Beekeeping Methods: Top-Bar Hives
Our in-house beekeeper interviewed Melissa Elliott of Melissa Bees about her frameless beehives.
In spring 2005, Melissa Elliott, founder of Melissa Bees, noticed that her normally bee-filled gardens were missing their usual buzz. She soon heard about Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon that's blamed for a recent decline in honeybees. So Melissa began studying bees and beekeeping, including traveling to England and France to learn ancient techniques for caring for these vital pollinators.
Along the way, she discovered frameless hives — keeping bees without using the rectangular frames that hold sheets of wax foundation for the bees to build on.
When and why did you go frameless?
Out of curiosity, nostalgia and to pioneer innovation. I'm interested in the intersection of human, land and bee, beyond the structures of modern living and industrial agriculture that the Langstroth hive box appears to represent. I've kept bees for eight years now, and when we bought our home three years ago I started the Garden for Hive Medicine intending it to become a living laboratory for this kind of study. It involves, in part, building and utilizing different hive types — with frames and without — to learn about each and perhaps more importantly, to innovate new hives.
I've encountered many interesting hive types in my travels and studies: carved logs, clay pots, hanging baskets, Goldens, Kenyans, Warres, Weisenseifener Hangekorbs, to name a few. There just may be as many hives as there are beekeepers and I learned how humans and bees have worked together for a very long time, far beyond the use of the Langstroth hive we see in most bee yards that keeps comb straight and orderly to benefit the extractive practices of commercial beekeepers.
Comb in its natural state takes on sensuous, sinuous forms and frameless hives provide little hindrance to the bees' natural movement and expression. When I see natural comb and layers of bees working it I'm reminded there's an implicate order and that the bees will continue to create the world in their image, no matter what we do.
Why did you choose the top-bar, over the Warre, or other frameless hives?
I built a Kenyan style top-bar on legs with a screen across the bottom, and my beekeeping students can climb under the hive and watch the bees at work. It allows you to see the brood and some honey comb in its entirety — you can see the bees making new comb, feeding and cleaning out the hive. It's particularly fun to sit under the hive and listen to their murmuring at night. Kids really love that.
Unlike the Kenyan, the Warre is suited for someone with a few years of beekeeping experience who understands the seasonal ebb and flow of the bee body. It also requires someone who is comfortable with "nadiring" (adding boxes at the bottom instead of "supering," which is adding boxes to the top of a Langstroth hive) to increase its size.
It can get tricky adding boxes, lifting a heavy hive and not breaking comb, particularly in nectar-rich areas where a Warre can become a tower! Expert Warre keepers have a mini-forklift they use to lift hives. I've found that in our area, bees in Warres have better long-term survival rates than Kenyans, that is, of course, if managed properly. My guess is this is where architecture comes into play — the bees need a deep, vertical hive to survive cold weather and the Warre capitalizes on the Venturi effect (like a chimney) to regulate the temperature and moisture inside the hive. My Langstroths are also top-bar, meaning the frames contain no foundation and the bees build their own comb within the brood chambers. I do however, keep foundation in the honey supers to ensure the comb isn't damaged in the honey harvest.
What are the benefits of a frameless hive?
In a feral or natural state, say, inside a tree, a honeybee colony will build comb to allow air, heat, vibration and scent to circulate throughout the colony. Natural comb looks like a nerve center, with crennulated curtains of wax sometimes enfolding one another, crisscrossed by bee-sized passageways.
The comb is not only a home, but a communication hub within the hive and also with the land. I see the bees as the best builders and architects for this home — after all, they secrete the platelets that comprise the comb from their own bellies! A frameless hive allows bees more creative license then one with foundation.
There are discussions out there that the standardized cell-size of foundation might affect the bees just like standardized testing does humans. I find this interesting, though I wonder if it might be more instructive to humans than the bees, as mine seem to make any size cell they want to on foundation. I do notice however, that the bees build comb more quickly without foundation.
What are the cons?
There are a few pitfalls for the beginning beekeeper. Brace comb and cross-combing are common with top-bar hives. You have to be really careful removing bars to not damage the comb on the bar or adjoining comb. I've noticed my students are less likely to want to disturb a top-bar hive out of a fear of doing something wrong and hurting the bees.
Some might say that's good for the bees not being bothered, but it's really important in the first few years of keeping to see what's happening on the comb so you understand what's going on within the colony. With time and experience you'll bother your bees less regardless of the type hive they're in.
I've found that Kenyan-style hive bodies are quite small, and must be managed a lot, meaning removing honey from them so the bees don't run out of room and swarm, which can happen rather quickly and repeatedly. I make honey supers for mine so I don't have manage as often.
The Warre is difficult to monitor, to see what's happening inside the hive; that's why I recommend having a few years of beekeeping under your belt. When it comes to honey extraction from a frameless hive, honeycomb is removed and not put back like it can be in a hive with foundation and frames. It takes approximately 16 lbs. of honey for the bees to make all the comb in the hive — something to consider when taking it out.
Do you have other types of hives, too (frameless or otherwise)?
As I mentioned I don't use foundation in our Langstroth hives, which makes them essentially top-bar. They're really easy to work with. I like being able to extract honey and put the comb back. I have a Warre too, which is easy to maintain here since we don't have a huge nectar flow and it doesn't get super heavy. I keep it in a shady spot though, since our summers are really hot and the ventilation isn't as good. I may end up making a screened bottom for it. I'm working on a skep and another hive I'll share when its completed!
What other things should someone consider if they’re going frameless?
Location, level of experience with bees, and your intentions in having them. If you live in a temperate or tropical location, a Kenyan style might work better since it was designed for hotter weather. Consider a vertical style for colder regions.
Make sure the hive has enough ventilation, especially if you live in an area with hot summers. It's important for the beginning beekeeper to understand bee biology and cycles. In order to do that you must look at comb head-on and be able to see across the hive body. This is most easily achieved with a Langstroth hive and creates a minimum of disturbance because the comb is secure on the frame and there is less brace comb to work around. Watching my students learn leads me to believe it's better to start with a Langstroth and then move on to frameless. As with all beekeeping, having a mentor is really helpful.
Lastly, if you enjoy comb honey, which is the most nutritious way to eat honey since it hasn't oxidized in the air, then frameless keeping is for you.