3 minute read

Top-bar hives in the USA

by Wyatt Mangum, Virginia, USA

Top-bar hives were designed for use in tropical Africa, but a few beekeepers in the USA prefer them to Langstroth hives.

I know a couple of top-bar hive beekeepers in the south-western part of my country who use them for honey production. They sell chunks of honeycomb (cut-comb honey) in plastic containers directly to their consumers. As an extra benefit, they do not need to buy an expensive honey extractor.

For many years I have kept 200 honeybee colonies in top-bar hives for crop pollination, package bee and queen bee production, and for my bee research. I do not produce surplus honey. Farmers in my area pay me US$49 per colony for my bees to pollinate cucumbers Cucimis sativus, cantaloupes Cucumis melo and pumpkins Curcubita spp.

Bee pollination greatly increases the yield and quality of these crops. Top-bar hives are cheap and easy to build therefore I  can make more pollination profit than beekeepers buying expensive Langstroth hives. And there is another way I reduce  costs: about half of the wood for building my hives is discarded by other people and get it for free!

I load my hives by hand on to a truck and trailer and move them to farms for pollination. During loading and unloading I handle the hives gently, but otherwise they receive no special treatment.

Transporting these hives over rough roads results in very little comb breakage, even though the combs hang from top-bars and with some attachments to the walls of the hive. increase the combs’ strength and reduce breakage during transport. My hives are not as long as most other top-bar hives. They are just 60 cm long holding 14 combs. This makes a good-sized pollinating colony.

The top-bar hives are easier to lift than bulky Langstroth hives, a real advantage since I move all 200 hives by myself. 

In the spring, bees become crowded in these smaller hives. Instead of losing the swarms I sell the surplus bees by shaking them off the combs into screen wired boxes called packages. To shake a comb I always hold and move it vertically. When the comb comes to an abrupt stop, the bees fall off.

Shaking combs does not break them provided it is done properly. Including a queen with the bees, beekeepers use these package bees to start colonies because they cannot rely on catching swarms in my area.

Top-bar hives are also ideal for queen production. Queen cell builder colonies must be manipulated frequently. With top-bar hives one can do this work easily and without heavy lifting. Smaller top-bar hives holding only two or three combs house little colonies for mating the new queens.

I use top-bar hives for my research on queen bees, swarming and Varroa. Each hive has one top-bar with a comb, and glass along both side walls.

A pipe connects the bottom of a hive to the outside and serves as the entrance, allowing the bees to forage. Each hive also rotates on its entrance pipe, allowing one to turn the hive and examine both sides of the comb.

These little hives can be constructed  easily from scrap wood. They could also be used to educate the public about bees, and to attract attention to honey displays to increase honey sales

As the capital costs of hives continue to rise making apiculture less profitable, or when Langstroth hives are not available, top-bar hives can provide a versatile low-cost solution with a variety of applications. In addition to honey production, top-bar hives can generate revenue through rental for pollination and the sale of package bees and queens.

For these reasons some beekeepers that have access to Langstroth hives still prefer to use top-bar hives instead.

* Please see the original journal article to see some photos of the top-bar hives


Langstroth hive:  An American design of movable-frame hive, invented in 1852 by the Reverend L Langstroth, who recognised the importance of bee space and accordingly designed this hive.

Top-bar hive:  A hive in which the bees build their combs suspended from bars placed across the top of the hive. The top-bar is so-named after the ‘top-bar’ of a frame. The other three sides of a frame, foundation, wire and nails are not used in top-bar hives.