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Top Bar Beehives: The Best Beekeeping Method for Healthy Bees | Organic Gardening 365
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Top Bar Beehives: The Best Beekeeping Method for Healthy Bees

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top bar bee hive

Natural Wax from a top bar beehive

Have you ever thought about keeping your own bees?

More and more people are getting involved in this age old pastime. It may seem a little daunting at first: all the equipment, the timing of things, the worry about what is happening to the bee population in general. And of course the concern about getting stung! But the rewards are great.

  • You help to pollinate the flowers, fruit and veggies in your garden and beyond, which can increase your yields.
  • You help support the web of life that is so important to the environment.
  • And…you get honey. Not bad.

Beekeeping has been around for thousands of years and over time methods of beekeeping have evolved.

Christy Hemenway, Gold Star Honeybees

Christy Hemenway, Gold Star Honeybees

Recently I met Christy Hemenway from Gold Star Honeybees, who is a big proponent of using top bar bee hives in her beekeeping. I had never heard of this before and plowed her with questions. Below is the result of our interview.

OG 365: Why should someone raise their own bees? Is it right for everyone?

Christy: Anyone who grows their own garden, be it filled with vegetables, fruit trees, herbs, or flowers can benefit from keeping bees. Bees are not aggressive insects, because they can only sting one time in their life – but they can be defensive about their “brood” (a fancy word for baby bees) and their “food” (i.e. honey). And they can and do sting to protect these things.

But really, aside from people who fear bees, the only people who are not good candidates for keeping their own bees would be the 2% of the population who have an anaphylactic allergic response to bee venom. That reaction can mean life or death within minutes of the sting, so they may want to reconsider becoming a beekeeper. But I know some allergic people who persist in spite of their allergies, because they love the bees.

OG 365: Is it hard to get started? How expensive is it?

Christy: No, it’s not difficult to get started, it’s mostly a matter of timing! Bees are very local, and bee season is connected to the growing season in your area – because bees need blooming plants for food! The cost can cover quite a range. For instance, Gold Star Honeybees’ top bar hives come in 4 different levels, from the construction plans alone, to two different Do-It-Yourself kits, to our Deluxe kit. The prices range from $25 to $495. The different kits are designed to work for different combinations of the beekeeper’s time, money, and woodworking skills.

Then there’s protective gear – a veil and gloves, and a smoker if you want one. Those will run about $100. Then, there are the bees! The treatment-free bees available from Gold Star Honeybees are 3-pound packages, with queen, and cost $150 per package, for pickup at Gold Star’s “Global Headquarters” in Farmingdale, ME in May.

Top Bar Bee Hives

Top Bar Bee Hive

OG 365: You are encouraging the use of top bar hives for beekeeping. What is a top bar hive and why do you recommend it over more traditional types now in use?

Christy: A top bar hive is a horizontal hive, with “bars” that rest across the “top” of the “hive” cavity. The bottom of the bar is beveled downward, which provides a spot for the bees to start building their honeycomb. The best and most important thing about a top bar hive is that the bees make all their own, natural wax combs – without being forced to use pre-printed, chemically contaminated sheets of wax-coated plastic called “foundation.” This allows the bees to do things with their comb according to the intrinsic and changing needs of the hive through the season, and avoids harmful manipulation of the bees. On their own natural comb, the bees are in charge of things like the sizes of the hexagonal cells, which determines the sex of the bee. It’s much more in keeping with the natural processes bees need to live by.

Close-up of a the bars from a hive. The beveled side fits down into the hive and provides a starting point for the bees to build the honeycomb.

Close-up of a the bars from a hive. The beveled side fits down into the hive and provides a starting point for the bees to build the honeycomb.

OG 365: How can you tell that the wax is better when there is no foundation offered the bees? Does it really make a difference to the bees and the quality of the honey?

Christy: The biggest issue with the use of foundation is that the wax used to make it has become contaminated by the beekeepers’ use of persistent pesticides in beehives. The use of toxic chemicals to treat hives for mites builds up in the wax over several growing seasons, then that wax is recycled to make more foundation. This means that the bees are constantly being exposed to low levels of these chemicals, and the mites quickly develop a resistance to them. So now we have sicker bees and stronger mites!

I can tell the wax is better, meaning cleaner – because I have had some natural wax taken from a Gold Star hive tested and the test results came back completely negative for ALL of the 170+ chemicals that have been found in hives using foundation. More information about the wax, and a copy of the test results can be found on my website: GoldStarHoneybees.com (Click on the link and scroll down toward the bottom of the page to download the report).

OG 365: Are there other advantages to top bar hives?

Christy: They are simpler to manage, easier to lift, and most people think they make more sense. They help to make beekeeping more accessible to more people – because they are easier! We like to say they are 3x better:

  • For the Bees: Natural wax combs affect things right down to the level of the gestation period – how long it takes for a bee to be born! This gestation period is tied to the life cycle and the gestation period of the worst parasite bees must face – the varroa mite. Letting the bees be in charge of their own wax comb building, all the way from the start, lets the bees and mites work out a symbiotic relationship so that they do not destroy each other, and mite loads are lower without the use of chemical treatments!
  • For the Beekeeper: A top bar hive demands less lifting during the course of hive inspections. And a Gold Star hive stands at counter-height, making it much more ergonomically friendly for the beekeeper.
  • For the Planet: Gold Star hives are built green. All parts are solid wood, no glued-together laminates are used. The roof is painted – using a non-toxic paint. The window is made of glass, not plastic, and held firmly in place with a non-toxic caulk.

OG 365: Is it hard to convert from the traditional way of beekeeping to top bar hives?

Christy: It’s not difficult at all. It’s just a matter of thinking about things a little differently, basically, and observing the bees’ behavior. There is one important thing that top bar beekeepers must do differently that Langstroth beekeepers don’t have to worry about – and that’s how to safely handle a piece of natural comb – one that is not supported on all 4 sides with a wooden frame. You have to be careful to hold it in line with gravity to prevent it breaking off the bar. That’s all!

Og 365: What are some of the mistakes folks make when starting to keep bees?

Christy: I don’t know if there are any mistakes that come to mind, although people sometimes do have a tendency to worry overmuch and to overthink things a bit. I try to remind people – it’s not rocket science, it’s bees. You can relax a little bit.

OG 365: How do people find out more about top bar hives? You’ve written a book. Could you tell us a little about it?

The Thinking Beekeeper by Christy Hemenway, The Thinking BeekeeperChristy: Sure I can! The name of the book is The Thinking Beekeeper: A Guide to Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives. It’s a lot about the “how-to” of keeping bees in top bar hives, but it’s also about the “why-to.” The recent wave of interest in keeping bees in a healthy way is more than just a trendy new hobby – it’s also a paradigm shift – led by thoughtful people who are worried about the preservation of the honeybee – thus the title, “The THINKING Beekeeper.” It’s available in any number of places – your local bookstore may have it or be willing/able to order it for you. Many local libraries have a copy – if not, ask them to get you one! You could also walk into your local Tractor Supply Company and ask them when they will be carrying it, along with Gold Star top bar beekeeping equipment. And of course, there’s always Amazon!

OG 365: So let’s say someone wants to start raising bees, what should they do first, second and third?

Christy: First – check with the zoning office in your town to be sure there are no beekeeping ordinances preventing the keeping of bees in your location.

Second – decide what hive type you will use.

And Third – get started! Buy a book, join a local bee club, take a class. Ask about whether they will teach about top bar hives when you sign up for the class. Get your equipment, buy some bees, and bee-gin! And be sure to watch for our online classes – they’ll be coming soon!

OG 365: What’s the best way for folks to connect to you if they want to find out more?

Christy: There are lots of ways to get ahold of me.

  • The website is the easiest way — it’s GoldStarHoneybees.com. AND – you can join our newsletter from the home page of the website.
  • LIKE us on Facebook as Gold Star Honeybees.
  • Our YouTube channel is a great resource – our 50+ how-to videos are there for you to learn from. Be sure to SUBSCRIBE while you’re there so you won’t miss anything!
  • You can also go to Yahoo and join the topbarbeekeepers@yahoo.com group.
  • And if you want to give us a call, the phone number is 207-449-1121.

 OG 365: Christy, thanks so much for all this great information. Anything else you want to add?

Christy: Thank you James, for helping me get the word out about raising healthier bees. Without bees, most of the food we eat would not exist. It’s crucial that we understand how important they are to our survival.  That’s why I am convinced about the importance of top bar hives because they help maintain a healthy bee population.

Christy Hemenway, Gold Star Hoyebees

“It’s about the wax.”

Christy Hemenway has been a beekeeper since 2007 and is passionate about honey bees. She is the founder of Gold Star Honeybees, located in Gardiner, Maine. Her concern for the growing problem with bees and extensive research led her to advance the low-tech, natural beekeeping system called the top bar hive. All of the products offered by her company are natural, non-toxic, clean and green.

In 2011 Christy gave a TED Talk highlighting the important connection between honeybees, pesticide-free food, and people. You can watch it here: TEDxDirigo.

She teaches intensive weekend classes on raising honeybees and provides education and support on her website: GoldStarHoneybees.com.

Christy encourages people to think outside the box and reminds us, in the words of John Muir:

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, one finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

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