What are the pros and cons of Kenyan and Tanzanian horizontal top bar hives?

Kenyan and Tanzanian top bar hives

Kenyan top bar hive - horizontally oriented with sloped sides, narrow at the bottom.  Photo credit: CIFOR via Flickr cc
Kenyan top bar hive – horizontally oriented with sloped sides, narrow at the bottom. Photo credit: CIFOR via Flickr cc
Peeking under the cover of a Kenyan top bar hive - the inner "roof" is made of top bars.
Peeking under the cover of a Kenyan top bar hive – the inner “roof” is made of top bars.

Would you like an inexpensive bee hive that you could build at home and work without a lot of back strain?  Kenyan and Tanzanian top bar hives each consist of a horizontal cavity with strips of wood called top bars that form the roof. The bees live in the cavity and build their comb off of the top bars. A cover usually goes over the top bars to keep out weather and reduce temperature fluctuations.  Although these hives originated in ancient Greece, they are often used in East Africa due to their low construction cost. Some beekeepers believe that this hive style may be more suited to hot climates and bees that swarm often (African bees) than to colder climates with European honey bees, but there are beekeepers in Maine, USA and Canada who successfully keep bees in them. There is a difference between the two: Kenyan top bar hives have slanted side walls and Tanzanian top bar hives have straight side walls. The Kenyan style is more common in the US as the comb is reputed to attach to the walls less than in a Tanzanian hive, but that’s debatable. (Most states and localities in the US want hives with inspectable frames. Research your local beekeeping laws before you invest in one of these hives.)

Kenyan or Tanzanian top bar hive Pros

When you remove 1 top bar/comb, you can see how just that comb and the neighbors are exposed to light. The rest of the hive remains sealed.
When you remove 1 top bar/comb, you can see how just that comb and the neighbors are exposed to light. The rest of the hive remains sealed.
  • inspections are less invasive – only the comb being removed and its immediate neighbors are exposed to light and temperature changes = less stress for the bees
  • costs less than a Langstroth hive, much less if you build it yourself
  • may have fewer pests such as small hive beetles because fewer nooks and crannies for the beetles to hide from the bees
  • much easier on the beekeeper’s back than the vertical hives (Lanstroths and Warrés) – people who aren’t as strong, who have back pain or are handicapped are more likely to be able to use this hive long term – you only have to lift off the cover and manipulate individual combs
This is a honey extractor: honey combs are spun, honey flings out and drops to the bottom & runs out a spigot (honey gate). Photo credit: richardoyork via Flickr cc
This is a honey extractor with frames in it (not top bars): honey combs are spun, honey flings out and drops to the bottom & runs out a spigot called a honey gate.
Photo credit: richardoyork via Flickr cc
  • some beekeepers report that they can slowly hand crank a top bar with attached comb in a honey extractor and preserve the top bar with wax comb for the bees to reuse (see the post on Langstroth pros and cons to read about the advantages and disadvantages of reusing comb)

 

Crush and strain method of honey processing.  Photo credit: mbone3000 via Flickr cc
Crush and strain method of honey processing.
Photo credit: mbone3000 via Flickr cc
  • crush and strain honey extraction is low tech, and keeps wax and its chemicals cycling out of the hive
  • small amounts of honey can be harvested frequently
  • bees build whatever cell size they want, more natural
  • little equipment to store
  • some experienced KTBH beekeepers report honey production equal to Langstroths

 

Kenyan or Tanzanian top bar hive Cons

This is a Kenyan top  bar hive in Burkina Faso.  Photo credit: CIFOR via Flickr cc
Here is a top bar when pulled out of a hive with comb – notice there is no wooden frame around the comb supporting it.
Photo credit: CIFOR via Flickr cc
  • more difficult to find a mentor
  • more easy to damage comb without a frame supporting it collecting honey or doing hive inspections
  • when installing packages of bees, there may be a higher rate of absconding (all bees leave the hive) than with a Langstroth hive
  • may be more difficult to overwinter because bees may have more trouble moving horizontally to reach the honey when the weather is cold
  • most beekeepers will get less honey production than with a Langstroth hive
  • crush and strain makes the bees build more comb which is expensive for them in time and resources
  • small amounts of honey may need to be harvested frequently
  • requires more frequent visits than the Langstroth hive to keep new comb growing in alignment with the top bars and not crosswise, to cut comb attachments from the walls, and to keep the hive from becoming overcrowded
  • can be more difficult to treat varroa mites than a Langstroth
  • can be more difficult to winter feed than a Langstroth

What I did:

I started with a swarm installed into one Kenyan top bar hive and four Kenyan top bar hive books (one each by Phil Chandler, Les Crowder, Christy Hemenway and Wyatt A Mangum). I also listen to Phil Chandler’s podcast “The Barefoot Beekeeper”, read BioBees.com info and peruse Sam Comfort’s Anarchy Apiaries website watch all of the author’s YouTube videos. There’s always more to learn!!

If you want to see an overview of the types of hives that are options for you to choose from, click here.

If you want to see the pros and cons of running a Langstroth hive, the most common hive in the US, click here. Or read an overview of different hive types here. Also you can read about Warré hives here.

Happy Beekeeping!!

Guard bee at a KTBH entrance.
Guard bee at a KTBH entrance.

 

5 Replies to “What are the pros and cons of Kenyan and Tanzanian horizontal top bar hives?”

  1. Hi Ba! I am a new beekeeper as well and I am planning on my first shakes this spring for my top bars. I too have read numerous books on Langstroths and Top Bar Hives and for me I find that the top bar will be easier to handle since I am not a big person. I also have found very little support here in Ontario for Top Bars. The inspector and others are not keen on them because of problems with cross combing and over wintering abilities. So I am going ahead with them anyways and I believe that if managed properly they will be successful. I am looking forward to hearing how your top bar makes out after this brutal cold weather of February. -24 here today in Huntsville Ontario today. -42 with the windchill. I would imagine your weather is cold too. Laura Beacom

    1. Hi Laura! How exciting that you’re going to keep KTBHs! I am surprisingly emotional about mine compared to my two Langs – i.e. I am an unfair mother who loves one “kid” more than the others, but I do love them all. It will be interesting to see how mine overwinters. Regarding your local beekeepers concerns, 1) cross combing: I made the mistake of forgetting to check the hive every 2-3 days in the beginning & I did have some cross combing starting. I think it’s an easy solution to make sure we get out there often as a hive is establishing, every 2-3 days, and if the comb’s a little crooked, straighten it while it’s tiny. And then, when we have a couple of big, straight pieces of comb, move one to the far end, a bar or two ahead of where the bees are building new comb to act as a straight guide to keep the new comb straight. You probably read all that already. So that concern I think is easily addressed.  But 2) overwintering, who knows!? This may really be a concern. It’s what I keep hearing from local beeks here, too. But yet per Chris of Betterbee.com (one of our local beekeeping supply companies), they had a KTBH they didn’t expect to live, survive last winter. They just threw on some pieces of rigid insulation around the hive and it made it to spring. And Christy Hemenway is in Maine & keeps KTBH successfully. I guess all we can do is try & be willing to lose some bees while trying. FWIW, I am reading my way through Wyatt Mangum’s top bar hive book and it rocks. I think those of us with KTBH need to have this one on the shelf. And yes, it’s cold here too. We’re -55ºF today with wind chills. Good luck staying warm! And good luck with the bees! Let’s prove ’em wrong about KTBH 🙂 hehe. – BA

    2. Hey Laura – I just saw Dr Wyatt Mangum speak this weekend (he wrote Top Bar Hive Beekeeping: Wisdom and Pleasure Combined) and he mentioned cross combing. He sees hives that are started with those triangular combs guides/top bars start the first few combs following the edge, but as they make more and more combs, and they start getting into honey storage farther back in the hive, they start getting off center and things get wonkier and wonkier & cross combing starts. His recommendation is to use a starter strip of foundation set with a wax bead in each top bar. His book has a great set of photos and an explanation. I was planning to use popsicle sticks in a new KTBH hive (Sam Comfort uses these) but now I’m wondering if I should give the foundation starter strips a go? Hope this is helpful. Good luck this spring 🙂

  2. I am using the triangular comb guides and have had great luck with them. So far they have made 13 combs straight as can be. I am trying to come up with a plan for this winter. I am located in the tug hill area of Northern New York the winters are very long and we measure snow in feet not inches. How did your top bar do last winter and what are your plans this year?

    1. Nice! I find they start to curl the ends once they have that many combs going – not the end of the world. Are the mid-ribs of your combs built right on the middle of the top bars? I was too busy to do starter strips of foundation and all my guides for this year are popsicle sticks and the combs are pretty straight (except for those edges as they get further and further into the hive – I push the midribs back onto the popsicle sticks). I found last year there was too much moisture in my hive, so I’m not going to wrap in tar paper. I’ll still put pink housing insulation over the top bars. And I’ll still run some fabric to be a wind block. I saw a beekeeper on Instagram who keeps KTBHs in Chicago. He’s had good overwintering success and he builds a shell around the body of the hive and fills it with straw, FWIW.
      Here was my KTBH prepped for winter last year (and it survived!):
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yI88ifLfY5E
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s8aaoLT3v88
      Good luck with your bees!

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