Kenyan Top Bar Hive
So You Want To Keep Bees?
Whether you approach it from the point of view of conservation, entomology, crop
pollination or simply a love of honey, beekeeping is an engaging pursuit and a
fascinating window on the natural world.
So what does it take to become a beekeeper?
The essentials are simple enough:
some sort of hive, a hat and a veil, an
old, white shirt and some gloves - and
at least the tacit agreement of the
people who share your living space. It
doesn't matter whether you are a town
or a country dweller, so long as there is
an abundant and varied supply of
flowering plants from early spring
onwards. In fact, bees often do better
in well-gardened, urban areas than in
the 'green desert' of modern, industrial
Judging by the questions potential
beekeepers ask me, they have three
main areas of concern: the cost of
equipment and bees; storage space for
spare hive parts and other equipment,
and the difficulty of lifting heavy boxes
– especially when full of honeycomb.
If you go down the road of 'conventional' beekeeping, using the standard
'National', the 'WBC' or one of the other variants of the 'movable frame' hive, then
these concerns are very real. You can expect to spend £250-£300 on woodwork
and basic equipment; you will need a shed or similar space to store spare parts
and you – or someone you can bribe – will need to be able comfortably to lift and
carry 15-20 kilos at a time. These three factors discourage people for whom
money or space are already tight, and those who have a disability or are simply
unable to lift and carry substantial weights.
Luckily, there is an alternative.
Like many British beekeeping novices, I began with a 'WBC' hive – the kind with
sloped-sided outer boxes familiar from children's books. Soon, I acquired a couple
more and began to realize that if I was to continue along this road, I would have
to build myself a big shed in which to house all the spare woodwork and other
paraphenalia that was rapidly accumulating – and I would have to find a way to
pay for all the 'extras' I would soon be needing.
At this point I asked myself - does it really need to be this way? - and that
innocent question led me on an exploratory mission of reading, study and
experimentation that showed me conclusively that, no – it does not need to be that way: beekeeping does not need to be complicated, expensive or dependent on
machine-made parts and equipment.
My search for an alternative approach led me to the top bar hive - one of the
oldest and simplest types of beehive - that requires little skill and few tools to
build. A good start on the road to sustainable simplicity, but is it a practical hive
for modern beekeeping?
After some years of experimenting and testing various designs, I believe I now
have a top bar hive design that is easy to build, practical and productive, while
being comfortable and easy to use for both the bees and the beekeeper.
So what are top bar hives?
The principle is simple: a box
with sticks across the top, to
which bees attach their
comb. Mine have central,
side entrances, sloping sides
and a pair of 'follower boards'
to enclose the colony. There
are many variations on this
theme and all have the
essential guiding principle of
simplicity of construction
and of management. There
are no frames, no queen
excluders, no ekes, no mouse
guards, no supers, no
foundation and there is no
need for extractors, settling
tanks, filters, de-capping knives... in fact no need for any other equipment or
storage space, other than that provided within the hive itself. And if you have just
spent an hour leafing through suppliers' catalogues, wondering how you can
possibly afford to keep bees, that will come as some relief!
Building a top bar hive is no more difficult than putting up shelves and can be
done using hand tools and recycled wood. Top bar beekeeping really is
'beekeeping for everyone' – including people with disabilities, bad backs, or a
reluctance to lift boxes: there is no heavy lifting once your hives are in place, as
honey is harvested one comb at a time. From the bees' point of view, top bar hives
offer weatherproof shelter, the opportunity to build comb to their own design –
without the constraints of man-made wax foundation – and minimal disturbance,
thanks to a 'leave well alone' style of management.
So where do you get bees from?
You can buy them or catch them, or if you are lucky, they will adopt you!
Catching or luring a swarm is by far the most fun – and much easier than you
might think. Bees swarm in response to their instinct to reproduce – mostly in
spring and early summer – and the sight of a swarm in flight is certainly impressive. However, contrary to popular belief, this is the time when they ar
least likely to sting you: their only concern at that moment is to find a new place
to live. So if you offer them the right sort of accommodation at the right time –
such as a pleasant-smelling, cosy beehive – they are very likely to move in of their
own accord. Many people become beekeepers by enticing a passing swarm using
a few drops of citronella or lemon grass oil, or better still, rubbing the inside of
the hive with pure beeswax.
Capturing a swarm is not difficult either – hold a basket or cardboard box under
their football-sized cluster on a tree branch and give a good shake! It is not
always as easy as that, but it is rarely as difficult as getting a cat out of a tree.
If you think you want to keep bees, I suggest you first get to know a local
beekeeper who is willing to let you visit and handle their bees. Most beekeepers'
associations have 'meet the bees' days during the spring, giving newcomers a
chance to see inside a hive and test their responses to being surrounded by bees.
And stings? Yes, you will get stung from time to time, however careful you are.
Local swelling, redness and itching is a normal reaction: faintness, breathing
difficulties and collapse are true allergic symptoms and are potentially lifethreatening. Most people who keep bees become less sensitive to stings over time,
but sometimes it goes the other way and occasionally an experienced beekeeper
may suddenly become allergic. So if you have any reason to suppose you may be
sensitive to bee venom (only about one in 200 people are) be sure to carry
Benadryl or an Epipen (adrenaline injection) or ensure that whoever you are with
is properly equipped to deal with an emergency.
Bees are in trouble right now – from pesticides, industrial farming, pollution,
parasitic mites and viruses – and we need all the 'natural' beekeepers we can get
to build up their numbers and give them a chance to solve their own problems.
So, if you want to keep bees, build yourself a hive before the swarm season, and
you could be tasting your own honey by the end of the summer!
- by Philip Chandler
A Top Bar Hive made by Philip Chandler who lives in the UK
In his book The Barefoot Beekeeper, Phil describes his top bar hive and itsmanagement and discusses the philosophy of natural beekeeping: working with
the natural impulses and habits of the bees. You can find free plans to build a
top bar hive and a busy support forum with plenty of free advice and information
at Phil's site - http://www.biobees.com
You can buy The Barefoot Beekeeper from Lulu.com here - http://www.lulu.com/content/6369311
NOTE !!! Free Plans on How to build a Top Bar Hive can be found HERE as a PDF file
And it works in cold climate too :)))