Top bar hives

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Top bar hives


Under the right circumstances, top-bar hives are highly suitable for the entrepreneur or novice beekeeper. They are easier to manage than some local-style hives and cheaper, simpler and more appropriate than frame-hives in most developing countries. Harvesting is easy as it can be done without the need for the complicated extracting equipment used in frame hive beekeeping.


Top-bar hives are essentially containers or boxes - which can be made of a range of materials - with top-bars arranged side by side along the top. The design allows bees to build one comb suspended from one top-bar and because the bars are movable the beekeepers can inspect and harvest by removing combs individually. This is not the case in fixed comb hives. Top-bar hives are based on the concept of bee space, which is at the very heart of the bee's biological programming. The bee space is the space between two combs that allows two bees to just pass each other back to back. To be useful, the top-bar hive needs to have one single comb hanging from each top bar and to achieve this, the width of the top-bar needs to be of the correct size. Otherwise the hive becomes just a very expensive fixed comb hive.


The width of the top-bar incorporates both the bee space and the thickness of the comb and is usually expressed as measurement of the combs from centre to centre. The exact size will vary from locality to locality as it is linked to the physical size of the bee. However, it is safe to assume this measurement will be between

  • 32-34mm for African Apis mellifera
  • 36-38mm for European Apis mellifera
  • 29-31mm for Apis cerana

In natural or wild comb, the combs are only attached at the top and not at the edges, which taper to become very thin with a slightly ribbed reinforcement along the edge. The top-bar measurements and the sloping sides of the top bar hive reflect this natural comb shape and construction. 


Although top bar hives can often look crude, especially if they are made of simple materials, the ideas underpinning them are actually very sophisticated. When used correctly all the management techniques that can be carried out using frame hives can also be done using top-bar technology. It is this potential for sophisticated management combined with the low capital cost that makes the top-bar hive ideal for developing countries. Add to these benefits the potential for the beekeeper to make their own hives cheaply from local materials and you have a winning strategy to alleviate poverty through beekeeping.  Because the comb is not returned to the hive after the honey is harvested there is a much lower potential to spread disease than in frame hives and a good harvest of wax is also obtained. 


A significant advantage of top-bar hives is that, compared to some fixed comb beekeeping styles, top-bar beekeeping is suitable for women. Fixed comb hives are frequently raised high into trees and this can mean that women are not able to participate due to cultural strictures about women climbing trees. Top-bar hives are installed at about waist height which is very suitable for both male and female beekeepers.


Top-bar beekeeping need not be thought of as an approach applicable to developing countries only. There are many top-bar beekeepers in Europe and the USA. Some choose this method because they prefer to give bees the opportunity to make their own comb free from the rididity of a provided frame (it is more natural) others because the hives are cheaper. Some beekeepers, with pollination, wax yield or honey bee conservation as their beekeeping objective, may find top-bar hives more economical and effective.


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  • Language English
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  • Author Bees for Development
  • Publisher Bees for Development
  • Published Date October 2016
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