Build a Top Bar Beehive

Since my childhood I’ve heard stories of beekeeping. My dad and his brother, when they were young boys, would head over to their neighbour’s hives when they needed cleaning. Bare feet, and wearing only cut off’s, they would stand next to the hive, put cotton balls in their ears and nostrils and breathe only out of the very corner of their mouths while the beekeeper smoked the hive. The bees came up out of the hive and landed on my dad and his brother. They grinned from ear to ear, standing as still as could be.  When the hives were ready, the beekeeper smoked the boys and the bees lifted up off of them and returned to the hive. Dad said their skin was glistening after. They had been picked (tickled) clean!

This sounds rather fantastical, and I was enamored, imagining this scene as a child. In my mind’s eye, I saw trees swooning in the summer breeze, mountains in the distance and lots of farmland.

So, here I am now, a city girl. It’s not a practical time in my life to make the move back out to the country, and fortunately, country living is not a prerequisite for beekeeping.  Apparently, bees LOVE the city. It’s warmer in the winter, and the plant variety is amazing. I think of the gardens of my neighbours to the left and right of me and it’s a veritable bee oasis here in Montreal.

Top Bar Hive

In researching the best hive for my situation (not a lot of storage) I came across the Top Bar Hive. It’s heralded as a more natural approach to beekeeping and does not require a lot of equipment.

I found plans to build this particular hive at the Barefoot Beekeeper.  Honestly, it was the first wood project we’ve ever built from scratch, and it was pretty straight forward, once we got over the feeling of overwhelm at the thought of embarking on the process.  I say we, because everything is better with friends. I had much help from my good friends, also novice wood workers (a special shout out to Rosalind for her can-do attitude) and a whole bunch of school aged children. Seriously, if we can do this, you can do this.

We used one sheet of 3/4″ plywood and had the fellas at Home Depot make most of the cuts for us. But you can use other wood – see the plans at the link above for suggestions. All in, I spent less than $100 on the supplies for the hive, and we had a lot of fun, learning as we went.  The kids were so tuned in and thrilled to be sawing, and building and painting.

The plans mention putting in an observation window to provide a view to the busy bees with minimal interruption to them. You can do it in one long panel, or two shorter ones, like we did. I bought the glass and had it cut at my local hardware store (Rona). It was inexpensive.

We  were a little unsure as to where to put the entrance/exit holes. Different sites recommend different things, so we ended up putting three in the center on one side of the hive and one on each end on the other side of the hive (these apparently come in handy if we want to split the hive, should the colony grow large enough for such an action).

I should mention this series of youtube videos that is also worth watching if this is a first time project for you. Very helpful.

Here’s a photo tour of an overview of our process:

Measuring out a Top Bar.

Sawing. Kid power!

We took apart an Ikea dish rack to use as part of the Top Bars.

Removing nails from the dish rack …

… and adhering the dish rack sticks to the top bars.

Hard at work.

We chiseled out the back of the window frame so that the glass would sit flush with the wood.  This was pretty easy with plywood. The layers chipped off without much effort after scoring it with an x-acto knife. 

Sanding down the top bars.


It gets a paint job. The kids LOVED this part.
They did a splendid job.

The winter floor (which, I’ve read some people keep on all summer, too, with good results) is attached with luggage clasps.

Our little roof helper. We cut the end pieces on angles and placed a center bar in there to fix the shingles to. The challenge is to keep the roof weatherproof, but light enough for one person to lift off the hive. This worked well.

Legs on! No wobbling, even. Look at us go!

With roof on and viewing window hatch open. Later we decided to take the hinges off and make the door completely removable. After all, most of us aren’t that short.

And here it is, installed in my back yard waiting for its tenants. We were supposed to go and pick up our NUC (a queen, a few frames of brood and some frames of food/honey) yesterday, but we were rained out. We’ll try again in a few days. 
This was built with help from our greater homeschooling community. Why not get some friends together and build one, too? There are so many great beekeeping resources on the web. You can find a few on my pinterest board, All About Bees.

More about Julie Prescesky

Julie spends much of her time paying attention to what's happening around her. At Design Inkarnation, she's head designer, illustrator, writer and creative problem solver.

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