Beekeeping Alternatives: Top-bar Hives, Warré Hives and Natural Approaches to Honey Bees


Image credit: OutofABlueSky

Whether it's my post on learning top-bar hive beekeeping online, the efforts of the Barefoot Beekeeper, or the Bee Whisperer's experiments in alternative beekeeping, there seems to be an appetite out there for information on top-bar hives and other natural beekeeping methods. And while many traditionalists will argue that there is nothing wrong with the status quo, with Colony Collapse Disorder continuing to wreak havoc on honey bees around the world, it only makes sense to keep an open mind about alternative approaches to beekeeping.

But where does the beginner start?Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping Basics
For anyone looking to learn the basics, the Wikipedia entry on top-bar hives is a great place to start. Like many sustainable solutions, the top-bar hive is by no means a new idea. In fact, the concept is thought to be several thousand years old. Most modern top bar hives are found in Africa, but they are also becoming increasingly popular with hobbyists in the West.

Unlike the conventional Langstroth hive—which features rigidly spaced pre-drawn frames into which bees build their honeycomb—the top bar hive allows honey bees to build and space their own honeycomb by attaching it to wooden "top bars" (hence the name). Top bar hives tend to be elongated, horizontal constructions—a feature which greatly aids ease of inspection, but is also thought to make them less suited to colder climates due to increased heat loss.

Top Bar Hive Plans and Construction
One of the biggest benefits that advocates of the top bar hive tout is ease of construction and economics. In fact, a top bar hive can be constructed at a fraction of the cost of a traditional bee hive. Phillip Chandler, author of the Barefoot Beekeeper, has created free top bar hive plans and instructions The video below from OutOfaBlueSky offers an easy-to-follow guide to construction.


Top Bar Hives for Sale
For those not wanting, or not able, to construct their own hive, The Backyard Hive offers pre-constructed, hand crafted top bar hives for sale at $295. Featuring a full-length viewing window that allows for easy, non-invasive inspections of the hive, it certainly looks like a beautiful piece of equipment. (Plans of the Backyard Hive top bar design are also available for a small fee.)


Image credit: Backyard Hive
Top Bar Hive Beekeeping Advantages
Beyond ease of construction, according to advocates the primary advantages of top bar hives are that they allow for a gentler, less invasive approach to beekeeping. Because of the horizontal design, no heavy lifting is involved when inspecting the hive and only small amounts of the colony are exposed at a time. (Designs that feature inspection windows may eliminate the need to open the hive at all for inspection.)

This is also true of harvest time, when honey is removed by taking individual frames rather than an entire honey "super". This is, say top bar enthusiasts, much less of a shock to the bees. In fact, many top bar and natural beekeepers claim that through gentler, non-invasive beekeeping methods, and through nurturing and selecting bees with good survivor genes, it is possible to avoid medicating or feeding bees entirely.

Below is a video of one top bar enthusiast inspecting his honey bees ten days after installing his bees.


Top Bar Hive Drawbacks
With glowing praise for top bar hives to be found all over the internet, it might be hard to understand why they are not more common. The primary reason, it would seem, is that they are not well suited to larger scale honey production, nor to transportation of bees for pollination. Because the hives lack frames, the honey can not be extracted by means of centrifuge—so the usual choice is to produce comb honey—essentially honey that is presented still in its wax comb, usually smothered with liquid honey on top, and which is considered a high-value delicacy by some. Alternatively, honey can be drained from the comb by dripping it into a container, but this takes time and produces less end product than if a centrifuge was used.

Because top bar hives don't include a honey super—a box that is placed on top of the main hive bodies in a traditional Langstroth hive—it is just not possible to remove the same amounts of honey as from a conventional hive. But that, for many, is precisely the point. With the role of honeybees as key partners in pollination, many "natural" or "organic" beekeepers argue that we should only take small amounts of honey, and consider it a bonus not a primary harvest.

The other potential drawback for top-bar hives is hinted at in the reason the Langstroth hive was developed in the first place. Because bees have a tendency to fill up any unused space with honeycomb and propolys (a glue-like substance), Langstroth developed his hive to feature precise spacing that would not give bees the urge to "build on". Top bar hive advocates, however, claim that the sloping sides of their hives serve the same purpose—apparently bees do not like to attach comb to sloping surfaces.

Warré Bee Hives
When I wrote about an online course in top-bar hive beekeeping, many commenters suggested that I should also check out Warré hives. According to biobees.com, Warré hives were developed by frenchman Abbé Émile Warré (1867-1951) as a response to the decline in beekeeping he had seen since his youth. Focusing on economical construction (the hive is also known as the People's Hive), and natural, non-invasive techniques, the Warré hive also allows bees to build and space their own honeycomb, and is said to provide better ventilation than a traditional hive.

Many commercially available Warre hives, like the one featured in an earily silent yet very informative video below, also include viewing windows to allow for non-invasive inspections.

In many ways, the Warré hive seems to be a compromise between the horizontal top bar hive and the more vertical Langstroth hives. Hive bodies are placed on top of each other, but additional bodies are placed underneath as the year progresses—preventing the need for opening the hive. An insulated top also aids heat retention, and may make the Warré hive a better choice for more northerly climates.

Natural Beekeeping and Honey Bee Resources
As always, there is lots more to learn about natural, sustainable beekeeping than can be shared in a blog post like this. Beginners, enthusiasts and the just plain curious would do well to check out The Barefoot Beekeeper's website, as well as the book, also entitled The Barefoot Beekeeper. The folks behind the Backyard Hive have also produced a DVD about top bar hive beekeeping, also called The Backyard Hive. It is said to cover everything from setting up a hive to installing bees to harvesting honey and much more. And finally, anyone in the UK in August might want to consider attending the UK's first natural beekeeping conference in Worcestershire.


Beekeepers Opinions Wanted!
As a self-confessed failed beekeeper, I make no claims to being an expert. One thing I have learned over the years is that beekeepers are as diverse as they are opinionated. I would love to hear from top bar and Warré hive enthusiasts and critics alike. Share your experiences, insights, corrections and opinions below—and be sure to include any other resources that we should be made aware of.

More on Top Bar Hives, Warré Hives, Honey Bees and Natural Beekeeping
Natural, Sustainable Beekeeping with the Barefoot Beekeeper
The Bee Hive Redesigned: New Hive for Urban Bees
Learn Top-Bar Hive Beekeeping Online
Help the Bee Whisperer's Experiments with Honey Bees

Tags: Bees | Colony Collapse Disorder | United Kingdom