This was a part of a personal email reply (to a fairly new beekeeper) that I'm posting in hopes of refreshing/energizing the discussions on Top Bar Hives:
IÂ’ve been keeping bees for more than ten years and this was my first attempt at a Top Bar Hive. I mainly was interested in seeing if the sloped sides would really discourage the bees from building brace comb to secure the honeycomb to the side walls of the hive. IÂ’ve collected swarms for many years and so IÂ’ve had a chance to observe how they build their nests if left to their own devices and it seems to me, that a TBH very closely simulates what they would do in nature. All of my equipment is Langstroth-type hives (except for this first TBH). I have plans to build at least one more along the same lines (more on that in a minute).
Let me first answer your question about collecting honey. A couple of things are not obvious by just looking at my photos. First, the width of my TBH (at the top) is exactly the same as a Langstroth box; so the actual top bars fit into a standard American brood-sized box (or honey super). The width of 10 top bars doesnÂ’t quite fill up a standard Langstroth hive (due to Â‘bee spaceÂ’ differences) but this can be overcome with just a filler strip of wood about 1/4-inch wide. Thus, my top bars are fairly Â‘inter-changeableÂ’ with standard equipment. I did not cut notches in my top bars; they are solid all the way across except for the grove on the bottom side which holds the starter strip of foundation. To get honey from this hive, there are two different ways: 1) super it with a standard medium-depth (or shallow) super and 2) get cut comb honey from the back of the nest; in the Â‘honey storageÂ’ area, not used for brood rearing. In the case of #2, you can just eat the honey as comb honey or press it out (extract) with a honey press, which can be made or bought. In the case of #1 (i.e., supering), remove either the follower board or one top bar to create an open space between the top bars. Over this space, place a sheet of black plastic (like heavy garbage bag or plastic vapor barrier material) with an opening cut into it about 1/2-inch wide and almost as long as the honey super is wide. Align this opening in the plastic sheet with the open space between the top bars and place the honey super on top of this sheet. The idea behind this, is that the bees will have access to move up from the brood area into the super in order to store honey yet they wonÂ’t build comb in this area due to the Â‘flexingÂ’ of the plastic sheet. I suppose you could even sit the honey super on top of a queen excluder to insure the queen doesnÂ’t move up into the super but is kept down in the brood area of the TBH.
Now let me say, I obviously havenÂ’t tried this black plastic supering idea yet since this is my first year to have a TBH and I want the bees to get to build as much comb and store as much honey as they can this first year in order to insure the bees will survive next winter. As far as this idea to Â“superÂ” a TBH, I see no reason why itÂ’s not a sound idea and should work fine Â– in fact, after the TBH is completely Â‘built outÂ’, I can see no reason why you couldnÂ’t put multiple standard honey supers on the TBH. Of course, some may view this as Â‘defeatingÂ’ the purpose of TBHs.
Top Bar Hives, after all, exist mainly as an alternative to expensive pre-fabricated wooden hives. They have gained some popularity in America among hobbyist (such as myself) but mostly as Â‘play thingsÂ’. This is not the case in Africa where the Â“modernÂ” top bar hive concept is credited with originating. For KenyaÂ’s beekeepers with their lower standard of living (as compared to America), itÂ’s an absolute necessity they have an inexpensive way to house honeybees and collect honey. The concept of this frame-less TBH idea was picked up by Peace Corps members many years ago and helped spread to most other African countries. In fact, I have an ex-Peace Corps friend who even introduced the TBH idea to pacific islanders 20+ years ago. So, while now you see on the internet, some fairly elaborate TBH designs, the main driving force originally was a Â“Low TechÂ” solution to keeping bees - simplicity and cheapness of construction was the desired end.
I have taken measurements of my hive and hope to build another one as Â“proof of blueprintÂ” dimensions (Â“build to printÂ”, so to speak). The first one was built over a three day period and kind of hand fitted together. I was striving to keep the saw cuts to a minimum and to keep the design as simple as possible. Not counting the top bars, there are only about 13 or 14 separate pieces of wood (most of which are made two at a time; front and back or identical left and right sides). And once I got my table saw jigged properly, I zipped off 100 top bars in about 15 minutes; enough for three, 30-frame TBHs. There are only a couple of Â“critical dimensionsÂ” to hold (and even these are not tight tolerances), all the rest of the saw cuts are very flexible as to their accuracy. IÂ’m figuring my next Â“build to printÂ” TBH should take no longer than a few hours to build. As I've mentioned in prevous postings, my total out-of-pocket expense was less than $20 and even most of this could have been avoided with selection of a different covering. So a thirty "frame" brood-sized beehive can be built on the cheap!
My first top bar hives were all free. I was a carpenter and built them all from scraps. I think you still could do them for free.