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Monday, February 08, 2010

Sam Comfort and Top Bar Hives

At the Southeast Organic Beekeepers Conference in West Palm Beach, FL, I had the opportunity to hear Sam Comfort talk and demonstrate his top bar hives. I want to build one - looks easy enough for a construction-challenged person. I'll bet I can do it - I'm certainly going to try this season.

He doesn't build stands, but keeps them on cinder blocks or those plastic crates that people use in offices. He worked the bees calmly and with no protection. It was a joy to watch him.

His top bar hive is quite simple. He points out that the bees just need a hollow place - no specific dimensions are called for, but he does make his top bar hives wide enough to accommodate a Langstroth frame - which makes conversion possible.

Below is a frame that includes a Langstroth frame attached to a top bar. Sam said that he can take a frame from a hive box and cut the comb at a slant to accommodate the sides of the top bar hive. Then he attaches the Langstroth frame to the bottom of the top bar and there you have it!

I've wondered how to begin with bees in a top bar hive without having to order a package. So I think there are about three ways one can do this:
  • install a package in the hive,
  • install a captured swarm in a hive,
  • make a split with a Langstroth hive and convert the frames as Sam has done here. Well, I can't wait to experiment.

As the hive grows, Sam adds more top bars and moves the divider that marks the beginning and end of the hive further down the box.

He tops the hive with a simple board weighed down by bricks. He places two pieces of wood above the top bars to provide the bees with some ventilation.

You can see the top bars for raising the top of the hive under the hive top toward the right.

Top bar hives have the advantage of not having to lift boxes to get into the hives. They have the disadvantage of being probably too heavy to move once the bees are really up and going. Many top bar hives are about a foot longer than the 3 foot long ones that Sam builds - now those would have one foot more of space for the bees to fill and to weigh the hive down.

Sam told me at dinner on Friday night that he had made top bar hives from reeds and mud and had never moved them because not only was the interior of the hive heavy, but the reed/mud mix was extremely heavy.

Overall the conference was a nice mix of working the bees in outdoor settings and being indoors for talks about different topics.
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  1. That was really interesting and informative, thanks. I've been curious about top bar hives since I read that it's a more natural way of keeping bees and the cells they build are smaller, producing smaller bees more resistant to mites. Sounds easy but I wonder about the large gaps on the top of the hive. Couldn't those provide easy access to robber bees? Also, what about winter, looks like it would be more difficult to stay warm. Just wondering. Thank you for posting these pictures and info.

  2. Thanks for your post and pictures on the top bar hive. There seems to be growing interest in them and your information came at just the right time. It is also something I would like to try this year. Another advantage is that they are not as heavy!

  3. (A beginners question) It was nice to meet you at the conference and I had a question about Sam's top bar hives (I missed Sunday due to work). I had understood him to say that he just glued popsicle sticks as the starter into the recessed center of the top bar and let the bees build down from there. My question was why don't the bees build onto the sides of the box? There did not appear to be any guides/framing other than that top bar. And from what I saw "crush and strain" will be the way I go!

  4. http://www.backyardhive.com/General/General/BackYardHive_Beekeeping_Shop/

  5. Hi Bob, I asked Sam about the sides of the box and he said they never connected the comb to the sides. I suppose they leave it open for bee space to move around the hive. When I put foundationless frames in my hives, usually the bees do not complete the wax at the bottom corners of the frames and use those openings for pathways. And Crush and Strain is the way to go for harvesting from the top bar. Nice meeting you too - it was a great conference!

  6. I really enjoyed reading this Linda - I am a TopBar fan and have my first hive up and running - doing very well in our hot, sometimes rainy summer. I have got 3 more being made, one for me with a longer window and 2 for an organic farm where I am installing them and caring etc.

  7. I'm excited about going to see Sam talk at a semi-local meeting in March. I'm trying to set up hives for this year and have been planning on going the top bar route for an assortment of reasons.

  8. I really like the idea of these top bar hives. I recently finished reading Fruitless Fall which was a great book about beekeeping and CCD. The idea of the bees naturally building their hives the way they normally would is very attractive to me. My question is, how do you do crush and strain if the brood and honey are on the same comb? It looks like the honey is stored in the top part and the brood is stored in the bottom. That is the beauty of the Langstroth hives, the separation of the honey. So how does honey harvesting happen for these type of hives?
    Thanks, I have really enjoyed your blog. I am a seminary student in Illinois who looks forward to having a couple hives some day when I have a house and yard.

  9. Hi Jimmy, When the bees have a frame of brood in any type of hive (Langstroth or top bar), they put the brood in the center and have honey and pollen around the edges so that they have easy access to feed the baby bees. The comb that you harvest is from a frame (top bar or Langstroth) that has only honey on the frame. Those are the ones I crush and strain. I don't harvest honey from brood frames because the bees are feeding it to their young. In a Langstroth hive, the brood (along with honey and pollen on the frame) is generally in the bottom box or two or three. The top boxes contain honey. In a top bar the first few bars are brood (along with honey and pollen on the frame) and the rest are just honey.

  10. Great thanks that makes so much sense! I am really excited about that style of hive.

  11. Glad to see you met Sam! He's fantastic. :)

    Regarding top bar hives and harvesting: We run approximately 8 horizontal top bar hives and 12 Warre hives currently and we have little issue harvesting honey. As Linda said, the bees will generally keep the brood away from the surplus honey stores and I've had no problems with brood in my honey. :) If there ever is brood or other "undesirable" things on the comb you're attempting to harvest, simply cut it off.

    Due to the number of foundationless hives we have, we use a fruit press and cheesecloth when harvesting. We smash up some comb, put it in cheese cloth and then crush it with the fruit press. The honey flows freely into a bucket.

    After harvesting from both foundationless hives and Langstroth hives, I find it much easier to crush and strain than to extract -- especially if one is using a hand powered extractor!

    Best regards,

  12. Anonymous12:55 AM

    I have the same question as doris diel: I can't imagine not having problems with robbers with the top propped open like that.

  13. The top is not propped open. The roof is raised for ventilation but beneath the roof the top bars make a solid top. There isn't bee space between top bars. The bee space is created between the combs. So the bees only have to defend a small entrance space just like in a Langstroth hive. So it isn't any more vulnerable to robbers than a Langstroth.

  14. Anonymous5:04 PM

    Sam, I have a question about hot bees in a top-bar. I have several TBHs and one hive had a feral colony move in on their own Spring of 2012. They have come through the winter remarkably well with their number really increasing this Spring. They have always been a bit cranky but I could walk by the hive without protective clothing and fill their water trough and all. I have only collected some bars with capped honey from them once (Fall 12) and looked inside the hive maybe twice by opening it up before that. When I collected the honey I had used a tiny bit of smoke that seemed to T them off more than not using smoke - they really kept agitated a long time after closing everything back up - I stayed out of their way for a week. I am not experienced and have heard Dee say that all bees can be cranky vs the africanized debacle. However, the hive is so full now that they have every bar filled top to bottom with honey, capped brood, and thousands of bees; I really need to create some space in there but am a little weary to open them up. What is the sensible thing to do? Your advice is appreciated. I met you a couple of times in Oracle. How can I do something and keep my livestock and myself safe? Or just let them bee and not mess with them at all? Thanks in advance, Anita.


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