My dad and I attended an all-day beekeeping class yesterday offered through the Center of Michigan Beekeepers Club (COMB). The in-depth class, taught by club president Mike Risk and club vice president Dale Woods, covered all the essentials for beginner beekeepers including equipment, starting bees, basic bee behavior, winterizing a hive, and bee diseases and pests. The registration fee of $40 included the book Bee-sentials: A Field Guide by Dr. Lawrence Connor, an expert beekeeper in Kalamazoo. The book is chock-full of information on all aspects of beekeeping, and includes beautiful photos throughout. The class was so popular that Mike and Dale added a second class on February 9.
The class and book both cover beekeeping using Langstroth hives. Used by the majority of beekeepers worldwide, Langstroth hives, designed by Lorenzo Langstroth in 1851, are made up of vertical-stacking rectangular boxes. Langstroth’s hive design included the first removable frames for honeycomb. Bees build honeycomb, collections of hexagonal wax cells, to house their larva and to store their honey and collected pollen. Modern Langstroth hive boxes come in a deep version that is 9 5/8 inches deep or a medium version that is three inches shorter; they usually hold eight or ten top-loading wooden frames. The bottom two boxes are usually the brood chambers for the young bees, and the upper boxes for honey are called supers.
Several people in the class had asked about using top-bar hives. Top-bar hives have been in use for several thousand years. Modern top-bar hives are one long horizontal box, instead of stacking vertical boxes. These hives have only wooden top bars, not frames, so the bees build their own wax comb without preformed guides. My brother had recommended looking into top-bar hives, because some people consider them to be a more natural method for beekeeping. Mike and Dale had cautioned against using top-bar hives because they thought they would be difficult to winterize and because it would be hard to find other beekeepers using them to provide advice for new beekeepers.
There was a photo in Dr. Connor’s book from Steller Apiaries in Jackson, MI, which uses alternative beekeeping methods. When I got home, I checked out their website, and I was very impressed with the wealth of information on the site. Jessica and Keith Steller manage a variety of different hives, including top-bar hives, on their 8-acre farm in Jackson. They sell custom-designed top-bar hives, and they are offering beekeeping classes using top-bar hives on most Saturdays and Sundays at 10am in January-April. They have designed their hives for Michigan winters. BackYardHive, a top-bar hive apiary and supply company in Colorado, also has advice for winterizing top-bar hives.
Proponents of top-bar hive beekeeping say that the advantages of top-bar hives include:
- They are less costly to build than Langstroth hives and can often be made of scrap or recycled materials.
- Because the hive design is simpler, less specialized equipment is required.
- No heavy lifting is required to harvest honey. You only have to lift a 3-7 lb. top-bar of comb vs. a 50 lb. super.
- Extracting honey is very simple – you crush the wax comb in a strainer and let the honey drain into a jar.
The main drawback of the top-bar hives seems to be that it takes more time to establish your colony. It’s recommended that you not harvest any honey during the first year, but instead let the colony overwinter, and then harvest the following spring. You also won’t produce as much honey with a top-bar hive, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem for me, as an aspiring backyard urban beekeeper. Top-bar hives seem like the clear choice! I am excited to take a class from Steller Apiaries to learn more about them!