1. What is a top bar hive?
  2. Should I choose a top bar hive or Langstroth hive?
  3. Where do I get bees?
  4. Should I buy a package or nuc?
  5. How do I ensure that my bees survive & prosper?
  6. How can I control varroa mites without chemicals?
  7. Is beekeeping for me?
Top bar hives are distinguished by their horizontal design and "top bars."
Top bar hive

What is a top bar hive?

Top bar hives are distinguished by their horizontal design and by the fact that the bees draw out their wax comb on these “top bars.” These top bars usually have some type of bevel point on them to help the bees know where to start building their comb. Without this guide, the bees would build their comb in seemingly random directions and it would be difficult for the beekeeper to do inspections. The top bars also close off the top of the hive and then the roof covers the top bars to protect it from rain and sun. Traditionally, when you think of beekeeping, the vertical Langstroth design may come to mind. With the Langstroth design, the bees build upward as the beekeeper stacks more boxes (supers) on top of each other. In each super there are wooden frames (much like picture frames) with wax foundation sheets in them that help the bees draw out their comb. Top bar hives (or the horizontal hive design) have been around since the 1600s. The Langstroth hive was patented by Reverend L.L. Langstroth in 1852.

Langstroth hives force bees to build upward as beekeepers stack more boxes (supers) on top.
Langstroth hives


Should I choose a top bar hive or Langstroth hive?

Wax foundation is already tainted with chemicals and has larger cell sizes
Wax foundation sheet in Langstroth frame

Top bar hives are good if you want chemical-free wax comb because you don’t use wax foundation like in Langstroth hives. The wax foundation sheets that commonly come with Langstroth hive frames are already tainted with chemicals. Wax is very porous and the wax used in foundation sheet production comes from sources where chemicals are heavily used. The wax foundation sheets also have a larger cell size pattern stamped into it, which may make it more comfortable for varroa mites to reproduce and lay more eggs in each cell. In top bar hives, the bees draw out their own wax comb and through each generation the cell sizes get smaller and smaller, providing less space for varroa mites. If you don’t like lifting heavy supers that can weigh 40-90 lbs, then a top bar hive is also ideal for you.

Get chemical-free wax with our top bar hives
Top bar hive comb without wax foundation

On the flip side, if you don’t mind using chemicals to reduce varroa mite populations in your hive and you want to harvest the most amount of honey as easily as possible then the Langstroth hive is probably the better option for you. Most commercial beekeepers use this design because it’s easier to transport the boxes to different locations and to stack on more supers to give bees more space as they are bringing in nectar. With top bar hives, you have to harvest the honey or store the comb to make more room if the bees have already filled up the top bar hive. Click here to read our detailed comparison of Top Bar Hives vs. Langstroth hives.

Where do I get bees?

Bee packages usually come with 3 lbs worth of bees
Bee package

You can either buy honey bees in packages or nucs. Packages are basically boxes full of bees and they usually weigh 3 lbs, which equals around 12,000 bees. Package producers go around their apiary shaking bees into a small box until the weight requirement is met. Then a mated queen is put into a separate cage and placed into the box. Most of the time, the bees come from different colonies and have never met this new queen before, hence the queen cage is used to keep the bees from killing her. Left for a few days protected in her queen cage, the other bees will eventually accept her as their queen. The large package producers are located in Southern States, whose warmer climates allow for packages to be made earlier for sale around the country. Watch this video on how packages are made.

Nucs are basically mini-colonies. They usually come with 5 frames of comb that contain honey, pollen, open and capped brood (babies), and a laying queen. The queen has already been accepted by the bees and in some cases she was raised from the colony. Sometimes nucs will be advertised as “overwintered,” which means that the particular nuc for sale survived the winter together as a colony. These overwintered nucs will usually be more expensive as having a queen and a colony that survive a winter demonstrates that they have good genetics and have a better chance of surviving subsequent winters. Most nucs are sold locally because transporting nucs full of comb around the country would be difficult and expensive.

Winter-surviving, chemical free top bar hive bee nucs for sale in Virginia
Nucs come with comb and brood

As you might have guessed, nucs are more expensive to buy, costing around $160-$185 and sometimes going over $200 for overwintered nucs. Packages are sold for around $85-$120. Since most packages are produced in states with warmer climates, you can get a package earlier in the Spring than you can a nuc. In Virginia, we can get packages as early as late March from Georgia producers. On the other hand, nucs in Virginia are usually ready by early May. This is because quality nuc producers will wait until the nuc is strong enough and that the queen is healthy and laying before they will sell it to you.

A quick online search will produce package and nuc sellers in your area. Also, check with your local or State beekeeping association for a list of sellers. We recommend buying packages and nucs as locally as possible. We believe bees that are acclimated to a similar climate and environment as the place they are going have a better chance of survival.

Should I buy a package or nuc?

If you can afford it, we always recommend buying a local nuc. They have a much better chance of surviving the first winter than a package. In a survey of Northern Virginia beekeepers, the winter survival of packages was around 20%, whereas the winter survival of a locally produced nuc was 87%. First of all, nucs are an already established colony with drawn comb and brood compared to packages, which are usually made up of random bees with no comb and no brood. However, once you introduce a package into your hive, they usually do a good job of drawing out comb pretty fast if you provide them with additional food in the form of sugar syrup. The second best option is to buy a local package from a reputable producer.

It's important to have a healthy and fully mated queen bee from good genetic stock.
Queens are truly beautiful, but sometimes you have to requeen.

The last option would be to buy a package from one of the larger Southern producers. The problem with packages from the larger Southern producers is that the bees are from questionable stock. You don’t know if the bees you end up receiving are strong, weak, diseased, winter-survivors, old, or young. More importantly, you don’t know if the queen you got is fully mated, strong, weak, diseased, or has good genetics. In our experience, package bees start out strong, but start failing by late summer and early fall, a critical time when the bees should start preparing for the winter. By failing we mean the queen starts laying less and less, the colony swarms, the queen disappears, or the colony begins a slow decline and there are not enough bees to keep the colony warm throughout the winter.

If the cheaper package is the only option for you, we recommend requeening (e.g. killing your package queen and introducing a quality mated queen from good genetic stock) in early-mid Summer. You can purchase quality mated queens from many sources all over the U.S. and Canada. For those reluctant to kill such a seemingly healthy queen, think of the colony as one animal. The queen is just one part of the colony, albeit a very important part. You need a good queen or else the whole colony will not survive and prosper. So you can either replace the queen or let the entire colony perish.

How do I ensure that my bees survive and prosper?

To be a successful beekeeper, you will have to do battle with the varroa destructor
You will have to battle the varroa destructor!
  • The biggest threat to your colony will be varroa mites, also known by the epic name “varroa destructor.” The mites suck on the bee’s hemolymph fluid (similar to blood), carry viruses, and leave open wounds on bees leaving them susceptible to infections. The mites, which reproduce in the brood cells, feed on worker bees and pupae. Large varroa mite populations are absolutely lethal to colonies. You will have to do something about the varroa mites or your hive will eventually die or continually be small and weak. You can either kill them with chemicals or use non-chemical techniques to deal with them. We prefer the latter, chemical-free option, which we’ll talk about in-depth in the following question. The benefit of the chemical-free option is that after some generations, your bees can learn how to co-exist with the mites and keep their numbers to manageable levels.
  • For top bar hive beekeepers, having your bees draw out enough comb in their first year is very important. Without wax foundation sheets like in Langstroth hives, the bees in top bar hives have no help drawing out comb and this takes a lot of time and energy. Bees will usually stop drawing out comb when the nectar flow stops or when the weather starts getting cooler (late summer-early fall). Your top bar hive will generally need 12-15 bars of drawn out comb to ensure a higher chance of winter survival. This amount of bars with drawn out comb allows the bees enough storage space for capped honey, pollen, and room to cluster during the winter. So if your bees look like they need more comb, you will have to feed them sugar syrup from early-late summer to help them do it. Here’s our healthy sugar syrup recipe.
  • Proper placement of your hive. Give your hive good access to sunlight, especially morning and afternoon sunlight. Don’t put them in a shady, damp area. Face the entrance of your hive away from the prevailing winter winds. You don’t want those strong, cold winter winds blasting through your hive.
  • Keep the holes and cracks in your hive sealed up. Obviously, we are not talking about entrance and ventilation holes, but cracks that can appear in the joints, top bars, and other spots in your hive. Unwanted openings and cracks in your hive will allow pests such as small hive beetle and wax moth easier access to your colony and will attract robber bees from surrounding colonies. During the winter, these cracks will allow cold drafts and moisture into your hive, forcing your bees to expend more energy to keep warm. Luckily for you, all of our top bar hives are air-sealed. You should also consider insulating your hives.
  • Put up robber screens.
  • Lower the pH of the sugar syrup that you feed your bees.
  • Keep your hives high enough off the ground to deter skunks, possums, and raccoons from messing with them and eating them. Make no mistake about it, these animals can devastate your hives. They scratch on the hives at night and as the bees fly out they suck the bees up, eat the juices, and spit out the carcass. If your hives are at least 16 inches off the ground, this will force these animals to stand up and expose their vulnerable bellies. As the bees fly out, some will get sucked up, but some will be able to sting the underside of these animals. Our Wild Bunch top bar hives come with hive stand included that keeps your hives high off the ground and safe from these critters.
  • Think about growing mushrooms so your bees can suck on the beneficial mycelium, which can help them fight off bacteria and viruses.

How can I control varroa mites without chemicals?

We do not fault beekeepers who have to resort to chemical treatments to control varroa mite populations if all other methods have been exhausted, especially if the beekeeper only has 1 hive and can’t fall back on other hives. However, it’s the preemptive use and overuse of chemicals that we are against. Some beekeepers will put a strip of miticide on their hives early in the Spring and in late Summer without checking to see if mites are even at a high enough level to warrant chemical treatment. This lackadaisical approach leads to chemical resistant mites and props up weak hives that really shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce and spread their weak genetics.

At our Wild Bunch apiary, we have made the decision to never use chemicals no matter what and we have been having great survival rates (80-90% of our hives survive the winter). We don’t even use organic acids or essential oils that some may consider natural treatments. If we can go chemical-free so can you! The thing is – you will have to spend more time with your bees and keep good records. Going chemical-free the first few years will take more work, but the goal is to get to a point where you have bees with good genetics and who are fully adapted to their environment and have learned to keep their mite population in check on their own. We find that every winter a colony survives, it comes out stronger and needs less and less attention.

Here’s a quick summary of how we go chemical-free (more in-depth videos and articles to come soon):

  • Powdered sugar blasting of hives as least once every two weeeks from early Spring until July. Avoid blasting the uncapped honey frames if you are planning to harvest the honey. The majority of mites hang out around the brood frames and on nurse bees anyways. Then we switch to blasting the hives every week from mid-July to October. July-August is the danger time when the queen begins to slow down egg-laying and the mites continue doubling their population every month as usual. If left unchecked, this will lead to a higher and dangerous mites per bees ratio. July-August is definitely a critical time, but don’t forget that the mite control methods that you employ in Spring can also have a positive impact. You don’t have to wait until Summer to think about mites. Also, notice we said “blasting” and not “dusting.” You literally have to blast the bees with powdered sugar. The mites lose their grip and fall off when the powdered sugar is blasted at them. We understand that you may have to skip a week of powderd sugar blasting once or twice during this time because it is vacation season. However, the first year with your hive, you really can’t go more than 2 weeks without a powdered sugar blasting because you need to keep track of the mite counts. With these records, if your bees survive the first winter, you can get a sense of how many mites this particular colony can tolerate.
  • Keep organized records of mite counts. We recommend you purchase a nuc box or make a box that you can place your top bars into when you do the powdered sugar blasting. This way you can collect the powdered sugar and the mites that fall off in a separate box. You can then take that box and fill it with 1/2″ of water, which will dissolve the powdered sugar and make the mites float to the top. This is when you count and record how many mites have fallen off. Write this number down after every blasting session and keep track of it throughout the year. In August, when mite infestation rates are highest, some of our weaker hives can have mite drops of 120 after a blasting. We can usually tell which of our hives are strongest because these hives will have mite drops of only 30 to 50 even though they have more bees. If you are having gradually higher mite counts after each blasting session compare that number with how many bees are in your hive. You can estimate how many bees are in your hive by using this visual calculation: www.dave-cushman.net/bee/beesest.html. Next take the number of mites that you counted after a blasting and multiply it by 2.5. We do 2.5 because we assume that half of the mites are in the capped brood cells and that maybe half of the mites hanging out on the frames didn’t fall off from the powdered sugar. Take this total number and divide it by your estimated bee population size. For example, if you counted 100 mites after a powdered sugar blasting multiply that number by 2.5 to get 250. Now let’s say you estimated that there are around 20,000 bees (including capped brood) in your colony. Divide 20,000 by 250 and you get .0125 or 1.25% infestation rate. We consider a high mite infestation percentage to be 1%. If this is the case, you might have to consider powdered sugar blasting your hive 2-3 times a week. Alas, if the infestation rate is really high (2-3%), you should consider chemical treatment. If you have other hives in your apiary, you could also consider not treating with chemicals and continue with your current blasting schedule. Some hives can tolerate higher mite counts. If your hive does indeed survive the winter, you will be grateful that they can now mix their genes with your other colonies. If they don’t survive, you will be grateful that they can’t mix their genes with your other colonies.
  • Freeze drone brood. Your bees will fill some top bars with 75%-100% drone brood. Drones are the males and their cells are larger, which is very attractive to varroa mites because they reproduce more comfortably in these larger cells and can lay more eggs in them. Take 2-3 of these frames full of drone brood out of your hive. Get a pair of tweezers and randomly pull out 15 drone pupae from the capped cells on each top bar. If you find mites on 1-2 of the 15 pupae that you pull out, take the entire top bar and freeze it for 3 days. After 3 days, the mites in the drone brood will be dead and you can place the top bar back into the hive. The bees will clean out the dead drone. If you don’t find any mites on the pupae that you pull out and if from your records you see that this particular colony doesn’t have high mite drops, you can put them back into the hive. The reason for this is that you want hives with low mite counts to pass on their genes via the drone brood. If you still want to freeze some drone brood just in case, there really is no harm in taking a frame or two and freezing it.
  • Letting the bees draw out their own comb without the aid of wax foundation sheets. As we mentioned above, the advantage of top bar hives is that the bees can draw out their own comb and with each successive generation, the bees will make smaller and smaller cell sizes. The smaller cell sizes make it more difficult for varroa mite to reproduce in them. They will be forced into the drone brood in higher percentages and that is when freezing drone brood as a mite control method will be made more effective.
  • Requeen. Some beekeepers will requeen every year no matter what as a mite control method. Some beekeepers will even say that if they requeen at the right time during the nectar flow, they can get a better honey harvest. The idea is that, after replacing the queen, it will take approximately 3 weeks (if you let the bees raise their own queen) for the new queen to be raised and then to start laying eggs. During those 3 weeks, since there is no brood to care for, the nurse bees will become forager bees and your colony will have more bees out harvesting nectar to produce honey. For this to work, you have to be good at timing the nectar flow in your area. In terms of mite control, those 3 weeks without brood disrupts the mite reproductive cycle. Without any brood or capped cells to lay their eggs into, the mites will be roaming around and this is the perfect time to blast them with powdered sugar. If your mite counts seem high in July and August, you can also consider requeening during this period even though it’s getting pretty close to Fall. Requeening and then doing powdered sugar blasts can certainly be effective. Requeening also gives you the opportunity to get a stronger queen that can produce worker bees that do a better job of controlling mites.
  • Screen bottom board. Having a screen bottom board may only have a small impact on lowering mite counts, however, it can still help if you are doing your weekly to bi-weekly powdered sugar blasting. Think about it this way, the few mites that may drop off after you blast your bees and put them back into the hive either because the bees clean them off or because they eventually lose their grip, will fall through the screen bottom board and never have a chance to climb back onto a bee. If you are going to go chemical-free, you have to use every tool at your disposal and a screen bottom board is one of them.

Is beekeeping for me?

Nowadays, beekeeping isn’t for everyone. It does require work and perseverance much like having any pet or livestock. Back in the day, before varroa mites, beekeeping could be a leisurely activity, but nowadays you absolutely must keep track of your mite counts and keep their population in check. With all that being said, beekeeping is a very rewarding experience. There is always something new to learn and you can join a community of similarly interesting and adventurous people as yourself. There is nothing more uplifting than seeing your bees come out during a warm spell in winter to let you know they’re still alive. During the warmer months, you can sit around and watch your bees bring in different color pollen from red, orange, yellow, white, and bright green. Of course, with beekeeping you also get to enjoy honey, wax, and increased productivity in your garden and farm through their pollination. Although, what I enjoy most are the moments when I’m hard at work on the farm and I see a honey bee land on me or on a nearby flower and it makes me stop for a second to appreciate another hard-working companion that’s out there hustling for her family. Honey bees have been around for 150 million years, but they are being threatened more than ever from mites, diseases, pesticides, mono-cropping, deforestation, and many other forces. If you become a responsible beekeeper and help keep your bees strong and healthy so that they can pass on their genes, then you will be doing the world a lot of good.




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