Kenyan Top Bar

I’m excited to try a new experiment this year: top-bar beekeeping!

In traditional “Langstroth” hives (or at least, traditional since the mid-1800’s), rectangular frames are placed into rectangular boxes, and the bees build their comb into these rectangular shapes. The foundation in the frames typically have wire running through the middle (or, more recently, are made out of solid plastic), meaning you can remove them, spin them in a centrifuge to extract the honey, and then return them to the hive for re-use. Because you re-use the honeycomb, the bees can spend more time making honey and less time making wax, increasing your production.

On the flip-side, having wire down the center, or worse, plastic, makes it more difficult to harvest comb honey: you end up needing a special contraption to separate your comb into usable parts.

More important for me, virtually all the foundation for sale is “large cell”, meaning it’s been pre-printed with with 5.4mm wide cells. This is larger than the rougly 4.9mm cells bees would make if left to their own devices. The logic behind the larger cell is that it leads to larger bees and larger honeycomb cells in general, which means more honey production.

No doubt this is true, but there’s also growing evidence that larger cells leave a hive more susceptible to varroa mite infestation: the mites grow in the cells along with the bee larva, and larger cells yield more mites.

So this year, I’m starting a new hive as a Kenyan top-bar bee hive. In top-bar beekeeping, you don’t provide the bees with a frame or foundation, you simple provide them with an empty space and bars at the top of the hive to draw their comb down from. Because there’s no foundation, they’ll create whatever cell size fits their fancy.

Of course, the bees have to spend extra time building out their foundation (since none is provided), so first year honey production is typically quite small.

Top Bar Bee Hive

Worse, harvesting is more destructive to the hive: you can’t put the comb in a centrifuge because it’s too fragile without the wire running through the foundation. Instead, you simply crush the comb in a colander and let the honey leak out…or eat it as cut comb. That means that in subsequent years, they’re also spending their time drawing new comb instead of producing honey. But hey, I’ve been harvesting 15 gallons of honey per year for some time now, and that’s enough for more peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches than I could eat in a lifetime.


I didn’t know much about top bar beekeeping, and honestly, I don’t learn very well from books. I much prefer seeing and doing, so I jumped on the opportunity to take a 3 hour top bar beekeeping class up at Seattle Tilth a couple weeks back. I snapped some pictures of the hive the instructor brought in, jotted some notes and I was off to the races.

The design is pretty straightforward: take a 14 ft 1×10, cut off two 18″ end-pieces, and cut the rest into three 43″ pieces. Attach as seen in the photo, then cut 1×2’s into 18″ pieces to drape along the top. Per the hint I got at the class, I nailed a triangular cant to the center of the top bars to give the bees something to orient off of, but I’m told that’s optional. Cut a small, 6″ long,  3/8″ high hole along one end and ba-bam! you’ve got yourself a top-bar beehive.

Top Bar Bee Hive

OK, you need a roof, too. While the 1×2’s fit in nice and tight along the top so the bees can’t get up and out, the rain could get in, which would be dreary, so I grabbed some scrap lumber and a sheet of corrugated plastic to give them some protection from the elements.

All three of my existing hives died over this winter, so I’m starting fresh: two packages of Europeans and one package of Carniolans. The Carnies are headed to the top-bar hive. Wish me luck.


Based on comments from Rusty and some that I received through Facebook, I think the verdict on the Bee Kill question is clear: the girls found something they shouldn’t have. Rusty left this comment:

The photo looks like a classic case of pesticide poisoning but even if someone were spraying this time of year, the bees wouldn’t be foraging in the snow. It wasn’t cold enough in November to kill the bees, so that’s out. The first freeze of the winter kills off the yellow jackets and hornets, so that’s probably out. No, I’m going back to pesticide. It would only take one misguided homeowner to dump a container of whatever on some unsuspecting insect (or arachnid) to set things in motion. If there was a warm day in there, a few bees could have brought it home with them and poisoned the lot. It sure looks like it.

Toxic FlowI couldn’t figure out where they would have gotten into pesticide at the end of November, either, but Krista Conner left a comment on my Facebook page that hit it:

I’d agree it sounds like pesticides or other poison- but really am just guessing w/o validation of some sort of CSI work. I’d wonder, with the snow, whether they drank something with glycol in it, with de-icing chemicals likely being prevalent during snowmageddon

Of course! The case comes together: the source of poison wasn’t in spite of the snow, it was because of the snow. Someone refilled their car with antifreeze or used some other de-icer and left it out or spilled it where the bees could get at it. The weather cleared up, they went out foraging and found themselves a sweet puddle of death to drink.


(Photo by Troy Tolley)

Look, Up In the Sky!

What do you get when you combine two hives of very active, healthy bees with one very active, healthy two-year-old boy?

Nah, it’s not the set-up for a joke, just a setup for about a month’s worth of work on my part.

My bees are located about 10′ off the deck in our back yard, an easy stroll for a curious two-year-old. So, as Zevin’s crawling days started turning into toddling days, and his toddling started bringing him closer and closer to the hives (“beees! beees!”), I knew I had to do something about it. And if I couldn’t keep Mohamed away from the mountain, I figured I’d just have to move the mountain away from Mohamed.

Given our standard-sized Seattle backyard, where there was no “away” to move them to, I was left with “up”.

So, this past spring, Michelle, Zevin and I loaded up and headed down to The Rusty Rack Guys down in Pacific, WA to find us some used warehouse palette racks, the kind forklifts drop skids of lumber onto. I figured if it’s strong enough for skids of lumber, it’s strong enough for my girls.

We noodled a bit over size, finally opting for the 14′ high (higher is better, right?), 14′ long (roughly same length as the garage it was sitting against, plus that meant enough room to space the hives) and 3 1/2′ deep (enough room to walk around behind them). The infrastructure, plus enough cut lumber to line three layers of floor came to around $350. Not cheap, but such is the price of not having your two-year-old stung incessantly (or, worse, having to give up beekeeping).

Assembling the system was a bit of a trick because there was an active hive of bees sitting where the rack needed to be (only one of my two hives successfully overwintered), but I managed to get most of the work done without a bee suit by working during the cooler parts of the day and keeping my body low to the ground.

Here’s a slideshow of the construction, to make Bob Villa proud:

Now, you should know that I’m writing this some six or seven months after the work was done, so I’m a bit foggy on some of the details of what happened. For example, I didn’t remember what a horse’s ass I was to work in shorts and t-shirt this close to the bee hives. I mean, come on people, would you look at this? What was I thinking?

Anyhoo, it worked out fine, probably got one or two stings, max, in the whole procedure, and the result was fantastic. Not only are the hives safely out of Zevin’s reach (except when he follows me up the ladder), but the flight paths of the bees tend to take them horizontal and up, not down, meaning they’re not buzzing through people’s hair when we have backyard BBQ’s anymore. If I had one thing to change, I probably would have gone with a shorter rack, so that the top lined up with the edge of the garage roof without any extra metal protruding. Being able to use the roof for stacking things is handy.

Not to say that this has entirely solved the two-year-old v. bee problem. My bees do have mites, which means that there are a fair number of bees with slightly deformed wings crawling around in the grass. A barefoot two-year-old and a crawling bee make for an unpleasant combo, as Zevin (and I) have learned the hard way (“Da BEE! Da Bee! Owee!”), but he recovers remarkably quickly, typically going from crying to on-about-his-business inside of five minutes (thanks in part to the shaker of meat tenderizer we keep on hand to treat the sting).

Of course, the other benefit of moving the hives up was that it meant we had a big space underneath the hives to do something with. And what was that something?




First, for those of you who have been losing sleep over my difficulties in establishing a laying queen in my second hive, rest easy: she’s there and she’s laying. I checked over the weekend and the two brood chambers are full of good, healthy brood. I pulled over the top feeder and added a honey super. All’s well.

The first hive is doing well, too. I checked up on them last week and saw that the second honey super was getting close to full, so I added a third. I decided to try an experiment, though.

I know that every little bit of extra work you make the bees do can come out of your bottom line, even making them climb through two extra honey supers to get to the new empty one I’d put on top. So I tried a little swap: I reversed the positions of the honey supers. That is, I put what had previously been the bottom honey super on top of the stack and added the new, empty super to the middle of the stack, just above the brood chambers.

Since it’s not a true, controlled experiment (how will I know whether it “worked”?), I decided to ask the advice of Karen Bean of Brookfield Farm, the beekeeper selling at our local farmer’s market who I have drafted as my mentor.

Karen gave my move the thumb’s up. She said she doesn’t bother with all that switching, mostly to spare her back (a wise woman, indeed), but she did recommend one easier switch:

When adding a new super, she suggested taking two center frames from the top-most honey super, which would likely have some brood in them, and placing them in the center of the newly added super. (The presence of brood on those frames is predicated on the notion that you’re not using a queen excluder, which we don’t.) Then take the displaced empty frames from the new super and place them in positions 2 and 9 of the almost full super (that is, not outermost, where they may be ignored, but close to it).

The goal of the maneuver is to give the bees some encouragement to start moving in to the new, empty super. She noted that if there is brood present, it’s best not to shake off the nurse bees that will be tending them.

I’ll give that a whirl next.

Bees in his Bonnet

Got a question from a reader, Louise:

Wondering if you’ve ever experienced this: We thought the bees had been particularly busy and were all set to add a second honey super on one hive. Went in to look at the first and were shocked to see that all the cells that should have been loaded with honey had larvae in them! We must have trapped the queen in above the excluder some how. We can’t figure out how she got up there otherwise. We’re not looking at drone cells either. So technically there are now three hive bodies on one hive. We plan to remove the unintended hive body (the honey super) in the fall and start over. Cannot figure out how this happened. We will place a honey super on top though–have moved the excluder, brushed off all bees before doing so.

We had 5 swarms this spring, not sure if this has anything to do with this–could the queen be small enough to fit through the excluder? We haven’t been able to spot her.

For myself, I don’t use a queen excluder: I figure a little bit of brood in the lower chamber is small price to pay for the extra ease of motion it gives the bees, and the cells tend to have hatched by the time I go to harvest in the Fall, anyway.

That said, it sounds to me like, despite their best efforts, the queen ended up on the wrong side of the barrier. I doubt it was that she slipped through, otherwise I would expect her to be able to slip through in the other direction, and she would certainly prefer to lay low than high.

Others have advice to share?

Importing Honey?

I got an e-mail tonight that I almost deleted as spam. It seemed at first glance to be one of those “I want to transfer $2 million to your account” scams. But it isn’t. Here’s what it said:

Dear Jordan.
Is any way you can find me market of honey in order to increase more Hives in my Farm?
What is the price for one litre in your country.
I can get one 1000 litres per season.
I am from Tanzania East Africa.
Eagerly waiting for your responds and comments regarding this.
Joseph Liberio Pablo

Maybe I’m a sucker for the idea of farmers (beekeepers!) in poor countries trying to make a living by look beyond their horizons, but I want to help. I’m also a sucker for exotic honeys: I have a jar of killer bee from Venezuela, what does Tanzanian honey taste like?

So, is there any advice people have for Joseph? My guess is that there are all sorts of import rules and tariffs and quotas and what-have-yous, but maybe somebody has an idea?