Top Bar Beekeeping: why it’s better

You’re reading this post for one of two reasons: 1) You’re interested in beekeeping and want to know WHY I believe Top Bar Beekeeping is better before getting started Or B) You completely disagree and are trying to find a hole in my argument. Well, I welcome the both of you!

Let me begin by saying I have used the Langstroth style beehive for over 18 years now. So what I’m about to present about the Top Bar style hive is a result of lots of personal research and development. So let’s get to it!

top bar hive in an apiary protected by a bear fence
The beginning of a beautiful apiary belonging to one of my first beekeeping students, well on her way to success! Photo by Kassie Pirkle©

Top 5 Reasons why Top Bar Beekeeping is better

#1- No Heavy Lifting

One of the most thrilling times in any endeavor is reaping the rewards of your hard work and labor. Otherwise known as…harvest time!

The most popular style of beehive is the Langstroth style. I still use this style myself. That’s how I know that when it comes time to harvest, my deep hive bodies can weigh anywhere from 40-90 pounds/18-40 kilograms.

This deep hive body was used as a honey super and was quite heavy! Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

It’s not really my favorite part of beekeeping.

And depending on the area that you live in and the amount of available forage, a hive can yield anywhere between 50-200 pounds/22-90 kilograms of honey each year.

One of the most common reasons that old timer beekeepers get out of beekeeping is because of the backbreaking, heavy lifting of honey supers.

But with the Top Bar Hive there is no heavy lifting required!

A traditional top bar hive consists of 18 top bars, give or take. And other than a few inventive exceptions, you never add or stack honey supers on a top bar hive.

In fact, you harvest one bar at a time, keeping harvest time a lightweight operation. One top bar can hold somewhere near 8 pounds/3.5 kilograms of honey each.

So without any heavy boxes to lift, the top bar hive is really the best way to go when it comes to anyone concerned with lifting, back problems or any other prior injury.


#2- Most Apicentric (Bee-Friendly) Hive style

One of my favorite reasons for using the top bar hive is because it is very Apicentric.

That means it’s bee-friendly. The Langstroth style beehive was designed mostly for the convenience of the beekeeper first, with little regard to the well-being of the honey bee.

As a result of the Langstroth design, there’s a lot of (unintentional) bee squishings.

Top bar hive with summer entrance reducer to minimize robbing. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

There are simply too many areas for the bees to crawl into the way when you’re replacing a honey super, inner cover, queen excluder…etc.

And of course none of us try to hurt or kill our bees on purpose. But when it comes to the top bar hive, the simple management style of the top bars makes it incredibly easy to avoid honey bee mortality.


#3- Bees are less aggressive

Long before I got into top bar beekeeping, I met another beekeeper who introduced me to the top bar style.

One of the first things he told me was that honey bees were less aggressive in a top bar hive versus the Langstroth style.

I came away from that conversation thinking, “What in the world is this guy talking about? Woodenware has absolutely nothing to do with a honey bee’s genetic tendency towards more or less aggression.”

But after pondering his statement for some time, it finally dawned on me one day that he was right. He just didn’t explain it very well. At all.

You see, upon opening up a Langstroth style beehive the entire top of the colony becomes exposed. It’s literally like you’re ripping their roof off.

Compare this Langstroth to the top bar below. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

But in a top bar hive, after lifting the cover off, the colony is still closed off from sudden exposure.

This is what you see after removing the hive cover. I know….there’s bees here but that’s because I goofed on one of the top bars. But it’s still apparent that compared to a Langstroth style, the disturbance is minimally invasive. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

In fact, in managing a top bar hive, only one bar at a time is removed for inspection, thereby exposing only a fraction of the colony rather that the whole thing all at once.

This results in a less aggressive demeanor on the bees’ part, as they take a less defensive posture compared to the Langstroth style, during a hive inspection.

And I don’t have to tell you that one of the biggest fears for new beekeepers is getting stung. By using a top bar hive, you’re already minimizing that factor.


#4- No fancy or expensive equipment required

If you have ever looked through a beekeeping catalog then you know that there are a TON of fancy gadgets and doodads.

This is primarily because of the design of the Langstroth style beehive.

If you’re a person who really likes lots of accessories, then you’ll probably fall in love with the Langstroth style.

But most of us getting involved in beekeeping are on a budget, and let’s face it; beekeeping is not cheap at any level, commercial, small-scale or hobby.

A two-frame extractor for Langstroth style frames is around $300 to start and it only goes up from there.

Then there’s bottom boards, slatted racks, deep hive bodies, Illinois honey supers, shallows, peewees, queen excluders, escape boards, inner covers, telescoping covers, frames, foundation, uncapping system and the list goes on as far as your wallet will allow.

So much equipment! Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

But with the top bar hive, what you see is what you get. There is very little required to manage and successfully harvest from this amazing hive design.

Most of the cost with top bar beekeeping will be up front rather than something that continues throughout the year as you discover yet another thing you need for your Langstroth.

So if you’re like me and have a budget to consider and you like things simple and straightforward, you cannot beat the humble nature of the top bar hive.


#5- More natural and healthier hive-management

One of the big issues with modern beekeeping is pesticide spray.

Unfortunately, pesticides become embedded into the beeswax, the foundation and health of the honey bee colony. If you would like to learn more about beeswax and its role as the core-foundational health for the honey bee colony then I highly recommend this book…

If the beeswax is healthy, the bees are healthy, if the beeswax is contaminated, then your bees will always struggle to thrive.

When it comes to convenience for the beekeeper, nothing has been more convenient than reusable frames which are often used with plastic inserts in the Langstroth hive.

After a honey harvest, the Langstroth frames are designed to be immediately placed back into the hive. Meaning, the same old beeswax is being used over and over, often for years.

So depending on your area, your hives could contain traces of pesticide or even miticides in the beeswax, making it more of a challenge to do your job to keep your bees and honey healthy.

The management style of a top bar hive cycles out the comb after only 1-3 years.

During harvest, a top bar of honey is removed and sliced into a bucket for processing later.

As a result and benefit to the bees, they have to do what they do best- rebuild their honeycomb. Thus refreshing the health and foundation of the colony.

The beeswax that you harvest from a top bar colony should then be used for something useful like candles or whatever. Research and get creative.

So in the end…

What interested you to beekeeping? Was it honey? Maybe it runs in the family. Maybe it’s garden pollination or you just want to have some part in saving the bees?

Whatever your reason, it’s up to you to decide how natural and complicated you want it to be for you.

For what it’s worth, after operating Langstroth style beehives for over 18 years, I have decided to convert my operation over to top bar hives for every reason I listed above and more and I recommend it to each and every one of my students.

And to tell you the truth, top bar beekeeping is so much fun! I can’t really describe it but there’s something so exciting about inspecting my top bars hives….plus they look really cool!

top bar hive
First Top Bar Hive….it’s called The Humble Hive! Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee!~

Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper extraordinaire

8 Thoughts

  1. Went to your class last summer in blue ridge I’m planning on moving to top bar hives too. Do you are would you sell me one of the hives you make? Looking to get one ready next spring.

    Thanks,

      1. Great, I really don’t need until fall/winter will be making the switch next spring. How much would it be to build one like you have, the pics look awesome!

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