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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Beyond Frustrated with my Top Bar Hive

I enjoy and admire Sam Comfort and am so pleased to have met and heard Wyatt Mangum speak, but neither of them addressed the problems I am having at Topsy. I don't know if it's how I constructed the hive, its location in Atlanta or what, but I hate inspecting it.

It's always one problem after another. After nearly destroying the hive to correct the cross comb problem, I visited it today to see if the queen were still alive and laying.

I opened Bar 11 and immediately found cross comb. GRRRRRR. I cut it out, it fell to the bottom of the hive and frustrated by the inability to come up with any way to repair what I would have rubber banded into a Langstroth hive's frame, I pushed it down to the unused part of the hive next to the follower board.

 Innocent bees peering up at me, the helpless beekeeper.

I then moved to bar 10 which looked OK, but when I tried to lift Bar 9 there was resistance and it broke off of the top bar, leaving a gaping opening and honey dripping.

Is the queen there and laying? I certainly don't have any idea because I wasn't willing to destroy any more comb to find out.

What is a top bar beekeeper to do in these instances?

My understanding of the top bar is that there is great advantage in only removing one bar at a time rather than lifting out a whole box. But the HUGE disadvantage of this system is that the beekeeper has no idea what is going on until damage has already happened.

I just closed the hive up, took off my veil and walked away.

I may leave it for the rest of the summer.

I hope they enjoy the honey they make. I certainly will not.

There is no way to harvest honey out of a top bar without killing a bunch of the bees and I'm not willing to do that. There's no way to monitor the hive because the top bars keep pulling off of the comb.

I wish there were some way to move this hive into a Langstroth box because this is beyond me.
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  1. Hi Linda,
    Sorry you are having TBH problems. My wife says I should start a TBH (I have all Langstroth hives).

    Sounds like you have comb adhesion to the side of the hive. Here's a video I remember seeing of a guy who uses a tool to disconnect the comb from the side of the hive before he lifts a bar. From what I understand, you only have to do that a couple of times and the bees will stop sticking it up.


    Good luck!

    -- Steven
    ( http://stevensbees.blogspot.com )

  2. I think the real beauty of the TBH lies in *not messing with them*. I check in on mine and harvest a couple frames in the beginning of the first nectar flow and then leave them alone to do what they do for the rest of the year. Most of what you, as a beekeeper, need to know can be determined through observation at the entrance. Pollen's coming in? The queen is present and laying. Does everything smell okay? Then it is okay. Everything else can be determined by what ends up on the bottom board. (I built a removeable bottom board into my TBH's) Bees will never construct "straight comb" as it goes against their nature and Nestduftwarmebindung: the cul de sacs are essential to retaining vital nest scent and warmth and a sauna of anti-microbial propolis. Every time we tear into a hive to assure ourselves that everything's okay we undermine the colony's innate capacity for keeping everything okay.

    1. That's only partially true, bees will construct straight comb if they have adequate ventilation they can control and they have a straight template to go off of.

    2. That's only partially true. Bees will construct straight comb if they have adequate ventilation that they control and if they have a straight template to go off of, i.e., if you checkerboard blank bars between straight comb, they will build it out straight.

  3. How long are the top-bar hives (and the top-bar comb) as compared to Langstroth frames? Because if you could cut them down to size without damaging much comb, you might be able to put them in Langstroth box. Then over time, pull their top-bars out and replace them with true frames.

    (As to getting them out of the hive in the first place, take the moveable end of the hive out, cut away comb that is attached to the bottom/sides, and then pull the top-bar up; that way, it should come without utterly ruining the comb.)

    Also, unrelated: Hi Linda, I'm Esther. I want to be a beekeeper, but I am hampered by having family who will not hear of bees in our yard :< So I am beekeeping vicariously through the blogs I follow, including yours :D Thank you for all of your wonderful blogging and especially your pictures so I can do so.

  4. Anonymous2:54 AM

    Change your top bars. I mean, make new starter guides by cutting WAX foundation into strips and embed them into grooves.

  5. Well, I could try that, but I think the problem is not with adherence to the top bars but that they are attaching to the sides and I can't free the comb. I would need to invent some sort of instrument to use (like the guy in the video recommended by Steve above) - perhaps I could remove several combs that ARE free and then slide the hive tool up and down the sides of the next comb before lifting it as I would in the Langstroth where I remove the second frame and hang it on a rack, leaving moving room for the rest of the frames. I feel defeated and frustrated but there's always something else to try.

    1. I have a topbar and get frustrated with it. I have a breadknife which I slide up against the sides to cut any comb adherences between the drawn comb and the side. Then I lift the topbar. I move along the hive in this way gradually checking each bar.

      I have also cut plastic frames to the TBH profile, leaving beespace, and attached the modified frames to the top bars. That gives full confidence the comb will not break off in the hive or when rotating the frame to check it. I haven't yet done this for all topbars but might. Here in New Zealand there is a regulatory drive to ensure all hives have bees on moveable frames and there is debate as to whether a topbar constitutes a moveable frame.

  6. Anonymous7:54 AM

    You could frame each bar like this beekeeper did:
    then you could rubberband....

  7. Hi, I'm a first season beekeeper starting w/ two TBH. My strongest colony has started off building cross comb. Two beautiful combs going in the complete wrong direction. Your right, absolutely frustrating. Not sure what to do, cut it off and attach to a bar? I've seen a guy do it w/ zip ties and hair clips.... Wish I'd just gone w/ all medium Langs to start!

    1. We feel your pain. We installed 4 TBH this year 3 of 4 are crosscombed! Tried to fix with ribbon etc, but it just cut through the comb and they fell to the floor and the bees swarmed! We caught them and put them back but ruined 6 combs! We haven't touched the other two yet!

    2. Anonymous1:07 PM

      For those of you having problems with cross combs, check out this website on how to make "rescue frames". I've done this, and they work very well.

  8. Oh, you might already know this but that tool used in the video above can be purchased at backyard hive.com
    Good luck w/ Topsy!

  9. Anonymous1:24 PM

    This is the sort of thing that puts me off top bar hives... A carpenter friend of mine with a tbh custom made himself hollow frames for his hive, with a wooden boundary which left the correct bee space between the hive walls and the frame boundaries, so that they didn't stick comb to the hive walls. They just built comb within the frame boundaries. But then he has a wood workshop and the skills to do that, not everyone has the facilities to do that sort of thing.

  10. Having made a mess of crossing comb, in one of my hives last year, where i used starterstrips.
    I have this season made, blank foundation boards so that the bees can use thiese, as a guide and every other frame is one of thiese "large starterstrips"
    the rest is regular starter strips, and so far
    it is working great and the bees work them just
    as fast as a regular embossed sheet. (in my opinion anyway :-))
    And havent made any crossings ..yet
    The boads/sheets are made by dipping a watersoaked piece of plywood in melted wax 3 times and then cool it of in cold water a couple
    of seconds peel of and voilá you have 2 sheets.

  11. Linda, I have the backyardhive.com tool and it works great. But you can save yourself the $30+ and just use something you probably already have in your kitchen: a bread knife. What ever you use, try to cut the brace comb free in an upward motion. Cutting downward, particularly with new comb, can pull it off the top bar. As for the cross comb issue, it's important to manage new TBHs frequently to nip it in the bud. Hopefully the reduction in comb breakage will enable you to monitor the bees' progress so they don't get too creative. Keeping the follower board close to the last comb will encourage them to stay straight/on one bar. Again, monitor. Make sure they're not bracing to the follower. If they're that close, it's time to add a new top bar. It's slow going at first, but once the hive is built out, you can step back and quit monkeying with it for a while. You can even super the hive if you want to REALLY stop monkeying with it. That's what I did, and not one bee was killed in the harvest.

    1. Bread knife option, cool. Putting new undrawn bars between two drawn bars will also encourage straight comb without brace comb.

    2. Anonymous10:14 PM

      Cross comb generally means that your top bars are not at the correct width. Either they are too narrow, so the bees build one comb across two bars. Or they may be too wide, and the combs are built off centre and again overlap on to another bar. That being said, with bars of correct width (32mm for brood and 38mm for honey) the bees can still build combs that are not straight. This genrally happens at start and you have to make sure that you straighten the comb. Then the bees will make every following comb straight. "One straight comb leads to another" being the mantra of the TBH.
      In your case, as you had no comb guide on the bottom of your bars, by the sound of it, the bees have likely started their comb from the edge of each bar and not doen the centre line, therefore overlapping.

  12. Bill Behrend8:22 AM

    Hi Linda. Thanks for the congratulations (another thread here), and I am very sorry you are having a difficult time with the TBH. You already have mastered Langsroth hives and are comfortable with them, and the bees are doing well in them also, not insignificant at all. But on the Natural Beekeeping Network Forum (http://www.biobees.com/forum/index.php?sid=ca0698ffa16961bee23053b70a427e48) there are many people worldwide who do OK with them. I can't that I have done all that well, but any troubles I have had are not due to the hive design, I'd say. However, one persistent problem is the cross combing you describe, both personally and across the board with TBH users. I think I am going to try a mediium Langsroth myself, for comparison, but I will be able to build the woodenware myself, cost being one great attraction for beginners with TBH. It is correct to say that the "leave them alone" style of management is a great advantage for TBH, but that can also be a plus for Langstroths, if the beek can be restrained in management practices. For now I'll also keep my TBHs, both Kenyan and Warre style.


  13. Anonymous9:39 PM

    I use a 9 inch bread knife and cause is to flex along side of the walls an cut very slowly, it will not usually be a problem after you cut it a couple of times. as far as the queen goes if you use your smoke and work slowly and methodically she will continue to move toward the front of the hive if you start at the back. My hives are crossing the combs across the top bars making it impossible to remove individual bars without making a mess. What I have learned is my first two hives I used string guides and wax to try and help them. My third hive has a small piece of triangular trim stapled to it that is making a better guide. I also believe we gave them too much space initially when we put them in the hive. they have utilized the space toward the back better leaving only two empty bars at a time. Hope this helps, let me know what works or doesn't. :)

  14. Anonymous2:47 AM

    Hi there,
    I'm sorry to hear how frustrated you are Linda - it's so upsetting to feel like you are making a mess every time you open the hive. Please don't give up - you are just missing some knowledge that will make a real difference. Here are some tips that may help. I've been keeping a thriving tbh here in New Zealand. I and several tbh beekeepers here use strips of triangular wood glued to each bar to act as a comb guide. I rub the pointy edge of the triangular strip (which will hang down lowest) with beeswax to give them the idea. If your bars are the correct width to maintain bee space (33 to 35mm) the bees will usually build straight comb on each bar. Do not give them too much space as this will lead to crooked or crossed comb. Just one or two empty bars at a time. They will attach some of the comb to the walls at first. Slide a thin bladed bread knife UP (not down) the walls on either side of each comb before removing them. After you do this a few times, they will stop attaching those particular combs. Add new bars BETWEEN existing straight combs. This forces the bees to build straight comb in order to maintain bee space. It's sad to hear these horror stories about tb hives as I find them a delight to work with. They just require different techniques.

  15. Anonymous8:22 PM

    You may want to consider changing to a wedge style bar. Most of the people using the wedge style bar seem to have fewer problems with cross comb. I can't tell for sure, but I think you are using flat bars, maybe with a groove or string attached. If that is the case you can attach a piece of cove molding to give you the "V" shape that seems to work the best.

  16. Anonymous8:03 PM

    This is late but you can buy chamfer molding at a concrete supply store. It's a triangle shaped molding that you can nail to your bars as a guide. Check out Michael Bush.

  17. Anonymous3:36 PM

    So, please give us an update. My first experience in the TB was exactly the same. I walked away after ripping a few combs from their bars! And, looking from the back forward through, all I saw was wobbly comb, cross comb. Do I 'begin' from the front and start to 'manage' and clean up the hive, or do I put the queen excluder in 2/3 of the way down, and hope that they will create some 'straight' comb for me to harvest...and let them have the rest of the hive however they want to? Thanks.

  18. Anonymous11:58 PM

    I use a fillet knife to free the comb from the side of the TBH. Also made frames that fit the shape of the TBH.. They are one method of support if the hive is not in the shade or there is a prolonged heat wave that could cause wax to release from the weight of the honey or brood. Leave an inch or more between the frame and the bottom of the hive for Bee space. Good luck. LOVE the TBH!!

  19. Anonymous12:06 AM

    I have an observation window in the side of my tbh, can see where the bees have attached to the side walls if any have. I also have a 1/4 inch strip in the center of the topbar coated with bee's wax. Have not had crooked or non aligned comb. Just been involved caring for bees a year. What an interesting insect!

  20. Anonymous5:05 PM

    Phil Chandler is the guru of the tbh. Has good info on utube as how to build and correctly use that method of bee keeping. Look him up on the web.

  21. Linda, If you would like an easy way to repair broken comb, see my website at http://www.thegardenacademy.com/BK_-_Rescue_Frames.html

    It's soooooo easy! Angela

  22. Linda, If you would like an easy way to repair broken comb, see my website at http://www.thegardenacademy.com/BK_-_Rescue_Frames.html

    It's soooooo easy! Angela

  23. Hi Linda, I use les crowderxs top bar hive and I am based in Norfolk in the uk. Now this might sound crazy but I always align my top bars from north to south and I get very little cross comb.but I also check after about three days when I have put a new swarm to straighten any comb.
    Hope this helps clive

  24. I am interested in top bar hives. I cannot lift Langstroths after a severe back injury. I have compromized and am doing horizontal hives or long hives. Mine are on legs so they are a good working height for me. www.horizontalhives.com has free instructions on building and good pictures to visualize it. I am using deep frames - foundationless - and so far, no worse than Langstroth burr comb. Hope this helps!

  25. Anonymous7:11 PM

    This link has plans to build a horizontal hive, has the advantage of lang frames and the advantage of being horizontal like TBH.

    We made one and t is great. Plan to do another one this winter.
    Suggest you don't do the screened bottom, that has caused us problems.
    We put three regular inner covers on top and v then positioned the lid accordingly.


  26. I have one top bar that is cross combed to the extreme. I just leave it alone for now. Every year it puts off two or three swarms which I capture and put in langstroths. I would like to put these in another hive but it seems overwhelming. I have looked for a way to coax the bees out but I can't find a method to do this.


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