Build A Top Bar Beehive for Less Than $20

by Jason Akers from The Self Sufficient Gardener is a blog and podcast about growing your own food and living off the land.

For several years now I’ve wanted to keep bees. However the price of equipment and the bees has been prohibitively high for my taste. Combine that with the fact that I always found myself with neighbors somewhat close and I have sufficient reason to not want the trouble. Now that I have a small piece of land with a little acreage and fruit trees, I not only am able but also actually need to keep some bees for pollination.

I had to find some way to offset the costs a bit in order to get me into this interesting hobby. After a ton of research on the Internet and in books I’d borrowed from the local library I found a way to accomplish that goal.

I discovered an alternative to the expensive commercial type artificial beehives. I found the top-bar hive. The top-bar hive is nothing new. In fact, this type of hive is actually thousands of years old, much older than the Langstroth commercial types in use today. In ancient times these hives were built from baskets with small holes and bars were laid across the top that allowed the bees to build their combs.

These types of hives are exceedingly simple to build and maintain which makes it ideal for the use I intend, as I will not be on this piece of property full time. In fact, there is at least anecdotal evidence that top-bar hives are more resistant to colony collapse disorder. As a big plus, they are cheap to build. Makeshift ones can be built from plastic or metal barrels sawed in half and with some limited hardware and a lid.

In fact, in all of my research I could only find one drawback to this type of hive. The top bars without frames do not allow for honey extraction without destruction of the comb. I don’t find this to be a huge problem as I may not even get to extract the honey the first year or so. The problem is that destroying or harvesting the comb requires the colony to spend time and energy rebuilding it to store more honey. Because I’m not a commercial beekeeper it really doesn’t bother me much.

So as a winter project I decided that I would build my own top-bar hive (TBH for short) and I would do it in the most economic way possible. That meant scrounging materials, making use of what was available in creative ways and resisting the urge to run down to the hardware store to buy things.

To build one like I built there is a simple material list that I will provide. Almost anything on the list is optional even the lumber. This can be built in so many different ways that I won’t even give detailed drawings besides just some crude line sketches. Looking at my pictures and researching on the web will show that no one builds two alike and even though I am happy with mine, I’d build the next one differently.

Materials List:

Wood (sizes are dependent on what you want) – Free

Hinges – ~$4

Exterior coated screws (dependent on wood thickness) – ~$3

Metal screen (commonly called hardware cloth) – ~$5

Some type of roofing material (I used corrugated plastic) – Free

Carriage bolts, nuts and washers -~$5

I had some wood in my workshop but I knew where I could get tons of good solid oak boards for free. I work at an automotive factory and everyday we pack dumpsters full of nice pallets. Most of the wood is cheap but a few that hold steel coils are solid and that’s where I found my oak. The boards are roughly 48” long, 10” wide and about an inch and a half thick. Luckily they are tough enough to withstand being taken apart from the pallet. As skids beneath these boards there are heavy 4×4 inch oak beams.

So for the bottom board and the sides I decided to use the oak planks. I decided that the 4×4 beams would be great for legs (something not all TBH have). I used some leftover plywood from a train table I built for my son for the ends and the roof.

Basically you simply take the end boards and mark an angled line on each side. The angle should be the same on both sides but I guess if you were off really bad it wouldn’t really matter. Make the same line marks on both end pieces. You can actually make the size of the end pieces work for you here as you determine the angles. My end boards are about 2×2 feet in dimension. The angle I chose is about 25 degrees. If I had it to do over again I would have chose a much more acute angle. Once you have the lines marked, pre-drill and run your screws in to join the ends to the planks. Depending on the size of your ends and planks you may need to place two planks per side. I joined my top and bottom planks on each side with a small piece of 2×4 scrap. This also gave me another surface to hold screws.

Once I had what I called the general frame built I added a bottom board on two hinges spaced equidistant from the ends. Then I added the metal screen over the bottom. The screen allows ventilation in warmer times and the varroa mites that infect the bee colony will fall through the screen instead of being able to climb back up. The bottom board is on hinges so it can hang free most of the year but can be reinstalled come colder weather. There are about a million ways to accomplish the same thing. This may not be the best.

For the roof, I cut a piece of plywood big enough to overhang the top opening by some distance. Then I placed runner boards that were just big enough to slip over the box itself. The fit is tight and snug. Bees will tend to glue things together if they are letting in too much cold or weather. They will also stand at entrances and fan if things get too hot. I then took and stapled and glued a few pieces of black corrugated plastic that was thrown away at work as well. It is completely weatherproof and lightweight.

At this point you can drill your entrances, add the bars and you are done if you intend on hanging the hive from a tree or sitting it across stumps. For me, I really want it to have legs. It brings it to a height where working is easy and you don’t want to be working with bees and having to bend. You can get them caught in some bad places.

I simply took a few of the beams and cut them to equal lengths and bolted them to the end pieces. They are in very snug and should I find them a problem, I can quickly remove them.

Most people recommend you drill one set of entrance holes. I am a belt and suspenders type of guy so I did two. One is a simple slit at the front where the bees can slide in and out. ¼” is apparently the best size from my research so the slit is ¼” tall and about 4 inches long. The length isn’t greatly important. I then drilled in ¼” and ½” holes about every 4” along the side. This should give them some ventilation and extra spots to enter if one becomes crowded. If they have too many, they can always seal one up.

The top bars were the easiest part. I simply removed the roof and installed a few runner boards near the top of the frame on the inner sides. This allows the bars a place to seat. I’d like to have secured them better. I had a little room at the back so I put a spacer board to fill the gap.

From my research I determined that 1 3/8” bars are the optimal size so after accepting a donation from relatives of some scrap 2” thick pine boards I slit them to 1 3/8” wide and just long enough to fit on the runners, which ended up being about 16”. I then set the table saw blade much shallower and made a 1/8 inch groove about half an inch deep down the length of each bar. The groove was precisely in the middle (3/4” inward from each side). This groove will aid the bees and give them a foothold when they build the downward hanging comb. Don’t cut them in and the bees will not only have a hard time but also so will the beekeeper. I then placed all the bars in and made sure they were reasonably snug and replaced the roof.

Hopefully an update will follow this Spring when I place the bees!