Monday, April 6, 2009

Top Bar Hives and Sustainable Beekeeping

Last night, I began preparing for my 10 minute presentation for the Knowledge Acknowledged series. I will be speaking about top bar hives and sustainable beekeeping. The following are my notes for this talk. Even though no references are provided with these notes, I recognize that very little of what I will say is of my own creation. Much of what I will say comes from the ideas of Phil Chandler and all the great people who participate at, as well as the information I've read at Michael Bush's website. Thanks all.

One of my chief concerns when I took up "bee having" last year was how to do it sustainably. When I speak of sustainability, I'm not speaking only about my own bees but all bees. Bees and humanity are currently involved in an enduring conflict. Bees produce products and do services we want. Yet many of the bee management techniques we use in the name of efficiency and productivity stress the bees. How do we gain these benefits without placing honeybees on a "production treadmill" that hurts them in the long-term?

One sustainable approach I've been exploring is the use of top bar hives. Top bar hives have their origins in ancient Greece and are now primarily associated with development projects found mostly in Africa.

The chief differences between top bar hives and the box hives most people associate with managed beekeeping are:

* Bees build comb on bars rather in frames surrounding beeswax foundation.
* The beekeeper guides the bees in expanding their colony horizontally rather than vertically as in box hives

A top bar hive looks simply like a long trough with 35 mm bars suspended across the top of it. (Kenyan beekeepers have nicknamed the hive: Honey Cow) The bees draw comb down the middle of each bar using either a wax starter strip or a beeswax covered popsicle stick as a guide on where to start. As the bees fill the bars, the beekeeper expands the colony area by moving movable walls (called follower boards) out and adding more empty bars. You harvest capped honey by simply pulling out the bars when ready.

Top bar hives offer some advantages over the regular box hives:

1. They are significantly cheaper and easier to manufacture than the entire set-up needed to start a box hive colony. When you add up all that's needed for a box hive, you could spend as much as $300. Material-wise, our first top bar hive cost us $80. This might've been significantly less had Monta and I done what others have done, built the hive using found, and recycled materials. You can make a fine hive from an old bureau draw, pieces of an old pallet, or even a large clay pot. One individual I know has weaved together old stalks from last year's sunflower plants, allowing the bees to fill in any gaps with propolis. Another person has made hives from papercrete. As long as each comb in the colony can be removed individually, these hives are completely legal in the U.S.
2. Except for the width of the top bar which must be 35mm wide, there are no other crucial measurements to follow.
3. Bees are easier to work with in a top bar hive. They behave less defensively, primarily because you only disrupt the brood nest one bar at a time. With boxes, you not only examine the bees frame by frame but also separate boxes, stressing the whole colony in the process.Many beekeepers I know work their top bar hives without protective clothing or a smoker
4. Bees build cells to whatever size suits their needs, not according to the dimensions demanded by the foundation the beekeeper uses. This may also eliminate another possible stressor.

The beekeeper considering top bar hives should recognize that there are some distinct disadvantages as well.

1. Because top bars are often built from found, recycled objects, there is no uniformity in bar length or comb depth from top bar hive to top bar hive. This means that bars may not be interchangable between these hives.
2. A comb filled with capped honey in a top bar is fragile and cannot be extracted in an extractor. The beekeeper is left with either cutting honeycomb into squares, or using a crush or strain system which may not be efficient for larger honey producers.
3. Because the frameless comb is fragile, the transporting of top bar hives is very difficult and dangerous for the colony. Migratory beekeeping would not be very easy with top bar hives.
4. Hives tend to produce more beeswax and less honey, which is not really a problem if you are an encaustic painter.
5. Winter preparation of the hive is a bit more involved for a top bar hive compared with a box hive.
6. I have personally found feeding a top bar hive during dearth a little more difficult than a box hive.
7. There is little face-to-face mentoring available for the beginner. I have depended on websites and internet forums for support and help.

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