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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!