic frames for that mat¬ter) are needed. The bees are meant to use these bars or frames to build their hives, starting above and moving downward with gravity naturally guiding the direction the cells of the hive would form.

This whole box is covered with a top cover and has a tiny space or a small hole toward the bottom to facilitate the coming and going of bees. In case of additional honey production, a ‘super’ box with additional shallow frames can be added on the top. The brood box and the supers are separated by a queen excluder. But supers are used in case of Langstroth hives, whereas Top bar hives are mostly single storied.

A queen excluder is nothing but a sheet of wood that is to act as a lid for the brood box. This lid has a tiny hole in the center, which is small enough to prevent the larger queen bee from entering the super storage ofhoney. This is to make sure the queen doesn’t lay eggs in the honey cells. So then, the super would only contain honey and is therefore devoid of either pollen or eggs, making the honey pure and hence easy to harvest. This whole appara¬tus is then covered with a lid. Mostly, beekeepers opt for a lid that is shaped like a roof of a house with sloping sides. This is essentially to give the whole structure an aesthetic appeal in one’s garden.

A brief list of equipment or structural elements necessary for Langstroth hive:

A wooden base, a brood box, wooden frames, a honey super, a queen ex¬cluder and a lid.

Though the Langstroth hive is widely used by several beekeepers around the world and preferred for its ease of honey harvest, there are several draw¬backs for using the Langstroth hives too. We shall see what the pros and cons are.


They can be easily added onto by simply adding additional boxes one upon the other. Harvesting honey is easy as it involves just uncapping the comb cells and spinning in an extractor. As the comb is supported on at least three sides by the frame, breaking or damaging the comb is less of an issue. Many a times an emptied comb can be returned to the hive to be filled again.


The Langstroth hive is fairly complicated with several components making it difficult for a novice beekeeper to keep track of all the time. As the additions of the ‘super’ boxes is vertical, rather than horizontal, it is quite difficult to lift and remove filled super boxes from a higher point. Also these additional boxes and frames will have to be stored for winter, which runs the risk of them catching mold, mites, or even moths that will then be passed on to the hive on usage; obviously, an undesirable situation. The big¬gest of all disadvantages for a Langstroth hive is the feet that the upper boxes will have to be removed in order to inspect the lower hives. This is not at all ideal as it will result in disturbing the bees, which in turn results in stress for the whole colony. It is vital to add, as has been frequently observed, that while replacing the removed boxes back on to the brood box, any bees lin¬gering in between get squashed, again causing stress for the whole colony.

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Structure of the Top Bar Hive

Structure of the Top Bar Hive

A Top bar hive basically consists of a cavity, bars, and a lid. There are different kinds of bars with different purposes that are used in the top bar hive. We shall see the use and working of each component separately.

The Cavity: It is the main shell in which the bees will live. Unlike the Langstroth hive, here the bees spread horizontally, moving from one bar to another to make their combs. The cavity must be sufficiently large to ac¬commodate the bees and still leave space for them to move about freely. An overly large cavity box is not required as bees prefer dark and confined spa¬ces and extra wide cavities would defeat that purpose.

Usually the cavity is made of wood, with a wider mouth that tapers slightly toward the bottom. This is to help the bees make a comb that isn’t attached to the walls of the cavity. Bees usually tend to form combs in a ‘U’ shape, which makes it easier to remove individual bars for inspection or harvest In olden days, these cavities were made of any and every cavity like container available, like hollow logs and wicker or straw baskets.

The top bars: These are simple wooden bars from which the bees are supposed to hang their combs. These bars have a bevel kind of guide with tapering edges and inward sloping ends. The bees use the edge of this bevel guide to build their combs. Once the top bars are placed on the cavity, they look like flat wooden panels with inverted triangles facing inside. These bars are to be of 1 Vi” width because that is the distance most bees maintain within their combs.

Follower boards: These are again wooden boards with extended wood that goes all the way down the cavity. They have a few holes toward the top edge to ensure bees are able to move between combs. These boards are there to contain the colony. As the colony expands the follower boards are moved on either side to accommodate more top bars for newer combs. Initially, about eight to ten top bars are placed between two follower boards. As the colony expands more top bars are added. About ten to fifteen bars are used by the bees for the brood. Additional bars on either side of the brood combs are used to store honey.

Many beekeepers make use of follower boards efficiently to control the direction in which the honey filled combs are added. Once the brood combs are all filled, and the adjacent follower boards are tobe moved, the beekeeper will move one of the follower boards and add additional top bars toward only one side. This will result in building combs for honey on one side of the brood only.

Spacers: These are simple thin strips of wood that are sometimes added to create suitable spacing between the top bars. These spacers come quite handy if one wants to space out the bars a little more so that the combs do not touch, if for some reason they seem to do so. Individual combs that are not attached to adjacent combs are ideal in order to inspect or harvest honey and beekeepers strive to attain this characteristic.

Lid or cover: A lid or cover is essential to keep the top bars and the hive protected from the natural elements. Beekeepers mostly opt for gable roof kind of covers because they are aptly shaped to allow rain and snow to flow off. Another option that beekeepers use is half-moon or a half cylinder shaped cover.

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Entrances: Though this is not a separate component requiring any equip¬ment, yet this is a vital feature in top bar hives. Different types of top bar hives function differently based on the type of entrances employed.

Center side entrance hives: These hives have entrances on the longer sides of the hive structure toward the center. The entrances are holes drilled on to the side panels. These hives make use of two follower boards placed strategically along the entrance holes.

End entrance hives: These hives have entrances on the end panel. These entrances are typically a gap toward the bottom of the hive, while some beekeepers do opt for holes as entrances too. Holes are easier to handle as a simple cork would suffice to close the holes when they are not being used. A gap entrance would require a piece of wood or some kind of sheet placed to shut the gap to close it when necessary. Another important feature of end entrance hives is that only one follower board is necessary, which is placed toward the end opposite to the entrance end.

Landing board: This is a small space provided for the bee to land before it enters the hive. Typically this is seen only in end entrance hives and not in center side hives. For the center side hives, the bees simply hover before the hole before darting inside.

Observation windows: This is a cool feature of a top bar hive. It is a window or a rectangular hole placed on the longer side of a top bar hive structure. It has a provision for the beekeeper tobe able to shut it when not in use. The observation window helps in observing or inspecting the hive without even touching the bee combs. It is a great plus for the top bar hives as it reduces the stress levels in the colony by not disturbing the bees fre¬quently. The observation windows are occasionally covered with glass or some kind of transparent plastic so there is no need for opening and shutting the window on each inspection. This is an especially attractive feature for kids observing the hive as no bees are about

A Few More Salient Features of the Top Bar Hive

A top bar hive is considered as one that is most closely related to nature. It is a fair depiction of how bees would naturally build their hives. Bees usually opt for hollows of trees or similar cavities that are dark and roomy. The bees build their hive from top to bottom. And mostly when the hive has reached its desired length, the bees build a different comb adjacent to it from the same roof of the original comb. This is very well duplicated in a top bar hive. A top bar hive is a frameless hive, which means it has no other guide for the bees to build the comb except the thin edge of the top bar bevel. This is exactly how the bees would build naturally. Whereas in the tradi¬tional stacked box hive, frames come with a template or foundation that has built in cell size for the bees to follow. This is highly inappropriate for a healthy bee colony, and we shall see the reasons for this in a later chapter.

Positioning Your Hive

Positioning Your Hive
It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to position your hive correctly. Several factors are to be considered when deciding upon a suit¬able position. You must ensure that your hive is on level ground. An uneven ground with bumps or slopes can be detrimental to a thriving colony due to many reasons. Uneven ground results in uneven combs from the top bar. While this is natural enough for the bees, it would be dangerous for the safety of the comb because an uneven comb would run the risk of getting broken or damaged during inspections. Inspections would warrant removal of individual bars to observe them, and crooked combs would not allow safe removal of the combs. This can result in loss of brood or honey, and not to mention the hard work of the bees. Death of bees by squishing is also a pos¬sibility. This can endanger the bees significantly. Also, care must be taken to see that the whole hive structure is not placed directly on the ground, but instead is raised on a certain platform of at least a quarter of a foot height This can be arranged by placing a couple of mud bricks or even building a concrete pedestal for the structure to rest on. Ideally, though, a couple of pairs of wooden bars are crisscrossed and the hive structure is placed on top of it. Though this is not always the case, many beekeepers opt for bars placed in a criscross manner to form a stand on which to raise the hive structure to safeguard the hive from crawling insects, various pests, and other ground elements.

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It is also important to note what direction the hive opening feces. It is usually placed feeing east or a near direction thereof, like north-east or south-east. This is to help the bees get the early morning sun and encourage them to an early beginning of the day and its activities. It is meaningful to note because several flower species, if not all, bloom and open in the morn¬ings. So the earlier the bees start to hunt for nectar the more productive the hive shall be. If your area gets a lot of rain or snow in the winter, then it is advised that you place your hive in an area that gets a lot of sun. Full sun during the cold winters is ideal. If you are in an area that has unbearably hot summers, then you might consider placing your hive in place with partial sun or sufficient shade.

Another factor to keep in mind is the nearness of a fresh or healthy water body. Though bees would use any water available to them, beekeepers strive to position the hive structure so that some source of water is nearby for the bees.

If not such natural water body is available then an artificial water source is to be kept at hand. Water is just as essential for a thriving bee colony as are the flowers. That brings us to the most important aspect to consider, which is flowers. Bees are known to travel far and wide to gather nectar from flowers. But it is sensible to place the hive structure in the vicin¬ity of flowering trees that are currently experiencing the nectar flow.

Assembling the Hive

Assembling the Hive
Once you have gathered all the required equipment and decided on a suitable position for the hive, now is the time to actually build it, or rather assemble the structure. The primary step is to place the brick or the raised platform or the wooden stand on which the hive would stand. Now keep the firstbase sheet of the hive. Usually, this base sheet of wood has a slopingedge toward the opening of the hive. This is the landing board for the bees that the bees might make use of before entering the hive structure.

For a Langstroth hive, you would next place the brood box. This must have at least eight frames or bars with a maximum of ten. Initially, you can simply place the lid over the brood box and close the structure at that. Only when the brood box is full, should the additional super boxes be added over it At that time, the lid from the first box can be replaced by a queen extractor and the super box can in turn be covered with the lid.
Beekeepers usually add up to two supers over the brood box. Though, top bar hives remain mostly single storied. You must ensure that the opening to the hive is partially closed as of now, which can be opened at the time of high nectar flow.

One other factor of interest for those assembling their own hives, is the kind of frame used. Frames can be empty wooded, four-sided frames, with a thin wooden edge of about half an inch at the top. This edge is from where the bees build the comb. Other kinds of frames are wooden frames that come with a thin strip of wax with hexagonal cell like template over them which the bees again make use of during building the comb. Or this thin strip of wax could instead be a continuous sheet from one end to the other. Mastic frames are also used for their sturdiness.

For a typical top bar hive, you simply place the cavity box upon the base over the stand. And once the hive is introduced and the bees installed you simply place the top bars and cover it with the lid.