This post will give you a list of pros and cons of langstroth and top bar hives from the point of view of a beekeeper with 2 days of actual beekeeping experience (okay so it is more like six months of actual beekeeping experience and another 6 months of reading and research prior to obtaining my first hive).
I acknowledge there are other types of hives. Warre hives and flow hives are the other popular options however I have no experience with them and do not plan to use them in the immediate future. As such I will focus only on the two types of hives I use. For people who are time poor or don’t care for explanations I’ve compiled a table below to save you having to read the whole post.
|Langstroth Hive||Top Bar Hive|
Is heavier in terms of maintenance – boxes full of honey have to be lifted to complete hive inspections. These can weigh up to 30kg. Is easier to transport/move due to smaller boxes being stacked on top one another.
|Is lighter during maintenance, individual bars of wax and honey are lifted up, but is more difficult to move and transport – requires two people due to its size.|
|Honey production||Produces more honey.
Requires you to have additional frames and usually boxes. You remove full frames, place empty frames in their place and harvest the honey in your harvest room.
Frames full of honey are more stable as they are attached to the frame on three sides.
|Produces less honey. No additional frames (bars) or boxes to store. You cut the honey and wax from the bar into your bucket and replace the bar straight back into the hive.
Bars full of honey are less stable as they are only attached on one side. Combs easily break off bars if they are held incorrectly.
|Honeycomb production||More difficult to remove honeycomb as the comb is attached to three sides of the frame and many frames are strung with wire to provide additional support to the comb and honey.||Easier to cut honeycomb from the bars.|
|Wax production||Produces less wax.||Produces more wax.|
|Honey extraction methods||Manual or mechanical extractors;
Crush and strain.
|Crush and strain.|
|Time to build/paint/assemble when purchased unassembled||Takes longer to put together and paint, as there are more parts.||Takes less time to put together and paint.|
|Space required for hive||Less floor space and more vertical space required, as boxes are stacked on top of each other.
Additional storage space for empty frames and boxes is required (2 or 3 shelves in a shed or garage per hive).
|More floor space and less vertical space as the hive is long and wide.
No additional storage space for hive components.
|Ease and availability to purchase start-up bees and additional equipment||Easier by a long way. Almost all langstroth hives are built to the same specifications so the majority of parts from different suppliers are interchangeable.
Most beekeepers prepare nucs on langstroth frames so buying start-up bees are easier as well.
|Top bar hives are currently not built to a standard size so if you need extra equipment for your hive you will probably have to go back to the same supplier. However due to the fixed amount of space in a top bar hive, once you have bought it there is usually no requirement for additional frames/boxes like there can be for langstroth hives.|
|Ease of colony inspection||You disturb the entire colony because you lift the lid off the entire hive at one time. The frames sit in the top of the hive boxes with gaps between them due to their design. This can upset more bees at the one time than with top bar hives.||
Less disruptive to the colony. You lift the lid without exposing the entire hive (the bars are lined up firmly against each other and create a seal). You then lift out one bar at a time, inspect it and replace it to reseal the hive.
I was originally drawn to langstroth hives before I purchased my bees. The books and blogs I’ve read mostly agree that these hives produce the most honey. A single full depth frame can weigh about 3kgs when full of honey, something I can comfortably lift. I have a trolley to maneuver boxes so I won’t need to lift 30kg to move a box full of capped honey. The more I researched the more information I found suggesting EPS (high density foam) langstroth hives were better than wood because of their insulation properties. Because of their density they can also be recycled at certain recycling centres. Plus EPS is much lighter than wood so easier to move around.
Top bar hives appealed to me because of the ease you can extract honeycomb. Cut it straight of the bar and slice it up. Much easier than cutting it out of a langstroth frame first. I also like that you slice the comb off the bar and can return the bar straight back into the hive. This means they take up less storage space. Langstroth frames require the frames to be removed from the hive, new frames (or re-used frames known as ‘stickies’) put in and the frames taken to the honey room for extraction. A top bar hive is also one long box so there is no need to store and then add additional boxes (known as supers).
Based on my research I purchased six langstroth hives (five EPS, one wooden) and one top bar. The EPS hives were unassembled. These took about 30 – 45minutes to put together. I purchased unassembled frames as well to reduce my costs. I am still nailing frames together 2 months later. I have enough to place a second box on each hive but still need to assemble more for a third box plus extras to replace frames of honey I take out to uncap. It’s not hard to put together a frame, it takes 5 minutes or less per frame. But 200 frames at 5 minutes a frame is still almost 17 hours work!
Add painting to the frame and hive assembly. Each box takes about 15 minutes to paint. I haven’t painted my wooden boxes – I opted for an oil finish for them (so will need to reapply oil to them every 6 months). Then I had to paint the lids, bases and feeders. All up I spent about 10 hours painting five hives. When deciding whether to buy assembled/unassembled and painted/unpainted hives make sure you factor in the time it takes you to complete these tasks and how much joy you get out of assembling things and painting. If the word ‘Ikea’ instills dread in your chest and causes you nightmares about assembling items than definitely buy equipment that is ready for bees to move straight in!
From a bee and honey perspective most apiarists sell nucs in langstroth frames that can be easily transferred into your new hives. This means the colony already has eggs, brood and pollen at varying stages so the colony continues to expand as soon as it is in your new hive. Top bar hives often require a package of bees to be tipped into the hive. These packages do not contain comb, brood, eggs or food so the colony’s numbers reduce for the first month or so until they have built comb, the queen has started laying eggs and they begin to hatch.
Langstroth frames provide three points of contact for comb (top and both sides) whereas top bars only have one point of contact. This makes langstroth comb easier to handle and less prone to breakages than top bar comb. When extracting honey most equipment is focused on langstroth frames. You can purchase manual or mechanical extractors, which flick the honey out of the comb so you can reuse the comb. This means the bees don’t have to spend time and energy making new comb to store eggs and honey. Or you can use the crush and strain method, which is literally crushing the honeycomb up and filtering to allow the honey to separate from the wax. There are some extractors that take top bar bars however this is not common and most top bar hives appear to use the crush and strain method of honey extraction.
When inspecting langstroth hives you are disturbing the entire colony at the same time. When you inspect a top bar hive you take one bar out, inspect it and return it to the hive before taking the next one out. You are exposing a 3cm wide section of the hive to the elements at a time. In a langstroth you remove the entire lid/roof of the hive and the whole hive is exposed until you close the lid again. The hive temperature drops quicker in this instance.
Langstroth hives are often built at ground height or just off the ground. Top bar hives usually have legs attached which reduces the amount of bending the beekeeper has to do when inspecting hives. Top bar hives are also harder to move compared to langstroth hives due to their weight and length, which usually requires two people even when the hive is empty. This is only an issue for people who intend to move their hive/s regularly.
Simply put, if you are fascinated with bees, looking to pollinate your garden to increase your fruit and vegetable yields, wanting a less manually intensive hobby or looking to produce enough honey for yourself with a bit left over to give to family, friends and neighbours than a top bar hive is probably the hive for you.
Thanks for reading, enjoy your journey!