The Dance with Bees Continues

by Anthony Andrist

Go to the bee, thou poet: consider her ways and be wise.
— George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

Looking for simplicity and compatibility between styles, we moved next towards a top-bar design. Essentially, it is a wooden bar placed horizontally across the width of the hive and has a starter strip of foundation comb or a wax bead along the centre to encourage the bees to build comb. The bar can be flat on the bottom, have a notch along the centre to place a wax strip, a semi-circle, a triangle or even a comb footprint, to give the bees a starting point. The bars are set side by side across the top of the hive and can be any length. Most bars are between 3.175 to 3.5cm wide and from 40 to 50cm long.

Phil Chandler, from biobees, with a Kenyan top-bar hive

We looked at compatibility between top-bar and the Langstroth hives and chose the dimensions from a standard Langstroth frame. This allows us to change frames between the two. Also, the stability of the rectangular frame is beneficial support for the natural comb. It helps, when handling, to have a square frame or even just side support for the comb.

Top-bar from a Langstroth hive with a strip of wax foundation

Two of the hive shapes that we tried are Kenyan and Tanzanian. The Tanzanian top-bar is rectangular and a simple crossover between a horizontal top-bar and the Langstroth.

Tanzanian top-bar with cover

The Kenyan top-bar is an upside down trapezoid and took some manipulation to make fitted frames with sides and a bottom, but as a trial, it was something we looked into.

Kenyan top-bar with cover

Both styles represent a simple and basic horizontal living space for the bees and use a natural, sustainable comb management. Our Kenyan (KTBH) holds about 33 frames and a follower board to separate between the frames. The Tanzanian we made holds 25 frames and a smaller, 18-frame Tanzanian, is in the works.

Adapted top-bar for a Kenyan top-bar hive

Natural Comb Systems

Winnie the Pooh in a natural comb system

Phil Chandler describes natural beekeeping as “beekeeping for the sake of the bees, not the honey.” Using natural comb has many advantages. Natural comb leaves the bees to build what they need, to communicate through vibration across comb and the ability to select diverse cell size, such as worker or drone comb. The bees, being able to draw out and manage their own space, are less prone to pest invasion and comb space is less likely to be left unattended. Renewal through fresh virgin comb helps the hive to rid contaminants or toxins that may have been picked up from the surrounding environment.

The issue some beekeepers have is that honey production is significantly reduced. Because it takes the equivalent energy of 7 to 8kg of honey to make 1kg of wax, a hive may produce about a third of a conventional or “productive” system, but for the cost of a more resilient and stronger disease-resistant colony. This is kind of a no-brainer for those who are concerned about bee health and stability.

The sustainability of a natural system means that the use of available resources are not being exploited but are more in balance with the productivity of the environment. Emile Warré was referenced to have liked the top-bar design quite a bit and some have attributed his “People’s Hive” as a natural progression from the traditional horizontal top-bar style. As a top-bar system, the benefits are more than just the natural comb.

Kenyan top-bar without the cover

This design makes is easier to access the entire hive and inspect it at one time. Raising it to waist height avoids the problem of back strain from lifting boxes (especially ones full of capped honey which can weigh in excess of 50kg). The hive can be placed on a stand or have legs attached, making it harder for pests to enter the hive.

Overall, the use of natural comb is not exclusive to the top-bar design but can be utilised in other hive designs, including the Warré or Langstroth hive. The simplicity and basic functionality of the top-bar gives us inspiration that backyard enthusiasts, regardless of their background, age or experience, are able to participate in sustainable, simple and bee-friendly beekeeping. This enhances our interaction, pollinates our gardens and helps us to appreciate the social order found in nature.

With the growing number of bee enthusiasts, there are a growing number of questions. They can be found in the ongoing dialogue of the worldwide web machine. The discussions make evident the diversity of a global beekeeping community; they also highlight the simplicity of assisting or keeping bees and how through our engagement with this amazing insect people and communities are empowered.

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Editor’s Note: Those keen to gain more expert insights into beekeeping would do well to take Anthony’s upcoming 1-day Introduction to Beekeeping using Permaculture Principles course, to be held March 25, 2012 at Lansdowne in the scenic Manning Valley on the Mid North Coast of NSW, Australia.

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