A few notes to help with understanding the top bar hive
Unpacking the hive [if posted]
Assembling the hive
Siting the hive
Managing the hive
Recommended reading and viewing
Unpacking the hive
When I parcel up the hive it comes in 3 packages
- The top bars. 28 of them.
- The hide body with two followers and the bottom board. The screws holding the bottom board in position need to be removed.
- The roof with legs and angle iron fixed inside. The straps holding the legs need to be removed as well as the screws securing the angle iron
There is a bag containing nuts and bolts for the legs and angle iron and a piece of wax. This is usually in the roof parcel.
Assembling the hive
The first step in assembling the hive is to fix the legs. These are coded to show their position on the hive ends. Match up the marks and fix into place with two 8 millimetre bolts. Push the bolts through the leg first then into the hive and fix with a washer and a nut using a 13 mm spanner. It is easier to do this with the hive on its end. Fix one end, turn the hive onto the other end and repeat.
The bottom board is held in place by two 6 millimetre stainless steel bolts with wing nuts. The wing nuts are used to adjust the amount of ventilation going through the hive. Put the bolts through the brass plate and screw into the socket on the bottom of the hive end. The bottom board is coded with letters to match the ends.
Next hang the follower boards to their respective ends. The words ‘Bees this side’ facing the middle of the hive. Put 10 bars between the followers and the rest either side to be used for expansion later. Ten bars are about right to start a swarm, split, nuc or package. Give the fillet on the bars a quick rub with the supplied wax. Hopefully this will encourage straight comb building.
The roof can now be put on. It sits on top of the legs.
The metal parts should be given a lighter oiling each year. The window hinge, toggle bolt and bottom board bolts.
I do not treat the hive in anyway, it turns an attractive shade of grey over time.
Siting the hive
It is best to keep the legs from contact with the ground to avoid the wood rotting over a period of years. If possible place on paving slabs or old bricks.
Thomas Seeley has done a lot of research about the best place and direction to site the hive and his main conclusion was to have the entrance face south thereby getting morning sun and evening sun. However I have seen very successful hives in shaded areas.
I like to level my hives. Comb will hang vertically and if you have a second hive and wish to exchange comb it will fit in much easier.
There are various ways to populate your hive. All methods involve placing the colony centrally and allowing them to expand evenly towards the ends of the hive.
- Capture or acquire a swarm
- Bait the hive
- A split from another top bar hive
- A package
- A nuc
As previously mentioned I would start a swarm with ten bars. Place the followers in about the right position and shake the bees in. Put on the top bars and close up the followers. I feed the bees a light syrup for a couple of weeks to assist with comb building. I also block the entrance for 48 hours to prevent them absconding. Once comb is built they are unlikely to leave.
Baiting the hive
I have found some old comb is the best way to attract bees to come into the hive. Some lemongrass oil around the entrance helps as well. If you are lucky enough to attract a swarm this way feed them as above. As they have found and approved the hive I would feel there is no need to block them in.
I have successfully increased my colonies by splitting. My method is to take 5 bars from a thriving hive and place them into the new hive. Add 5 bars for expansion, close up the follower boards and leave the bees to get on with settling in. I take bars with brood at all stages and bars with stores. I would hope to also have a queen cell on the bars with brood. Top bar hives seem to make a regular supply of queen cells. I do this operation in the evening when most of the bees are home and will shake additional bees into my transport box in the hope I will get a good variety of workers. I try to do my splits before the hive swarms, very dependant on a number of factors but I use mid May as a guideline.
A package is really a bought swarm. The supplier puts 3lbs of bees in a box, hangs a queen in a queen cage and closes the box with a contact feeder. To put them in the hive treat them as a swarm and remove the plastic tab on the queen cage and hang in the middle of the hive. The bees will become familiar with her pheromones and eat the candy to release her. Usually after 48 hours I would remove the queen cage. Feed for two weeks.
Buying a nuc for a top bar hive is difficult, I rarely see them for sale. The advantage of using a nuc is that you will have a laying queen, brood at all stages and stores. This gives a good start to the new colony. However, it is not a pleasant process transfering a national nuc to fit into a top bar hive. Nucs are usually 5 or 6 bars and I would prepare 5 or 6 top bars without fillets and pre drilled with two 4 mm holes. The process is to remove the side and bottom parts of the national frame [I use garden loppers to cut the top part and then fold out the sides]. The wire in the frame needs cutting so I need to have wire cutters handy. I then use a follower board to mark out the corners of wax that will need to be cut off. I then screw the top part of the frame to the prepared top bar. All the while bees are buzzing and hands getting very sticky! There are some good videos to be found on you tube. This Phil Chandler – https://youtu.be/FVQ1et2OR50 and this is me https://youtu.be/S-CTH8pxqsM
Managing the hive
I err on the side of leaving the bees alone. My first year I went into the hive far too often but as time went on I began to get a sense of how well the bees were doing by watching them come and go and by checking their need for more bars. If they look happy, sound happy, smell good and are increasing it is a safe bet all is good with them. It is a great pleasure to watch them go in and out and see their progress through the viewing window. I never go looking for for the queen. If I have concerns then I will open the colony from one end by pulling bars back one at a time. When I get to some brood and can see eggs [they take some seeing at first, they are very small!] and some larvae and capped cells I can feel assured all is OK. This video will show some of this.
Once a year I put a white card on top of the bottom board, leave it for 24 hours and check the varroa count. So far it has never been a cause for concern.
Bottom board cleaning
Each time I visit a hive I give the bottom board a quick scrape with my hive tool to remove any cappings or crud that has built up. It is quite informative to see the build up of cappings.
Adding bars – removing comb
Adding bars is quite a simple operation. As comb is being built out towards the follower boards then it is time to add more bars. There are times when the bees build comb quickly and if the hive is one I only visit monthly I would add two bars at either end. I think that trying to add bars as they are needed encourages the bees to build comb straight, if they have too much room they may go off at an angle. If I am visiting more regularly then I add one at each end.
Removing comb is a bit more complicated. I believe it is helpful to remove comb so impurities do not build up. I have naturally taken comb from hives by either splitting or taking honey. On hives that I have not split I would add one bar into the brood area around mid May. This will have the effect of working used comb to the outer edges of the hive. As the season comes to an end I will take some unused comb from the ends of the hive to close up the colony.
The western red cedar used to make the hive has good insulation properties. I have been thinking the last couple of years that I would provide a little insulation over the top bars if we had a cold winter. By helping the bees keep warm they will need a little less food is my thinking. This year I have used a hessian sand bag that I was was planning to fill with straw or wood shavings but I was lucky enough to be given some alpaca fleece. The middle roof support only clears the top bars by 25mm so whatever is used needs to be thinned out at that point.
I make it my practice now to feed every new colony over their first winter. Established hives I make a judgement based on my late summer inspection. The strange weather patterns we are experiencing can mean hives will not have enough stores to last the winter. A particularly worrying time is if they start flying after winter, the queen starts laying and then we have a prolonged period of wet and windy weather. More hives are killed off through starvation at this time of year than any other. The National Bee Unit will put out starvation alerts.
I take some bars from my hives usually in March as the nectar begins to flow and I can see some build up. I either eat it off the comb or scrunch it up and leave it in a sieve overnight to drain into a bowl then put it into jars. I will sometimes take bits of comb that have not been built straight or even just cut off half a peice. The bees will soon repair any damage.
Recommended reading and viewing
The first three got me through my first year.
Anything by Philip Chandler His website www.biobees.com has a very useful forum
Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping – WA Mangum [He has other books I plan to read and a good website]
The Practical Beekeeper – Michael Bush [I bought all three volumes]
The Buzz about Bees – Jürgen Tautz
Honey Bee Democracy – Thomas D. Seeley
Keeping Bees with a Smile – Fedor Lazutin
and so many more…..
More than Honey, Queen of the Sun, Vanishing of the Bees, Colony: The Endangered World of Bees. https://youtu.be/821uVRAcZ1I https://youtu.be/JnnjY823e-w https://youtu.be/5DFKqgWuCBA https://youtu.be/Y_b2i_FvYPw