Top bar beekeeping

Someone asked me what exactly I meant by “top bar” beekeeping, so here are some images.

Normally beekeepers slip a commercially-made sheet of plastic or wax, imprinted with a honeycomb pattern, into each wooden frame. It is tied in with wire. The bees build up the comb wax following those guides. The whole frame is one solid sheet, like so:

Whereas in top-bar beekeeping, the only guide provided the bees is a little strip of beeswax applied along the top center of each frame. The bees build up the entire honeycomb on their own, from the top down. This lets them make the cells the size and shape that they want (evidence has shown that the smaller natural size may help reduce mite infestation) and makes honey harvesting much easier as you simply slice off the whole comb, but also takes twice as much work for the bees and has to be watched to make sure they’re not drawing it out in crazy shapes and sticking all the frames together.

Eventually they will fill out the whole frame with comb and it will look identical to the first, though it will still be more delicate. Top bar frames can’t be tipped around as cavalierly as foundation frames, because the soft, honey-heavy wax will simply fall out. That nearly happened to me the last time I opened the hive – it partly detached as I tipped the frame carelessly, but I think the bees will be able to repair it.

Because of the extra work required by the bees to make comb from scratch, I am planning to never ever harvest the brood boxes. Only the shallow supers will get touched, and only once per year. It’s kind of a balance; were I to use commercial foundation I could harvest honey twice a year because the bees wouldn’t have to work so hard to build comb; but the only wax I would get would be from slicing off the capped honey, and that little bit wouldn’t go far in making candles. So harvesting a top bar super will be a nice tradeoff, I think – less honey, but more wax. And with the eventual four colonies that I hope to have, harvesting once a year should be more than enough for our needs. In fact, if I weren’t baking for people outside our small household, I could give up buying commercial sugar entirely… at least, that’s the hope for far in the future.

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