Last Updated on March 31, 2023
Top bar hive ventilation is somewhat less complex than ventilating a Langstroth box hive. It is nevertheless important to ensure that your topbar hive is ventilated to ensure that the more fragile combs do not fall off and melt on hot days. We take a look at a few top bar hive ventilation tricks.
Comparing A Top Bar Hive To A Langstroth Hive
A top-bar hive is a more natural hive shape. If we look at a wild hive, they arrange their combs along a lengthwise axis. This means that the roof of the hive is a natural barrier to the loss of heat from the brood nest. A Langstroth hive has the brood nest at the bottom of the hive, with huge volumes of space above this nest reserved for honey storage. In some ways, this can place the bees under stress.
Top Bar hives are about as close as we can get to a moveable frame natural hive. The bees are able to spread their combs on a horizontal axis. This means that every comb is attached to the bars which are the roof of the hive. This helps the bees conserve heat.
For the bees, ventilating a top bar hive is easier, but there are still a few things we need to consider to allow our bees to thrive.
Types Of Top Bar Hives
There are so many types of top bar hives out there. The reason for this is that a top bar hive is a non-standardized unit. A Langstroth hive has a standard design that has a specific specification sheet for all measurements. Much like a Langstroth hive, a top bar hive employs bee space – however, this is where the similarity ends.
With Langstroth hives, the frames allow the bees to move up through the frames to boxes above. With a top bar hive, the wooden comb holders typically do not have space between them. This means that you have a series of wooden slats which support combs along the top of the hive body.
I have worked many of the so-called “Kenyan Top Bar” hives, a design that seems actually to have come from Canada. Bees thrive in these boxes, and many of the diseases we see in Langstroth boxes tend to be less severe in Top Bar hives.
Beautiful Designs – Top Bar Hive Ventilation
A top bar hive looks nice in your garden. This is a particularly beautiful hive. Made from Ceder wood – which is naturally weatherproof wood, the build quality is exceptional. Ceder wood is one of my favorite timbers – it does not warp much, and it does not rot. Bees thrive in the wood, as it is resinous, and they paint the wood naturally with propolis.
Top Bar Hive With Langstroth Frames
If you want to have a horizontal hive, but use Langstroth frames, you can design a square “horizontal” hive. This has some advantages as the bees love the lack of vertical dimensions in the hive, and you can still extract honey. With a normal top bar hive, you have to cut comb honey but cannot spin the combs as the combs have no reinforcing wires.
Once I found an old fridge that was exactly the width of a Langstroth frame. I placed the fridge lying down so that the door opened upwards. I then drilled a few holes at each end of the fridge and inserted wooden slats on the side to hold the frames. This hive used to produce 100-150 pounds a year of honey and out produced all the Langstroth hives I had in the apiary. It sadly got destroyed by fire and I have never found a fridge that size again.
Top Bar Hive and Bee Genetics
Top bar hives typically have an entrance at one, or both ends of the box. Side entrances do not work. The bees are able to easily ventilate hives which have end entrances. The bees will reduce and expand the entrance holes as needed using propolis.
Bees bred for Langstroth hives tend to be selected for producing less propolis. In this regard, they can be unsuited to a top bar hive – top bar hive bees need to be able to rapidly open and close the propolis plugs in the ventilation holes. The bees increase airflow on warm days and reduce droughts on cold days. This limits condensation and fungus problems.
In my region we have frontal rainfall – so a few days of extreme heat, followed by icy cold days with pouring rain. The bees that thrive in top bar hives are those that can quickly modify the hive as needed for these varying conditions.
Select Your Own, Or Catch Swarms – Top Bar Hive Ventilation
I personally would not recommend buying packages for top bar hives – unless you can get a package of a race which propolises well. Russian and Caucasian bees have the most appropriate traits out of bees you can buy. These bees understand how to use propolis and make propolis of the right consistency to be able to open and close holes in warm and cold weather.
If you catch swarms in your area, you are most likely to find some naturally adapted genetics that works well in your top bar hive.
Top Bar Bee Hive Ventilation
I have had friends who have tried to keep races such as Italian bees in Top Bar hives in northern locations. This appeared to be a lot of work, as they had to keep sealing and unsealing entrance holes. These bees struggle to do this on their own.
My experience with Top Bar Hives has been limited to African honey bees and Cape honey bees – both African races. These bees need no help whatsoever in a top bar hive. They thrive in these systems and reorganize the insides as they see fit. Cape Bees even survive snow and icy winter conditions in the mountains quite happily in these hives. In Langstroth hives’ survival in the snow is far less guaranteed as Cape Bees do not know how to form a proper cluster.
From this, and from chatting to my beekeeping friends in Russia, it appears that if you have the right genetics. African bees in Africa, and Russian bees in Northern climates – your bees will just figure it out and do their own thing.
For ventilation, all you need is to provide the bees with an entrance on each end of the hive. They will open and close these as they see fit. If you want to be fancy, you can also use a hole drill to drill a vent hole at the top of the end of the hive. Cover this in stainless steel mesh and the bees will propalise and unpropalise as needed.
I hope this article has helped you see how much fun a top bar hive can bee. These hives are aesthetically beautiful and allow you to produce comb honey for home consumption and gifts. The hives are fun to work, and bees love them. Share if you enjoyed it.
Dr. Garth A. Cambray is a Canadian/South African entrepreneur and beekeeper with 28 years of experience in apiculture and specializes in adding value to honey. His Ph.D. research developed a new advanced continuous fermentation method for making mead that has resulted in a number of companies globally being able to access markets for mead. His company, Makana Meadery, exports honey mead to the USA where it is available to discerning connoisseurs. He has also developed technologies to commercially manufacture organic honey vinegar in Zambia for export globally. He holds a few patents globally in the ethanol industry and believes in technology and knowledge transfer for human development and environmental sustainability. One of his proudest achievements is the fact that the wind farm he started at one of his old apiary sites has essentially made his hometown carbon neutral.