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Tales from a Top Bar

I must begin all this with a disclaimer. I’m a complete novice at beekeeping and top-bar hives! So while I’m learning a lot on-line and through dealing with the bees, I am most certainly not an expert.

I opted for a top bar hive because I have developed an interest in natural beekeeping. I have a hive which I put together myself (from a well-designed pre-made kit of parts) at a workshop run in February by Jim Binning (Jim the Bee) who made Monty Don’s top bar hive. Mine is of identical design to Monty’s, made of western red cedar which apparently came from a tree felled last winter at Stourhead. 1

Basically a top bar hive consists of a wooden trough with (in my case) a wire mesh floor, beneath which there is an adjustable board that can be raised or lowered to vary ventilation. Across the top of the trough are a series of bars (the top bars), each with a flange underneath on which the bees are encouraged to build their own comb. There are two ‘follower boards’ in the hive which fit across the interior space and enable the bees to be confined to a smaller area. Jim recommended giving a new swarm or box of bees just 10 top bars to begin with. 2

Over the top of it all there is a removable roof. Mine lifts off but you can get them with hinges which is probably better

In the side of the hive there is an observation window, so I can see what the bees are up to without having to open it all up.3

The entrance to the hive for the bees is Jim’s own ‘periscope’ design; the bees land and walk up inside a box which leads them up to three holes giving access to the hive. I guess this gives them a measure of protection. 4

Thanks to Steve I acquired a swarm of bees on 11 May. I had prepared the hive as recommended by Jim, rubbing each of the central 10 top bars with a piece of beeswax that he had supplied. We duly tipped the bees into their 10 bar space, and I gave them a couple of days to settle in. They immediately formed a ball up against the top bars, where they stayed for quite a while, with some making a few exploratory forays outside the hive. I discovered that because of my inadequate workmanship the follower boards didn’t fit very well and the bees were getting round them, so I tacked a bit of foam round each one which seemed to work.

I then started to feed them with sugar syrup. Jim recommended feeding them for much of their first year while they establish themselves. I had not thought to acquire a proper feeder so I looked on-line for help and found an excellent website by Phil Chandler ( He recommended a couple of feeder types of which one was particularly easy – it just involved filling a clean tetrapak with sugar and water, and cutting a flap in one side so the bees could use this as a ramp to get to the syrup. It worked but I didn’t like it for two reasons:

        1. There was too much open liquid and the bees could drown in it. I resolved this by adding a ‘bee ladder’ – a piece of rope extending down the flap and into the syrup secured around the nozzle with string. This worked.

        2. It took up too much space in the hive, and the bees were showing signs of wanting to build comb in it.

So I found an alternative method which involved a plastic device on which a bottle of syrup could be inverted, with a longish chute for the syrup which could be extended through an entrance or in my case, beneath the follower boards. This involved cutting a couple of notches in the bottom of the follower board (I’m using two 0.5 litre water bottles), but has worked well – I can replace the syrup without disturbing the central hive. The bees reacted well to this and are currently taking about 0.5 litres of syrup every 2 days. 5 6

After about 10 days I found that the bees had started to build beautiful white combs – six so far with some signs they are starting on a seventh. So far as I can see, they are being very good and building lovely parallel combs along the bars (I believe some are not so obliging). I have not yet investigated whether there is anything in the combs but the bees are all over them. The cells nearest the window look empty so far. 7

So far the bees have been amazingly good tempered – in fact I can remove the roof and renew the syrup without wearing a bee suit. I don’t use a smoker – I tried it once and found it unpleasant. If necessary I use a water spray which works equally well.

The next stage will be to do a proper inspection of the central hive, to see whether they are actually filling the comb with anything other than syrup (I will definitely wear a bee suit for this!). I have watched this process on line and it’s similar to moving frames in a conventional hive – the bars are loosened with a hive tool, any comb adhering to the hive sides is cut with a bread knife or some such implement, and each of the top bars is picked up and inspected in turn, very carefully so as not to break the comb.

So – so far so good. If you’re interested in this I’ll keep you posted….