Top bar hives have been widely adopted in Africa where they are used to keep tropical honeybee ecotypes. Their advantages include being light weight, adaptable, easy to harvest honey, and less stressful for the bees. Disadvantages include combs that are fragile and cannot usually be extracted and returned to the bees to be refilled and that they cannot easily be expanded for additional honey storage.
A growing number of amateur beekeepers are adopting various top-bar hives similar to the type commonly found in Africa. Top bar hives were originally used as a traditional beekeeping method in Greece and Vietnam with a history dating back over 2000 years. These hives have no frames and the honey-filled comb is not returned after extraction. Because of this, the production of honey is likely to be somewhat less than that of a frame and super based hive such as Langstroth or Dadant. Top bar hives are mostly kept by people who are more interested in having bees in their garden than in honey production per se. Some of the most well known top-bar hive designs are the Kenyan Top Bar Hive with sloping sides, the Tanzanian Top Bar Hive with straight sides, and Vertical Top Bar Hives, such as the Warre or “People’s Hive” designed by Abbe Warre in the mid-1900s.
The initial costs and equipment requirements are typically much less than other hive designs. Scrap wood or #2 or #3 pine can often be used to build a nice hive. Top-bar hives also offer some advantages to interacting with the bees and the amount of weight that must be lifted is greatly reduced. Top-bar hives are being widely used in developing countries in Africa and Asia as a result of the Bees for Development program. Since 2011, a growing number of beekeepers in the U.S. are using various top-bar hives.
Although the two most well-known styles of long top-bar hives are named “Kenyan” and “Tanzanian”, the Kenyan hive was actually developed in Canada, and the so-called Tanzanian hive is not the same as the top-bar hive that was developed in Tanzania.
The design of top-bar hives has its origins in the work done in 1965 by Tredwell and Paterson.A tub shaped top-bar hive was trialled in Rhodesia in the 1960s by Penelope Papadopoulou. Long top-bar hives began to appear in the 1960s and were first referred to as “grecian” hives also known as the “Anástomo” wicker skep.Similar “long” top-bar hives were also developed in the early 1970s by other authors. The David Hive (1972) was similar to the Kenyan top-bar hive, except that the comb was not cut from the bars at harvest time but reused after extraction. Also in 1972, William Bielby designed a top-bar hive that featured catenary curved comb.
Vertical stackable hives
There are three types of vertical stackable hives: hanging or top-access frame, sliding or side-access frame, and top bar.
Hanging frame hives include Langstroth, the British National, Dadant, Layens, and Rose, differing primarily by size or number of frames. The Langstroth was the first successful top-opened hive with movable frames. Many other hive designs are based on the principle of bee space first described by Langstroth, and is a descendant of Jan Dzierzon’s Polish hive designs. Langstroth hives are the most common size in the United States and much of the world; the British National is the most common size in the United Kingdom; Dadant and Modified Dadant hives are widely used in France and Italy, and Layens by some beekeepers, where their large size is an advantage. Square Dadant hives–often called 12 frame Dadant or Brother Adam hives–are used in large parts of Germany and other parts of Europe by commercial beekeepers.
Any hanging frame hive design can be built as a sliding frame design. The AZ Hive, the original sliding frame design, integrates hives using Langstroth-sized frames into a honey house so as to streamline the workflow of honey harvest by localization of labor, similar to cellular manufacturing. The honey house can be a portable trailer, allowing the beekeeper to haul the hives to a site and provide pollination services.
Top bar stackable hives simply use top bars instead of full frames. The most common type is the Warre hive, although any hive with hanging frames can be made into a top bar stackable hive by using only the top bar and not the whole frame. This may work less-well with larger frames, where crosscomb and attachment can occur more-readily.