The Florida State Beekeepers Association meeting this November featured Dr. Wyatt Mangum, who is finishing his graduate training at North Carolina State University. He did something few thought possible. He was able to hold the attention of an audience of committed Langstroth hive fans while describing his experiences with top-bar hive (TBH) beekeeping. Generally, this kind of presentation might only be thought appropriate for those in developmental apiculture, who work with persons that have few resources to put into beekeeping.
The TBH has always been considered a cut below the standard Langstroth hive technology now in place in most areas, especially where beekeeping is a large-scale business. In spite of this, however, I can report that Dr. Mangum’s remarks were well received. It seems they appealed to the experimenter and tinkerer that seems to inhabit every beekeeper.
Dr. Mangum prefaced his remarks by saying that the TBH is well designed for what he wants to do in beekeeping. So almost all of his equipment is now in this format. The hive is inexpensive and can be made out of scrap lumber, perfect for a struggling young academician. It is also a flexible system. Dr. Mangum described reducing his larger hives to decrease their weight by simply using a buck saw to cut several bars off the end. He then converted the cut end to a queen-rearing nucleus. This is perhaps the ultimate in hive flexibility. Imagine taking a standard Langstroth 10-frame hive and converting it to an eight-frame model with a nucleus left over in the bargain.
Although Dr. Mangum does a lot of queen rearing for which his TBHs are uniquely suited, he also loads these hives in the back of his pickup truck and takes them on the road to pollination contracts. He contends that in spite of his fears to the contrary, they typically suffer little damage during transport.
TBH beekeeping is easier on both bees and beekeeper, according to Dr. Mangum. The brood is generally placed toward the front-entrance end of the hive and the honey is located in the rear. Thus, examining the brood or taking off honey is less stressful on the insects, because one doesn’t have to dismantle the whole colony. The top bars butt against each other. Because of this they double as a cover, reducing material requirements and conserving weight. An outer cover of tin or cardboard is necessary, however, to protect the colony from moisture. Only the part of the hive being worked is exposed during manipulation, which reduces overall defensiveness. Finally, all his hives are mounted on stands at waist level, keeping Dr. Mangum from having to continually bend over.
A history of the this technology was provided by Conrad Berube in “The Kenya Top-Bar Hive as a Better Hive in Developing Countries,” American Bee Journal, August 1989, also found on his world wide web site. “…developed along principles of certain Greek basket hives which may date back to the time of Aristotle. Its modern avatar was `invented’ by J.D. Tredwell and P. Paterson in 1965 and was employed in a rural extension project directed by the University of Guelph in the 1970’s. ” Here’s information from an ex Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji on this kind of hive. There is a discussion list on top bar hives , established in 2002 with a limited number of posts.
Because the top bars can be made the same length as in the Langstroth hive, the top-bar hive can also be fitted with standard supers, taking advantage of the best of both hive technologies. Indeed, another way to describe the top-bar hive is one based on a frameless, moveable comb.
Possible disadvantages of the TBH can result from its very flexibility. Too small a hive, for example, can result in unproductive populations that may also swarm excessively. A small frame also means more handling during harvesting honey. Both of these can be modified at the beekeeper’s will, however, and tailored to suit individual needs.
Use of Apistan © for Varroa control, a technology more recent than most top-bar hive designs, could pose a problem. The plastic strips are designed to be inserted between frames in the Langstroth hive, so presumably a small notch between top bars is needed to accommodate them. Some beekeepers also put notches elsewhere for ventilation in the sides of the boxes and/or in the bars themselves to give bees access to supers, should they be used.
A key issue in using the TBH is to provide the bees with a good foundation to build strong comb. This can be anything from a simple waxed string to a strip of regular foundation melted onto the middle of the top bar. One suggestion is immersing brown paper bags in wax and cutting them into strips to make a reinforced starter strip. A maximum of one-half inch is suggested. If it is too large, comb distortion can result. A final advantage is that the comb is built according to the nature of the bees themselves. The resultant cell size, therefore, is potentially much more `natural,’ (based on the bee that built it) than that constructed on wax foundation. Some believe much of what presently ails modern beekeeping is the manipulation of insect size via “artificial” foundation.
After hearing Dr. Mangum and then reading more about top-bar hive technology, I realized it makes for a kinder, gentler beekeeping, perfectly suited for the urban setting. It may be just the ticket for those neophyte beekeepers I am now seeing at meetings who don’t want take up beekeeping as an avocation, but would like a colony or two for educational purposes or pollinating their home garden. Dr. Mangum has recently written a book on the subject that is sure to be classic in its field. See a 12-minute video on the contents here:
In summary, the TBH is much more attuned to honey bee biology, rather than for benefit of human beings. This “apicentric” focus is becoming more popular, and often is a better fit the honey bee as noted in recent letters from the hive.