Building Top-Bar Hives

Selecting and Operating Beekeeping Equipment

Yes, I know…I haven’t posted much about the bees lately. Why? Because Jody’s getting married soon, and today we’re hosting her first bridal shower. So I’ve been busy with that. Right now, as I type, I’m smoking 15 pounds of pork shoulder that is simply to die for. I can’t wait until we figure out a way to send aromas over the internet. Stop over at 1PM for a taste of it. You’ll also freak-out love my mother’s 3-week cole slaw, jalapeno cornbread, and Vidalia onion pie. This is not your typical bridal shower, Reader.

I built three top-bar hives yesterday, though. I swear, there was sawdust everywhere. Because I so often suggest new beekeepers try their hands at top-bar hives, and because I’ve been asked to build a few for some clients, I’m trying to determine a fair price for the hives. I think I should charge for TBHs the way bee suppliers charge for Langstroth hives (the hive in the above image is a Langstroth hive)…they charge by the piece: for the hive body, the individual top bar, the lid, the stand, etc. That makes sense, yes?

For some reason, it’s hard for me to remember to take pictures as I build. I’ll do that next time and include notes on how to construct your own TBH. I know I keep reminding myself that the bees don’t care that I’m not a precise carpenter. And if those top-bar hive novices are really into owning spectacular looking hives, then they’ll have to construct their own or find an experienced carpenter to do it for them. Mine are simple. Fortunately, the bees don’t mind; they gladly repair and improve on my inept skills.

Now, I’ve gotta go throw a handful of wet applewood chips on the fire.




Tink: A newly created top-bar hive

Live with Enthusiasm

Tink: A newly created top-bar hive
Tink: A newly created top-bar hive

The newly forming hive pictured above belongs to my friend Nicola. Her powerhouse hive is going gangbusters this year. When the original colony (a swarm we captured together in 2011) ran out of room in its current hive box, it began creating drones by the boatloads. When it set about creating another queen, Nicola set about splitting the hive in two.

I keep thinking that I’d like to switch all my hives to top-bar hives. If all the hives I manage were in my yard, or if all the hives were placed in locations closer to where I live, I’d probably drift away from the Langs. But many of my hives live far away. Which means I can’t get to them each week in order to inspect them. And that’s the key to managing TBHs: regular and diligent management.

To my mind, the only drawback to a TBH is that its space is limited. If the beekeeper neglects a TBH, the bees will soon outgrow their limited space, and they’ll likely swarm. And there goes hopes for honey. And I’m not ashamed to say that honey is a big deal to me. I want it. I don’t need tons of it, but I definitely want honey.

On the upside:  Limiting space also means limiting the number of  bees living in the hive…which makes for a more pleasant visit when it comes time to inspect.

AND…I have not yet lost a single colony from my four TBHs. Which is rather incredible.

Probably 30% of my colonies living in Langstroth hives die.

Some colonies that I’ve cut out from structures and placed in Langs abscond. When I’ve captured those colonies and put them back in their Lang hive, they abscond again. When I capture them again and place them in TBHs, they stay. And live with enthusiasm. I simply believe that the TBH makes for happier bees and happier beekeepers.

The minute I learned about top-bar hives, something drew me to them. And something keeps drawing me. I’ve learned to pay attention to such attractions, so this year I plan to double the number of  my TBHs. I’m building them like crazy. Sawdust is everywhere. So, if you ask for my suggestion, Reader, I suggest you begin keeping bees in top-bar hives.







Top-Bar Hives: Keeping It Simple

I’m back from a week on the beach. I’m tan. I’m rested. And now we can visit about top-bar hives, Reader.

To my mind, top-bar hives are the cat’s meow. I think they’re brilliant in their simplicity. They provide a close, calm, wonderful, affordable experience with the bees.

I think they give enough honey.

The hive boxes are low profile, so those of us who live in urban areas can keep a hive or two in our small yards without alarming the neighbors with those tall stacks of white boxes that announce BEEHIVES! Seriously, if you keep your top-bar hive as low as I keep mine, they look like restful little benches.

The hives boxes themselves don’t scream for attention…nor do our backs after our weekly inspections. Or as we harvest a bar or two of honey. These inspections and harvests become less of a production and part of a simple routine. They’re no longer A BIG DEAL. And the bees don’t fill the air and send the neighbors diving for cover as we inspect. This is a seriously low-key affair.

I believe beekeeping can be simple. And top-bar hives are the epitome of simplicity.

Now that I’ve whet your appetite, I’ll tell you more about how my own top-bar hives have evolved in tomorrow’s post.

Top Bar Hive

Poetry Sunday: Lesson



Standing by the side of the road in Jenner, California,
hitchhiking. At least that is the idea.
So few cars pass that one may not stop today.
It’s sunny. Goats dispersed across the hillside behind me
chew their way up the green hill gradually, attentive.
The sea breeze carries phrases of seagull chatter
from below a cliff. In my pack are clothes, water,
oranges, three loaves of sourdough, peanuts, cheese.
Hung below the pack, a tent. I peel an orange,
tucking the continents of rind into a loose pocket.
Drops of juice fall onto the sand and on my boots.
A bee lands on the lip of a yellow blossom and walks
inside it. It emerges, dusted with pollen, drunk,
surprised by the generosity of light.

You Have to LIFT All Those Pretty Boxes!

Langstroth hives

Once you’ve decided to keep bees, you’ll need to determine what kind of hive boxes they’ll live in.

Until recently, there weren’t many viable options in this department. Most people simply kept bees in those stackable white boxes—you know the ones. Those hives are called Langstroth hives…named after Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth who designed the moveable-frame hive (and who, by the way, lived and kept his bees about 50 miles from where I write this and where I earned my undergraduate degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio).

Langstroth hives are designed with honey production in mind. Big honey production. They are not designed for women or small people or people who are aging or people who have bad backs or for people who will ever age or ever have bad backs or who will ever lose strength and agility.

Langstroth hives require strength to maneuver. And maneuvering is required. If you aren’t a particularly strong or agile person, or if you have physical limitations such as shortness (I’m not tall), you may need to enlist the help of another person when you inspect your bees. Having said that, most of my hives are Langstroth hives. And when I began keeping bees, I didn’t know there were choices. Knowing what I know now…if I were keeping bees only in my own back yard, I would not keep my bees in Langs.

If honey production is your goal (in other words, if you plan to have enough honey to satisfy yourself, your family, your friends, your neighbors, and still have honey to sell), or if you keep your hives in locations you can’t visit each week, then Langstroth hives are probably your best bet. If this is the case, then for many reasons I STRONGLY suggest you follow Michael Bush’s practice of running all medium depth, 8-frame equipment. That’s what I do (it’s not how I began, and shifting to this system took some work…but it was worth it). Read about the benefits of standardizing 8-frame, medium-depth equipment on Michael Bush’s website. I think he’s brilliant, creative, and practical…and I follow his advice.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive explanation of Langstroth hives. This is a primer. Read other sources to learn more.

My next post will address Top Bar Hives…which is the hive I currently recommend for those

  1. who wish to keep a hive or two in their yards,
  2. who have time to visit the hives once a week for 30 minutes or so,
  3. who are satisfied with honey for themselves and a few friends
  4. who have physical limitations
  5. who are older
  6. who may one day have back trouble
  7. who live in an urban space
  8. who wish to keep their hives low profile and understated
  9. who march to the beat of a different drummer

So You Want to Be a Beekeeper

My friend Wendy is thinking about keeping bees. So are my friends Heidi and Anne. So is my friend Liz. So is practically everyone I know. Frankly, every day people ask me how they can start keeping bees.  Perhaps it’s time I compiled these details in a single spot.

Almost everyone I know is drawn to beekeeping because they want honey. That’s what enticed me, too. But, after only a little while, honey becomes simply a reward for doing a good job at managing the hive…honey is the celebratory by-product of an entire experience. The bees—and the experience of observing, smelling, hearing, and feeling the colony as it lives and works and makes decisions—keep us…not the honey. And you should know this: You won’t harvest honey the first year. You may not harvest honey the second year.

So, yes, I know you want some honey, Reader.

I know you also want to improve the world. And keeping bees will do that.

What you may not yet know is that keeping bees will change you—it will change the way you think and the way you live and the way you feel.  I can almost guarantee it.

Here are some questions to consider as you embark. Your answers will determine how you’ll begin your adventure:

  1. Why do you want to keep bees?
  2. Yes, I know you want honey…but how much honey will satisfy you? Do you plan to sell your honey? Or do you need only enough for you and your family and perhaps a bit to give to friends.
  3. Where will you keep your hives (it’s best to begin with two hives…for reasons I’ll go into later)? How much room do you have for them? In other words…do you have access to a rooftop or a yard or a farm? Are your neighbors nearby, and do you have good relationships with them? Do children play in your yard?
  4. Bees do best in sun. They like to face East or South or Southeast. So, as you look around for a spot, keep those factors in mind.
  5. I like to watch my bees fly. You’ll probably want to watch yours, too. Keep that in mind as you think of a location, too.
  6. If there’s no water source nearby, can you provide a dependable source of water (by way of a birdbath or a water bowl)?
  7. How much time can you devote to your bees each week? An hour? Two?
  8. How much money are you prepared to spend? And if you don’t have $200-$300 for start up, are you handy with tools?

I’m too sleepy to write any more (I LOVE daylight savings time, but I’m still sleepy this morning) and you would get too bored with my suggestions right now, so…in tomorrow’s post, after you’ve thought about these questions for a bit, I’ll suggest ways to get started.

We’ll talk about ways to acquire your bees (packages, nucs, swarms, cut outs, splits) and which type of hive is best suited to your situation (Langstroth or top-bar hives…or variations on each).

Oh, and read. Read, read, read. Beekeepers are smart. Seriously. Begin with The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping.








Sublime: So Beautiful It’s Terrifying


Notes on a hive body

Yesterday was awesome! The weather got so nice that I could inspect all the bees in my care.

All the living hives are doing well. All the queens are laying, all the hives have stores and brood…which means they soon should be bursting at the seams.

One hive in particular KNOCKED MY SOCKS OFF. It’s the hive that lives at Simon and Patti’s place…one of the Zia Queen Bee hives. Simon named it the Queen Elizabeth hive. Probably because he’s from England.

So, the QE hive was going GANGBUSTERS. Bees are everywhere. Tons of brood on almost every frame. Drone brood, too. There were so many bees that it felt sublime…it was so beautiful that it frightened me a bit!

I’m sure this hive felt so squeezed for space that they’re planning a swarm…none of the other hives I saw have any drone brood. In other words, this hive is preparing to make a new queen…but they’ll need some drones around to mate with her, so they’re preparing the drone brood first.

I doubled their space and opened the brood nest. Both of which should make them feel as if they have more room.


Made by Hand: The Beekeeper

My friend Heather posted this video on her Facebook page yesterday.

I have two favorite parts:

  1. I like how Megan Paska, the beekeeper in the piece, uses twine to light her smoker. I swear, Reader, keeping that smoker alive is one of my greatest challenges. So, I’ve decided to throw a big ball of twine into my bag to use in my smoker.
  2. I love how she simply slices off a little bit of comb from the bar. I don’t know why it’s never occurred to me to simply harvest a hunk of honey at a time and put it in a clean jar right there on site. I don’t know why I think things have to be so dang complicated.

My least favorite part: the fact that posting the video is so laborious. It’s a pain because it’s not from YouTube. So, I’m just gonna link to it here. Sorry.


Bee Stewards Are Not Dullards

At the stove

I get to hang out with some real characters. Dull people don’t usually want to keep bees. The people who want to keep bees are either already very interesting or they’re about to become that way.

Yesterday, Murphy the dog and I drove up to Wilmington, Ohio to scout out a place for bees on a farm there. The farm belongs to my diabetes doctor and her radiologist husband.

When I arrived, Mark and Barbara were boiling maple syrup they collect from the trees in their woods. I can’t tell you how elaborate the tapping and collection set up. Mark met me at my car and walked me through the woods until we found Barbara, dressed in Carhartt coveralls and a stocking cap,  ladling thin but bubbling syrup at a wood-fired stove.

When you first meet your doctors, you have no idea that this is what they do on some sunny, chilly Tuesdays. It makes me like them even more.

I have the greatest doctors.

Ladling maple syrup

It’s Happening in Cincinnati’s East End

Meet Joe Cocoran. Joe is the energy and the vision behind the East End Veteran’s Memorial Garden on Strader Street (off of Eastern Avenue in Cincinnati and within a stone’s throw of the Ohio River).

Joe constantly talks in terms of “we,” so I know there are others involved in making this spot of the East End exciting, and I’m eager to meet them as spring and summer bring more and more color to the garden.

Joe Cocoran at the East End Veteran's Memorial Garden

You know how a place feels just before it becomes sort of “the place” in a city? That’s the way the East End feels to me right now. There are good vibes. The neighbors are painting their houses bright colors—that’s a great sign, isn’t it? Joe and his friends are creating an urban oasis. Joe can’t stop himself. He has ideas. And then those ideas happen. Amazing.

We plan to introduce a couple of top-bar hives full of bees to the emerging gardens and orchards there. This is gonna be downright interesting.

And while you’re in the neighborhood checking out the community garden, walk over to Eli’s BBQ…it abuts the community garden. Places like Eli’s build communities. And there is no better BBQ in Cincinnati. Trust me on this.

Eli's BBQ on Eastern Avenue (AKA Riverside Drive)