Kenyan Top Bar Hive – Part 1

We always knew that we wanted a beehive on our homestead.  Honeybees provide many important products and services.  Not only do they give us a delicious honey and beeswax, but they also provide pollination, which is very important.

Over the past couple of years we have attended several talks and workshops dedicated to honeybees and apiculture.  First, we attended a wonderfully informative lecture about

Wine and honey tasting - what could make a better afternoon?

Wine and honey tasting – what could make a better afternoon?

the life and value of a honeybee, and then we got to taste several flavors of fresh, organic honey (and wine!), in Livermore with Gerard’s Honeybees.  A couple of years ago we attended our first National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa and attended a discourse about the importance of natural beekeeping.  Finally, last summer, we attended a talk given by Kim, Master Gardener of Berry Creek Station, who first talked about the lifecycle of bees, types of bees and the uses of bee products.  She was gracious enough to take us into her private backyard to show us her bee garden and three of her hives.  At the lecture, Kim also gave us simple plans to build a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive.

A Kenyan Top Bar Hive is a more natural home for honeybees than the traditional Langstroth hive, although it isn’t as natural as a hollow log.  The advantages of the top bar hive over the Lanstroth are numerous, the most important being the health of the bee.  You see, wild bees will make the cells in their honeycomb about 4.7 to 4.9 mm in diameter.  If you give a bee colony a comb foundation that has larger cells, about 5.3 to 5.5 mm, they will draw the comb out to that size, and since the cell is larger, the baby bee will be larger also.  It was thought that larger bees would make more comb and therefore more honey…  right?   Well, not really.  Scientists found that the larger bees were actually lazy!  Go figure!

But that’s not the big problem.  The big problem is that the tracheal mite, which couldn’t fit into the smaller bee’s trachea,honeybee could now fit into a larger bee’s trachea.  Ouch!  And the varroa mite, which is a nasty little leachy parasite for honeybees, reproduces inside the cell with the developing honeybee, and the longer the honeybee is in the cell, the more varroa mites!  The larger bees develop inside their cells about 2 days longer than the smaller, more natural bees.

The disadvantages of the Kenyan Top Bar Hive?  The bees must first make their own comb, which means they have less time to make honey.  Is that bad?  Not really.  It just means we don’t get to harvest any honey the first year, that’s all.  (well, we might take just a smidgen to taste!)  We would rather have healthy, happy bees than have to use chemicals and pesticides, which is what I believe is part of the colony collapse problem!

Bottom line – smaller bees, no tracheal mites and less problem with varroa mites!

With this knowledge and plans in hand, we decided to build our own Kenyan Top Bar Hive.

Kenyan top bar beehive

We begin our project of making a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive!

We used Poplar wood for most of the project because it is a relatively hard wood that doesn’t twist or shrink too much, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  We used the plans that Kim gave us, but after researching Kenyan Top Bar Hives, we found numerous other plans on the internet.  They were all pretty much the same, and we improvised a bit here and there.

Kenyan Top Bar Beehive

A viewing window was cut into one side of the beehive, and a plexiglass window inserted.

We did stay true to the measurements for the actual box, along with the angle of the sides.  In hindsight however, I think it would have been nice for the bees to have a wider landing spot – maybe 2 inches instead of one.  This is what we will do when we make our next hive.  We also discovered that straight cuts are very important, and we were blessed to have inherited my father’s old table saw that allowed us to make straight angled cuts for the side walls.

You really don’t have to make legs for the Kenyan Top Bar Hive.  If you wanted to, the box could be set upon bricks or some type of sturdy structure – just don’t leave it on the ground.  That might invite ants, mice, etc., and you don’t want that!  Ray made legs out of simple 2 x 4 framing lumber with braces to keep it sturdy. We stayed away from any type of treated lumber because, well, it’s been treated with pesticides!

Making a Kenyan Hive

2 x 4 legs with plenty of bracing will hold the hive off the ground.

Once the legs were attached to the box, we added the hardware for the viewing window.  I saw these cute suitcase-like latches and thought they would be great!  A couple of hinges made the whole thing complete.  After the plexiglass window was caulked in, the viewing window was compete.Making a top bar beehive Part 1-5

Now for a roof.  When you search for images of Kenyan Top Bar Hives on the internet, you can find many, many types of roofs.  In some areas, the beekeeper doesn’t even put on a roof!  Others use metal.  Some pictures show thick cardboard held on with bungies!  We opted to go with a pitched roof, both for the aesthetics, the insulation value and the snow load.  However, we didn’t want the bees to go willy-nilly in the attic of the hive and start making comb from the inside of the roof, so it was decided to make a flat roof first, then add a second “A-frame” over the top.  Why two pieces?  Because the whole thing was heavy, and we aren’t getting any younger!  I can easily lift each piece off, one at a time, and it’s no big deal.

Kenyan top bar beehive

Our version of a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive!

So, there it is!  Everything but the actual Top Bars!  We will finish the hive and some accessories in the next post, so stay tuned!


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