Designing Your Ideal Horizontal Top-Bar Hive

by

John Vendy

Contents
LEGAL STUFF.......................................................................................................................4
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS......................................................................................................4
INTRODUCTION....................................................................................................................5
BACKGROUND.....................................................................................................................5
HIVE MATERIALS..................................................................................................................5
Western Red Cedar4.....................................................................................................6
Softwood5......................................................................................................................6
Raw Linseed Oil and Beeswax......................................................................................6
Observation Window.....................................................................................................7
Glass.....................................................................................................................7
Plastics..................................................................................................................7
HIVE FEATURES...................................................................................................................7
Hive Size........................................................................................................................7
Width.....................................................................................................................7
Length...................................................................................................................7
TOP-BARS....................................................................................................................7
Length...................................................................................................................8
Width.....................................................................................................................8
Comb Guide..........................................................................................................8
FOLLOWER BOARD.....................................................................................................9
ROOF............................................................................................................................9
Pitched Roof........................................................................................................10
Gabled Roof........................................................................................................10
Finish...................................................................................................................10
Paint....................................................................................................................10
Aluminium Sheet.................................................................................................10
Western Red Cedar............................................................................................10
Plastic Sheet / Correx Sheet...............................................................................11
Roofing Felt.........................................................................................................11
LEGS...........................................................................................................................11
OBSERVATION WINDOW...........................................................................................11
HIVE FLOOR...............................................................................................................12
Varroa Mesh and Bottom Board.........................................................................12
Deep Floor7........................................................................................................12
FEEDING YOUR BEES...............................................................................................13
ENTRANCE LOCATION(S).........................................................................................13
LANDING BOARD.......................................................................................................14
REFERENCES.....................................................................................................................15
BEE RELATED INTERNET LINKS I LIKE...........................................................................15

Illustration Index
Illustration 1: Hive in Western Red Cedar..............................................................................6
Illustration 2: Redwood Hive Coated with Linseed & Beeswax.............................................6
Illustration 3: Wax in Groove Comb Guide.............................................................................8
Illustration 4: Top-Bars with Triangular Comb Guide.............................................................8
Illustration 5: Completed Follower Board...............................................................................9
Illustration 6: Pitched Roof...................................................................................................10
Illustration 7: Gable Roof.....................................................................................................10
Illustration 8: Aluminium covered roof..................................................................................10
Illustration 9: Western Red Cedar Roof...............................................................................10
Illustration 10: View Through an Observation Window........................................................11
Illustration 11: Bottom Board lowered to show lip................................................................12
Illustration 12: Galvanized Varroa Mesh..............................................................................12
Illustration 13: Deep Floor lowered for clarity......................................................................13
Illustration 14: Simple Jar Feeder........................................................................................13
Illustration 15: Feeder over Slotted Top-Bar........................................................................13

LEGAL STUFF
All information herein is the opinion of the author, unless specifically referenced, and is offered in good faith. Please
check for applicability to your chosen style of beekeeping, location, climate, local laws etc.

© All content copyright of John Vendy 2013. Any reproduction must be in full with credit given to the copyright holder. No
charge can be made for distribution in any format, electronic or hard-copy.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I am indebted to Phil Chandler for making his Horizontal Top-Bar Hive plans freely
available. I must also thank him for his inspirational talks, videos and words of
encouragement on the internet, in his books and and at his training week-ends. The
support available on the Natural Beekeeping Forum 1 is second to none!
I am always grateful to hear feed-back from those that I have built hives for. Positive feedback is always good, but negative feed-back helps to refine design features for future
hives.
And of course thanks go to my ever-suffering partner, Sue, for not complaining about my
time spent researching equipment and materials, talking to others about beekeeping,
building hives and tending my own bees.
NOTE: Superscript numbers (4) refer to notes in the References section at the end of this
document

INTRODUCTION
If you are reading this you're probably close to committing to keeping bees in as natural a
way as is possible. The aim of these pages is to explain the benefits (or lack of!) of some
of the options available to you when designing your Horizontal Top-Bar Hive (hTBH). The
basic design is freely available from the Natural Beekeeping Network forum pages 2 on the
internet.
If you plan to ask www.topbarbeehive.co.uk to build your ideal hTBH you are welcome to
contact me to discuss any questions you may still have.
If you are making your own hTBH you are welcome to use any information contained
herein and on the website.

BACKGROUND
Keeping bees in hTBH is a relatively new phenomena in the UK. Those interested in
having such a hive are usually either from a “conventional” beekeeping background or are
new beekeepers. Either way, they have no experience to call upon when deciding the
design of their new hive. I have received many enquiries about the design features of
these hives and have decided it may be best to put all of the answers in one place, hence
this little missive!

HIVE MATERIALS
The exposed parts of the hive can be made from a wide variety of materials. I always use
new wood, usually Western Red Cedar or Redwood (the softwood that is freely available
from builders merchants, DIY stores etc.). The internal parts of the hive (top-bars and
follower boards) are generally made from Redwood as this is much cheaper and easily
replaced if any issues arise.
Some have made hTBH from recycled floor boards, old pallets and plywood. The most
important consideration is to be sure that the wood hasn't been treated with an insecticide
or preservative. Older timber especially, may have been treated with a wood-worm
treatment. New timber is sometimes treated to give a longer life. ANY such treatment will
have an effect on your bees, not necessarily killing them, but certainly making them less
healthy. Some pallets are made from treated wood 3, but even untreated pallets may have
had chemicals spilled on them.

Western Red Cedar4
The Western Red Cedar tree is an
evergreen, coniferous tree of the
cypress family. It is native to the
western states of the USA, although
some is now grown in western Europe.
Mature trees reach 70 m in height with
a girth of 3 to 4 m at the base.
It has a relatively high carbon footprint,
and price, due to the distance from it's
growing area.
The harvested wood is relatively high in
natural resins which deter wood pests
and repel water leading to a long life
when exposed to the elements. It also Illustration 1: Hive in Western Red Cedar
has a natural fungicide which helps to
prevent rotting. It's reputed to last from 40 to 60 years when left outside and not treated.
The tight, straight grain and few knots in the wood result in a light, but strong wood that is
resistant to warping and splitting.
The wood colour ranges from red/brown to yellow (the heart-wood, from the centre of the
tree), but will fade in time to silver/grey if not treated.

Softwood5
Softwood is a generic term given to the
wood from various pine species. Much of the
softwood imported to the UK is sourced in
Scandinavia and western Russia.
Softwood will only last 5 to 10 years if
untreated in the UK climate. Treatment can
be with a commercially available insect-safe
preservative or paint, or with a mix of raw
linseed oil and beeswax. Note: Boiled
linseed oil has petroleum based solvents
and sometimes heavy metals added; neither
will be good for your bees!

Raw Linseed Oil and Beeswax

Illustration 2: Redwood Hive Coated with
Linseed & Beeswax

To created the linseed/beeswax mixture, put
20 parts by volume of raw linseed oil to one
part beeswax into a bain-marie and heat until the wax has melted. This is best applied
while hot, but when cooled can also be used as a lubricant for hive-parts (hinges, latches
etc.).
The oil will slowly soak into the wood leaving a thin film of wax on the surface. Absorption

is faster if the hive is left outside.

Observation Window
Potential materials are glass and plastic.
Glass
Glass is easily available, but easily damaged and a good conductor of heat, which
will take heat out of the hive and can cause condensation.
Plastics
Perspex (Plexiglass in US) or acrylic are good options. Both are better insulators
than glass and less fragile. Acrylic is slightly more scratch resistant than perspex.

HIVE FEATURES
Hive Size
The size (volume) of your hive depends upon your needs and aims.
Width
The hive width is determined by the length of the top-bars. If you are aiming to use
a framed nucleus colony to populate the hive, the preferred width will be one that
can accommodate the top-bars of the frames that the bees come on.
Length
If you're using a 17 inch top-bar and the hive cavity is 15 inches at the top, 5 inches
across the bottom and 11 inches deep (as suggested in the Barefoot Beekeeper
plans) a length of 22 inches will give a volume of about 40 litres, the optimum
volume for attracting a swarm6. I have successfully attracted swarms into a bait hive
of 18 inches length. This is also a good size to start a nucleus colony, possibly using
a single follower board to control the volume as the colony expands.
A 36 inch length at the same cross-section will give an adequate volume for one
colony. If you need to split the colony (artificial swarming) to control swarming, two
colonies could live in the hive for a short time.
A hive of 48 inch length have plenty of room for two colonies for the remainder of
the season after completing a split. You will need to either re-combine the two
colonies in the late summer/early autumn, or have a second hive ready in the early
spring before the population start to build up rapidly.

TOP-BARS
Probably the most important part of the hive. Get this right and looking after a top-bar hive
should become easier (but no guarantees with bees!).

Length
They need to be between 1 and 2 inches longer than the hive is wide so that they sit
on top of the hive sides and can't easily be knocked in to the hive by accident. The
top-bars of a British National frame are 17 inches long and this is a popular size in
the UK for hTBH top-bars (as chop'n'crop frames will fit easily).
If top-bars are considerably narrower the hive will need to be deeper (or longer) to
maintain a suitable volume. Deeper combs are more easily damaged when they are
handled!
Width
The original width for top-bars was 33mm to 35mm which gave a similar comb
spacing to that with National frames. This dimension was arrived at when the UK
had predominantly British black bees. Now most bees are crossed with European
varieties. The Italian bee has a natural comb spacing of 37mm to 38mm. When
bees store honey the combs tend to be wider, which can lead to cross-combing (a
comb being attached to more than one top-bar) as the desired (by the bees)
spacing becomes bigger than the spacing of the top-bars. I always supply spacers
(6mm to 10mm wide) that can fit between top-bars where this becomes an issue.
Recent investigations into comb width and spacing, with a special focus on drone
brood cell size, has led to trials of wider top-bars. Many are now looking at 37mm to
39mm as the optimum width and some are trying up to 44mm.
Comb Guide
Comb guides can become quite complicated for the DIY hive builder with access to
only basic hand tools, but there are some quite effective and simple options
available.

Illustration 3: Wax in Groove Comb Guide

Illustration 4: Top-Bars with Triangular
Comb Guide

Probably the simplest DIY comb guide is a piece of string with bees-wax melted over it on
the top-bar centre-line, resulting is a raised line of bees-wax that the bees should follow
when building comb.

Half-round moulding can easily be bought from DIY stores. Attaching this to the underside
of the top-bars provides a fairly reliable guide. Other shapes that work well, if you can
source them, are triangular (my preference and the usual one I supply with a hive,
Illustration to right) and small square or rectangle. Barbeque skewers are cheap and work
well when glued/stapled to the top-bar. Those that give a small ridge are best i.e. if using
square it's side should be around 10% of the top-bar width.
For those with a table saw and the skill to use it safely, ripping the top-bars and triangular
sections from larger planks is easy and works well. Some use a table saw to rip the topbar, including triangular guide, from a single piece of wood. This involves a lot more time
setting up the saw and generates considerably more waste than cutting the guides
separately then attaching them to the top-bar.

FOLLOWER BOARD
The Holy Grail of the follower board is close fit
to the hive body. As long as any gaps are less
than a bee-space (approx. 8mm) the bees will
not be affected.
The first step to achieving a good fit is to
spend some time ensuring all of the follower
boards for one hive are symmetrical and
identical. Cut the boards to the right size, then
clamp together to check and trim if necessary.
I build the hive body around the follower
board, as described in the Barefoot
Beekeepers plans, but use luggage straps to
hold the hive sides firmly against the follower Illustration 5: Completed Follower Board
when attaching the end panels. This always
gives a snug fitting follower.

ROOF
The aim of the roof is to protect the top-bars from weather. Rain will penetrate between
exposed top-bars and wet, rather than cold, kills bees. Direct sun on top-bars will cause
the comb to melt near the top-bar and combs, especially when heavy with brood or stores,
will collapse. A good roof provides a ventilated air-gap above the top-bars and is watertight.
The air-gap may be utilised by a feeder if you opt to feed above the bees. Top-bars can be
adapted to correspond to a commercially available feeder.
During winter or in hot climates during summer, an old pillow case or sack filled with wood
shavings above the top-bars will provide insulation. A sheep's fleece or old blanket also
work well. The material used should be moisture permeable and insulating.
There are many materials that will provide a waterproof covering. The most popular are
discussed on the next page.

Pitched Roof
If single pitch roof (one flat sloping surface) is
placed on the hive with the higher side over the
entrance. After a rain shower the drips from the
roof will not be over the entrance, so if your hive
is in a climate like mine, the bees can spend
more time foraging.
Gabled Roof

Illustration 6: Pitched Roof

This style of roof gives greater space above the top-bars
allowing a larger feeder above the bees to be used. I've
found that a lot of people find this roof more aesthetically
pleasing in their garden.

Finish
The finish of the roof is probably the most important aspect
as this determines how waterproof the roof is.

Illustration 7: Gable
Roof

Paint
A weatherproof grade of paint over a good quality wood is the simplest weather
protection, but will need renewing regularly to avoid leaks.
Aluminium Sheet
I have used aluminium sheets recycled from
the printing industry on the majority of hives.
Folded over a ply-wood panel, they are light,
long-lasting and completely waterproof (as
long as joins and screw holes are sealed).
From the right source, they are also cheap or Illustration 8: Aluminium covered
even free!
roof
Working with sheet metal will involve some tools that may not be in every DIY
workshop, but aluminium is a soft metal and easy to bend.
Western Red Cedar
Water repellent wood shingles have been
used for creating house roofs in parts of the
world for centuries. A simpler option for a
hive is to use planks instead of shingles. As
long as they have a sufficient overlap and
that overlap is sealed, the roof should give
decades of service and is seen as a more
attractive option where the hive becomes a
feature of a garden. An annual coating of

Illu
stration 9: Western Red Cedar Roof

linseed oil and beeswax will aid water repellency.
Plastic Sheet / Correx Sheet
The cheapest waterproof covering, but can be damaged easily!
Roofing Felt
This is easily obtainable, simple to apply and should last for years. It is also pliable
and can easily fit any shape of roof. It's best glued into position as nailing it will
result in leaks in time.

LEGS
The hive legs need to provide a stable hive. I've seen hives with legs made from 3”x1”
timber, but the hive can rock and sway as the wood is quite flexible at this thickness. I
prefer to use 3”x2”. Ensuring that the legs are adequately splayed results in a very stable
hive (follow Phil's plans2).
If the hive is to be treated it is worth considering extra treatment of the bottom of the legs
as these will be in contact with damp ground throughout their life. Alternatively, the hive
legs can be placed on sacrificial wooden blocks or bricks to help preserve them.

OBSERVATION WINDOW

Illustration 10: View Through an Observation Window
I've heard many times that an observation window doesn't help the bees. In my
experience, it's a great benefit to bees cared for by a new beekeeper. Those inexperienced
in our craft want reassurance that the bees are doing what bees should and as a result are
tempted to open the hive and check far more than is good for the bees. A look through an
observation window is far less intrusive. Indeed, if you can wait for night, a check using a

red light source (rear bicycle lamp) will not disturb the bees at all (bees cannot see the red
end of the light spectrum).

HIVE FLOOR
A solid floor to a hive should be draught-proof, but the bees will be kept busy keeping it
clean and the hive will have no easy ventilation. The correct floor design can also be used
as a part of your Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system.
Varroa Mesh and Bottom Board
If you wish to count the natural drop of Varroa to assess the need for treatment, a
Varroa mesh and a bottom board are needed.
The Varroa mesh should be should have holes large enough to allow the Varroa to
drop through unhindered, but not allow access through to the bees or to external
pests, like wasps. A hole of around 3mm square is ideal.
The bottom board is used to collect the Varroa for counting. I is also a means of
covering the Varroa mesh to prevent wind and cold air disturbing the bees. I prefer
to have a bottom board with a lip around it to prevent debris and dead Varroa being
blown away on the breeze. A sticky bottom board will ensure that Varroa cannot
return to the hive. This can be achieved by spreading some cooking oil on the board
or a sheet of sticky paper can be placed on it.

Illustration 11: Bottom Board lowered
to show lip

Illustration 12: Galvanized Varroa Mesh

Deep Floor7
The Deep Floor is a relatively new concept in the world of top-bar hives. Briefly, the
idea is to introduce a mini ecosystem into the lower part of the hive (an extension to
the usual hive shape) that will help the bees cope with pests (Varroa in particular).
There is no need for checking Varroa count with this style of floor and there should
be no need to treat for Varroa either. However it is possible to dust with icing sugar
if evidence of Deformed Wing Virus (transmitted by Varroa) is seen.

For some, the idea of not being able to
check for Varroa is negative, but colonies
have been observing thriving in tree hollows
where such mini ecosystems exist. Again
this is trying to replicate nature.

FEEDING YOUR BEES
Ideally, there should be no need to feed
honeybees, especially if there is no aim to remove
the honey they create. However, in the real world
of changing climate and unusual weather patterns,
feeding is sometimes necessary to ensure the
Illustration 13: Deep Floor lowered for
survival of your colony.
clarity
Open feeding (outside of the hive) should be avoided as it can promote robbing of weaker
colonies.
Feeding within the hive can be achieved in a number of ways. The simplest is a tray or
bowl placed in the hive containing the sugar syrup. With this system, always float some
straw of wood on the surface so that any bees that fall in can climb out again (they’re not
great swimmers!). With this type of feeding the hive has to be
opened each time the syrup is topped-up. If there is space in
the hive the bowl could be placed the other side of a follower
board with a hole in it to allow the bees access to the food.
The hole can be blocked with a suitable cork or flap when not
needed.
Used jam or honey jars filled with syrup and inverted with lids
that have small perforations can be placed on a board that
sits between a follower board and the hive end with mesh
holes the size of the jar in them. A hole in the follower board
(that can be closed with a cork when not feeding) gives the Illustration 14: Simple Jar
bees access to the food. When the jars are removed for
Feeder
replacement the bees cannot escape beyond the
mesh.
A top-bar (with no comb guide) can be adapted to
match the slot in a commercially available feeder 8.
The feeder can be placed over the slot. The bees are
then not disturbed when the feeder is replenished.

ENTRANCE LOCATION(S)

Illustration 15: Feeder over Slotted
Top-Bar

This is really about personal preference. Phil Chandler's original design has the entrances
at the centre of one long side. The reason for this is that the colony can be checked at
either end my removing a follower board and not disrupting the whole colony. However, if
the colony expands to fill the hive, the honey combs have to be re-arranged at the end of
the season to prevent the bees becoming separated from their stores during the winter. I
personally feel this is another unnecessary intrusion in their life.

My preference is for the entrance to be towards the end of the long side. If there is one
top-bar before the follower at the entrance end, the brood nest can still be easily accessed,
but the stores will only be at one end of the hive.
In a 48 inch hive entrances can be toward both ends of the same long side, to facilitate a
split (artificial swarm) in the one hive. To share the flying bees between the two halves of
the split the hive is moved so that the entrances are equidistant from the original entrance
position.

LANDING BOARD
A landing board is one thing I like that doesn't help the bees very much. They are quite
capable of landing and taking off on surfaces that are vertical or beyond. However, a
landing board offers a great opportunity to watch the bees and observe the pollen they are
carrying. You can see whether drones are active more easily and observe guard bees in
action. All you need to pass a few happy hours with a landing board are a comfortable
chair and a cup of tea!

REFERENCES
1. Natural Beekeeping Forum - http://www.biobees.com/forum/
2. Basic hTBH Plans - http://www.lulu.com/shop/philip-chandler/how-to-build-a-topbar-hive/ebook/product15321150.html;jsessionid=F1937BF3A612E98436D46ED0DB715413
3. Pallet markings - http://greenupgrader.com/19085/how-to-tell-if-wood-pallets-aresafe-for-crafting/
4. Western Red Cedar - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thuja_plicata
5. Softwood - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Softwood
6. Bait Hives - http://ecommons.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/2653/2/Bait%20Hives
%20for%20Honey%20Bees.pdf
7. Deep Floor Hive - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWB-pdlqeFQ
8. Feeder - http://www.paynesbeefarm.co.uk/feeding/clear-box-feeder-small-1.5-litre/
or http://www.fragile-planet.co.uk/plastic-1-5lt-nucleus-feeder.html

BEE RELATED INTERNET LINKS I LIKE
Natural Beekeeping Forum - http://www.biobees.com/forum/
Varroa Mesh supplier http://www.themeshcompany.co.uk/acatalog/Galvanised_Steel_Varroa_Mesh__Top_Bar_Hive.html
Michael Bush's website (my favourite page) - http://www.bushfarms.com/beesmath.htm
Pollen Colour Chart - http://www.sheffieldbeekeepers.org.uk/tools/pollen-chart/
Loads of Bee Facts - http://www.buzzaboutbees.net/index.html
Bee Charities - http://www.beesfordevelopment.org/ and http://beesabroad.org.uk/
Brigit Strawbridge - http://beestrawbridge.blogspot.co.uk/