Comb Guides on the Top Bars

I’m learning that the least important part of a hive is the hive body. The most important parts of the hive are the frames on which the bees will build comb. Bees use comb for EVERYTHING. I like to think of the hive body as the outside walls of a house. The combs and the cells from which the comb is built are akin to the rooms and the cabinets and the closets.

A top-bar hive utilizes only a piece of wood on which bees will build their comb. It’s stretched across two boards. Bees will build their comb from the top bar and ┬áthen fill the cavity of the hive body below it. They will (almost) always build their comb within a certain thickness.

I cut the top bars in keeping with the width at which bees build comb (1 1/4 inches for brood, and 1 1/2 inches for honey. Not that it’s ever that precise or simple). Then, because I’m committed to a simple approach to keeping bees, I used only a piece of string and some melted beeswax as a comb guide (if bees have a guide encouraging them to build their comb beginning right here and going in this direction, they get right to work doing it. Otherwise, you have to straighten out a lot of false starts. Which is fine in nature, but not if we’re going to be removing and handling the frames).

The string is raised just enough for bees to begin their work. The wax not only attaches the string to the bar, but it smells right…as if to say, others have built here before you…now it’s your turn.

Interior of the Kenya Top-Bar Hive

The Kenya Top-Bar Hive

I’ve decided not to show you the top-bar hive I built yet. I’ll tell you about it first and let the anticipation build and build.

Jerod’s hive required a lot of tools: Table saw, hand-held circular saw, jig saw, drill, electric sander. Over the course of the two days it took to build the hive, we burned out the motor on the table saw (hey! it was old!), and we busted a number of drill bits.

I chose to build the kind of top-bar hive that requires no power tools (although I did use a couple). The Kenya Top-Bar Hive was designed for simplicity because it’s designed to be used in developing areas where there’s no electricity. It can be built in a few hours and it’s easy for two people to carry intact…even when it’s full of bees and honeycomb. It’s low profile. I love that idea. To keep it very simple, I chose to use plywood. I’ll try this with other woods as I get better at it.

I made my hive on a day when no one else was around. Just me and my hive out in the backyard.

My hive is a little off-kilter, though. Because we’d burned out the table saw, I had to cut long pieces (46″) using the hand-held circular saw. Let’s just say that my novice hands aren’t perfectly steady at this. So, the hive rocks like a cradle. Big deal.

Below is a picture of the interior (I’d marked the wood as a pattern for the kind of hive Jerod’s built; then I abandoned it).

Tomorrow, I’ll show you the follower boards; I’ll also show you how I made comb guides on the top bars. I’m still searching for a piece of corrugated tin to use as the roof. Isn’t it fun to watch this come together?

Interior of the Kenya Top-Bar Hive
Interior of the Kenya Top-Bar Hive

Jerod at Home Depot

Jerod's Top-Bar Hive

Jerod and I dedicated this past weekend to building our top-bar hives. It took us two hours at Home Depot just to collect our material, but once we got it all home and unpacked, and once we ate a bit of lunch and then pulled out all the tools, Jerod got down to work. And he worked for seven hours on Saturday and about seven more hours on Sunday. His hive is almost complete. He went off the plans there toward the end, and he’s now wrestling with his final decision: how to cover the roof.

Most blogs like this would tell you exactly how to build the hives they show you. Not me. If you want to know any details, you can ask in the comment section here. I’m just going to tell you that Jerod’s hive is pretty but somewhat complicated to build. So complicated, in fact, that I decided to build a different model (which you’ll get to see tomorrow).

I’ll tell you that having a building project in the works outside on a pretty day draws a good crowd. We had a lot of company show up…friends were pulling in right and left on their bicycles. We set up chairs in the driveway. We served refreshments. With that kind of distraction, I’m surprised Jerod could get two boards nailed together.

Jerod at Home Depot
Jerod at Home Depot
How a computer engineer checks out the plan
How a computer engineer checks out the plan
Deb and Stephanie at work
Deb and Stephanie at work
Stephanie and Jerod
Stephanie and Jerod
Almost finished top-bar hive
Almost finished top-bar hive

Top-Bar Hive with window

Deciding on a Top-Bar Hive

So, I shared with you yesterday that Jerod and I are planning our winter top-bar hive project. Unlike Langstroth hives, top-bar hives are not standardized. A Langstroth hive is what you’re used to seeing, Reader. Historically, Langstroth hive boxes are painted white and are stacked one upon the other. (I’ve decided to stop painting mine because painting takes time, I don’t like doing it, and I think they look better when the natural wood has weathered.)

But I also want to add some top-bar hives to my apiary. I can build them myself, they’re low profile, and they’re viscerally appealing to me. I think I love the simplicity. I also think they’ll be easier for folks to keep in their backyards because they don’t call attention to themselves, and they provide enough honey for the family and a few neighbors. The won’t give you hundreds of pounds of honey, but I don’t need hundreds of pounds.

As I said, top-bar hives aren’t standardized, so they come in an unlimited variety of designs…therefore, it shouldn’t surprise you that Jerod and I tend to like different types. Which will be good…we can try our hand at both. Or more.

Here’s the one Jerod likes:

Top-Bar Hive with window
Top-Bar Hive with window

I tend to lean more to the low side. I like the hives used by Sam Comfort:

Sam Comfort top-bar hive at the Northeast Treatment-Free Beekeeping Meeting

Or, I like Michael Bush’s Kenyon top-bar hive:

Michael Bush's Kenyon top-bar hive
Michael Bush's Kenyon top-bar hive

Here are a few of these simple babies at work against a wall in Albuquerque:

Top-bar hives in New Mexico

Finally for today…here’s a good link to refer to use as I begin to build my Michael Bush version of the Kenyon Top-Bar Hive.