Underwear teaches us Change is Good

“Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” – George Bernard Shaw

Now I have tried to make this blog article all high and mighty I have to disappoint and say it is just about how to get colonies for conventional hives (like Nationals and Langstroths) over to top bar hives (specifically kenyan top bar hives). This is definitely a perennial question on the forums I frequent and I am a little embarrassed to admit that I just copy and paste the last time I answered it now. I thought I could at least write a slightly more complete appreciation on the topic in a blog post.

Just to get it out of the way first and foremost if you are new to beekeeping the best way to get bees into a top bar hive is ……. COLLECT/CATCH A SWARM….. that’s better.

For those already beekeeping using conventional equipment and interested in giving kTBHs a go here are some options.

1) – Shook swarm into the topbar hive.
Transfer all flying bees, by substituting hive location, some or all comb bees and the queen to the top bar hive. At the end of spring is the ideal time for this as there is little or no brood. Doing this later in the year would require either ditching all the brood (poor bees) or maintaining the nuc to raise an emergency queen. Many conventional beekeepers will do this at the beginning of the year for a Bailey comb change to cycle out old comb.

2) – Comb Substitution.
The top bars you are using should be the same length as the frames so you insert empty bars between brood frames and they will draw them out. As the current frames are capped moved them to the outside so they are only filled with honey, perhaps behind a vertical queen excluder. When the frame is empty of brood remove it and add another top bar. You must take care not to let the natural comb extend beyond the dimensions of the topbar hive but a little trimming is fine.

3) – Chop and Crop.
An extreme and immediate approach and not to be attempted alone. You cut the frame from around the outside and trim the comb to the dimensions of the top bar hive using a follower board as a template and a bread knife to cut. You then screw a full top bar onto the frame top bar and put it in the hive. Many people have found this to be a “tearing of the sticking plaster” approach. Hard on the bees and the keeper but over and done with fairly quickly. At the right time of year they can recover fast and the “leftover” bits of comb can be put in the hive at one side so the bees can empty them.
Chop and Crop by Phil Chandler
American Version (the same but with power tools)

4) – Growing Into.
Growing the colony down or up through nadirring or supering. This works on the idea that you produce another box for the bees to expand into. This almost never works and you end up tying up equipment and messing the bees about for a long time.
growing down by Phil Chandler

5) – Converter Hive.
Build a hive that is half national half topbar. Allow them to grow horizontally into the topbar hive and when the queen crosses over to lay on the natural comb slot a queen excluder between the two. Remove the frames as the brood emerges. Once on the top bars transfer to top bar hive, placing the hive in the same location to allow flying to orientate more easily.

I am currently doing 5) and it is working well. I would say that you should try to get them on natural comb a bit first or giving them top bars this time of year will just give you drone comb-a-plenty. Below are pics of the converter hive I made using a national brood box. This is just a standard national brood box with some sloped sides inserted to the top bar profile. This takes 6X frames, and 6X 36mm top bars and a 5 mm spacer.


You could make your converter hive by joining a national and kTBH nuc together if you wish by cutting big enough holes in the side. Logistically I think this would be more difficult because of roofs etc but it is certainly possible.

A video of the converter hive after a few weeks in use.

The inserts I have made here were a quick and dirty job I am afraid. The bees inevitably build comb under the inserts because they aren’t solid or boxed off. I will at some point make a boxed off insert with floor. I don’t mind in this case as I will be using this as a “hybrid” hive where I can maintain bees on frames and top bars in case I need to rescue another colony in either (and vice versa).

Hope this helps those wanting to give kTBHs a try. Please do feedback on your experiences.

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Happy day

Leaving work today I spotted a woodpecker!.. Not so amazing I know but I had had an awful week and chose to believe this was a good omen. When I returned home I checked in on the chickens and all of them had laid! Not a bad start, small but in the right direction. Then the phone rang. It was my bee association chairman Alan. One of his hives had swarmed and would I like them. would I?… WOULD I! … I feel a long post coming on 🙂


He had collected them in a straw skep and it was a simple shake in and go. I had two full top bar combs to offer them as a house warming gift and thus far they’ve stayed put. I have decided this queen and her progeny will be named for members in my bee association. Welcome to the apiary Queen Alan.

Queen Wonderwoman
This hive so far should a poster child for top bar hives. They recovered quickly after winter, having had no feed. They have built up steadily and fly even on poor weather days. Other than some drone brood and a few queen cups they show no signs of preparing to swarm (I am going to regret saying that aren’t I!).

When inspecting a top bar hive in spring and summer, if there are enough bees and the queen is laying, I will gap the brood nest. This involves inserting an empty top bar every 2-3 brood combs. I will also ensure there is an empty bar on the leading edge of the nest. Adding an empty bar next to comb that may be used for honey can result in the bees building that comb out further rather than building a new one. The next comb they build will then be on the join of two top bars instead of on a comb guide. This isn’t ideal… If you know they have done it, it is awkward. If you don’t know they have done it, it can be catastrophic.

After gapping the brood nest on Sunday they had 20X 38mm (1 1/2″) bars. 20 bars in this hive equates to a volume of ~58L, as a benchmark a national brood box is 35L and a langstroth is 42L and some of that space is taken with frames.

Queen Bramble
This hive is building up well. The colony has been on a mess of comb across 5 frames for a while now and resisting all attempts to get them off and on to straight comb….bless them….They are second generation on this jumbled mess as my previous attempts just lead them to swarm.

Last year I knocked up a “converter hive” for someone in my bee association but they never used it so I thought I might give it a try. It has worked a treat so far. My plan isn’t actually to get these off of frames completely but to have a half-and-half brood box so I have backup for my national and top bar hives.

Now the top bars are built out and have brood on I will move the tangled mess frame up into a top brood box and place frames with comb guides underneath. Hopefully this will encourage them to build down and across onto these new frame with lovely straight comb…possibly…maybe…perhaps. Once the queen in laying in the bottom box I will put a queen excluder (normally something I avoid) in between allowing the messy top frames to be cleared of brood. Depending on how long that takes I can then either harvest the top combs with honey OR take them out and feed back to the bees any nectar on them.

Queen Hunmanbee
Considering how weak these girls were at the end of last year it is hard believe they are the same hive. My plans were to leave this colony in the 8 frame nuc they are in to encourage them to swarm. This is their first year of no treatment and a brood break would help the bees deal with any varroa. I still intend to let them swarm but they were going so well I thought I would give them another box. Unfortunately being a nonstandard size I didn’t have a super to fit. What I do have in abundance are warré boxes. I quickly knocked up a converter board and threw it on. It is important when supering with a warré box to ensure there are comb or foundation ladders to allow the bees to move up to the top bars and build down. Without the ladders there is a danger the bees will build up instead and make a real mess as a result. So far this is going well to and I have even spotted the queen in the top box. I even considered a cheeky walk-away split…. hmm…..may be another day.


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Listen or your tongue will make you deaf

May has so far been everything that April failed to be. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the apples are blossoming. The oil seed rape (canola) is going great guns and it looks as though the bees are taking advantage. I have been itching to get into the hives (though this maybe my grass allergy) and having to hold myself back on occasion. All beekeeping seems to me to be a balance between the needs of the bees and the needs (or convenience) of the beekeeper. Very little of what we do is directly beneficial to the specific colony of bees we are handling. I have to remind myself to ask the questions “does this really need to be done?”, “am I just tinkering so I can be with the bees”. It is nice spending time at the hives BUT it is not necessary to convince myself I must open the hives just to spend time with the bees. Just walking my dog down there and watching them fly can be enough. Every time you open the hive you apply a “stress” to the colony. Every time you perform a manipulation you apply a “stress” to the colony. It is in applying carefully measured stresses in the right direction that a beekeeper can shape a colony to … increase the colony’s size… split the colony… make honey… raise queens… develop disease resistance… transfer to a different hive type etc. Some of these elements we can convince ourselves are in the colony’s interest, some are entirely in our own. Swarm control, for example, is almost entirely in the interests of the beekeeper and not the colony. I say almost entirely as in built-up areas where a swarm is most likely to make its home in someone’s house, and potentially be exterminated as a result, swarm control through splits and shook swarms may be the best option for the colony. Swarm prevention through making space may ultimately in the best interests of both. Some stresses applied can ultimately be too much too soon and damage the colony’s ability to thrive. One reason I like top bar hives is that you can apply smaller stresses. You are able to add or remove single combs/bars. In conventional hives you usually manage things by the box thus making the stress applied much larger. If the colony is strong and can cope with the stress this can certainly still be in their favour. Below is a little example of how I like to massively overthink things.


Now an update:
Kenyan top bar hive:
Queen Wonderwoman (as captured by Kyle last year) came out of winter quite well and is building up steadily. There is plenty of drone brood and a few queen cups, though not with food or eggs. I have gapped the brood nest with empty bars every two to three brood bars twice and they are filling the gaps nicely.

Poppy hive:
Queen Bramble took over from Queen Poppy last year and there are still six national frames with horizontal diagonal and swirly comb joining it all together. I have transferred these frames into national box with an insert allowing six national frames and 6 top bars. They initially started drawing comb at an inconvenient angle. I removed the inconvenient comb and put a 2 inch strip of corrugated cardboard between the last frame and the first top bar to force them to “see” the top bar comb guide in isolation. Over time they can then chew out the cardboard so I don’t need to disturb them too much.

Queen Hunmanbee
This was a three frame nuc I purchased from a supplier in a local village called Hunmanby. This was originally to replace a queen in another hive who then turned out to have one *doh*. This left me with a VERY small  and weak colony. I built them an 8 frame deep nuc from 1 inch marine ply and they survived winter *woo*. This colony is wall-to-wall brood. The queen is laying great guns and, being a deep box, the frames have a good amount of worker and drone brood hanging off of the bottom too. I will keep this a small colony and allow them to swarm as this will be the first year they haven’t had varroa treatment. Keeping them small and allowing them to swarm will provide the colony (following a swarm colonies) with a brood break to help with varroa control.

This Saturday my beekeeping association will be coming to my apiary for a training session on top bar hives.  I am really looking forward sharing this practice with them as there as still quite a large number of incorrect assumptions around top bar hives. Hopefully the weather will hold out but the forecast doesn’t look good.

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Ventilation or Insulation

I don’t think it is possible to be a bee keeper for more than a month without hearing a lecture from another bee keeper about the importance of insulation OR ventilation, depending on the time of year it could quite possibly be the same bee keeper.

Insulation I get. I can console myself with the concept that the better the insulation the less work bees have to do in order to maintain an optimal temperature in their hive. Remember, bees are not warm-blooded animals, if they do not actively generate heat, there is no heat. Yet they maintain a temperature very similar to that of a warm-blooded animal (within the brood nest).

The ventilation bit I have a little more trouble with. The hollow cavities of trees are not well known for being “airy”. Also from my own experience in using bait hives the bees will not choose a bait hive that has multiple or large entrances. I am willing to accept that perhaps as the intelligent humans who can use calculators and spreadsheets we may have done the work to prove that despite what the bees think ventilation is better for them. Perhaps someone has worked it out, ventilation is what bees need. Humans know best! After all we do have digital watches.

Much of what I will now talk about is to a greater or lesser extent from Ed Clark’s book Constructive Beekeeping (available for free online from Cornell Uni Press). I am afraid this may turn into another lecture *sigh* sorry folks.

“Commercial beekeeping has for its object the production of the maximum quantity of honey at a minimum cost. Swarming adds greatly to the costs of producing honey. Most methods of swarm-prevention have in them the element of destructiveness. Ventilating, removing the queen, shaking the bees, removing the brood, exchanging brood-bodies, loosening the cover, all destroying something that the bees have done, or adding to the work to be done in the hive.” “Instead of going into the hive and telling the bees (by manipulations) ‘don’t do this’; say to them ‘keep all your brood, keep your queen, keep the cold damp air out of the hive and I will make your hive so perfect a condenser of water vapour that the work of evaporating water from nectar will be done quickly’. We will bring team-work into play, and each get the benefit of every advantage gained.” – This is a word for word transcription from the introduction on “Constructive Beekeeping” by Ed Clark originally published in 1918 and available online in full for free. The work wasn’t paid an awful lot of attention to when it was published. I enjoy the book because it doesn’t just communicate passed on lessons. It takes first principles of physics and applies them in a practical way. It is also filled with wonderful jewels displaying that his knowledge is as hard won as our own such as “Familiarity with bees makes a person wonder where the mule got his reputation for stubbornness.”

We know full well that our bees do not like ventilation. They tell us so with the way that coat the inside of their hives with propolis and close up even the smallest of holes. Propolis can be troublesome for beekeepers using framed hives but isn’t really an issue for kTBHs but it forms an important part of the bees control of the hive atmosphere. Ed Clarke uses the “urge” of swarming as an indicator of the bees contentedness with the hive environment provided, and use “room” as the primary cause of this “urge”. When we think of room in a hive we think of physical space, adding another super, adding in top bars. Space in its own right though is of little use to the bee. The bee is interested in usable comb. I say usable comb because at the time when bees have a tendency to swarm their brood is abundant, there is pollen and honey stored above it as food, and then a nectar flow starts. At this point foundation is no good to the bees, and neither is an empty bar. Nectar is 80% water and before it can’t be stored as honey it needs to be ripened. This means four times as many empty cells are required in which to keep the nectar before it is made into honey. Sticking with the idea of “room” being the primary cause of the “urge” ventilation does (in some cases) fit the bill because it generates room. The room is generated though at the expense of warmth and hive atmosphere which not only serves to increase the chance of brood chilling but reduce the opportunity for evaporation. Aha yes… we haven’t spoken about evaporation yet have we! The obvious by-product of turning nectar (~80% water) in to honey (<20% water) is all that extra water. If we use the example of just one pound of water being expelled over night (in order to ripen the honey) we know at a standard hive temperature this would saturate the air or more the 600 hive bodies.

So then “If”…..
a)            The air entering the hive was absolutely dry at 0% humidity.
b)            The air leaving the hive is 100% saturated.
c)            The bees were able to replace the entire hive volume in one minute.
Then this amount of water would take around 10hrs to pass out of the hive.

But when is the air ever absolutely dry. As you can see from the chart below in London the humidity doesn’t drop below 60% on average (in Yorkshire today it is ~90%).


Equally the air leaving the hive is not at 100%, and of course the bees could not hope to exchange a full hive body worth of air through a small opening in the front in one minute. Despite this beekeeper holds on to the idea that fanning is how bees are able to evaporate nectar into honey. In Yorkshire it is 90% humidity and about 8oC (~45 F for US readers). This is almost exactly the environment Ed Clarke worked with in Minnesota and he did “The Math”… “To remove from a hive one grain of water vapour by fanning on May 13 (93%, 8oC/45.5 F ), the volume of air that would have to be moved would be five to six times the air capacity of the hive. To remove one pound of water would require the removal of a volume of air equal to the capacity of from 30,000 to 40,000 hive-bodies.” On evening where there is close to 100% humidity no water vapour could be removed by air exchange. It is certainly beginning to sound unlikely.

When start to talk about the hive as a condenser then some of this begins to make sense. To understand how the hive works as a condenser an understanding of the dew point is useful. Air that is saturated with water is said to be at its dew point. As the temperature decreases the relative humidity increases when this reaches 100% the dew point is met. Essentially put the warmer the air is the more water it can hold. If you then cool that air the absolute amount of water remains the same but the relative humidity increases. Once the relative humidity reaches 100% and the dew point is met water will readily condense from the air. When bees are allowed to control their own affairs they will arrange the hives as a condenser where the temperature difference between the outside temperature and the inside temperature will cause water to condense on the inside hive walls. The reason we don’t see this is bees being animals need a readily available supply of water and this is a excellent source within the hive. This idea is supported by the records of hive weights morning and evening during a nectar flow. If honey produced through moving the water out of the hive the hive weight would change dramatically, but the reality is there is very little variation.

It is important to remember that condensation WILL happen in your hives and it MUST happen on the coldest surface. During winter this surface will often be the surface least insulated. As such if you insulate your hives walls more than your hive roof you risk dripping water into the cluster. This will have a catastrophic effect on the bees.

By propolising the inner surfaces of the hive the bees are further increasing its efficiency as a condenser. Varnished surfaces (or smooth surfaces) readily allow the condensing of liquids. By making the surface a better “receiver” of condensation the bees therefore lower the hive humidity and allow more honey to be evaporated. On condensing the water is forced to release its latent heat back into the hive thus supporting the whole process further. The convection will circulate the released heat into the centre of the hive body and help heat the brood and evaporate the honey.

I fear if I write any more I will lose even the hard-core followers who have only got this far by pinching their thighs in order to stay awake. I am really interested though of what other people think about this one so please comment and discuss.

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A Short Video

Here is a very short video of me actually doing something 🙂

This is a warré hive that went queenless following a swarm towards the end of last year. The comb was diagonal across the bars so I decided to straighten them up to allow for easier handling (should I need to) if a swarms moves in. Can’t remember if I say so but I hung the outer combs in the middle of the lower (second) box. This provides a ladder to ensure (mmm maybe) the bees move down rather than swarm out once they have filled the top box.

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Sprung has Springed

This last week has treated us to a little sunshine and all of a sudden the world is coming back to life.  I was extremely lucky to have booked the time off of work and feel very smug as a result. The week was spent with family, on the beach, visiting seal colonies nearby, fossil hunting, and celebrating my birthday.



My daughter also finally got to do her “zookeeper for a day” Christmas present and even got to hand feed owlets, wallabies, and meerkats.


As I have said all three of my colonies made it though winter and on brief inspection have a small amount of brood. The top bar hive is by far the strongest and even has some winter stores left over at the tops of a few combs.

Since I felt my sap rising too I jumped on the impulse and got my bait hives out ready. This is in spite of fact that I never see a swarm before June :s To be fair this is mostly because I just concentrate of my village area. This is to try and catch any of my swarms along with any local survivor stock. Here is recent post on how. I have also baited up all my empty hives in the apiary as…. well… why not! I want to let my colonies swarm with some degree of regularity as I believe it to be an important process both for the bees and in varroa control. I will attempt to minimize swarming through nest expansion but if I miss the boat and the urge takes them who am I to know better. I may make splits using the swarmed colony if it is large enough but otherwise I will not intervene unless there is queenlessness.  I am lucky that I live sufficiently rural that I can get away with this malarkey, but I put bait hives at different distances in my village to minimize the bees upsetting anyone. It does annoy me a little that a hive swarming is treated as such a terrible thing in beekeeping now when I instinctively feel as though it should be celebrated.


Warré baited up for swarms. Just two of the four boxes.

As well as bait hives of my own I have lent our local vicar two warré bait hives. Joe is very excited to be giving natural beekeeping a try and currently supports nine churches. That is nine churchyards that may well be hearing the buzzing of bees in the not too distant future.
I will publish a short video in the not too distant future of how I set one up.


In other news over winter I have contributed to the YBKA newsletter (March edition). This is the monthly publication of

the Yorkshire Beekeeping Association and had a new editor who wanted to capture some different beekeeping practices.

I will also be hosting my association in my apiary for a Top bar hive training session on 21st May, so fingers crossed I have something to show them.





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Long time no bee

Well it has once again been a long winter’s break for me and beekeeping. I have had to find other pass times like snowflake cutting, visiting relatives and getting under my wife’s feet. I didn’t really blog much towards the end of last year either to be honest. I found last year an extremely challenging beekeeper year. The summer was terrible for the bees here and for the first time I have seen the queens stop laying. I was checking hives and finding no eggs and thinking they had gone queenless. A few combs further on and there her majesty would be. It is the sort of year that tests your principles as a natural beekeeper. I found myself relenting and giving a little top up feed towards the end of the year. Nonetheless I was expecting the worst coming out of winter. This weekend has been the first signs of spring in North Yorkshire with temperature actually reaching double figures for C. The sun seemed a little dazed and confused by the whole thing but managed to burn through the haze and put on a good showing.

I popped over to the hives yesterday lunchtime  and not a bee could be seen flying. I had been to the association apiary (nearer the coast) earlier in the day and all hives were flying strong. I lifted the top covers of my quiet hives and had a look at the small fondant blocks I had put on in February (I lost several colonies to starvation in Feb last year). None of the fondant had been touched and there were no bees in there *sigh*. In the kenyan top bar hive I pulled the follower board back expecting the worst and out came some bees wondering what the hell I was doing. They had made it wooooooooo! Well I was one for three (I understand this is an Americanism and I realise now I am entirely unsure whether this is the correct usage *shrugs*). I checked the next hive and the same start of fondant untouched and no apparent bees, but when I open them bees aplenty. I could not believe. All three of my hives had made it through winter and had shunned my fondant and made it through winter on honey fumes. Well done girls, well done.

This post is a little light on media so here is a really cool timelapse from national geographic.


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