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Appropriate design of top-bar hives - West Africa

by Kwame S Aidoo

B&D’s Correspondent in Ghana


In many parts of tropical Africa, the top-bar hive seems to be the most appropriate tool for harnessing the great potential of African bees. Critics of the top-bar hive focus their argument around the fact that honeycombs built by the bees are destroyed completely during honey extraction. This means that unlike frame hives, the top-bar combs are not returned to the bees for re-use.

The appropriateness of top-bar hive beekeeping in Africa and other areas of the tropics can be explained as follows:

- African beekeeping has evolved around the production of beeswax, very important product in external trade. Honey has sometimes been regarded as secondary product and used extensively for brewing alcoholic beverages (Ntenga and Mugongo 1991). Modern beekeeping in Africa therefore puts two products, honey and beeswax, on the market. This is made possible through the use of top-bar hives.

- The side to side arrangement of the top-bars offer an effective way of controlling the defensive African bees during colony manipulation. The space created by removing two top-bars is all the beekeeper needs to control the bees. He or she can go through the entire hive removing one comb at time and then placing it at the other side of the space. 

- Construction of top-bar hives is simple and can be at minimum cost when locally available materials are us

- Horizontal nest arrangements offer better means of temperature regulation for bees under hot and humid tropical conditions.

- Other supportive equipment in top-bar beekeeping is simple and easily available to the beekeeper.

- Traditional beekeepers can easily adapt to the simple but effective methods of management using top-bar hives.

In recent times the widespread use by rural communities of top-bar hives means they have received critical examination. Studies have re-examined the original design as exemplified by the Kenya top-bar hive.

Between 1992 and 1994, about the same time as the studies at Njiro Wildlife Research Centre in Tanzania (described in BR&D49) were taking place, investigated top-bar hive design. My research was funded by the International Foundation for Science, Sweden. My studies critically examined the following

Top-bar width

To determine whether the top-bar width of 32 mm as used for the West African bee (Apis mellifera adansonii) was appropriate, the comb-to-comb spacing of 20 feral colonies was examined.

Nest volume

Cavities of 20 wild nesting colonies in southern Ghana were measured towards finding an appropriate hive volume.

Side walls of hives

 To investigate the comb attachment to the side walls of top-bar hives, trials were made with hives with sides sloping at 0°, [5° and 25° to the vertical.

Hive construction with local materials

Designs using cheap and locally available bamboo, clay, oil palm fronds and raffia were tested.


Top-bar width

The study concluded that the top-bar width for Apis mellifera adansonii is in the range 31-34 mm. This compares with European honeybees, 35-41 mm (Morse and Hooper, 1985), and Apis cerana 26-35 mm (Segeren et al, 1991). Depending on the species and race of your bees, the top-bar width must fall within the range and must be accurately the same for all the top-bars for colony. 

Hive volume

It was found that Apis mellifera adansonii nests in cavities ranging between 16 litres and 316 litres. With  consideration to hive handling and management and also the multiple honey flows in West Africa, hive volume of between 60 litres and 100 litres is recommended.

Side walls of hives

Side walls 15° and 25° to the vertical had no comb attachment. However hives with 0° side walls had honeycombs attached to hive sides. Points of attachment were between 10 and 30 mm long and were found at the very top of the comb. During manipulations these came off easily and posed no problem to comb removal. Little or no damage was caused to the combs.


Sustainable beekeeping for rural communities in Africa and other parts of the tropics can be fully realised by the use of top-bar hives that have been designed and developed with the local bee in mind. Such hives are easy to construct using cheap and locally available materials.


Morse,R; Hooper, (1985) The illustrated encylopedia of beekeeping. Dutton Inc, New York, USA.

Ntenga,G M; Mugongo,B (1991) Honey hunters and beekeepers: study of traditional beekeeping in Babati District, Tanzania. {RDC, Uppsala, Sweden.

Segeren,P; Mulder,V; Beetsma,J; Sommeijer, (1991) Beekeeping in the tropics. Agrodok 32, Agromisa/CTA, Wageningen, Netherlands

The saltpond hive

The Saltpond Hive (Figures 1-5*) was designed and developed out of this study. Versions of this design were constructed using locally available materials.

Features of the Saltpond Hive:

- Straight side walls at 0° to the vertical

- Volume of 100 titres and capable of producing 32-40 kg honey per harvest

- Entrance at the extreme end of the long side. This restricts brood development to that section of the hive. Honey harvest becomes easier, with little disturbance to the colony

- The double span roof offers excellent colony protection

- Top-bars have constant width of 34 mm and length of 480 mm; 25 top-bars per hive.

*Where reference to images or figures is made, please see the original journal article