The beginner hive: Langstroth or top bar?
I have a definite opinion on this subject, although I don’t know if it’s completely justified. I’ve managed hives in both types of equipment, both at home and at the state prison where I used to teach beekeeping. It seems to me that, for a beginner, the best option will depend on the individual, the location, the purpose, and the beekeeper’s ability to fabricate equipment. Let’s start by running through some of the issues.
About Langstroth hives:
- Here in the states, Langstroths are fairly uniform in size and shape. Okay, there are some annoying variations from one manufacturer to the next but, for the most part, you can make one piece of equipment work with another. This consistency means you can buy equipment used or on sale, and you will be able to use it with your existing set-up.
- There are many pieces of “bee furniture” available for the two most common types of Langstroth hive—the 10-frame and the 8-frame configuration. By “furniture” I mean honey supers, comb honey equipment, feeders, queen excluders, pollen traps, propolis traps, bottom boards, slatted racks, inner covers, outer covers, feeder rims, gabled roofs, double screen boards, screened bottom boards, escape boards, fume boards—just about any management tool you can think of.
- Langstroths are rectangular and stack and pack easily. If you have multiple hives that you must move, there’s nothing like a Langstroth. They also come apart in neat pieces that are easy to lift—at least easy compared to a top-bar hive (TBH).
- Langstroths are designed to maximize honey production and minimize drone production. However, you can override this design feature by using foundationless frames in your Langstroth hive. In other words, you have the choice.
- Some specialty endeavors—such as queen rearing, pollen collection, or propolis collection—are much easier in a Langstroth, mostly because of the readily available equipment.
About top-bar hives:
- Although top-bar hives have been around for a long time, here in the states they are relatively new. They have no standard dimensions, nor do they have interchangeable parts. People generally buy them from small manufacturers or they build their own. If you are handy with woodworking tools, this is easy and fun. If you are not, it can mean you are at the mercy of someone else to make the extra parts you want.
- Top-bar hives are often bulky and awkward to move around, and they are usually quite long and large. I had three roofs built for my own TBH before I got one I could actually handle by myself.
- After six years, I have never taken any honey from by TBH. Yes, this is probably due to my own shortcomings as a top-bar hive beekeeper, but I find it easy to remove honey from a Langstroth and uncomfortably subjective to take it from a TBH. In other words, I have so much trouble determining how much honey to leave for the bees in the TBH that I end up leaving all of it.
- I don’t have all the equipment I’d like to have for my TBH because I haven’t gotten around to making it or I haven’t envisioned a good design.
- I have never figured out an effective way to raise queens in a TBH largely because it is difficult to sequester the active queen from the rest of the colony. I can see how to do it in theory, but the practicality is another issue.
- All that said, my top-bar bees absolutely thrive. I have used my TBH as a source for bees, queen cells, larvae, and shook swarms—and still the thing bubbles over with healthy honey bees.
In my opinion your choice of hive has a lot to do with your ultimate goal. If you want a simple, inexpensive hive to pollinate your garden, I see no problem with a TBH. If you want to raise queens, go with a Langstroth. If you want the lowest possible start-up cost, go with a TBH. If you want to maximize honey production, go with a Langstroth. If a little bit of honey is good enough, start with a TBH. If you don’t own a saw or a hammer, stick with a Langstroth. If you like fabricating your own equipment, you could go with either.
Still, I think it is easier to manage bees in a Langstroth. Whenever someone asks my opinion, I recommend the Langstroth for beginners and, at least for now, I’m sticking with that. Your opinion is welcome.