Kenyan Top Bar

March 28, 2011

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.

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