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The beginner hive: Langstroth or top bar?

I have a definite opinion on this subject, although I don’t know if it’s completely justified. I’ve managed hives in both types of equipment, both at home and at the state prison where I used to teach beekeeping. It seems to me that, for a beginner, the best option will depend on the individual, the location, the purpose, and the beekeeper’s ability to fabricate equipment. Let’s start by running through some of the issues.

About Langstroth hives:

  • Here in the states, Langstroths are fairly uniform in size and shape. Okay, there are some annoying variations from one manufacturer to the next but, for the most part, you can make one piece of equipment work with another. This consistency means you can buy equipment used or on sale, and you will be able to use it with your existing set-up.
  • There are many pieces of “bee furniture” available for the two most common types of Langstroth hive—the 10-frame and the 8-frame configuration. By “furniture” I mean honey supers, comb honey equipment, feeders, queen excluders, pollen traps, propolis traps, bottom boards, slatted racks, inner covers, outer covers, feeder rims, gabled roofs, double screen boards, screened bottom boards, escape boards, fume boards—just about any management tool you can think of.
  • Langstroths are rectangular and stack and pack easily. If you have multiple hives that you must move, there’s nothing like a Langstroth. They also come apart in neat pieces that are easy to lift—at least easy compared to a top-bar hive (TBH).
  • Langstroths are designed to maximize honey production and minimize drone production. However, you can override this design feature by using foundationless frames in your Langstroth hive. In other words, you have the choice.
  • Some specialty endeavors—such as queen rearing, pollen collection, or propolis collection—are much easier in a Langstroth, mostly because of the readily available equipment.

About top-bar hives:

  • Although top-bar hives have been around for a long time, here in the states they are relatively new. They have no standard dimensions, nor do they have interchangeable parts. People generally buy them from small manufacturers or they build their own. If you are handy with woodworking tools, this is easy and fun. If you are not, it can mean you are at the mercy of someone else to make the extra parts you want.
  • Top-bar hives are often bulky and awkward to move around, and they are usually quite long and large. I had three roofs built for my own TBH before I got one I could actually handle by myself.
  • After six years, I have never taken any honey from by TBH. Yes, this is probably due to my own shortcomings as a top-bar hive beekeeper, but I find it easy to remove honey from a Langstroth and uncomfortably subjective to take it from a TBH. In other words, I have so much trouble determining how much honey to leave for the bees in the TBH that I end up leaving all of it.
  • I don’t have all the equipment I’d like to have for my TBH because I haven’t gotten around to making it or I haven’t envisioned a good design.
  • I have never figured out an effective way to raise queens in a TBH largely because it is difficult to sequester the active queen from the rest of the colony. I can see how to do it in theory, but the practicality is another issue.
  • All that said, my top-bar bees absolutely thrive. I have used my TBH as a source for bees, queen cells, larvae, and shook swarms—and still the thing bubbles over with healthy honey bees.

In my opinion your choice of hive has a lot to do with your ultimate goal. If you want a simple, inexpensive hive to pollinate your garden, I see no problem with a TBH. If you want to raise queens, go with a Langstroth. If you want the lowest possible start-up cost, go with a TBH. If you want to maximize honey production, go with a Langstroth. If a little bit of honey is good enough, start with a TBH. If you don’t own a saw or a hammer, stick with a Langstroth. If you like fabricating your own equipment, you could go with either.

Still, I think it is easier to manage bees in a Langstroth. Whenever someone asks my opinion, I recommend the Langstroth for beginners and, at least for now, I’m sticking with that. Your opinion is welcome.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Drones just love a good top-bar hive.

Comments

Emily
Reply

I’m not convinced that top bar hives are as easy to inspect as the comb tends to be more fragile and can break in hot weather. You can do things to make that easier, like providing hollow foundationless frames for the bees rather than just a top bar. Certain anti-varroa treatments used here in the UK are harder to apply – Apiguard, oxalic acid (although you could use a vaporiser rather than the conventional acid trickling method). I also wonder if their space is less heat efficient in the winter. Having said that some people seem to do very well with them.

Sarah
Reply

Have you tried a top bar and speak from experience?

Emily
Reply

Sarah, if your comment was for me, I haven’t got a top-bar hive myself but have observed another beekeeper in my apiary using one. I think there are advantages and disadvantages as Rusty says.

Kenny
Reply

I started two top bar hives last spring and added a Lang during the summer. This season I plan to add another Lang and a few nucs. I like both styles of hives and see advantages to each. For the beginner one advantage of using a top bar hive that I have found to be indispensable is the ability to actually watch what goes on inside of the hive.

It’s easy to add an observation window to the top bar hive that allows you to see inside the colony without smoking or disturbing the bees at all. It only takes a couple minutes to look inside and I can do that as often as I like and without even putting on a veil. That has allowed me to learn more about the bees than I would have if only using a Lang.

I could observe how much comb a new package produced in a day, or in half an hour. I could see if the queen had been released from her cage or watch how the bees were responding to her, all without lifting a cover. It’s one thing to read about how the bees cluster during winter but that doesn’t come close to the
picture you get from peering through the window and physically seeing how they form a cluster and how it changes over time.

So I think that a top bar hive with an observation window is a great learning tool for beginners.

Rusty
Reply

Kenny,

I never had an observation window in any of my top-bar hives, but your description makes me wish I had! Maybe I will try that in the coming year. I agree there’s nothing like actually seeing something to understand it. Thanks.

Chelsea
Reply

I really do love our TBHs, but I tend to agree that they may not be the best choice for beginners. Managing the number of bars in a TBH takes some intuition vs. just adding a box if your Lang starts to get full.

Our TBHs don’t have spaces in between the bars; they sit tight together. This is great in one way: the whole hive isn’t “open” when we open the hive. But, like Emily said, it’s harder for us to administer some treatments, harder to feed pollen patties or dry sugar if we need to.

I don’t find the comb particularly more difficult to inspect than regular frames, you just have to be careful.

Tom
Reply

I started with a TBH 13 years ago and have loved it. I have had good honey harvests when I manage the hive well and poor harvests when I don’t. I think the most important thing for success with a TBH is to find a mentor who has been successfully keeping a TBH for a number of seasons. There is much to learn that can only be learned by hands on experience.

Sergey
Reply

Could not resist to comment on this very issue. As a beginner, I did a lot of research on the Internet trying to find the best home for my future bees. It is my understanding that for amateur beekeeping top-bar (TB), which is also called “Kenyan” is the best:
– much less hardware – body and “bars”, no “supers”, “mediums” etc; may be assembled in garage, no sophisticated tools needed…
– it normally has an observation window — huge advantage.
– hive inspection is easier and required less experience; it disturbs bees less.
– collection of honey is easy — last 1-2 bars.
– TB is more democratic! Lang… I even could not spell it – is extremely conservative and all those rules are scary for beginners… every week inspection… find a queen… medicine, varroa control, how many eggs…

BUT! I got very mixed result with Kenyan hive (I prefer this name since it honors the origin of the hive). It looks like bees do not like it as much as I do… Adapted to vertical grow in Lang-something, they are reluctant to switch to horizontal colony expansion… Obviously, in Kenya, all bees (most) are adapted for horizontal beehives and thus – there is no problem. Our bees are mostly adapted for vertical expansion in Lang… hives. If we want to have healthy and environmentally sound bee-culture, than we have to use Kenyan hives more to train our bees to return back to their natural instincts. In conclusion – Lang… is industrial standard and is not designed for amateur beekeeping. It is 100+ years old technology – still good, but may be we should try something else?

Jeff
Reply

“Kenyan hive (I prefer this name since it honors the origin of the hive)”

Just as an fyi…

“The KTBH was developed along principles of certain Greek basket hives which may date back to the time of Aristotle. Its modern avatar was “invented” by J.D. Tredwell and P. Paterson in 1965(1) and was employed in a rural extension project directed by the University of Guelph in the 1970’s(2).”

Jeff
Reply

In general, for beginners who are simply interested in keeping bees I would recommend using langs (as opposed to KTBHs), at least for starting out. There is more support available form other beekeepers, and all the equipment is available from multiple sources.

For people who have a definite interest in top bar hives, or who want to do a more DIY or low-cost style of beekeeping, then I would not hesitate to recommend KTBHs.

I often read comments from people saying that inspections in KTBHs are easy and less disruptive to the bees – I would absolutely disagree with this sentiment. In my experience, inspections in KTBHs are far more invasive than in langstroth hives. With langs you can get a lot of information by just taking the lid off the hive and taking a quick peek (a window* in a KTBH could serve the same purpose). With KTBHs, if you want to know what’s going on in the brood area then you need to get in there and pull the hive apart bar by bar. There is a much higher risk of breaking comb, and a lot more cutting of brace comb and cutting off cross-comb and burr comb.

As well, an inspection in a KTBH takes longer (so the hive is open longer) and requires more effort and care. With langsroth frames with foundation it is very easy to inspect both sides of a frame, but with top bars it is a bit trickier (unless you make a stand to hold the comb) to get a good look at both sides of the comb, or to get the angle just right to see everything inside the cells.

I like our top bar hives, and expect that we will always have some, but they are not for everyone (like any hive type). There are no “rules” attached to any particular type of hive, it is all about the beekeeper and how one decides to manage their colonies. Natural, no-intervention, live and let die, commercial, etc… – all these styles of beekeeping can be done in any type of hive. There are many types of hives to choose from, and lots of good info available to weigh the pros and cons for each.

(*As cool and interesting as windows can be, I don’t put them on our hives. The temptation to over use them would be too great for me.)

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

“and a lot more cutting of brace comb and cutting off cross-comb and burr comb.”

That’s the only thing I disagree with. I have virtually no cross-comb or brace comb in my tbh–just perfectly symmetrical free-form combs. I think it has to do with the geometry of the hive, which are all different from each other.

Nevertheless, I think Langs are best for beginners. To me Langs provide more management choices. I’m glad I’ve had both but I wonder if I would have stayed with beekeeping if I had started with a tbh. I don’t know.

Philip Barr
Reply

I started with TBH in 2010, did no beekeeping of my own (helped a friend a bit) in ’11, and am now starting over in ’12. I have so far only used TBH for my own but have played with other people’s Langs, and have to say that unless you want to putz with the hive every few days until they get to building straight comb and then weekly, Langs are the way to go.

I’ve broken enough comb – even when being careful – and felt like I ‘had’ to check on them too often. I am moving to the “set it and forget it” (sort of) Langs asap.

Zoe
Reply

Hi, Rusty,

What is your preferred configuration of a Langstroth hive? For example, do you use 2 deeps and add a super in the spring? One deep and a super? Two deeps in the fall, or one? How does one decide on the configuration?

Also, I think I read somewhere here on HBS that you remove honey supers by mid-July — is that correct?

Rusty
Reply

Zoe,

In the past I have always overwintered with two deeps and added honey supers (2 or 3) in early spring about when the alder starts to bloom. However, I usually have to feed by early February, so this year I’m planning on triple deeps. I’ve got one hive so far with the third brood box in place, and several more that are about ready. I hate the feeding routine, so I’m trying to get away from it.

Yes, I remove my supers by mid-July, but that is a decision that results from several factors that won’t apply to everyone. I like to treat for mites in August, so I take the honey supers off before I treat. After the ApiGuard (or whichever of the so-called “natural” treatments I use) I do not replace the supers but let the bees keep whatever they collect in the fall. In July and August around here, very little is in bloom so it’s not a big loss and I like to treat for mites early so that my winter bees have never been directly exposed to the mite treatments.

Another issue is that my spring honey is mostly tree honey and it never granulates. So I like to keep the early honey and let the bees take the late honey which is based on fall-flowering, non-tree plants, and more likely to granulate. The bees use this up over the winter, so I never have to deal with granulating honey. That said, however, I always keep some of the spring frames in reserve in case the bees don’t collect enough in the fall to get them through the winter.

So many of these decisions have to made based on your own goals, your local conditions, local plants, and how much time and money you want to spend on your bees. A lot of what I do is experimental. I like to see what works and what doesn’t. If I don’t get a honey crop now and then, I don’t care–it’s really the bees I care about.

Sarah
Reply

I’m beginning to think the inventor of the Langstroth hive had a Superman complex. Lifting a 90lb box filled with stinging bees while in a bee suit on a hot and humid day? Ugh. And yet I still love being a beekeeper.

Billy
Reply

Hi Rusty, Just found this post and was curious about the geometry of your top bar hive because I really like the idea of not dealing with cross comb once I build mine this spring.

Great site, thank you for sharing!

Ruth
Reply

I just started beekeeping the summer of 2013 with a TBH. Mostly for the love of bees and apitherapy. It’s been a wonderful experience. I bought a TBH from Beeline Apiary and the bars fit into a Lang so another beekeeper was actually able to put my bars between his frames to get them drawn out nice and straight. I did have to trim off the sides to get them to fit my box. I also installed an observation window, which makes a huge difference in how I relate to the bees. I highly recommend the TBH for beginners. Especially with ones where the bars fit a Lang. So if you decide to switch over, you can, with minimal expense but you’ve gained lots of experience.

Gerry
Reply

Most people think the TBH is easier to learn with and it probably is. But, I think that you should start as you mean to go on. So rather than switching after you are used to the TBH, I would recommend that you start with the Langstroth and keep using it. BTW I also think that you should start with two not one. You can learn a lot about colony health and pests etc. by comparing the two and if you lose a hive, you will still have one to work from.

BeeG
Reply

Hey Folks,

I’m a newbee here in Central PA. Going to night class for this stuff and talking to everyone I know about beekeeping. Some have 15 years experience and have their own bee business and are thriving. TBH or Lang? To me the TBH is just so elegant and lets the bees do what they want as they would in nature. They seem easier to manage just lift the cover and pull a comb. More nectar flow just add more comb in the back. They do what they want, build where they want and you don’t need all the equipment associated with a Lang, just cut the comb and squish out the honey or cut the square combs and prepare it for eating. Treating for mites just sprinkle powered sugar, moths just don’t reuse the wax. Need to move the TBH just use a NUC or the like. For me it’s just letting the bees be making a few adjustments and following their ways and I get a little honey in return.

Rusty
Reply

BeeG,

It always perplexes me why people say that a top-bar hive “lets the bees do what they want as they would in nature,” when actually, bees living in tree hollows and inside walls build their combs vertically down from the top with combs below combs. I’ve heard it thousands of times and I just don’t get it. Now, I have nothing against top-bar hives—I run both TBH and Langs—but everything you say here can be applied equally to either type of hive.

Shanna
Reply

I’d never heard of top-bar hives before an acquaintance (with 15 of them) told us about them. My grandparents and my great-uncle had had bees; and I’d been very concerned about the lifting required, as I do the work myself. There was also the massive “learning curve” involved. Honestly these deterred me from even thinking about keeping bees. Then one year it seemed that the bees on our farm just “disappeared’, where once they seemed to buzz everywhere. This prompted us to get an attractive, commercially made, cypress TB with a window. We enjoyed watching the bees make their comb and rear their brood. They produced well, and by the fall of the first year, we had enough honey (even with leaving 14 combs in the hive) to last us for several months. This year the hive divided itself and swarmed before I could split them, but we’ve now added 2 more hives, and I may end up splitting one of those. Our goal is simply to have enough honey to last until the next collection-time, with a few jars for presents, and I think with three or four hives we’ll achieve that easily barring accidents and unusual weather conditions. Top-bars take work, but it’s a different kind of work than the Langs, and you’re usually working at a “normal” height. (If you build your own TB, you simply make it the height you’re most comfortable with. You can also build it or make a modification so that it will accept frames from a regular nuc. And it’s not hard to build one; With my minimal carpentry skills, I built an extra one by myself with scrap materials. It CAN be done.) The Langs DO look very convenient, though, and you can get them readily. In a few years I may try one; the most daunting thing about them is that they seem to require more equipment. The TBs just seem less technical and, for people like me, that means less intimidating. But whatever a person feels confident with; it’s up to him/her. I think it’s just important for the professional and long-time beekeepers to be encouraging; there IS a learning curve in beekeeping, as in anything.

Melissa
Reply

My top bar hive has 19″ bars. Can I use a Lang top bar with a starter strip? My concern is the width. My bars are 1.25, 1.5 and 1 3/8. Thnx. The Lang top bars are only 1 1/16 in width.

Rusty
Reply

Melissa,

It depends on the design. Langs have spaces between the bars while most top-bar hives do not.

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