Top bar hive vs. Langstroth (I’ve tried both and here’s my verdict)

19 Sep

Forget beekeeping ideology, I’m a pragmatist. And here’s what I’ve come to realize about the benefits and drawbacks of top bar and Langstroth bee hives.

[Download the PDF version with more notes]

The "Ann Hive" with new occupants The "Goose Hive" settles in
Characteristic Top Bar Hive Langstroth Notes
Easy on your back A TBH is a dream for anyone with back problems.
Hive management To me, TBH requires more time to manage due to frameless combs and non-moveable boxes.
Ventilation Lang hives make better use of the chimney effect by allowing heat and moisture to rise up and out of the hive if you’re using a ventilated top cover.
The naturalness factor There is something so lovely about watching bees hang comb according to their own whims.
The beauty factor Personally, I find TBHs gorgeous.
Standardization Langs make it easy to lend out brood comb to a friend in need on the other side of town.
Cost I know a guy in town who builds his TBHs for $20 a pop.
Harvesting honey There’s nothing like the ease of harvesting honey from a Lang using a clearing board and extractor.
Moving hives Langs are far easier to deconstruct and move across town if you happen to have a too-assertive hive in a densely populated part of town.
Build Your Own Several options for TBH plans 10-frame Langstroth plans (PDF)

The Verdict?

I started my beekeeping adventure 3 years ago with 2 TBHs. Last year, my husband and I switched to Langstroth hives for a variety of practical reasons perhaps idiosyncratic to us and our lifestyle. It was a tough decision for me as I learned the craft with TBHs and felt a strong emotional pull to their beauty.

Though I continue to harbor an aesthetic love for TBHs, for now we’ve found it easier to work Lang hives in the city with our full-time jobs.

[Download the PDF version with more notes]

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32 Responses to “Top bar hive vs. Langstroth (I’ve tried both and here’s my verdict)”

  1. karcuri13 September 19, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    Even though I’ve never used a TBH, I came to the same conclusion after doing a bunch of reading on them. I also think that for a beginner, Langs are better due to the fact that they are so standard, and it is so easy to find resources about them.

    • mistress beek September 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

      Indeed, there’s an element of practicability with a Lang that’s hard to match. Personally, I greatly benefited from starting with a TBH specifically because mine had 2 big observation windows where I could watch everything from wax scales extruding from a bee abdomen to the frenzy of activity inside a hive before they’re about to swarm.

      At the end of the day, though, we just didn’t have time to scrap comb off the side of the hive nearly every time we needed to move a frame. It just took too long to inspect a TBH for us (maybe we were doing something wrong?) and we therefore couldn’t keep up with a strong hive burgeoning in the spring.

      One thing I love about the TBH community though is their reticence to treating hives with chemicals. Our extensive reading of Lang-leaning books reveals them to be invariably heavy on chemical intervention which is unfortunate.

      • karcuri13 September 19, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

        The two Lang-leaning books I got when starting out definitely mentioned the chemical options, but did stress they should only be used as a last resort. I do agree though that, in general, they tend to put an emphasis on chemical assistance in keeping your hives “healthy”. I’m hoping the trend toward chemical free hives continues and more and more books will stress IPM methods above the chemical ones.

  2. Jessica October 4, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    I am interested to see this, because I am a first-season TBH beekeeper and feel that I was mildly led astray. I was told that there was no management for a top bar hive for the first year, and now my bees have built comb all over the place. I will have to destroy everything in order to go into the hive. So now I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and considering getting a Langstroth. Any advice on what I should do with my completely anarchic TBH?

    • mistress beek October 5, 2010 at 3:11 pm #

      Howdy, Jessica. Thanks for stopping by.

      Well… you’ve hit on what I consider to be the main challenge with a TBH: comb management. I encountered a similar thing my first year in that every single hive opening required about 20 minutes of comb management, scraping it off the sides, separating cross-combs, etc. It just became too much work for me, so we switched to Langstroth and have loved it. If there were books on managing TBH boxes, this might have been averted because I could have read up on management and anticipated the time involved. But alas, most books are written about Langs.

      Perhaps we have some TBH readers who can offer more optimism or advice?

      Anyway, if you need to make a similar switch, I wonder if you could put a Lang box on top, spreading apart the top bars 3/8″, find the queen and put her in the Lang box, then put a queen excluder between TBH and Lang thus keeping the queen up top and luring the workers to eventually follow her. Might be something for the spring…

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve had a tough first year. Keep me posted on what you decide to do.

      • Frank Morgan December 24, 2015 at 6:46 am #

        Les Crowder has an excellent book and DVD on top bar hive design and management. I switched from Langs to TB about 3 years ago have never looked back.

    • Susan October 11, 2010 at 8:17 pm #

      Hi Jessica,

      I’m a novice beekeeper too (also in Portland). I’ve had my top bar hive since April and it’s been easy (although I have nothing to compare it to). I’m wondering if your hive is level. My understanding is that if it’s not, that’s why they’ll build cross-comb. I’ve had nothing much to do except watch them and collect a couple bars of honey. They had built some comb behind the false back since the rest of the hive was full, but it wasn’t hard to scrape it off. I also moved them to a new location less than 2 miles away and no problem. Other than that, there was no management. I hope you have a much easier 2nd season!!

      • Deanna Szuter April 18, 2013 at 7:44 am #

        BINGO! The TBH must be level.

    • Mark April 15, 2012 at 6:47 am #

      After you transition to Langstroths, do not discard the TBH. In my 20 year experience with keeping bees, I find that one of the key joys is learning. From your post, it seems that your first year with TBH did not succeed. That doesn’t mean that your second year will fail. Clean up the TBH and restart it next year. The lesson you learned from this year is that it takes more time han you spent to make your TBH successful….. The solution then is to inspect more frequently, cleaning as you go…. Good luck, and take heart….you will get there.

  3. Matt Reed October 28, 2010 at 11:18 pm #

    Hello,

    Just came across your post and it made me think that you may want to consider a Warre hive as a good middle ground between a horizontal top bar hive and a Langstroth. You’d get the beautiful aesthetic, ease of management, foundationless bars, and crush and strain honey harvesting. You can even use a bee escape board to remove the honey boxes. We sell them, but you can make them yourself rather easily.

    http://warre.biobees.com is a great resource.
    If you’d like to see some nice pictures, we’ve got some here: http://www.beethinking.com

    Cheers,
    Matt

  4. michael December 16, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    I built a top bar hive 4ft long but I built it for lang frames. I havent had any problems and have all the benefits
    of the tbh. I bought the drawn plastic comb 4.9 I love this hive,so does my back.

  5. Ernie Schmidt December 25, 2010 at 9:50 am #

    I totally agree about the attraction of the Warre hive. After keeping bees for years in Langstroths, I started Warre keeping. I can see I will be converting to Warres. The method is a much calmer, relaxed way to keep bees, for both the keeper and the bees. I am even morphing some of the equipment and methods of the Warre to my Langstroths. Anyone even remotely unhappy with Top Bar or Langstroth try one Warre and see for yourself.

  6. ben blackwell February 14, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    I too have tried both top bar and Langstroth and reached the opposite conclusion. After starting with top bar, I thought I would try Langstroth so I could do my own comparison. A lot of this is simply personal preference so don’t get wrapped around the axle. With the Langstoth, the cost of processing equipment may be an issue for the low budget beginner. I chose to borrow an extractor. After taking honey from the Langstroth one time, I sold the Langstroth hive for about what I paid for the hardware. There was significant sanitization time before extraction and even more after taking the honey. It involved pouring boiling water on surfaces with a fair amount of time with your head down inside the drum. My frustration quotient got exceeded pretty quickly. If you had many hives then the cleanup time would not be so bad. For the 1 or 2 hive operation like I have, the Langstroth hive was more trouble than it was worth.

    • Sarah Dolk February 17, 2011 at 11:37 am #

      I started out with a Langstroth, but chose an eight frame instead of the conventional 10 frame. The boxes are smaller and lighter.

      I had a raised bed garden that was not in a great spot for what I wanted to grow, so I put a plastic pallet on top to level the ground and but my hive on top of it at one end with the hive opening facing east and the backside at the end of the raised bed. I can access the hive bodies with no bending over and they are light enough to not kill my back. This has worked really well for me. I wanted to start a top bar hive, but after watching Chantal and all the work they had to do, and me being a lazy beekeeper who wants the bees to do for themselves except the harvesting, I am not adding a top bar to the yard. I haven’t got the time and I don’t want to have to deal with all the wax. If it is wax you want – go top bar! But I am intrigued with them. Perhaps in my retirement there will be a top bar.

    • Mark April 15, 2012 at 6:50 am #

      Using a bleach sanitizing mixture works better on a 40 gal extractor than boiling water. I have found that using a bleach solution 1 cup bleach to 1 gal of water and then thoroughly rinsing the bleach solution I have had no sanitary issues.

  7. Dog Diva May 17, 2011 at 5:16 am #

    I’m going to try a top bar hive next year. I’m getting older, don’t really have help close by, and have hip problems, so lifting supers full of honey is not an option. I plan to harvest comb honey anyway, just for my own use, so would like to hear from others who do the same. There’s a top bar hive group on Facebook here:
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Top-Bar-Hive-Beekeeping/207066469310694?sk=wall#!/group.php?gid=90783431340
    There are others, but that group seems to have more members.

  8. pamela kelley December 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

    chantal… enjoyed reading your comparison of horizontal TBH vs. Langstroth.
    i agree with Matt Reed’s comment and links.
    horizontal TBHs are quite different from Warre vertical TBHs. have you explored Warre?
    they are aesthetically pleasing and my bees thrive.

    p.s. i, too, discovered that my great-grandfather was a beekeeper. makes me feel connected to the past & future. v. cool.

  9. TM TBH February 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping has TBH management advice. Anarchyapiaries.com, and bushfarms.com/bees.htm, also have a lot of info. Apparently, there’s a big book on TBH management due out soon, according to the “organic beekeeping” yahoo group. There are a lot of top bar beekeepers on that group, if you have questions.

  10. Chris April 12, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    How about using a Langstroth hive with foundation-less frames? I’m looking to get started with natural beekeeping and this seems like a good compromise. Bees get to build their own comb, and I benefit from the wealth of Langstroth documentation and mentors.

    • mistress beek April 12, 2012 at 8:53 am #

      Hi Chris, I’m with you: Using a Lang with foundation-less frames is an excellent compromise strategy. It’s worked best for me when I alternate foundation frames between the blanks so that the girls build straight comb on the empties.

      Have fun.

      • Mark April 15, 2012 at 6:53 am #

        This works well. Using a small 1 to 2 inch “starter” strip of foundation gives them additional guidance in filling out the frame. After all, beeswax is beeswax, whether it is in a Langstroth, TBH, Warre, or skep.

      • Dave Hudson May 16, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

        I like to use a 1″ thin strip of melted wax cut from a melted thin layer and placed in the groove of a langstroth frame. I put this between 2 frames of drawn comb in my langstroth hives. I like to wire the wooden frames (yes, just the wire out in space) so I can extract them using an extractor. The bees build the wax over the wire with no issues if I keep the hive level with respect to the sides, one side the same as the other even thought the back it up a bit. This gives the house bees something to do and saves on buying foundation. It also more closely approximates natural bee-behavior. This can really stop the swarming tendancy in a full langstroth hive if you place this between two frames fo brood. I would consider this as a primary management technique, no matter the variety of hive you choose.

  11. Mark April 15, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    Excellent site, MistressBeek. I’m glad I stumbled across it.
    Good luck in all that you do……

  12. garlix May 7, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

    Great comparison. Whatever bee hive you prefer, I think it’s always interesting to try out a new design. They each have their own advantages.

  13. Ntihabose Anselme May 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    I’m agree with you, langstroth is best.

  14. Andy Coles April 21, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    Hi Chantal, I am a TBHer because I had a back operation a couple of years ago and lifting Langstroth boxes is out for me. My first TBH didn’t survive the first winter, but my two colonies since my first season have been going well and apart from a surprise swarm last year the colonies have been well behaved and easy to manage. If you have the time to go slow and sure, TBHs are easy – even if the bees propolise everything in sight and make brace comb. I am about to tidy up a colony that has cross combed – my fault for not levelling the hive sufficiently when the wet weather caused the footings to move. The weather is finally settled and warm enough to go ahead.

    I took part in the local BBKA course to start with, and the locals recommend that beginners use langstroths. My bee buddy was not against my use of the top bar, but was a busy man and unfamiliar with how to run one, so I didn’t benefit from regular contact. since then I have got on with it myself and learnt from the many natural beekeeping/Top Bar resources online. Attending the natural beekeeping conference last summer also helped to make links with others nearby. Yesterday, five TBHers in the area met to set up a mutual support group locally for TBH keepers. We will benefit by being able to check on progress, learn together and support each other as we become more proficient. I look forward to the camaraderie of fellow TBHers. We also look forward to making friends with beekeepers who use the more traditional framed hives.

  15. Gerry December 1, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Yes. I agree, in many ways the TBH has a charm of its own, but the Langstroth Hives and any hive modeled on that design is my preference too.

    • Duane February 26, 2016 at 11:11 am #

      My son and I are interested in getting started with bees. We are looking at the TBH but want to build a more standard square frame to use to eliminate the hive building to the sides. Has anyone ever done this and will it work?

  16. Travis woods May 22, 2015 at 6:23 pm #

    How much honey do you leave for bees for winter in the box. And how do you now witch ones to take out because you dont put a queen extractor in a top bar box. I wouldn’t won’t to take out the cells with baby’s in them .

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Top bar hive vs. Langstroth (I’ve tried both and here’s my verdict) (via mistress beek) « Urban Beekeeping in Austin, Texas - September 19, 2010

    […] Forget beekeeping ideology, I'm a pragmatist. And here's what I've come to realize about the benefits and drawbacks of top bar and Langstroth bee hives. Download the PDF version with more notes Characteristic Top Bar Hive Langstroth Notes Easy on your back A TBH is a dream for anyone with a back problems. Hive management To me, TBH requires more time to manage due to frameless combs and non-moveable boxes. Ventilation Lang hives make better use o … Read More […]

  2. The housing market for Apis mellifera | Green Oasis Garden Bees - August 29, 2011

    […] The vast majority of bee-keepers use Langstroth hives; that’s what we have. However, top-bar hives are becoming more popular among small-scale, backyard bee-keepers. (Mistress Beek has an excellent description of each style and a rundown of the pros and cons here.) […]

  3. Why I got a top bar hive | Our Free Bees - June 15, 2014

    […] places online that talk about the advantages and disadvantages of Lang vs. top bar.  For example, this one has a handy summary chart, though some of the conclusions are debatable depending on your point of […]

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