One of the main reasons I decided to try the top-bar hive method of beekeeping is because I knew that it will be fairly easy and inexpensive to build my own hive.
When I was in elementary school we had an agriculture class as part of our academic studies (I grew up in Israel in a small Kibbutz. Agriculture was the main source of income of the village).
One of the topics we studied was beekeeping which was an important business for the Kibbutz not only because of the revenue coming in from selling honey and other hive products but also because the bee hives were spread around the fields so the bees can pollinate the crops.
One day we went to visit the apiary building. This place was where they stored the equipment and extracted the honey. They made hive product there, packaged them, and managed the whole bee business.
We stepped into the room, and to this day, I can’t forget the smell, the sound, and the taste.
There was a sweet honey smell in the air and a few bees were buzzing around. Then they gave each of us a piece of fresh comb still full of honey and I just about died.
Friends, I have a terrible memory. I usually can’t remember what I ate for breakfast and I definitely can’t remember much of what I did when I was 8 years old…
But that piece of honeycomb… The Smell of it, the color of it, the shape of it, the taste of the honey… This will be a memory to last forever.
I was fascinated by the bees and the honey and I knew that one day I will have bees.
Fast forward many years and I am ready to have my own bee operation. What I didn’t realize until I started researching what I need to make this happen is the amount of money I will need to purchase all the equipment.
There is so much stuff you need… Supers, covers, frames, floorboards, feeders, queen excluder, tools, and so on and so on…
Not only it’s so expensive, it’s also a lot of stuff… And I hate stuff. I don’t have room to store a lot of equipment and I hate managing material things. I lean towards minimalism… If I don’t absolutely have to have it I prefer not to have to store it, clean it, or fix it.
Hanging around the online creative homesteading community for a while, I figured there must be a simpler way to do this. So I started searching and came across the top-bar method of keeping bees.
If you are here, I assume you are interested in this method as well and so I recommend you read my Langstroth vs. Top-Bar Hive post. It will help you understand the difference between the common Langstroth hives to the Top-Bar hives and the difference in keeping bees using the two methods.
Top-bar hive beekeeping spoke to me right away because of its simplicity and because it seemed to me like it’s a more natural way to keep bees.
It is fairly simple and inexpensive to build a top-bar bee hive. If you build it yourself you can save a lot of money, if you buy some of the ones they sell online, you are probably going to spend as much as you would have spent on a Langstroth hive.
In nature, bees will make a hive in any hollow space. The top-bar hive is trying to allow the bees to act naturally by providing them a hollow space while at the same time making it possible for the beekeeper to manage the hive properly.
There are only a few simple rules you need to follow when you build your own hive, we will go over those in this post, but there is also a lot of room for creativity when building a top-bar hive.
So after much research, I was ready to build my first bee hive. Most of the hives I saw were made entirely of wood but after I looked around the homestead I realized I didn’t have enough wood to build the hive. I did, however, came up with a few things that can work, among them a plastic barrel and a few 2 x 4s. And so, I decided to use those.
Before I start going through the process let me be super honest here. This is the first hive I built and I have no experience keeping bees (as of the beginning of 2018). I researched a lot and tried to follow all the principles of a top-bar hive but this is an experiment for me. I hope the bees would love it but only time will tell. I am sure that this design will evolve over time but I hope the concept will stay the same.
Make sure to flow along my beekeeping journey by following the blog. I usually choose the “hard” way of doing things, so this should be interesting… Of course, we are not just going to buy bees, right? We are going to try to call them from Mother Nature to come to this hive I built (more on bee trapping in another post…). Hopefully, they’ll hear the call and this beekeeping ball will start rolling. This is going to be a fun adventure. I will keep updating.
One of the first rules of a top bar hive is that the sides should be at an angle. In other words, the hive can not have straight walls or the bees will attach the comb to the side walls and you won’t be able to lift the comb out of the hive.
If you build a wooden hive, you want to achieve a 120-degree angle for the side walls, since I am using a barrel that is round I don’t have to do anything special here. Hopefully, the bees will like the roundness of the barrel and won’t attach the comb to the sides.
A friend gave me seven of those barrels a few years ago. My kids love playing with them, my dog loves her barrel dog house, I use them to store rebars and scrap wood on to lift the material off the ground, and now one of them is going to turn into a couple of bee hives.
The top is not removable and I think this makes them very cheap. In our area, you can find them on Craigslist for around $10. I got those from a car dealership. I think their parts department gets some kind of automotive liquid in them so if you want to try and get them for free you can try calling the parts department of a local car dealership (of course, make sure to clean the barrel well no matter what you are going to do with it).
We need to cut this barrel in half. Make sure to mark the cutting line (I used paper tape) between the two holes that are on the top of the barrel. Thos holes will be the entrance of the hive so we want to keep them whole.
One-half barrel will be one (pretty large) hive, so one barrel can make two hives.
Excuse me for not taking a picture of the cutting of the barrel… I am not sure where I was when that happened…
David did that with a jigsaw, just following the edge of the paper tape. Also, those barrels have a lip around the top, we remover that too with the saw.
After the barrel was cut we turned it on a table and framed the opened part with 2 x 4s.
We didn’t do anything fancy here. Simply cut the 2 x 4 to length and screwed them together around the barrel.
Next, we turned the whole thing on its side and screwed the barrel to the frame
We used four screws with wide and round top on each side.
So now we have a half barrel with a frame around the open side…
We turned it over on the table again and attached four legs. I have to say that I love that the hive is standing tall so I don’t need to bend, but the downside to that it is the added weight which makes it so that you need two people to move this hive even before it is full of honey and bees (which can be an added weight of 50+ lb).
The wooden hives that you’ll see if you Google top-bar hives usually don’t have legs. Hives should not be placed on the ground so beekeepers will usually build a stand for them. The hives are not attached to the stand which makes it possible to move them, but they are heavy anyway and I figured I’ll need help to move them anyway if they are full of honey and bees so I decided to just build my hive tall legs instead.
In any case, since the barrel is round on the bottom, it can’t just rest on a stand.
All right, we have a framed barrel with four legs. You can see now how the hole is going to be used as the entrance to the hive.
Now we need to make this thing much more steady.
We added a piece of 2 x 4 between each pair of legs…
Then another one further down and a wide piece of wood to connect the two lower 2 x 4s. My thought here was that if for some reason the hive is not staying in place (we have some days of strong winds here…) then I will place a cinder block on the wide, bottom piece of wood. The last thing you want is your hive falling over…
That was pretty much it for the legs of the hive, now it was time to work on the top.
What makes a top-bar hive a top-bar hive is that the top of the hive is made of bars. Those replace the frames that you will find in the common Langstroth hive. The bees have a free hand at building their own comb and making the cells the size they want to make the cells, there are no pre-printed frames that force them to build the comb the way we want it.
However, in order for us to be able to manage the hive properly, we make the bars a certain width to respect what we call “bee space”. This is very important if you want to end up with individual combs that you can inspect, move around and harvest.
You’ll see in a minute how I made the bars, but in order to hold the bars in place, we added a piece of 1 x 2 on each long side of the hive.
We attached the piece of wood to the top of the legs not the top of the barrel frame…
Next we started cutting the bars.
The width of the bars of a top-bar hive must be 1 3/8’’ in order to keep bee space. It’s not hard to achieve because the actual width of the 1 x 2 lumber they sell at the local home improvement stores is pretty much 1 3/8’’. So we simply used the 1 x 2.
I used a marker to mark the exact spot of where I placed the first bar. This way, when I remove the bars I know exactly where to replace them back at.
We kept cutting and placing the bars until the whole top of the barrel was covered.
Here is another look, you can see how the bars sit in between the two pieces of wood we installed before.
I also made sure to number all the bars so I can return them in the right order if I remove them. You might not always want to return them in the same order… Part of hive good hive management is knowing how to move comb around. I am sure I’ll learn more about this when I actually have active bees in this hive but for some reason, I felt that I needed to know the order of the bars…
Ok, so now that we have the top bars in place we need to direct the bees to build the comb from the center of each of the bars.
The way to do this is to encourage them by making it easier for them to start a comb at that spot. We do that by installing a piece of molding or an inch of a cut sheet of bees wax right in the center of each bar.
I went into the home improvement store with the intention of getting a 1/2’’ quarter round molding strips that I can cut and install but I was surprised to find that molding is kind of expensive…
Right across from the molding there where those round sticks that you see in the picture. They are long (maybe 3 or 4 feet…) and only cost 68 cent each so I decided to try them instead.
I measured the length I needed to cut them, making sure to leave a little over an inch from the side of the barrel…
Then I used those U shaped nails to connect them to the bottom part of each top bar…
Here is another look… So each bar has this round piece of wood running through it’s center connected by two nails on each end. Don’t forget that this is the under side of the bar, so it will be flipped over and this round piece will be inside the hive.
To make it even more appealing for the bees to start building their comb from the round piece I covered it with bees wax.
I cut some wax from this big block that I have which proved to be so very hard!
If you get bees wax from the store, make sure to get it in smaller blocks or go with pellets which are so much easier to handle and measure.
It was also a good lesson for the future for me because I now know that when I harvest my own wax it will be better to melt it into small blocks instead of one big block.
I places the pieces of wax in a can that I kept after we ate the corn that was in there…
And used my GiGi wax heater to melt the wax. This is what you use to melt their wax for hair removal.
If you are fortunate enough to not need one of those you can probably use a double boiler system or something of that sort to melt the wax on the stove top.
If you do own one of those you now know that there is indeed a benefit to growing more hair than you really need! You can use it to melt bees wax for your DIY top-bar bee hive or for your homemade cosmetics.
Life is good when you are hairy!
Anyhow… I sacrificed one of my kitchen brushes and covered the round piece of wood with bees wax…
Like so. I made sure to cover the nails too.
Another good thing about the wax is that it glues the little stick to the bar and makes it much more steady.
Seriously, if you were a bee, wouldn’t you build your comb on this bar. Of course you would. They are not going to be able to resist!
Last but not least is the roof. We got to cover the hive somehow because bees don’t swim.
I toyed with the idea of making an A-frame roof, and you can certainly do it… but at the end, I decided to keep it simple and go with a piece of plywood.
Whatever you choose to use for the top, just make sure it is heavy enough so it doesn’t fly in the wind and also make sure you don’t use a material that heats, you don’t want to cook your bees in the summer.
I built a little frame for the plywood so it hugs the hive and holds it in place. If I see that this is not enough I can always put a couple of bricks on top of it since it is flat.
I used this Olympic clear waterproofing stain to protect the wood.
We made sure to apply a couple of layers. I also made sure to leave the hive in the rain. I then inspected the inside to make sure there was no water in there.
It’s been in the weather for a few weeks now and so far so good but I will have to stain it again probably every year. Or maybe I’ll come across a piece of tin I can put on top of it.
We also painted the legs with outdoor white paint. You can get creative and make it as colorful as you’d like.
I think its a good idea to use treated wood for the legs and roof but make sure to use untreated wood for your bars.
I looked at the hive as you see it in the picture above and had this feeling like something is missing…
Then I realized that the bees can probably benefit from a place to land when they come to the hive so I added this landing bar for them.
You’ll be surprised but I’ve learned in the bee class that I am taking that bees rob each other! A strong colony might find a weak colony and try to rob their hive of honey and pollen. So the bees always have “bee guards” at the entrance to the hive. They can smell which bee is part of their colony and if a robber comes along they fight it off.
I thought it will be easier for them to fight if they have a bar there. I am totally invested in helping them as much as I can because no one robs my honey!
I was then thinking that the barrel’s hole might be too big so I am thinking about blocking at least half of it. If the entrance to the hive is small it’s easier for the bees to protect the hive.
Also, reducing the opening might make it harder for field mice and birds to end up in there.
So there you have it! My very own first top-bar hive. I really REALLY want this to work. I didn’t keep track of my expense but I probably didn’t spend more than $50 and that after buying the gallon of stain which is expensive. I bought a gallon because I need to stain my awesome pallet wood chicken coop but I don’t think I used more than a cup of stain…
Here is the plan… I already planted about an acre of crimson clover at the farm, I am going to find a nice spot right on the edge of it and place the hive there.
There is a nice creek there and our waterhole is not far away so the bees have plenty of water. I will place a container with sugar water inside the hive and there is a trick you can do to attract bees to the hive. We will talk about this in another post since this one is long enough, but I am hoping that a swarm of bees will find my hive and make it their own.
If this happens, I will go through the season and make sure this hive works. If it does, I have enough material to build three more hives exactly the same.
Hopefully, by the end of next season I will be harvesting honey from my own hive and everyone at the local beekeeper’s club will hate me because it cost me under a $100 to start beekeeping (I need to buy a veil and a hive tool and gloves…), but you guys will love me and that’s what’s important!