Langstroth vs. Top Bar Hive – The Great Debate

Langstroth vs Top Bar Hive

We here at Wild Bunch Bees sell only top bar hives. However, I have managed Langstroth hives in my apiary. I will be very fair in comparing our top bar hive design with the standard Langstroth hives because there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Langstroth vs. Top Bar Hive

 Wild Bunch Top Bar HiveLangstrothAdvantage
Ease of setup and installationAll of our hives come pre-assembled with joints glued and screwed with hidden fasterners. Caulk and rubber weatherstripping are used to weather and pest-proof our hives. All of our 28 top bars with side supports are assembled and ready to be used. The hinged aluminum composite roof can be slid on and off with no tools needed. If you buy Langstroth hives pre-assembled, then you will save yourself a lot of time not having to nail and glue all of those frames and supers together, but you will also pay more. Other than that, setting up your hive is straightforward. The hardest part will be maneuvering through the confusing Langstroth supplier websites and figuring out exactly what you have to buy. Do I need 6-1/4 or 5-3/8 frame? Do I want divided bottom or grooved bottom? Should I use plastic or wax foundation? Should I use a shallow, medium, or deep super?Slight edge to Wild Bunch Top Bar Hive if only because of the confusing Langstroth supply websites.
Installing a nucSadly, there are not many people producing top bar nucs for sale because the majority of people use Langstroth hives. We here at Wild Bunch Bees sell top bar nucs, but not enough to satisfy the growing demand. You can always install a Langstroth nuc in our top bar hive, but that requires some chopping and cutting to make it fit. We recommend purchasing nucs local to your area that are from stock that have survived a few winters.

The alternative is for you to purchase a package, which is 50% cheaper in most cases, but they will have inferior genetics and the chances of them surviving the winter is not good. If you go with a package, we recommend you requeen with a mated queen from a reputable local producer in the middle of the summer. Don't get attached to the queen from the package and feel bad for getting rid of her. Think of your hive as one organism - having a good queen is vital to the survival of the whole organism. Package queens always start out strong, but in my experience they begin to fail going into late summer and early fall - the time when it may be too late to do anything about it.
Langstroth nucs can be purchased from suppliers all across the country. You just have to make sure the nuc matches your super measurements. The best nuc is an overwintered nuc from a local supplier. Langstroth (for now - until we get more top bar hive beekeepers selling nucs!)
Weather-proofingThis is where our unique top bar hive design shines. We take this very seriously because a leaky hive full of cracks and gaps (even small ones) opens up your hives to lots of problems including cold air, moisture, pests (small hive beetles, wax moths, ants, etc.), and robber bees. We make sure all joints are sealed with glue or caulk and air-tight. The removable bottom board that covers the screen bottom board during colder months has rubber weatherstripping around its edges and is bolted on to create a tight seal. We give you extra 1/8"-3/4" shims to make sure your the top bars are always tight (wood will expand and contract due to temperature and humidity). During the winter time, you can easily put a 1" piece of foamboard insulation on top for extra sealing and insulation.

Our strong top bar hive design and hive stand also will not tip over due to strong winds.
The screen bottom board that you can purchase with the Langstroth hive will make your hive very leaky. Cold air and pests can easily get through the cracks. The only thing they give you to close the screen bottom board off during the winter is a thin plastic corrugated sheet. It is also common to have cracks between your supers if your bees don't have a chance to seal it with propolis or if you don't align them properly. During winter, we also recommend you wrap your Langstroth supers in foam board insulation to prevent air leaking in and for insulation.

During strong winds, there is always a chance the Langstroth supers can tip over because they are so vertical, which recently happened to my beekeeping friend when we had 40-50 mph winds. Our strong and squat Wild Bunch top bar hive prevents that from happening.
Wild Bunch Top Bar Hive
Honey ProductionThe bees will store full top bars of honey towards the middle and back of your hive after the brood top bars (the first 8-15). Once all of your 28 top bars are full you will have to harvest some honey or at least take out some top bars and freeze them to make more room. Or you can purchase another hive or nuc box to split such a strong hive!
*As a general rule, your bees will need at least 5-8 top bars of capped honey to get through the winter.

Our hive with 28 top bars is approximately like having 3.5 medium 8-frame Langstroth supers. You can produce between 40-75 pounds of honey with each hive.
This is where the Langstroth shines. Being able to constantly add new honey supers on top of your hive lets you keep up with the bees' honey production without having to harvest to make room. Of course, you will have to purchase more supers in anticipation of a good harvest. If you don't have more supers laying around, you will have to harvest or store frames just like a top bar hive.
Also, having wax foundation in your Langstroth frame speeds up the bees' work of drawing out comb and filling it with honey. They don't have to start out from scratch like with top bar hives.
Langstroth
Inspection of brood framesWith our front entrance, the bees put the brood in the front of the hive and honey in the back. It's easy to check the brood frame without having to move the honey top bars.This is sometimes difficult if you have heavy honey supers on top as you have to lift those off before you can get to the supers on the bottom that contain the brood frames.Wild Bunch Top Bar Hive
Back reliefOur top bar hives come standard with a hive stand that puts the hive at a comfortable waist height. No bending or lifting of supers to inspect your hive. A medium super full of honey can be 60 pounds. A deep super can be 90 pounds. Having to lift, move, and reset those can be a pain, especially for your back.Wild Bunch Top Bar Hive
Varroa mite control (this will be controversial)When honey bees draw out their own comb, they will naturally make the cells smaller because they don't have to start off from a wax foundation like in Langstroth hives. The cell size of wax foundation is 5.4mm. When bees make their own comb, their cell size will be 4.6mm-5.1mm. Why is that hundredth of inch such a big deal? Varroa mites may find it more difficult to lay an egg or maneuver around in a smaller worker cell or lay that second or third egg in the smaller drone cell. This can make a difference, especially if you are like us and don't use any chemicals to treat for varroa mites. We will take any advantage we can get.

Also, if the varroa mites are forced to lay more exclusively in the drone brood cells, the mite control method of inspecting and freezing infected drone brood cells is made more effective.
There are ways to go foundationless with Langstroth hives to get clean wax and smaller cell sizes, but it is not standard. I believe you can buy foundationless frames from some suppliers or you can modify your frames. Wild Bunch Top Bar Hive
FeedingOur 3 1/2 liter feeder that comes standard with all of our hives allows you to feed the most amount of sugar syrup at one time than any other hive design. It reduces the times you have to open up your hive to feed and allows the bees open access without having to wait around little holes. The feeder is kept inside the hive to reduce robbing and you can move it close to where the last drawn out comb is to make it convenient for the bees to get in and back to the comb.You can buy a special feeder for your Langstroth, which is basically a shallow super with trays that you can pour sugar syrup into. The cheaper way would be to gravity feed using an upturned mason jar or plastic bag placed in an empty super above the other supers. It's still not as fast or large as our container. Wild Bunch Top Bar Hive
Interchangeability (if you have more than one hive)You can move tops bars from one hive to the other. However, in some cases you have to move all the other tops bars back to put the top bar exactly in the place you want it. Of course, you can't move entire super boxes like you can with Langstroth. If one of your Langstroth hives needs more brood or honey, taking frames or whole supers from one hive to another is easy. The only annoyance is having to lift and move the heavy supers around to get to some frames. Langstroth
Pure wax productionIf you want pure wax free of chemicals, then having the bees draw out their own comb with our top bars is the way to go. Of course, that means that you still can't treat your hives with chemicals after the wax is drawn out. No worries though, we have managed to keep bees successfully without using chemicals and so can you. Of course, we don't hate on people who do resort to chemicals as a last resort. They are your livestock/pets after all. You just have to be responsible and judicious when using chemicals.Langstroth hives usually come with wax foundation that is contaminated with chemicals. There is no way to avoid chemical contamination in these wax foundations because wax is so porous and soaks up chemicals easily. Again, you can opt for foundationless frames, but it is not standard and you will have to make modifications.Wild Bunch Top Bar Hive
Drawing straight comb and comb supportThis is where top bar hives sometimes have a problem. Once in a while your bees will not follow the comb guide and will draw it crooked. You will have to fix it or else the combs that get drawn out after it will also be crooked. However, by adding side bars to our Wild Bunch top bars, we reduce the chances of crooked comb and add more support for the comb.Langstroth frames with their side and bottom bars and wax foundation with crimp wire support will ensure that your combs are pretty much always straight. Of course, sometimes the bees will pack some frames more full of honey and it will bulge out, but this can happen with top bar hives too.Langstroth
Finding mentors and helpYou can always come to us for questions about your top bar hive. However, there are a lot fewer top bar hive beeks (nickname for beekeepers) than Langstroth beeks to go to for live help and advice. Some people will say you should start out with a Langstroth and then progress to a top bar hive when you get more experience. That's bologna! Top bar hives are just as easy to manage if not easier and why spend the money on Langstroth when you'll just end up switching to top bar hives anyway.
Langstroth hives are the industry standard. 80-100% of local beekeeping associations will be made up of Langstroth beeks. You can always find a good Langstroth mentor. For top bar hives, you will have to sometimes seek help online or go solo like a true badass.Langstroth (for now until we get more top bar hive beeks)

Hopefully, after reviewing the pros and cons between both hive types you will be in a better position to pick the one that is right for you. Of course, we fully expect people to disagree about our comparison between Langstroth and top bar hives. “Ask two beekeepers the same question and you’ll get three different answers.” However, we love our Wild Bunch top bar hive and have agonized over the design to make sure you are successful at beekeeping. We keep the colonies in our apiary in our exclusive design and have had great success at overwintering them without chemicals.

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