LANGSTROTH VS. TOP BAR HIVE

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Whether you are new to beekeeping and trying to decide on a hive style or just curious about trying a new design, there are some definite advantages and drawbacks for both Langstroth and Top Bar Hives. One is declared more practical while the other is touted as more natural, but which one is best for you? Read on to find out!

I find each of these designs to have their pros and cons so, it is not the goal of this article to declare one hive superior over the other, but to instead provide guidance to the reader so that they might determine which hive is best suited to their needs. If you are wondering what my personal preference is, I use mostly Langstroth hives because they make more sense for my business, but I initially started with Top Bar Hives and I really enjoy managing a few of them still.

The Langstroth Hive

The Langstroth hive was designed by an American man (Lorenzo Langstroth) in the the 1850’s as an alternative to skeps. His design revolutionized the way people kept bees and allowed for both more manipulation and more humane practices. Skeps are woven baskets used to house bees, when it was time to harvest honey, beekeepers often ended up destroying the hive in pursuit of honey and/or driving all the bees out of their home. Langstroth hives changed this because they allowed beekeepers to extract individual combs without any destruction for both health inspections and honey harvests. This clever design has become the standard of modern beekeeping. Since it was created however, there have been many accessories added and not all of them are in line with natural beekeeping practices. In recent years, this hive’s association with harsh commercial beekeeping practices has stigmatized it somewhat, but it remains the most commonly used hive in North America.

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Natural Beekeeping in a Langstroth Hive

I do a lot of bee removals and I’ve found colonies in compost bins, tires, mailboxes, wheelbarrows… I even found a colony inside of a jet ski! If there’s one thing bees know how to do, it’s adapt to the space they are in. For that reason, it is my opinion that it does not matter what shape box you put your bees in. What matters is how you treat them and the decisions you make as a beekeeper. That’s what makes you a natural beekeeper. The thing about Langstroth hives is, there are a lot of choices to make. It’s 100% possible to be a natural beekeeper in a Langstroth hive if you make the right decisions. The biggest change you need to make as a natural beekeeper in a Langstroth hive is that you need to get rid of the foundations. Foundationless frames let your bees build natural comb instead of man made stamped sheets of pesticide-contaminated beeswax and/or plastic. Just make sure you adapt your frames to have a comb guide to avoid cross-comb. You may also want to forgo the use of Queen Excluders. They really are not necessary because bees will naturally separate brood from honey when they are ready. I will admit, however, that I occasionally use them for certain colonies. Aside from these two equipment issues, all other natural beekeeping practices are related to management decisions and are therefore entirely possible in any style hive.

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Langstroth Pros

I think the biggest pro for Langstroth hives is that you have so many options when it comes to management practices. For example, maybe you are not comfortable going foundationless? Well, you can ease yourself into it. Start with foundations and then slowly add foundationless frames only between combs that have been built out straight. Another big pro is that the frames allow for much more stable comb than in the TBH. It’s easier to handle the combs without breaking them because they are attached on 3-4 sides instead of just hanging from the top. If you are foundationless and you end up with some cross comb, you can fix it fairly easily by cutting out the comb and tying it in straight with rubber bands. If you do bee removals, you can transfer combs from a wild hive easily using the same method. In addition the compact hive design makes it simpler to transport the rescue bees to a new location. In some ways, a Langstroth hive requires less maintenance than a TBH. You don’t have to worry about managing a limited amount of space, you can just keep stacking supers. This can also mean more honey or at least, more honey harvest all at once. When it comes to honey, you have choices about how you harvest. Crush and strain, extraction (which preserves the combs to be used again) or you can opt for the FlowHive, which allows you to extract honey through a spigot on the side of the super without even opening the hive. (There is some debate among beekeepers about which of these three methods is best for bees). Lastly, since this hive style has been in production for so long, equipment and information is readily available. Most apiaries selling starter colonies are selling them in frames only compatible with Langstroth hives. Most beekeeping books are written from the perspective of Langstroth beekeepers.

Langstroth Cons

The two biggest cons of the Langstroth hive are the amount of weight you must lift and the level of invasiveness for the bees. Honeybees and especially honey can be extremely heavy. The hive is a series of boxes stacked on top of each other. To inspect the lower boxes, you must be able to lift the one above and depending on its contents that box could weigh 100 lbs! In keeping with it’s versatility, there are ways to lessen the weight. You can use 8 frame boxes instead of the standard 10 frame or you can use all medium supers and forget the deeps altogether, but you will likely still have to lift 60lb boxes at some point. This brings me to the level of invasiveness for the bees. When you remove the roof of a Langstroth hive, it can be a little traumatic. Imagine sitting in your house and then all of a sudden the entire roof is torn off! When it comes to stacking the boxes back together, it can also be very difficult to avoid crushing bees that are in the way. This means more stress on your bees.

 

The Top Bar Hive

No one really knows who invented the top bar hive, but we know it’s been used in one form or another for centuries. Like the Langstroth hive, it allows for inspection and manipulation of individual combs. However, instead of frames, there are only bars from which the bees hang their combs. Also unlike a Langstroth, this hive is formatted horizontally instead of vertically. It’s simplistic design and allowance for natural combs has made it popular among natural beekeepers as well as beekeepers in parts of the world who have less resources.

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Top Bar Hive Pros

My favorite thing about the TBH is that I don’t have to do any heavy lifting and I can place the hive at the perfect height for me to manage it by adjusting the legs. It will never grow taller or shorter. If you have any physical limitations, this hive is a great option for you. Another thing I love about it is that it’s so much less invasive for the bees. I am never exposing them too much, usually I make a small opening by removing 3-4 empty bars and then I slide bars over as I go through the hive. This leaves a “roof” of bars relatively intact during inspections which makes it easier to keep bees calm and it means I don’t have to use my smoker as much. It’s also much easier to avoid crushing bees. I find this particularly useful living in an Africanized area. I also like how simplistic the design is. It takes less materials and is simpler to build than the Langstroth hive. The design also forces you into more natural beekeeping practices: you can’t use foundation, there are no queen excluders, there are no drone frames etc.

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Top Bar Cons

The cons are that the measurements and designs are not standardized. You can buy different parts of your Langstroth hive from 3 different suppliers and they will all fit together, but TBHs come in all shapes and sizes. On that note, I find that some of the sizes are much too small. Remember, you have a limited amount of space and if the TBH is too small, your bees will never have enough room to produce excess honey for you to harvest. Look for designs that are at least 40” long. Also, wide and shallow is better that narrow and deep when it comes to selecting a box size. The combs will mimic the dimensions of the body of the TBH and long combs make for very unstable combs. If you are wanting to buy a TBH, I particularly like the ones from Bee Thinking. When it comes to handling the combs and harvesting honey, things are less and more complicated at the same time. Despite the fact that it is easier to lift bars than it is supers, the combs are delicate and new beeks often break them from lack of practice. Unfortunately, there is no good way to reattach these broken combs like in a Langstroth hive. For this reason, TBHs can be quite demanding of a new beekeeper. TBHs require you to develop a higher level of skill early on and some may not be up to the challenge. When it comes to harvesting honey you just have one method. You must cut the entire chunk of comb off, crush it and then drain the honey out. This means bees will have to spend energy (read: honey) to rebuild combs before filling them again with honey. This is one of the reasons it is said that TBHs produce less honey. To be fair, using this method you will be extracting a lot more beeswax which you can process and use or sell. Clean, chemical-free beeswax can be sold for much more than honey.

Below is a chart that breaks down a comparison between the two hives.

Langstroth Hive Top Bar Hive
Best for Beekeepers interested in bee removals, honey production, pollination work, queen rearing, versatile management options. Beekeepers who are interested in beeswax production, natural beekeeping practices only, no heavy lifting, building their own hive.  
Cost Prices can range from low to high depending on the quality of wood you select and the number of accessories you opt to buy. Expect to spend between $75-175 for a complete hive and an additional $30 for every honey super you add. This hive is simple and inexpensive to make yourself. Many people build with scrap wood, but even if you buy all new materials, you can do it for around $100. If you buy a ready-made one, expect to spend $300-600.
Maintenance The pros are that the combs are more stable, cross combs are easy to fix with rubber bands, unlimited space (due to stacking boxes), standard measurements and you have options when it comes to accessories/tools. The cons are that the boxes can weigh 50-100lbs and you have to lift them to do your inspections. The pros are that you only ever have to lift one bar at a time and that’s also less invasive for the bees. The cons are that the combs are much more delicate, you have to work with a limited amount of space, the measurements are not standardized and you don’t have as many options when it comes to accessories.
Mobility Vertical design fits easily on a dolly and takes up less room during transport. Awkward to move because of the shape and delicate combs.
Honey If harvested with an extractor, you may get more honey. It’s also easier to do a big harvest all at once. Three different methods of harvesting with several choices in accessories that can aid in the process. Smaller honey harvests more frequently throughout the year. Only one method of harvest. No known accessories that aid the process. Some argue that these hives produce less honey. With careful management, they will produce plenty.

What about other styles of hives? The Warre? Observation hives? The Sun Hive? Since I have not used these hives before, I don’t feel equipped to comment on their merit. If you want to sing their praise in the comment section, go for it!

39 Comments

Slugger

Thanks for another informative and well written artcle, Hilary. Great blog!

Our bee club is getting so many enquires from inexperienced people who haven taken delivery of their FlowHive and want to know where (or when) to “get bees”. They have no clue about even the basics like site selection. I had a look inside one of the kits and the literature deals with assembly instructions but nothing about the process of keeping bees. There’s a concerning amount of assumed knowledge.

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Emily Scott

“To inspect the lower boxes, you must be able to lift the one above and depending on its contents that box could weigh 100 lbs!”

Glad we use smaller ‘National’ hives in the UK. The heaviest box I need to lift is a super weighing about 30 lbs.

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Elliott Brooks

Top bar hives can also be easily constructed from lumber and a tablesaw (but I’ve seen them made with skillsaws by some handy folks). All materials can be purchased from a hardware store, and if you have access to free wood you can virtually eliminated capital investments. I went the Top bar route strictly from an economics standpoint. The jointery and glue/clamps needed to make a Langstroth was too much for my simple wood working tools. After buying my first two colonies of bees from a supplier, I learned to split hives and catch swarms, so my costs have remained very low. I also haven’t invested in all the other tools necessary for honey removal: a honey extractor (spinner), a hot knife for removing the cap, the Langstroth “pry tools” to prevent breaking frames, a smoker, brushes, etc. Having only one route for honey harvest means I just cut the comb and crush it. I borrow a bucket and strainer, but they would be my only specialized investments if I were to purchase them. Besides my veil of course. Thanks for the article!

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Cheryl Morse

Everyone correctly recommends starting with two hives to insure success, which provides the opportunity for one of each kind. If you raise bees primarily for pollination and a little honey, the Top Bar is easiest to deal with. Sooner or later, you will desire a more significant honey harvest and the Langstroth hive will provide you with that. I recommend starting with one of each. I would not recommend a Warre hive…the top bar is highly superior and the bees agree.

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Alan sullivan

I found with a lanstroth to start with it is a real problem to change over to tbh I now have 20 tbh and 1 long box hive using lanstroth frames. It’s a pain to have both types.

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Ruth Meredith

Beeline Apiaries & Woodenware sells a precut TBH kit for around $150 that makes it super simple to set up for people who don’t do woodworking, but can operate a screw gun. (I do add a long window to their kit, but that’s fairly easy too). The bars are also the standard length to fit in a Langstroth hive, so you can get a starter colony from a traditional beekeeper. I just want people to know that there is one more option in the TBH world. I LOVE my TBH’s and wished more gardeners would give them a try.

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Janice Seccombe

I’m new, my question straight side top bar or tradition Kenya top bar hive. What one is preferred, and with straight sides tbh could you use langstroth frames?

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Hilary

I have only used Kenyan style. I think if you did traditional bars with straight sides, you would end up with problems. The slanted sides keep the bees from attaching the combs to the walls. If you plan to use Lang frames, people are calling this a “Long Hive” I think straight sides would be fine, because the combs would be contained within the frames.

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Ruth

If you decide to use frames, then it is called a horizontal hive and it is managed more like a Langstroth hive. The frames are spaced apart and they need some sort of cover over them. A true topbar hive is where the bars form the top of the hive, whether or not the sides are sloped or straight.

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Daniel Bee Shepherd

Great article Hilary. I’ll be using this lots.
Just one thing though…
… you mentioned… “Unfortunately, there is no good way to reattach these broken combs like in a Langstroth hive.”
but there is this…

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Hilary

Thanks for the input. Have you tried this method? I used it for a couple of years. It’s a pain in the butt compared to what I can do with a Lang. So, just to clarify, there certainly are methods of reattaching comb, but I just don’t consider any of them to be that great.

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Richard Soundy

In my humble opinion,the Warre Hive [The People’s Hive] is the most attuned hive to Natural-Sustainable Beekeeping. And, of course you have to practice Warre’s management practices to make sure you get the best results.

Yes, any housing will do – the bees first choice in selecting a cavity remains one of “protection” against preditors (humans included). Size, insulation and ventilation do play important roles and the right choice will greatly advance the success rate in beekeeping.

If your objective is to practice “Natural” beekeeping, then the methodology or management practices become the most important factor.

I make Warre Hives, I use Warre Hives and I will gladly support (or mentor) you in the best management practice. You do not open the hive longer that 1.5 hrs. in a year – all decisions and conditions can be monitored via smell, sight and sound by observation of the entrance …

It has worked for me for many, many years (I am 74yrs old..) and it continues to be a “winner” in my opinion. See http://www.rainemaker.com for more details.

All the best and a special thanks to Hilary for posting the critical question as to what hives are on the market.

Regards – Richard Raine Soundy (Cal. Central Coast)

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Hilary

Hi Richard, thanks for sharing your warre wisdom here. Do you have Africanized bees up there yet? I find that my bees will go berserk if you inspect them near dark (I read that you suggest this on your website). Also, although I agree about minimal disturbances, I normally don’t encourage new beeks to do that. They have to have opportunities to learn, after all! Plus, in my zone, the minimal disturbance technique often leads to inexperienced beekeepers with large aggressive colonies that they do not know how to handle.

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Richard Soundy

Hilary, I do believe we have “Africanized” bees in our area – I personally think that is a good thing, since it is providing the necessary diversification for improvement to their health.

Honey bee eye sight is not that great and the twilight hour (1/2 hrs before and after sunset) will definitely make it far worse for the bee to take flight. They know it and tend to rely on their other senses – smell & sound. Note how easy they collide with you if you are in their flight path….

The Langstroth is ideal for education and research purposes. But good beekeeping relies on non-intrusive practices. Every time you pop those boxes to peer inside you destroy the very critical Controlled Atmosphere (CA) within the hive – it takes both time and energy for the bee to restore the ideal temperature/humidity they live in. I perform intrusive inspection twice a year per hive – beginning of spring (how well did they do thru’ winter?) and June/July (to see if honey stores are adequate and or to possibly pull a harvest of honey as well as Nadir boxes i.e add or remove?) I can do both operations in 20min + 20min = 40min and maintain the CA using this sheet during that time. Very little disruption to the bee!

In closing, the Top Bar Hive you show is better known as the Kenyan TBH or HTBV (Horizontal). Horizontal conditioning of air with high humidity is by far easier to control by moving air in a vertical direction and not horizontal. In Kenya, ambient temperature is almost the same as the bee preference – so it may work for them and it is possible that San Diego is somewhat similar. Above the grade in San Luis Obispo the conditions change and this applies to everything North of this spot.

Best regards – Richard

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Hilary

Interesting stuff. It’s fascinating how climate and other local variables can drastically change what works and what doesn’t work for beekeeping. Thanks for sharing.

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Arnaud de Baenst

Hello and thanks for your great blog and sharing your experience! It’s a fascinating read ! I’m a beekeeper in Belgium, northern Europe and I’ve always been interested by Kenyan TBH only to learn that they are nearly impossible to use over here, due to the climate. I have 12 frames monster hives of the “Dadant” type, probably the most widely used in Europe, making it easy to find parts. They are heavy and my back is taking quite a load so I’m thinking of giving the Warre type a try as they are much smaller and lighter than the ones I use. Going to read the rest of your blog now as the idea of “treatment free” beekeeping interests me a lot. Most of the people I know here who have tried not treating for varroa mites ended up losing their hives. Not the first year but usually within three years. It would be nice though!

Beth

My spouse and I have taken the top bar hive and the Langstroth and tried to use the best of both by making a Long Langstroth (33 frames) but also by using small 4″ wide boards across the top. We remove one board at a time to reveal a couple of frames, and when we move them to inspect the next set, we put that board back over them, and move the next board, and so on across the top. That way, we are not taking the entire roof off all at once and losing all the controlled atmosphere the bees like, nor introducing more light into the hive all at once. We find the bees stay calmer too. You could try using a cloth rather than wooden boards, I’ve heard of that being done as well. My spouse has made these himself, to his own specs, and they are sized to fit Langstroth deep frames. We find this gives the bees plenty of space, and have not yet had to open up the entire box, but leave the back 1/4 of it closed off until the honey flow is sufficient to warrant them needing the extra space. We *could* add a super on top if needed, but it’s harder to keep it watertight doing that. Right now, we have one long Langstroth, one traditional Langstroth, and one top bar hive. The TBH will be moved into another long Langstroth as soon as the second one is finished. We don’t have to move our hives, so this works for us. Just thought I’d put this out there as another option for folks who are doing backyard beekeeping with just a few hives that they don’t have to move. Obviously this would not work for a commercial outfit or someone who moves their hives around.

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Patrick Purcell

Hi Hilary, I just found your site via the excellent pod-caste that Margret & Gary put out (see above). Not only do they provide great encouragement they are helping to connect us all.

I have been keeping bees here in the Solomon Islands since I retired, about six years ago. I started with a local government Agricultural booklet that gave basic management instructions and the wooden ware dimensions for Langstroth hives. My wife Jully, had bought a single deep hive while she was working for WWF, to help pollinate her beautiful garden. Of course, it eventually swarmed (twice). I asked where’s that bee-keeper that is supposed to be looking after this. “He got his money and is long gone” Surely, its not rocket science, let’s do it together, as we’re now both retarded, says I. Then she gave me that book and a look. So with the Agriculture plans and some internet research, I started building boxes, frames, bottom boards and flat-iron roofs. An ag officer came and made our first split. He was surprised when he came back a year later to find we had 5 hives. I kept building and splitting.

Then I got fascinated with the Kenyan Top-bar hive set-up thanks to Phil Chandler’s site. So I built one, but had a hard time populating it from my Langstroth hives. Its top-bars are shorter than the Langs, so I added tabs and those frames are now being built out within a strong Lang hive.

Still not satisfied I did a bit more research and found plans for a Langstroth Parallel hive. Having learned my lesson about following plans precisely I now have developed and built 3 four foot horizontal Langstroth hives with feeder station, top-bars and a hinged curved roof. Initially I followed Michael Bush’s suggestions on frame widths, using 1 ¼” for brood bars and 1 ½” for honey bars. But now I’m making 1 3/8” V shaped bars. It seems like a better compromise. On one of my hives I am getting a bit of cross combing on the narrow bars, but that could be that they are laying in honey on those bars meant for brood !!??

To make a long story shorter, personally I prefer my cross between Langstroth and Top-bar hives.
Thank you for your great web site,
Patrick in Gizo,
Solomon Islands

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Hilary

Hey Patrick,

I have been seeing those long hives lately! They look like the best of both worlds to me. The convenience of frames, but no lifting supers! Glad to hear they are working for you.

Hilary

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Ruth

has anyone here looked at the Homestead Top Bar HIve…it is a top bar with a super th
at is added for honey extraction. Just wondering what you think. Apparently they are not for sale because the designer passed away, but could be copied fairly easily I think.

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Hilary

I have not seen them, but I often think of how to make a frankenstein such as what you described!

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Ruth Meredith

I tried to super one of my shorter (36″) topbar hives but could never get the bees to move up into it. They ended up swarming instead. If you are interested in supering, look into a long Langstroth which still allows the hive to grow mostly horizontal, but the frames are meant to be spaced and fit down inside of the hive body box. In my TBH’s the bars ride on-top of the side walls so the spacing between bars was problematic for the bees.

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Edward S Olson

OK, so you only have experience with Top Bar and Langstroth. It would only make sense that you would at least experiment with a Long Langstroth or Horizontal Langstroth, which seems to be a hybrid of the former two. The Long Langstroth seems to have a clear advantage over the Top Bar in that you have the option of using standard Lang frames, with foundations or foundationless. No heavy lifting. Keep your current Langstroth frames if you want to transition away from a vertical hive. Relatively inexpensive to build the box if that is preferred. Really a great option and a much better one over the Top Bar.

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Hilary

I have been wanting to try a Long Hive, but just haven’t made the time to do it. Looks fun.

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Richard Soundy

Hilary, why not make the change or experiment with one that takes the challenge to greater extremes as the “real test”. As Edward stated above, the Horizontal is a hybrid that still takes into account what makes it convenient for the beekeeper and not the bees. If you truly want to experience Natural vs. Unnatural, I can assure you that the “frame & foundation” is a minor piece of the test, because the major difference lies in the trapping of the inner atmosphere, thus trying to eliminate (as much as possible) any intrusive actions by the beekeeper.

A vertical Top Bar (Warre) almost forces you to change your management methodology, because it is NOT that convenient for beekeepers.

The hardest part of the experiment is the fact that the methodology of management is completely different. So, to do a real test or comparison requires someone very disciplined who can make this change and not fall back on old learned techniques …. even I have this problem.

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Hilary

Why not? I am currently running my own business by myself, writing this blog, writing for other blogs, managing over 80 colonies and working on a book. I am open to trying new hive styles and techniques, but I only have so much time and energy. Trying new hive styles is simply not a priority at the moment.

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Richard Soundy

I hear what you say Hilary…. curious, how many hours do you devote to “the management of 80 colonies” by itself?

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Richard Soundy

Thank you for that enlightening response.

All the best – Richard Soundy

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