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Preparing a top-bar hive for winter

In spite of all the winter alterations I’ve made to my Langstroth hives, I’ve never done anything to my top-bar hive. Previously, when the temperature dipped into the 20s for more than a day or two, I’ve moved it into the garden shed, a space I keep in the 40s so things don’t freeze. I don’t like this method, mostly because I need help moving the hive, but also because I have to keep monitoring the outside temperature and deciding when to move it. And when the hive is in there, I have no room.

This year I’m going to do three things to the top-bar hive to make it similar to the overwintering Langstroths:

  • Add a feeder eke above the top bars
  • Add a woodchip-filled quilt box above the feeder
  • Add ventilation holes to the gable ends of the roof

I’ve never needed a feeder eke before because the gabled roof is hollow, which provides plenty of space above the top bars for syrup-filled baggies, sugar cakes, and pollen patties. But adding a quilt box will close access to the “attic” space, so a feeder eke below the quilt box will be necessary if I want to feed.

Since the hive is large (approximately 36 inches by 20 inches) I am going to add two cross pieces on the inside of both the eke and the moisture quilt so they don’t fold into parallelograms.

The thing I haven’t figured out is how to keep the hive aligned when the finished parts are stacked in place. The roof is telescoping, but when you put a telescoping roof over a shallow eke, it gets kind of squirrelly and slides out of place easily. With two shallow ekes below it, it will be even worse.

I’ve thought of using a hook and eye on each end of the roof, but I don’t know if they come long enough to reach from the roof to the hive body. I’ve also thought of using a tie-down. It’s the raccoons and possums that are most likely to knock the roof off—and there are plenty of them around. So until the hive is propolized into a unit, I will need to hold it together somehow.

So I’ve measure the hive, drawn a sketch, and now I’m off to buy 1 x 3-inch boards. I already have a hole saw*, hardware cloth to cover the vents, and all the necessary fasteners, such as screws, nails, and staples.

This doesn’t seem like a difficult project. Besides deciding how to critter-proof the roof, the hardest part will be finding 1 x 3-inch lumber, which my local Home Depot doesn’t always keep in stock.

Rusty

HoneyBeeSuite.com

*Please note: Microsoft Word keeps trying to make this read “whole saw.” I actually have a whole saw—a whole hole saw—but try convincing Microsoft of that.

Comments

Hello_Kitty_
Reply

Feeling your pain… I love Microsoft Word as much as I love my mac.
Got any pictures of a possum? – HB

Rusty
Reply

Possums are like armadillos; the only time you can get up close and personal is right after they’ve been run over by a truck. I see them skulking around in the dark sometimes. I hear them knocking over the compost pail. But do I actually have a picture? No. There is something I like about them, though. If the cats leave dead things lying around, the possums clean them up during the night . . . no matter what it is, it’s gone by morning. Handy, that.

Chelsea
Reply

Question about quilt lids and TBHs. Our TBH bars sit snugly together, with no space in between. I thought about making quilt lids for the hives, but then figured that the benefit in having them (for ventilation) would be pretty minimal without space for air to flow up. We’ve tarped our hives and I may put some newspaper on top of the bars for an extra layer of insulation (and maybe stuff the spaces outside our followers with some insulation if I can think of something that won’t encourage mice to nest). What do you think?

Rusty
Reply

Chelsea,

I removed a bar from my top-bar hive and spaced them a little to allow some air to flow upwards through the hive. I figure they are not making comb in the winter anyway, so burr comb shouldn’t be an issue. I can add the bar back in early spring.

Newspaper is an interesting idea. It can absorb a lot of moisture and it provides good insulation as well. I’ve never tried it, but if you decide to use it I’d be interested in seeing how it works out for you.

What kind of tarp do you use? And how do you support it? I think a tarp sounds good as long as moisture doesn’t build up underneath it. With good ventilation, I think it should work well.

Chelsea
Reply

Huh, that’s a smart way to do it, moving the bars apart a little. We’ll see how our outside bees fare this winter (last year, we only had bees on a covered balcony) and maybe we’ll make up some quilt lids for next year.

They aren’t insulated tarps or anything, we just wanted to try to shed a bit more water if we could. We just tied them down with bungees and put bricks on top to keep the tarps on and lids from blowing off.

Good thoughts on the paper. We’ll definitely give it a try and let you know.

Lynn
Reply

1st year for hive… top bar hive.
Winterized similar to you.
— vent in gable ends (put them in when I built TBH)
— roof telescopes over the bars, body
— built a insulation box from 1 by 3, telescope over bars, body.
— Insulation box has 4 square pegs (extend up about 1″) at the inside corners. Roof will fit on top of box, pegs to keep them aligned,
— Insulation is muslin bag with wool fleece in it. Wool will absorb moisture and still be insulating.
Hoping for good winter-over. It has been mild in Maryland so far.

John Wetherall
Reply

Hi Rusty!
I’m sending this message wondering a few things. I’m in the process of purchasing a langstrof hive from the local bee-man. I’d like to have a top bar hive. Is there a way I can take the frames and put it in a rectangular top bar hive? Or I’d be stuck with a lang? I got preference on the TBH cause it does not bother the bees as much and less lifting. Would they last in our winters as well? I’m in a small village Cascapedia-St-Jules. Quebec, Canada.
Thanks for the help.
John

Rusty
Reply

John,

It’s not exactly easy, but it can be done. What you have to do is cut the combs out of their frames and then tie them onto the bar of your top-bar hive. What I usually do is make a sling out of string. Just wrap it around comb and top bar a few times so the comb is hanging there with the top of the comb as close to the top bar as you can get it. In a week or so the bees will attach the combs to the bars and they will also eat away the string.

Another possibility is you may be able to cut away the side and bottom bars of the Langstroth frames and then cut the Lang top bar to fit the TBH. Whether that will work depends on the dimensions of your particular TBH.

Rex
Reply

I have installed 1.5″ of closed cell foam on the sides of my top bar hive.
Holding it on with 2″ fender washers 4 per side.
Thinking it will really protect the hive from the cold during a bad winter.
Rex

Doug
Reply

Hi Rusty –

I have a 48 x 20 inch TB with gabled roof here in fashionable Davis, CA; this is the first year for both me and the colony, which is doing very well in spite of their “first year beekeeper.” I also have a Langstroth with a first year colony that’s doing well – I’m preparing the Langstroth for winter by assembling a moisture quilt and 2 inch feeder rim for pollen and/or grease patties, and “soft ball” candy cakes.

When feeding the TB colony I’ve just place a syrup feeder at the back of the hive, in front of the follower board and assumed I’d do the same with patties but placed on a shelf 2 or 3 inches below the bars – well above the screened bottom and cooler temperatures in the hive.

I’m curious as to how you arrange spacing between bars in your TB hives – particular bars supporting the cluster – to allow access over the winter to patties placed on top of the bars? Even when inspecting the TB this past year I’ve always been careful to try and keep the bars with brood tight together particularly as the temperatures have been gradually dropping as we start into the fall?

Do you place spacers between the bars of stored honey with “ports” cut in them for access, or do you just arrange a few bars with “bee spaces” between them?

Thanks,
Doug

Rusty
Reply

Doug,

My top-bar hive holds 23 bars. I remove three and space out the rest to allow bees to access the patties and to provide ventilation so the brood nest stays dry. I don’t want moisture from respiration to condense below the bars. The colony in my tbh is the longest continually living colony I have, going on seven years.

Anne Bulger
Reply

Rusty, I am super impressed! I live in Maine and just started a TBH after many years of Langstroth beekeeping in the PNW. Have you considered a quilt box for your TBH? Do you feed sugar during the winter months as well as patties?

Best, Anne

Rusty
Reply

Anne,

I purchased the lumber to make a quilt for my top-bar hive about five years ago. It is still in my barn. They do fine without it.

I feed sugar only when I think they need it, and patties only in late winter.

Shanna Rose
Reply

Re: winter feeding. I am under the impression that the propolis seal that the bees make between the bars for the winter should not be broken. Have you used this method of feeding from above with spaced top bars? Do you space all the bars, or only those above the brood nest? If you feed candy or dry sugar on top bars doesn’t the quilt bag ( I will fill with wool) get sticky? What state do you live in?

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Shanna,

1. You shouldn’t break propolis seals unnecessarily, but you can’t skip good management practices in order to save them. In any case, they reseal quickly.

2. Yes, I use this method every year in my top-bar hive.

3. I space several bars, two or three on each side of the brood nest.

4. I feed hard candy disks.

5. I normally don’t use a quilt on my top-bar hive.

6. Washington.

Sandy
Reply

Rusty-

How do you feed the hard candy in the winter? Is it on top by the spaces or do you have it on a top bar in the hive? I live in Northern MN. My top bar did make it last year but half the hive had died. The observation window had condensation on it through out the window. I want to prevent that this year. I had one top bar with holes on one end with fondant but I had mice issues chewing on it instead of the bees. I like the idea of removing a few bars and spacing the top bars further apart. I plan to put moisture board over that. How soon can you remove the bars so they will not seal it up again before winter. I don’t want to wait until it gets too cold either. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Sandy,

It depends on how your hive is designed. Mine has lots of space above the top bars because of the gabled rood. If I need to feed, I just lay sugar patties (candy cakes) on the top bars for the bees to eat. I sometimes add a few mouse traps up there, just in case.

Rhonda
Reply

Rusty, do you wait until you actually need to feed (you indicated late winter in your case) to actually separate the top bars on either side of the brood nest? Or do you create your spaces in late fall, early winter, etc.?
I too have a gabled roof and live in Zone 6b.

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Rhonda,

I generally wait until I need the space, otherwise the bees will just fill it in.

Maury
Reply

Rusty,
This is my second winter of TBH, and unfortunately again my bees again died off. First time around was in December, this year first week of Feb.
The first year I’m pretty sure mites played a big role, but I did a lot better oxalic acid management this year, so this year I’m thinking moisture was the main culprit. Bees were quite moist, and there was condensation and mold inside in places.
I live in zone 6b Leavenworth (Eastern Washington for all non-Washingtonians), and we’ve had some double-digit nights, but nothing real cold. Days lately have been getting up into the 30s easily.
My hive is under an open shed that screens from wind pretty well, and then the hive itself I just cover in blankets. I had left all the topbars together from October on, then also had 2″cedar shavings in a burlap bag over the bars for extra insulation, as had been suggested, and I plugged my gable roof vent holes in November, leaving them just their 1″ regular entrance hole. (here I guess I was trying to mimic a natural one-entrance hive as much as I could).
I have an insulated (closed) bottom board for the winter.
I made my own passage bars, and there was plenty of honey left, but they died off as a pretty good pile on the left-hand side of the hive, above their entrance hole.

1) About how far apart do you crack open the top bars (bee-space size?), and when in the year?
2) With the top bars separated and no quilt, do you leave the gable roof end-vent holes open, too?
3) What’s you’re insulation set-up around or on top of your hive? (As mentioned above, I covered mine with several layers of blankets.
4) Do you feed every year, or do you think bees in a TBH have the ability to migrate horizontally to their honey stores farther down the hive?
5) Any other comments/feedback you could give me based on info above?
6) Where in WA do you live?
Thanks much,
Maury

Rusty
Reply

Maury,

1. Yes, bee-space size, about 3/8-inch.
2. The gabled roof on my tbh does not have end vents.
3. I do not use any winter insulation in or around my tbh.
4. The bees will migrate horizontally in one direction only, so if they begin winter in the center of the hive, they usually just eat through half of the stores. I check their honey supplies in fall so I can decide whether or not to feed.
5. Every colony is slightly different, so you have to check on them.
6. N/A

Maury
Reply

Thanks for reply! A couple follow-up questions if I may:

1) In a 2016 post, you said you were taking out 3 of 23 bars and “spacing the rest”, and in 2017, to Shanna, you said you spaced “2 or 3 on each side of the brood nest”. Could you clarify how you’re currently spacing the bars to best effect?

2) And if just “2 or 3 on either side of the brood nest”, do you crack open new bars and close up the old as the bees (hopefully) migrate horizontally?

3) About how many bars would you say your bees travel horizontally in a winter. I’m sure this depends on the hive and the winter, but could you say there’s a rough average you’ve seen?

4) Lastly, sorry if the location question seemed nosy–I could have asked this better. What I was really wondering was just a general western vs eastern WA to get a better idea of usual winter temps, length, and so on. That piece of info would really be helpful though, as you mention not using insulation, etc.

Thanks a ton for your feedback, this is really helpful. Our local bee club is all Langstroth, and I’m the lonely TBH.
–Maury

Rusty
Reply

Maury,

1. So when deciding how many to space, it depends on how big the colony is. If it’s enormous, I space throughout the hive. If it’s smaller, maybe 6 or 8. That’s why I cannot give a specific number; it just depends on conditions.

2. No, I just leave them alone until I feel I need to adjust the spacing for some specific reason. During spring inspection I often rearrange things.

3. Perhaps ten.

4. The internet is a scary place. I’m west, south of Olympia.

Maury
Reply

Thanks! And here’s to third time’s the charm!

P.S. You’re right about answer #4. My wife looked at how I’d asked the location question the first time and gave me a very good-natured “duh!” and kick in the pants.

Maury
Reply

Thanks for useful info in your last reply about your technique of spacing out the bars on either side of the broodnest, but it left me with one other concept I’m trying to wrap my head around:

In a TBH, I get the idea is that the bees migrate horizontally to their new honey reserves as needed. But if the hive begin broodrearing during the winter, it seems their cluster will have to stop because those brood can’t move and the cluster will then have to stay there to keep them warm!

1) So do you see them stop then at some point to raise brood, and if so, when-ish during the winter (I’m in Leavenworth and I know winter will be longer here),
2) If they stop, is that when you crack the bars on either side of the broodnest and feed fondant and/or patties on top the bars as needed?
3) With a good sized cluster going into winter (7-8 frames?), is it possible they just set up their broodnest some distance from the entrance hole and then hold tight, kind of like they do centered in a Langstroth?
4) Lastly, do your TBHs have an end or a side-end entrance? Do you have a preference?
Thanks!
–Maury

Rusty
Reply

Maury,

If it’s warm enough above the cluster, the retriever bees will bring food back to the broodnest. I always see my top-bar bees getting the sugar and then disappearing with it, surely taking it to the nest since that colony has survived ten years. I feed sugar proactively, beginning around October. Based on infrared photos, my top-bar colony stays pretty much in the center all winter. I have an end entrance, never tried a side entrance on that hive.

Maury (Leavenworth WA 6b)
Reply

Thanks much. Did I also read that you keep an upper entrance/exit open during the winter?
If so, where do you have it in relation to the main entrance and of about what size?

It would also be interesting to hear from some folks in colder areas like the Midwest or Northeast about whether they crack the bars a bit during winter. It seems like all the info I’ve come across (from these areas?) emphasizes the importance of not breaking the propolis seal. But if so, then the bees are depending on moving horizontally to their new stores of capped honey and in the process potentially leaving their mid-winter brood behind, or staying put with the kids and figuring out how to bring the food to them. Maybe there’s periodically enough warmth (either passive external, or active internal from the bees) that some retriever bees can bring in food from surrounding combs?? I haven’t yet found anyone commenting further on this with respect to TBHs. Any ideas or sources would be appreciated!

Rusty, your info from a milder area is helpful, because we’re kind of a blend of weather here, but if there’s also anyone out there from cold places, I’d love to hear!

Cheers,
–Maury

Rusty
Reply

Maury,

I don’t have upper entrances in my top-bar hive, only in my Langstroths. I don’t pay any attention to the hype surrounding the propolis seal. Propolis is very pliable, even at those times when it appears brittle from the cold. With pressure from the box above it, or with pressure applied with a tie-down, it usually reseals quite quickly even in fairly cold temperatures. I think the warmth from the bee bodies has a lot to do with the resealing, but part, I think, is its molecular structure. I would hate to see someone forego a needed feeding because they were afraid of breaking the seal. You can keep them sealed up like Fort Knox but without food, they will starve to death regardless.

Granny Roberta in nw CT USA
Reply

Maury, I’m in Connecticut, and after two years of failing to get a single long hive colony through our winters (which can’t possibly be as cold as, say, Alaska, but are probably a good deal colder (and dryer) than Rusty’s), I started stacking up my long hives for the winter. They are not top bars, but Langstroth compatible. I just put a ten frame double deep over the brood end, and move the ten frames from the other end up into that. Put a migratory cover over the empty end and some homosote and a ten frame outer cover over the stacked end. Apply some judicious duct tape to the potential leak between empty half and stacked half, and suddenly mites become my main problem instead of starvation with plenty of unreachable honey.

You might be able to build a box to the dimensions of your top bar and try this.
At some point I might invest in a Valkyrie, to see if the extra insulation makes all that fiddling unnecessary.

Maury
Reply

Granny R, that’s some serious out-of-the-box thinking. Appreciate the post!

For me it’d be quite the DIY rig, which, however, isn’t exactly unheard of in the bee world.
Sounds like it would mean making a custom box, and then putting in sloping sides so that the trapezoidal TBH frames would fit snugly, and then cut access thru the center bottom. Tops for both ends of the TBH, stacked and regular, and plug the leaks reasonably well. I’ll check out the Valkyrie to see what that is.
Doing all this, however, would mean getting rid of my oh-so appreciated gabled lid on hinges (got a bad back), at least for the winter.

For now, what I’ve decided to do is move my hive into a much better location as far as winter sun and aspect, continue to stay nicely on top of the mites with vaporized OA, be OK with feeding sugar/pollen strategically (I tried to let them do only their own forage last year, and they never quite built up), and start again with a queen having locally-proven, overwinter-successful genes from one of our local bee gurus.

I would still like to see if the regular TBH set-up can actually work, but will keep your comments in mind. I have a friend who built his own long hives last year and he had to jump in with some emergency sugar a little while back. I’ll pass on your idea his way for sure.

Can anyone else out there in cold winter areas comment on success with overwintering top bar hives??

Thanks,
–Maury

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