As promised a couple of weeks ago, we went on a ‘field trip’ to a new kind of hive. By new, I mean maybe less commonly thought of when speaking about honeybee hives. Most people think about the Langstroth hive of stacked ‘boxes and frames.’

We went to the home of our Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens Grounds Manager, Chuck Martin. He decided this year to add to his hives a top bar Hive and is experimenting with keeping bees in this method that dates back many centuries although not with the same form of equipment we have today. Beekeepers in the 1600s used a woven (Greece) or clay (Crete) tubs with ‘top bars’ from which comb could be built.

A top bar hive being inspected from outside through a window.

Today, top bar hives are less common likely for a variety of reasons. Unlike Langstroth hives, the dimensions of the hives are not standardized and therefore sourcing of parts and accessories can be limited. On the other hand, they are relatively easy and inexpensive to build. The combs are much more delicate because they are not supported by frames on all sides. This makes inspection of the hive a bit more difficult as you cannot flip the frames end-over-end to check both sides in one step.

Freshly made comb hanging from a bar which has been removed from the hive for inspection. Notice the room for expansion (on the left) by adding more bars as bees fill their space.

These hives do not have the expansion capabilities to add more supers (layers) so their honey production is lower and more spread throughout the season. But the bees create fresh comb and our expert beekeeper, Elly, suspects that while this takes more work for the bees, it may help with keeping the hive cleaner. This type of hive produces more wax which is good if that is a goal of your beekeeping efforts. Honey is harvested by crushing the comb when full of honey leaving wax for other uses. Back to square one for the bees!

These hives have advantages in that there is no heavy lifting of supers (honey-filled hive boxes that can weigh up to 100 lbs each). Checking the hive is less invasive for the bees because they are all on one level and it requires less shuffling. Also they can be checked through the clear window requiring less frequent opening of the hive. And finally, since the hives are often custom built, they can be made at a convenient height for those of us with some vertical challenges (ha ha).

Note on the Whiting Forest hives: (Hive #2, the one that was missing a queen) We checked to see the bees’ progress in raising a new queen. We didn’t see evidence of a new queen yet (no fresh brood), but they are still trying really hard to raise a new queen with even more supercedure cells present. All bees are very busy, but we still wait to see if they will be successful or not.