Top-bar hives and comb honey
“I plan on starting my first hive next spring. In researching which type to start with I found the top bar and liked it because I like the idea of comb honey. Reading on your site, I found two articles about using foundationless Langstroth frames. For the less-than-novice beginner, which would you suggest between those two types? Is there a third option I should consider? Thank you very much for your help! David.”
I decided to answer your question as a post, because other folks often have the same question. I’m a little hesitant, however, because strong feelings (rants, slurs, epithets, curses, etc.) will rain down upon any recommendation I make. Anyway, nothing new, so here goes.
I have kept both Langstroths and top-bar hives for a number of years. I produce only comb honey and I don’t own, use, or otherwise touch an extractor. I keep bees as naturally as I can, although I have been known to use organic acid treatments on Varroa mites.
My current top-bar hive is a godsend. When I need some queens, it provides queen cells. When, I need a few quarts of worker bees, it overflows with extra APUs. If I want a comb or two of brood to boost a Langstroth, I steal it from the top-bar hive. I do nothing for this hive; I just steal from it. It is my go-to source for live bees and I don’t even know where the colony came from—it just moved in one July day a few years back.
That said, I’ve never collected an ounce of comb honey from this hive. Now, as you can tell, my bees love this particular structure and they thrive in it, but I have yet to figure out how to get comb honey from it because I can’t keep the queen out of the combs. In a Langstroth hive, this would be called “unlimited brood nest” management, meaning the queen can go wherever she pleases. And she pleases to go everywhere.
So, at some point, most combs in a top-bar hive become darkened because they get used to raise brood. Comb that was used to raise brood is unsuitable for comb honey. Now, I’m sure there are those beekeepers out there who know how to control their queens in a TBH, and if we’re lucky, they will write in and explain. However, I have had no success with that.
I do all my comb honey in a Langstroth because I can control where the queen goes. Many people do this with a queen excluder, but I don’t use one. I put section honey supers—either squares or rounds—above the brood boxes and I find that the queen doesn’t particularly like to lay in these. Am I saying she never lays in these? No, now and again a queen will go up lay a dozen or so eggs and leave. So yes, that particular square has a few brood cells. At harvest time, I just cut out those cells and use that comb at home. It’s not a big deal.
When I want to produce cut comb honey, I just put a super of shallow foundationless frames (with starter strips) above one of the section honey supers. I’ve never had a queen go past a section super to get into a shallow-frame super. Never. Ever. And the bees make really nice comb honey up there.
The way I see it, the Langstroth gives me a number of options for comb honey. I can do round or square sections, I can do cut comb or chunk honey, or I can do all four on one hive. A Lang is my clear preference for comb honey.
I think you could do basically the same thing with a Warré hive, but I’m not the one to ask since I never had a Warré. And like I said, I’m sure you could get at least some comb honey from a top-bar hive if you knew how to manage it. Still, I strongly recommend a Langstroth for comb honey because of all the options.
As much as top-bars are touted for beginners, I think they are harder to manage for the products you want and they tend to be extremely variable. Some very good beekeepers have trouble with top-bar hives and I think the different styles, geometries, and sizes all make a difference. I was just lucky with mine and it does what I needed it to do—produce bees.
So there you have my opinionated opinion. Anyone can chime in here and help David with his decision.