6 In Do

The Rise and Fall of My Top Bar Hive

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

Back in early April, I installed two packages of bees. One went into a Langstoth hive, and one went into a Top Bar hive.

I have been hesitant to write about my bees. For one, I don’t really know what I’m doing, and feel there are so many better bee keeping articles out there that I didn’t have much to add. Additionally, I’ve been a bit afraid that if I wrote something, giving the impression that I was totally awesome and knew what the hell I was doing, my bees would then up and die and I would be embarrassed to then have to admit that I, in fact, really have no idea what the hell is going on. These conundrums have left me silent.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

In the world of carefully curated Pinterest, Instagram, etc., we are often only show the good. Very rarely do failures get mentioned. Perhaps because we don’t want to give the impression that we aren’t living up to this perfect life that we share though the filter of social media. But real life isn’t perfect. And neither is bee keeping.

I lost a hive last week.

Langstroth versus Top Bar Hive

The Langstroth hive is the typical hive that you’re used to seeing; it’s the one that commercial bee keepers use, and many backyard beekeepers. In a Langstroth, bees build their combs on plastic comb that is surrounded by a wood frame. There are 8-10 of these frames in one box, known as a super. As the colony grows, you add additional supers, so they can expand hive, moving up vertically.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

One of the criticism against Langstroth hives is the bees can’t build the size comb cell they want- they have to build off the plastic foundation. There are many reasons why people considered this bad, which could be another post in itself. Natural beekeepers (like myself), will knock the plastic foundation out of the frames and let the bees build their own comb, within the wood frames.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

The Top Bar is considered an alternative hive, and often championed by natural beekeepers. The hive looks like a long rectangle, and the bees build comb hanging off of bars that make up the roof of the hive. As the hive grows and they build more comb, they travel across the hive horizontally. There is no plastic foundation, and the comb is attached only at the top at the one bar. There are usually 24-28 bars. I built my hive to have a window along the side, so I could see what was going on without having to open up the hive.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

When I tried beekeeping a few years ago, I used a Langstroth hive. To work in this style hive, you open up the lid, then pull out the individual frames from the super to inspect them. To look at a lower super, you have to lift the whole super up, set aside, then look into your lower box. When full of honey, these supers are heavy. I use a medium size, which is shorter than a regular size super, but they are still 40-50 pounds. This is very, very difficult for me to lift. One of the major appeals of having a top bar hive was that to inspect, you only lift out one bar and a comb at a time, which is only a few pounds.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

The demise of my top bar hive.

Things were going well all year in both of my hives. I had some cross combing in both, which is when the bees don’t build straight on the frames or bars, and build either at an angle or curved, touching multiple bars. This makes it so you can’t pull out that one bar, without tearing apart comb. The bees don’t care if their comb is straight, it just makes things more difficult for us humans.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

In the top bar, I had a section of 6 bars that were particularly bad. They were in the middle of the hive, and it made it difficult to do a though inspection. About a month ago, I made an inspection and decided that there was enough honey present for the colony to get though winter, and removed the 6 bars that were cross combed. I got some lovely honey from the harvest, which is another post in the works, and I did my final inspection before ‘closing up the hive’ for the winter.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

Everything looked great, there was larva and sealed brood, letting me know that I had a laying queen. My population seemed good. There were several combs full of pollen. All combs with brood had a wide band of capped honey surrounding them. There was an extra full comb of honey. I saw no sign of mites or other diseases.

A week after my honey harvest, I did a visual inspection though my window. Things seemed good, but compared to my Langstroth hive, I noticed that there was much less entrance activity.  A week later, when I went to do another visual inspection. The hive was empty.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

There wasn’t a single live bee present. Unlike my first bee fail, where I was left with a very small population and no queen, these were just all gone. Everything was gone. The honey, which just a few weeks before was surrounding beautiful brood patterns, was chewed away. The bottom of the hive was littered with dead bees and fragments of wax.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

My Top Bar hive was robbed.

My hive met its end from robbing. Robbing occurs when bees from another hive come in and steal the honey. A strong hive can defend itself, blocking entrance to these intruders (the guard bees know who’s part of their hive). In a weak hive, however, the robbers will overpower and get into the hive. I had put an entrance reducer on my hive, a common practice in fall, but still the robbers got in. They either killed all the bees in the hive, or more likely, the resident bees surrendered the attack, said ‘fuck this’ and left. This happening is known as absconding, where the whole colony leaves together in search of a new home.

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

Was my hive weak and robbing bees sensed the opportunity? Did the perpetual attack of yellow jackets that hover my hives weaken the colony? When I harvested my honey, I put the wet wax out for the bees to clean, but far away from the hive, on the other side of the yard. Did this trigger the robbing? The top bar hive had a perpetual plague of ants all year, did that signal a weak hive from the beginning, and my hive was doomed anyways?

There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

There are so many factors that could have caused or contributed to the demise of my top bar hive. It could have been caused by me, or it could have been caused by forces of nature. As a natural beekeeper, I believe in survival of the fittest. A beekeeper named Phil Chandler once said, “nature will select for the ability to adapt and survive, not for maximum convenience to mankind.”

Regardless, a loss of a hive is always a heartbreak. I loved my bees. I was feeling so confident, yet was sent the strong reminder that these are wild creatures we are working with, and how little certainty there is.

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.” ― Henry David Thoreau


There are no certainties in bee keeping. Read about my experience as a natural beekeeper with a top bar hive, and it's demise from robbers.

losing-hive-to-robbing

 

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6 Comments

  • Reply
    Kalamain
    October 12, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    Sorry to hear that.
    It looked like it was doing so well. B-(

    Maybe you took too much and when they came under attack they said ‘fuck it’ after already losing so much to you?
    I don’t keep bees so I have no idea.

    How is the other hive doing?
    And…
    Will you try again next year?

    • Reply
      Melissa
      October 12, 2016 at 5:11 pm

      That’s also possible, or I disturbed them too much. The other hive is still doing well. Hopefully I’ll be able to take a spilt, which is when you divide the hive and get a second one, so I can fill this hive back up.

      • Reply
        Kalamain
        October 13, 2016 at 4:12 am

        Will you need to buy a second queen for that or can you get one from the hive itself?
        I’m glad the other hive is fine. B-)

        • Reply
          Melissa
          October 13, 2016 at 9:44 am

          I’ve never done it before, but when you take a split, you take half the bees and some newly laid eggs, and put them in the new hive. The queen stays with the ‘old hive’ and the new bees can tell there is no queen, so they make a new one by feeding the larva special food. Its quite amazing what bees can do!

  • Reply
    Heidi
    October 12, 2016 at 3:14 pm

    Such a bummer about the bee hive. Does it seem like the type of hive, langstroth vs. Top bar, had anything to do with it? As hard as it seems to write about the “bad” stuff, reading about it makes me, as a reader, more able to relate to your over all message. That’s why I enjoy reading your blog. I’m a learn as I go gardener, with a ton of learning to go!!! We all fail, but trying again, or at least larning from our mistakes makes us oh so human! I don’t always remember, but just think, your successes in bee keeping brings an awfully sweet reward!!!

    • Reply
      Melissa
      October 12, 2016 at 5:13 pm

      Thanks for the encouragement, Heidi!
      I don’t think the hive style had anything to do with it, but who knows! I know this happens to bees in all types of hives, even in the ‘wild’.

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