Top Bar Beehive Update

Last spring Ray and I built a Kenyan Top Bar Beehive and installed a package of worker bees and a queen.  Through the spring and summer, we have been reading up on how to

top bar bee hive installation

Here is Ray checking to see that the queen has been released from her cage. Yes! She was free!

take care of our bees (who knew you are supposed to rotate the top bars around?) and we think we have kept them well fed and happy.  Our favorite book, which we refer to often, is “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder.

All summer we have been on the lookout for native and purchased flowering plants that the bees would like, and avoiding plants that are poisonous to bees, such as azaleas and rhododendron.  Unfortunately, there are quite a few buckeye trees around, but there are none on our property.  The Buckeye tree pollen is mildly poisonous to adult honeybees, but it causes fatal wing deformity in the brood.  There isn’t anything we can do about the trees surrounding our property because they are  indigenous to our area, but what we can do is cultivate lots of safe and healthy plants for our bees.  We found a beautiful flowering plant by the side of the road that was completely covered with honeybees, butterflies and bumblebees.  Our son, Matthew, is a Forester and identified it as a  medicinal plant (for humans) called Yerba Santa!  We gathered some of the seed from the plant and hope they will germinate this coming spring so we can plant them in near the beehive.

We also planted a bush called Euonymus japonicus.  We had one at our valley home that was absolutely mauled every spring and summer by honeybees.  We planted the bush about 15 feet behind the hive so the bees will have a short commute.  We also planted two lemon balm plants (Melissa officinalis) because we read somewhere that if you plant lemon balm near a beehive, the bees will never leave.  After all, Melissa means “honeybee” in the Greek language! Even if that’s a wive’s tale, that’s okay, because I found that a sprig of lemon balm, a sprig of basil and a few stevia leaves in a gallon of water makes a wonderfully refreshing drink.  We also planted a pot with spearmint.

Top Bar Beekeeping

You can see the spearmint on the left in the pot and the lemon balm in the planter on the right. The two bushes in green pots behind the beehive are pomegranates.

Of course, next spring there will also be all our fruit and nut trees in bloom, along with the lavender and jasmine we have planted here and there around our new homestead.  We hope to have happy, well fed bees that won’t need much supplemental feeding in the future.

We enjoy showing our bees to our family and friends also.  When my sister visited our homestead, it was time to check on the bees and rotate any top bars that might need, well, rotating!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my sister Deana. Now I think she wants a beehive too!

Ray raised up one of the top bars that had new comb with ripe and raw honey, to show my dearest sister Deana.

I let her put on my bee outfit and enjoyed watching her reaction as Ray lifted some of the bars for her to see the comb, brood, workers and (of course) the honey! I was truly surprised how brave she was. There she was, right in front of the hive, and she had no fear!  I will admit, however, that sometimes the wonder of it all erases fear.  Our grandchildren were a bit more timid, however, and chose to observe the hive at a fair distance. 🙂

It’s amazing how lucky we have been with our bees.  After reading other blogs about honeybees and several books on backyard beekeeping, it seems we have done a lot of things right, but an equal number of things wrong!  When we first installed our bees, we basically sat back and watched them fly in and out of their hive entrance, and after our second inspection to verify that the queen was laying eggs and comb was being made, we thought our work was pretty much done.  Then we read in Les Crowder’s book that you have to check the hive every other week to make sure the bees weren’t cross-combing.  Cross-combing?  What’s that?

Cross combing is when the bees don’t make straight, vertical comb.  It’s when the comb is rounded or crooked and runs into the next comb.  It’s when your bees have run amuck.

Kenyan top bar beekeeping

Wow! This comb is straight and absolutely full of brood and honey!

After reading this we ran to our hive (well, maybe we didn’t actually run) to pull out some of the top bars and find out if our bees were behaving poorly.  Nope.  Thank goodness, our bees all passed Geometry 101 and their comb was straight, vertical and perfectly shaped. Every single one!  Wahoo!  Of course, that is what lead us to do a bit more reading on what else we were supposed to be doing.

Hmmm…  Chapter 5 in “Top Bar Beekeeping” by Les Crowder… apparently if the bees think their home is too small, they will swarm in the early spring. Not a total disaster (not all of the workers leave, and usually a new queen has been coronated), but swarming is something most beekeepers like to avoid because the colony that is left after a swarm is usually small and weak.  However it is possible for the hive to build back up, especially if there are still brood in the combs, the new queen is laying, and there is enough honey for back-up.  But, again, it’s not what a beekeeper wants.

How do you avoid a swarm?  Apparently you have to make sure the bees think they have plenty of room left in the hive for expansion.  You do this by moving some of the top bars around, putting empty top bars between full ones, and making sure there are always a few empty top bars in the back.

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn't it beautiful?

Fresh, new beeswax with just a bit of unripe honey. Isn’t it beautiful?

So, that’s what we did.  We moved some of the bars around, in a pattern suggested in Les Crowder’s book.  But, while moving the bars around, Ray noticed that one bar had come apart and the weight of the honey in the comb had made it drop to the floor of the hive.

Darn.  Shoot.  Bad luck.  Well, I guess all we could do was harvest that one.

Of course, I’m being facetious here.  We were actually more than happy to get a sample of our honey!  Besides, our Beekeeper and Master Gardner friend, Kim, said we should harvest some honey.  Why?  “Because”, she explained, “it’s like deadheading a rosebush. If you keep clipping off the spent roses, the plant will continue to make more roses.  So if you harvest some honey, the bees will be stimulated to make more honey!”


Harvesting honey from a top bar beehive

Here is the honey dripping from the crushed honeycomb through the paint strainer into the ice cream bucket. High tech harvest!

My mom had given me some nice ice cream buckets, which I assumed were food grade, so we used a paint strainer and the bucket to separate the honey from the comb.  I had to crush the comb a bit while it was in the paint strainer, but I was lucky that this comb only had raw and ripe honey, no brood.  I would have felt bad if there was brood in it, but apparently there usually is, so I will have to get used to sacrificing a few brood to be able to harvest honey.

Since this comb had raw, unripe honey in it (honey that hasn’t been capped yet and therefore has more water in it), I knew we had to use it right away.  Honey that hasn’t been capped is likely to ferment, which wouldn’t be so bad, because fermented honey is Mead!  Although we do plan to make our own Mead next year, we decided to use our fresh honey instead drizzled on biscuits, French toast, waffles…

I may be prejudiced, but I think our honey was the best tasting ever!  It was dark and fairly thick, and Master Gardner Kim informed us that it probably was cedar honey, which made sense!  We have cedar trees on and around our homestead, and the dark color with a slight hint of “forest” in the honey led us to believe she was probably right.  Although we harvested only one small comb, we got about ¾ pint of honey.  It didn’t last very long 😉

Natural beekeeping

This is our first harvest of beautiful golden, tasty honey. I can’t wait to harvest more next year!

During our observations of the hive, we have noticed the bees coming in with various colors of pollen.  For a while in June, they all carried heavy bags of yellow pollen.  A few weeks later the pollen was a darker orange.  In August, we noticed the bees carrying an almost pure white pollen!

Then, it happened.  While watching the bees coming and going from their hive entrance, observing the color of the pollen they were bringing in, I guess I got too close.  I got stung.  On my eyebrow.

Since I haven’t been stung by a honeybee in years, I didn’t know what my reaction was going to be.  So, I ran into the trailer (screaming like a little girl) and took a Benadryl, an aspirin and put an ice pack on the sting.  The truth is, it hurt.  A lot!  After about an hour, however, I knew I was probably not allergic to bee stings (I was still alive), and the pain started to fade from there.  I think the anxiety of a possible allergic reaction may have exaggerated the pain.  But the next morning, when I looked in the mirror, I saw quite a site!  The entire area around my eye – the eyelid, my cheekbones, the inside of my nose and my crow’s feet – were all a bright pink color.  Not just bright pink… iridescent bright pink!  It looked like a four year old put some hot pink eyeshadow on me in the middle of the night!  Disco Fever anyone? Every time Ray looked at me for the next couple of days, until the color faded, he would chuckle.  So did I.  It was really quite funny.

Keeping Bees Naturally

Aspirin, Benadryl and an ice pack – recommended remedy for bee stings.

Up until I got the bee sting, I was becoming more and more comfortable around the bees.  That’s probably why I got stung.  I had become too complacent.  I was foolishly standing less than two feet from the entrance to the hive without any protective gear on and no smoke.  Also, I was aware that the hive had successfully fended off a few attacks by yellow jackets, and so were probably at high intruder alert.  That bee sting was totally my own fault.  Too bad a bee had to give her life because of my stupidity.  Lesson learned.

So where are we now?  It’s autumn here on the homestead and the days and nights are getting cooler. The bees are still coming and going, bringing back pollen and a deep reddish brackish color of pollen, which I actually think may be propolis.  Propolis is used by the bees as a sort of glue to help shore up any holes in the hive, preparing for the winter cold.

We will probably open the hive only one or two more times before winter actually sets in.  We plan to give them some sugar water during the winter just in case they didn’t get enough honey to last through until the first honey flow in the spring.  So, there isn’t much more we can do at this point but wish them luck and pray that they make it through the winter.0001

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26 thoughts on “Top Bar Beehive Update

  1. This is such an interesting article, Vickie. Sorry you were stung! When we were kids a bunch of us were exploring in the hedgerow and disturbed a hive of bumblebees. I was stung below my eye right next to my nose! They chased us as we ran screaming back to the house and my poor little brother lagged behind. My mother came out to rescue him and she was also stung by a bee that was clinging to his clothing. No one escaped without a sting. It was like something out of Mark Twain hahaha….we still laugh about it almost 40 years later.

    • We have lots of bumblebees around here also, but so far they seem to be more interested in their own business than me, thank goodness. However, I did get a yellow jacket in my work glove and she stung me on my hand. Ouch! I’m not sure which hurt worse, the yellow jacket or the bee! I knew going into this I would probably get stung, so now that it’s happened, I hope it doesn’t happen again! Thanks for stopping by today, Lydia!

  2. I have always used vinegar for bee stings. Two weeks ago I was stung by a wasp that was hiding on the garbage can lid. I had to leave for work in an hour. I immediately soaked a cotton ball in vinegar and held it on the sting. Within 10 minutes the pain subsided and within 30 minutes I was pain free and no swelling happened. By the time I got to work I couldn’t tell where the sting was. Give it a try next time (but hope there won’t be a next time). 🙂

    • Haha – I certainly hope there isn’t a next time! But if there is, I will try vinegar. Thanks for the tip! Of course, I will still use the aspirin and Benedryl and ice pack. I am also thinking of getting an Epi-pen just in case. I am hearing stories that some people who have never been allergic suddenly become so, and since we live out in the boondocks, there may not be enough time to get medical care if a worse case scenario happens. Thank you for reading and commenting today, Jeanette!

  3. oh man! so great all is going well with the bees and so sad you were stung. as we say around here guess that done learned ya! 🙂 I hope they make it through fine and healthy this winter. I had no idea pollen came in different colors! that is too neat. So guess a future post will tell us how to ‘cap’ our honey? Have a wonderful week and a spooky Halloween!! M

    • Greetings, Millie! Yup – made it through that one and survived. I don’t want to get stung again, but probably will. Just one of the facts in beekeeping, I guess. I saw a chart somewhere on the internet a few years ago that listed all the colors of pollen and the possible flowers it came from on a regional chart, but can’t seem to find it now. I think the white pollen may be coming from my stevia, basil and pepper plants, but not absolutely sure! I hope you have a great week also!

  4. This is great information. I have a bee keeping book, but reading what you have discovered and what mistakes have been made will go far for us when we start bee keeping next year. I’m planning on building my own hives this winter and planting lavender this spring. I think lavender honey would be amazing. That cedar honey looks quite good too!

    Are your hives close to a water source?

    • Oh Todd – just wait – you will be so glad you started beekeeping! It is so much fun! I am certain we will always be beekeepers now, and can’t wait to get our next hive going this spring. Ideally we will have 3 or 4 hives when all is said and done – just in case. We have several water sources – a bucket with rush (a water plant) in it and a very shallow saucer with water about 2 inches deep with rocks in it so the bees don’t drown. The problem is keeping the yellow jackets and paper wasps out of the waterers. What I have discovered, however, is there is some sort of truce between the bees and the yellow jackets at the watering holes. Normally, away from the watering holes, the yellow jackets try to attack the bees and eat them! But as I said, not at the watering holes! We are installing a large livestock watering trough in the ground near the hive this next spring and will make it into a small pond of sorts – with gravel in the bottom and water plants with (of course) water. This way I won’t have to add water to the saucer and bucket every day! Anything to make life easier 🙂

  5. Good for you! We have friends that keep bees and we buy lots of their honey…so good!
    Thanks so much for sharing at AMAZE ME MONDAY.

    • Thank you, Cindy! I can’t wait for the day we can give some of our honey to our family and friends – what a great Christmas present that will be! I don’t think we will have enough to sell, but you never know… sometimes hobbies can get a little out-of-hand. 🙂 Have a great week, and thanks for hosting your blog party!

  6. We recently got a langstroth hive. I wanted to try top bar, but as that is not at all common in our area, we thought better start with the conventional bees and move on to the weird and wonderful methods when we have some confidence, as we won’t find anyone to help us! Its so fascinating to watch them building comb, rasing brood, collecting honey etc. I got stung the other day too, first time since I was a kid, and I was also worried about having a reaction, but so far just a very itchy patch on my leg! I’m still keen to try top bar eventually, so this is great information, thanks so much for sharing your experience 🙂

    • Good to hear from you, Liz! I know what you mean about the top bar hive – they aren’t the norm in most areas. We decided to do the top bar because: 1. we could build the hive ourselves; 2. it’s a more natural way of beekeeping and; 3. we had a friend who was using top bar hives who was willing to share her knowledge. The methods may be different, but I’m sure the joys are the same! I swear, I can sit for hours just watching the bees coming and going! When we open the hive, I am so amazed at their engineering skills! I have been told by many commercial beekeeper friends that we won’t get as much honey from our top bar hive as we would from a langstroth, but really, that’s not our first objective! While the honey is nice, we wanted pollinators for our orchard (especially the almonds) and our vegetable and herb gardens. Besides, what I have seen so far is LOTS of honey – more than what my husband and I will consume! Hey – I would bet you could make a wonderful lotion with tallow, beeswax and honey!

    • I didn’t know these were poisonous either! It gets even worse… apparently if a bee gets it’s nectar from a rhodendron and makes honey from it, the colony will get sick, but then the resulting honey is poisonous for humans too! Also, one of my very favorite climbing bushes – the Carolina Jessamine – is poisonous for bees! That’s too bad, because I love the smell of the Jessamine! To me it smells like Jolly Rancher cherry candy! Oh well. There are lots of other amazing smelling and beautiful blooms we can plant for our bees. Thank you for commenting today, Ms. Fabulosa!

    • Ich freue mich, von Ihnen , Angi hören! Wir danken Ihnen für Ihre freundlichen Kommentar . Ich hoffe, eine gute Ernte von Honig im nächsten Jahr . Haben Sie eine große Woche und sagen hallo zu Uwe für mich!

  7. What a great post. And your hive looks beautiful. Originally I was going to go with a horizontal top bar hive, and then discovered the Warre. I chose that mostly because we have no level ground, LOL. I knew about the rhododendrons and azalea (apparently both are toxic to a number of creatures, like goats), but didn’t know about the buckeye. I don’t think we have any of that around here though.

    • Thank you for the compliment, Leigh! We looked at Langstroth, Warre and Top Bar hives, along with some really “out there” hives using straw baskets and real hollowed out logs. We decided on the Top Bar for many reasons and haven’t been sorry. It’s funny, we didn’t know about the buckeye flower being toxic to bees, but then when we were educated on this subject it seems all we see now are Buckeye trees everywhere! Ah well. As I said, we are trying to plant lots of things the bees will love, so they will stay here and not go elsewhere!

  8. I enjoyed reading this and am so excited that you are actually living out your goals right now! Beekeeping is something we want to do in the future too but we have so many other things going on right now, it would be irresponsible to take one more project on. Thanks for sharing all your adventures and for the smile you gave me on the comment of “Luckily your bees passed Geometry 101”. Happy honey making!!!

    • Hello, JES! Yes – it’s fortunate our bees knew what to do better than we did! Beekeeping has become quite an enjoyable hobby for us – especially Ray! I thought beekeeping was more my idea (baking and cooking with honey and using beeswax in lotions and soaps), but Ray has really taken the lead on this one. In fact, whenever we open the hive, he does most of the work bare handed! Thank goodness he hasn’t been stung yet. I guess the bees like him better than me! 🙂

  9. I use Yerba Santa tincture for asthma. It kinda works like mucinex I have found, sending moisture to the lungs so you can cough up and out the crude. Great for dry hacking coughs. You can use too much or use it too long as it dehydrates you a bit. How lucky you found some seeds! I would like to grow some myself since I use it often.

    • Hello, Connie! Actually, I do have some seeds, but then found out they transplant better if you get a piece of their rhizome – so Ray and I plan to uproot one of the plants, break off a piece and replant the mother right where it is. We will take the piece of rhizome and see if we can get it to grow. It will be yet another experiment for us, but one we are willing to try! Thanks for stopping by today. P.S. – I miss your posts!