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I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here. Along the way, I've passed a number of certification levels and am now a
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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Les Crowder on Using Top Bar Hives

Before the conference in Massachusetts, I didn't know about Les Crowder.  He is a well-known person in the world of permaculture and has been raising bees in top bar hives in New Mexico for years and years.

I love it that his website is called "for the love of bees" which is what we all feel who keep them.

Les has been keeping bees for 40 years.  He likes top bars and natural comb because he thinks we should trust the bees to know what they need to build in the hive and to know how to "run themselves."    He doesn't use any treatments in the hives because he wants "clean honey" on his table with no poison.

Because Les was one of the original teachers of beekeepers in New Mexico, most beekeepers in New Mexico are treatment free and most use top bar hives.  After my challenges with the top bar, I was very interested to hear how he manages his hives.

I always worry about crushing bees in pushing the top bars back together.  Les says as you lower the bar, put your fingers under the ends of the bar and push the bees out of the way before you lower the bar.  I'm certainly going to try that.

He also uses rather shallow top bar hives - his are 10 inches deep, 20 inches across, and 42 inches long.  
The shallow depth helps keep the comb stable.

He doesn't use follower boards (says they stop air circulation) and uses side entrances on his top bars.  He doesn't screen the bottoms of his TBHs because he said it's too much work to add the extra part.  He thinks you need a false bottom under the screen if you use a SBB on a TBH.

To encourage the hive to "stretch" and grow, he opens up the hive by putting an empty bar between two drawn brood combs.  This helps the hive stretch.  He generally in winter moves the honey to the end of the hive for winter.

He said, as all of us who have struggled with top bars know, that top bar hives should be inspected about once every two weeks to manage the comb.

I enjoyed hearing his tales of growing up and working in the bee hives all his life.  I plan to follow his web site and pay attention to what he is saying about these challenging hives.  Maybe I'll try again next year.

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  1. I've just encountered top bar hives in the last couple of weeks - initially through an Introduction to Permaculture course. What I like about them is that they seem really easy to build at home...and inexpensive. Do you plan on trying one out yourself?

    1. They are easy to build, just keep in mind that whatever you build isn't going to have standard equipment out there and if you ever want a second that you can swap equipment with you'll have to make an exact copy which isn't as easy. :)

  2. Top bars are not easy. I've tried and failed three years in a row (see earlier blog posts on top bars). Les says that it's really hard for a beginner because of all the comb maintenance, but I am trying again next year.

    1. I exclusively use top bar hives and you do have to get in there often to watch the new comb they are building and nude it in the right direction at times. The sooner you catch it the easier to fix. Sometimes they build out 15 combs perfectly then the flow comes on and then 5 new crazy combs that are a mess... I mark those for harvest and move back out of the way so they can go back to making sane comb again.

    2. I find it interesting he adds bars between existing combs. I did that for awhile and am not as sure that it is all that great of an idea because I find that they extend the two existing combs on the edges to "bridge" the gap as they start making new comb in the middle. Then when the middle gets to the edges this then gets wrapped around and you can get a bit of cross comb on the edges that needs to get cut away.

      My bars are shorter at 17" and I still have them trying to curve the comb so the edges attach to the next bars but the middles are on center. I wonder how he prevents this with even longer bars.

    3. Since brood comb is a fixed depth, they wouldn't do that with brood comb. In foundationless beekeeping in Langstroth's, if you put an empty frame between two UNCAPPED honey combs, the bees will extend the comb to encompass the space often rather than build a new comb on the new frame. It's the same in the top bar. If you put an empty top bar between two drawn brood combs, the bees will build new comb, but if you put an empty bar between two drawn but uncapped honey combs, they will simply extend the comb.

    4. I'm in total agreement that they don't extend the brood comb. I will take some pictures soon and describe them in a future blog. However the honey arch above the brood is typically uncapped and that is the comb that they extend... You get a bulge above the brood comb that then gets connected to the new comb on the other bar. With natural comb Langstroth frames you have a wood frame around the comb so attachments are easier to break or cut because you have the added strength of the frame.

    5. Anonymous9:53 PM

      I have been keeping my bees in top bar hives for the last 5 years. I have 11 hives built to Les Crowder’s and I have found this is the best way for me to keep bees. I don’t use chemicals in any form, I allow the bees built what they need when they need it. I inspect my hives every 2 week and make adjustments to the combs when nesessary. My bees are healthier than they have ever been.

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  4. Anonymous9:48 AM

    I think a TBH is a waste of material, money, time, and energy.

  5. TBH are one of those ideas which look wonderfully yet when tried become a complete disaster, at least it was so for me. Perhaps I missed something. Beekeeping is difficult nowadays and TBH make it even more so. Use frames, its much easier.

  6. If i remove followers will i have honey combs with brood in same bar ??


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