A Brief History of the Top Bar Hive

By Peter Sieling

In 1682, check Sir George Wheler published A Journey into Greece. In it, pharmacy he described seeing
a Greek hive—an inverted skep with wooden bars across the top to which bees attached
their comb1. The sloping sides of the basket reduced the bee’s tendency to attach the
comb to the walls, check allowing the removal of combs with a minimum of disruption
to the colony. The beekeeper could manage colonies in a manner impossible with
European skeps and log hives. He could even remove half the combs from one hive
and make another colony. No one knows how long these top bar hives had been used.
Dr. Eva Crane2 suggests Aristotle may have used this type of hive in his observations.

Edward Bevan describes a multi-storey top bar hive in The Honey Bee; its Natural
History, Physiology, and Management
, published in 1827. It closely resembles the
Langstroth hive in common use today, and Langstroth refers frequently to Bevan’s book
in The Hive and the Honey-bee.

The Kenyan Top Bar Hive was developed in the early 1970’s as part of a project
directed by Canadian bee researcher Dr. Maurice Smith. It has sloped sides that are
more natural and appealing to the bees. The slope of the sides varies, but is usually 30-
40 degrees from the vertical bar. Top bars are wooden and @ 1 3/8” wide. Length varies
from 15”-24”. A guide such as a groove filled with wax is made to encourage the bees to
build straight combs. Sometimes vertical guides are also added to the frame.

Centuries before there was ever a discussion of the Bee Space, apiarists knew
about the distance between combs. The Greek hives described by Wheler used bars 1 1/2″
(38 mm) wide.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Francis Huber used a “leaf
hive”—a series of hinged frames, each also 1 1/2″ in width and each containing a comb.
It opened and closed like a book.

Edward Bevan noted that the distance varied—closer together in the brood area
and farther apart in the honey storage area. He made his top bars 1 1/8″ wide, leaving a 7/
16″ gap between the center combs (1 1/2″ between combs) and gradually increasing the
gap to 9/16 (1 5/8″ between combs).

The self-spacing Hoffman frame, used today in almost all Langstroth style hives,
use a 1 3/8″ spacing3, but frequently beekeepers will reduce the number of frames by one
or two and spread the remaining frames evenly in the honey storage supers.

1. ABC and XYZ or Bee Culture A. I. Root Company 1972 p. 344.
2. The Hive and the Honey Bee. 1976 Dadant and Sons. p.8
3. Bee Hive Construction. Garreson Publishing, 1999. p. 21

This entry was posted in African Beekeeping, Beekeeping History, Kenyan Beekeeping, Peter Sieling, Regional Beekeeping. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Brief History of the Top Bar Hive

  1. Dale says:

    Do you have any plans for making an observation hive?



  2. I have plans for an outdoor, window mounted observation hive. You can see a description at http://www.petersieling.com. I also have plans for the original single frame observation hive designed by L.L. Langstroth. It’s available for $8.00 which includes shipping. We’re still setting up the online store to make it work properly and easily, so that one isn’t on the website yet. You can order it by calling me at 607-566-8558 with a VISA/Mastercard/Discover card. Sometime later this fall I hope to draw up plans for a larger observation hive.

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