Monday, May 22, 2017

Beekeeping on a Budget: Top Bar Hives

Over the weekend, Nathan and I inspected our new beehives. We brought them home on May 8th, which gave them almost two weeks to settle in. While they appeared to be busy and active, we had no idea what was going on inside. Was the queen laying? Was the hive overrun with wax moths and roaches? Were we going to fail at beekeeping yet again? Curiosity was killing me, but I had to sit back, be patient, and trust that the bees knew what they were doing. 

The hives that Nathan built.

This is our third time bringing home new bees, and our second time attempting top bar hives. Most beekeepers in America use Langstroth hives, which are boxes stacked on top of one another. As the hives grow, more boxes are added to the top.

Top bar hives, on the other hand, are horizontal. (See photo above.) As the hive grows, you simply add more bars to the back, giving the bees more space as needed. 

Top bars in action. The darker ones came from our bee guy. The lighter ones are brand new.

Our bee jackets were a fantastic investment. Look how calm I am!

We chose top bar hives for two main reasons. First, it's supposed to be a kinder, gentler, and easier way to keep bees. As you can see in the photo above, there's no heavy lifting involved, and we've built our hives to be a comfortable height for inspections.

The other reason we went the top bar route is because it's much cheaper. In the wild, bees will build a hive anywhere they think is safe and secure. Usually that's inside a hollowed out tree, but it can also be in the walls of a house or the trunk of a car. This means there's no magic formula for a good beehive, and there's no need to feel beholden to Langstroth's dimensions. Once we understood that, the choice to build our own hives from cheap pine was clear.

The other way top bar hives save money is by eschewing foundation. Usually made from either plastic or wax, these frames are basically starter kits for the bees, as they come with a pre-made foundation on which the bees build their comb. Foundation frames, however, aren't cheap, plus you have to put them together, which is a pain. With top bar hives, you simply give the bees empty bars (also made from cheap pine), and they build their comb from scratch. It's a little extra work for the bees, but it's also more natural. After all, it's what bees were born to do. (Beekeeping Like a Girl has a great post about the pros and cons of each method, if you're interested. She also favors top bar hives, which really sealed the deal.) 

So far, so good!

Like most hobbies, beekeeping has a number of startup costs. Bee suits and gloves are a must. (We tried to go without in the beginning, and quickly learned our lesson.) A smoker, which helps keep the bees calm during inspections, is also necessary. A bee tool is helpful. And, of course, the bees themselves - at least in the beginning. If you're a good enough beekeeper, you can eventually split your hives or catch wild swarms. We haven't gotten to that point yet, so for now we buy our bees locally.

Once you have those materials, though, there aren't too many ongoing costs. For the most part, bees don't require a ton of work, either. The reason we've failed in the past is because we went too long between inspections. By the time we opened the hives, they were infested with common parasites, such as hive beetles and wax moths.

This time, we're determined to keep our hives strong and healthy. That means inspecting them a few times a month, no matter how hot it is or how busy we get. Just because the bees can't shriek like the chickens or beg like the dog doesn't mean they don't need care and attention, too. 


For this first inspection, we wanted to make sure the queens were still alive, that the bees weren't battling parasites, and that there was a good mix of honey, brood, and larvae. The process is pretty simple. Starting at the back of the hive, lift the frames out one by one, brush the bees off (we use a clean paintbrush), and take a good, long look. Then return the frame to the hive and repeat with the next bar until you're done. 

The first hive, which I've dubbed Queen Elizabeth, was doing fairly well. We saw one or two beetles, lots of honey, and some new comb. We also saw the queen, which was a huge relief. 

The second hive - Queen Cleopatra - was even better. So many bees! So much brood! So many larvae! And another strong, healthy queen! See if you can spot her in this photo. 

Hint: she's marked with a yellow dot.

We were extremely pleased that both hives have settled in to their new homes. I really hope that this is the year we keep them happy and finally harvest some honey. While I love watching the bees and I know they're integral to a healthy environment, I'd like them to earn their keep financially, too. Fingers crossed, and long live the queens!