Top bar hives, known as “transitional hives” in Africa, are bee hives without the full frames used in modern hives to hold honeycombs. Bees attach combs to simple pieces of wood called “top bars.” Hives employing top bars are considered to be transitional because they are an intermediate step between traditional hives and modern hives. Traditional hives are woven baskets built in designs passed down from one generation of beekeepers to the next. In Ethiopia, traditional hives are long cane cylinders, which are mounted high in trees. In other parts of the world, traditional hives may be skeps, round overturned baskets. The inexpensive traditional hives, constructed of locally abundant plant materials, are easily built by people skilled in basket weaving. However, traditional bee hives present some disadvantages for the beekeeper. They offer no way to remove and replace honeycombs, to manipulate the hive, or to inspect for hive problems or brood diseases. Transitional hives, built from locally available materials, are also inexpensive. They offer the beekeeper several advantages. Located on the ground, they are safer to work with than those mounted high in trees. Transitional hives do not have heavy parts, such as hive bodies and honey supers, to be lifted. They can, thus, be worked by those of lesser strength. Honey is usually harvested from top bar hives by hand-crushing the honeycomb and straining to separate the beeswax from the honey, saving the cost of a honey extractor. These advantages make top bar hives attractive to some individuals in developed countries.
I am assisting beekeeper and pottery artist Melissa Bridgman start a colony of honey bees in a top bar hive. To guide the bees’ comb construction, we painted the center of the top bars with chemical-free beeswax. A swarm of bees built combs on the top bars, temporarily attached to Langstroth top bars. The well-fed swarm readily accepted the top bars, built out comb, and produced brood. These top bars will be transferred to Melissa’s top bar hive.