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Top bar beehives are among the more common types of hives used in beekeeping. You can buy one for your beekeeping operation, or build one if you have the skills and equipment. This article guides you on how to build a top bar beehive, but we’ll first take a look at the top bar beehive and its features. The advantages it comes with have made the top bar hive usable in urban beekeeping too. Beekeepers using top bar hives tend to be very passionate, as the beehive sits at waist level, making hive management very easy for the beekeeper. Beginner beekeepers have an easy time learning about beekeeping when they start their apiary with a top bar hive.
About the Top Bar Hive
Use of top bar hives dates back to the 1960s. Africa has contributed a lot to the existence and popularity of the top bar hive. A Kenyan researcher was involved in the research and development of the Kenyan top bar hive. The research was funded by a Canadian university. Kenyan top bar hives are distinguishable by their sloping sides. Tanzania too, has a top bar hive named after it. It has a rectangular cross-section instead of sloping sides. The design of a top bar hive is simple. It uses a single beehive box, so there is not much room for errors in precision engineering and placement of the parts of a top bar hive. Developing countries are especially suited by the top bar hive in their beekeeping.
Foundationless beekeeping is another feature of top bar hives that stands out. There are no frames used, just the top bars on which honeybees draw comb. Adding foundation sheets to the top bars is not easy nor recommended. Harvesting honey requires the beekeeper to cut the honeycomb from the top bars. This means that bees draw fresh comb every season. It keeps the comb fresh and free from contaminants. Foundationless beekeeping with the top bar hive has made the beehive a darling to the many beekeepers that want to practice natural beekeeping.
Components of a Top Bar Hive
A top bar hive is made up of several components. The main ones are the legs, the box, top bars and a top cover. There are also some optional components that you can add to improve the beehive and make hive management easier for yourself. They include an observation window and a follower board.
The legs of a top bar hive are usually four crossed wooden legs. They hold the beehive box at a height that is comfortable for the beekeeper. The legs should be strong enough to comfortably hold the weight of the box when it is full of honeybees and stored honey.
A box of varying volumes and dimensions based on the type of top bar hive you have makes the body of a top bar hive. In the Kenyan top bar hive, the main box is wedge-shaped. The dimensions of the box can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer too. This lack of standardization makes the parts of a top bar hive not interchangeable. However, it is not a deterrent since top bar hives are largely self-contained with few options for expansion. Usually, the length of the top bar hive box is at least three feet.
Top bars of the top bar hive give the hive its name. They are pieces of wood laid across the top of the beehive box. Honeybees in the colony housed in the beehive draw comb on the bars. The number of top bars that fit into the hive depends on the length of the beehive box. Typically, a box that is 42 inches long holds 28 top bars. Many beekeepers go for top bars with a small comb guide that hangs down from the top bar. It gives bees a head-start in drawing comb.
The top cover of a top bar hive is very important to keep the elements out of the beehive. It can come straight off the beehive or be hinged. It protects the top bar hive from the rain, wind and falling snow. Lastly, it also contributes to keeping sunlight out of the beehive.
An optional viewing window can be installed on one or both sides of a top bar hive. The observation window is made of glass or other transparent material such as Perspex. It allows you to check on hive activity and the wellbeing of your honeybee colony without having to open up the box. The viewing window is made to be coverable so that you restore the dark conditions that bees love once you are done having a peek into the beehive.
Space management is important with all types of beehives. When you install a new colony of honeybees in your top bar hive, you can limit the space they can access using what is called a follower board. This follower board looks like a top bar with comb drawn on it, only a little bigger and made of wood. It blocks bees from accessing the part of the beehive that you do not want them to use. As the honeybee colony gets bigger, you should move the follower board further from the hive entrance to give them more room. Eventually, the follower board is removed from the hive to allow bees access to the entire hive. For feeding purposes, you can have a hole in the follower board so that you feed the honeybees within the hive.
Pros of Top Bar hives
- The beehive is of a simple design and very straightforward. It makes hive management easy, and hive inspections a breeze for beekeepers.
- The height of a top bar hive on legs is very convenient for beekeepers.
- Weight is not a thing to think about with a top bar hive.
- It is easy to harvest honey from a top bar hive.
- Foundationless beekeeping allows you to practice beekeeping with conditions for you honeybee colony as close as they can be to natural conditions.
Cons of top bar hives
- Top bar hives are not expandable. Even with additional resources and demand for beehive products, the beekeeper cannot add space to a top bar hive once it has been constructed.
- The lack of expandability means that the yields of beehive products from a top bar hive are constant. Honey yields from this type of beehive are also low in comparison to what is got from other types of beehives.
- The lack of frames and foundation in top bar hive beekeeping leaves honeycomb fragile. It can break easily and be a challenge to beginner beekeepers using top bar hives in their beekeeping operation.
Building a Top Bar Hive
Having settled on a top bar hive for your beekeeping operation, you can buy one or take matters into your hands and build one. The satisfaction that comes with putting something together from scratch has led many beekeepers to build their beekeeping equipment. You are sure of quality when you build your beehive and can use the skills gained to carry out repairs on the beehive in future. The woodworking or carpentry skill level needed to successfully build a top bar hive are intermediate. It will take you about 8 hours to finish one top bar hive.
The materials and equipment needed for building a top bar hive are;
- ½ inch hardware cloth
- Wood of various sizes. The wood is best if it is the solid types of wood and bee friendly such as cedar, cypress and pine. You will need wood for 2 side panels, 2 end pieces, 2 follower boards, the top bars, the bottom piece and 4 legs.
- Wood screws
- Wood glue
- A sheet of galvanized metal for the lid of the top bar hive
- Table saw or circular saw
- Wire clippers
- Staple gun
- 1-inch hole saw
A note about wood used in making your top bar hive; the various types and sizes of wood available in different parts and based on your budget have a significance. It is recommended you use wood planks of 1 inch thickness. It has the best strength and insulation for the beehive. If it is not available, ¾ inches thickness is fine. The width of the wood planks you use is best if it is 12 inches. If that is not an available option, 10 inches and 6 inches width is fine since you have to work with what is available.
Western red cedar is best for use in making beehives, but can be expensive. Options you can go with include firs, cypress, pines and other cedars. It is alright to plane the outer sides and tops of your wood planks. The inner surfaces that bees will use are best left a little rough.
You need a surface that is flat such as a bench to work on. It should be wider and longer than the top bar beehive you intend to build. Collect the materials and equipment near the bench so that they are close at hand when you need them. Building a top bar hive is done inside out, and upside down. Follow these steps in building the top bar hive;
- Make the top bars first. On average, the top bar measures 1 ¼ inches wide to 1 3/8 inches. It is usually 17 inches long. If you prefer to make the top bars last, have at least two at the start of this process to help you with the rest of the building procedure. The wood used to make top bars can be ¾ inches thick if you wish so.
- Glue boards to their final sizes. This depends on the width of the wood planks you are using. Wider planks require fewer to make up the boards to size. You need two boards for the sides of the top bar hive, and two for the ends. If you intend to have follower boards, two follower boards are recommended.
- Draw a trapezium outlining the shape of your beehive on the board that will make the follower boards of your top bar hive. The trapezium measures about 5 inches at the bottom and 15 inches at the top. It should be centered so that a line down the middle splits the trapezium into two equal parts.
- Cut the follower board wood boards following the lines of the trapezium you drew and then add a top bar to each of them. The top bar should be centered onto the follower boards. This completes the construction of the follower boards. They are then used to guide construction of the rest of the top bar hive.
- Lay your follower boards with top bars attached upside down on your working bench. Square them at the proper distance apart. Make sure they are parallel to each other.
- Position one of the side panels against the follower boards. A small nail driven into the top bars keeps the side panel from sliding off.
- Place the other side panel onto the other side of the follower boards and square up the structure.
- Bring into place your end pieces and position them at respective ends of your top bar hive structure. Its bottom edge should rest on the flat surface of your working bench so that the finished top bar hive will have clearance for its top bars.
- Make lines where each side panel meets the end pieces. One line should be on the inside, and the other line on the outside.
- Remove the end pieces from the assembly and mark screw points on them. The marks should be at the centre of the two lines you drew on the end pieces. Make as many marks for the screws you will need to attach the end pieces to the side panels.
- Using a drill, make holes for screws on the end pieces. You can align them again with the side panels and make guide hones for screws in the side panels too.
- If you are going to be using legs for the top bar hive, cut the pieces of wood that will make the legs and make bolt holes in them that align with the end pieces. It is better to use bolts than screws with the legs. Screws invite disaster later on in use of the finished top bar hive. With bolts, use washers so that the ends of the bolts do not eat into the wood of your top bar hive. The legs of the beehive should be placed in a manner that they widen out towards the ground. It gives a wide base and better stability. On the end pieces, the legs should traverse from the corner to a point about 5 inches from the edge of the side pieces. The legs can go all the way to the top of the end pieces. They form a reverse trapezium to the cross-section of your finished top bar hive. It may be necessary to later trim the ends of the legs to allow the cover of your beehive to rest onto the beehive properly.
- Screw everything together starting from the side panels being screwed to the side panels.
- Prepare your bottom piece or screen and attach it to the end pieces and the lower edges of the side panels.
- Turn the completed beehive right side up and bolt on the legs; two on each side.
- Top bar hive entrances can be made on the side panels or on the end pieces. For better management of the beehive and harvesting of honey without brood in it, make the entrances at one end of the beehive. It makes bees rear brood near the entrance so that the far side from the entrance is used for honey storage. The entrances should be 2 inches off the floor of the beehive. About three holes of 1-inch diameter are adequate as entrances into the beehive.
- Prepare top bars for the beehive if you had not already made them. Test each top bar you make on the complete hive for a proper fit. It should not be too tight or leave more than a millimeter on each side.
- Make a rectangular frame around the top of the beehive for the roof. Wood that is 3 inches wide and at least ¾ inches thick is adequate. The frame should leave about ¼ inches in two intersecting directions to allow it to come off the beehive with ease.
- On the rectangular frame for the roof, you can add galvanized metal sheeting in a flat roof or make it gabled. The advantage of gabled roofing it that it drains water off the beehive with greater ease than a flat roof. It also makes snow fall from the roof while providing ventilation and air insulation over the top of the beehive. Flat roofs also get blown off the beehive with greater ease than gabled roofs. The finished roof should have an overhang of two or three inches over the beehive to clear rain water from the beehive and a larger part of the exposed legs.
In joinery of the various pieces of the top bar hive, you may use wood glue. Make sure to only use glues that are safe and durable. The glue used should not change or foam in heat or cold. Use only as much as is required so that excess glue does not seep outside the joints into the inner cavity of the beehive.
You may use preservatives of various types on the outer surfaces of the beehive once it is completed. The rule of thumb in beekeeping is to make sure that whatever preservative you use is bee-friendly and not a contaminant if it were to find its way into the beehive. Hot beeswax is a great wood preservative for your finished top bar hive. You may add plant oil to the beeswax to make an even better preservative of the wood. For the legs of the beehive, creosote is an acceptable wood preservative to use.
A Final Word
The beehive described in this process of building a top bar hive is basic. Feel free to get creative and add modifications such as holes in the follower boards and a landing board just outside the entrance of the beehive. With a landing board, you may make your beehive entrance holes just a few millimeters above the floor of the beehive so that bees can easily crawl into the beehive after landing on the landing board.
A top bar hive is generally a box on legs to lift it to waist level. It is designed with the needs of the beekeeper in mind. This is in respect to the construction of the beehive, and management of the beehive once it is housing a colony of honeybees. There is no option to add the volume of a top bar hive once it is constructed. This is considered disadvantageous by some beekeepers, yet positive by others.
The nature of a top bar hive is such that bars lie across the top of the beehive box. Honeybees draw comb on the bars towards the bottom of the hive. Inspection of the top bar hive is one top bar after the other. The bees in other top bars are not disturbed when one top bar is pulled for inspection. Weight is not an issue in the management of a top bar hive. Since you are lifting only one bar at a time, its weight pales when compared to the box you have to lift with other types of beehives.
It is easy to build a top bar hive with the right equipment and materials. You get a lot of satisfaction knowing you are practicing beekeeping using equipment you built. Use this guide on how to build a top bar hive to make a comfortable home for your honeybee colonies and enjoy all the benefits of beekeeping with a top bar hive.