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History of Top Bar Hives

It may never be known just how long mankind has been using top bar hive principles. The sticks and the straw have long since disintegrated. There are drawings of beekeeping in Egypt [1] . Early beekeepers are depicted blowing smoke into hives of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini or Neuserre Izi or Niuserre Isi and sometimes Nyuserra (in Greek known as Rathoris), before 2422 BC. [2] [3]

Thomas Wildeman, 1768/1769, describes an early straw hive or skep "so that there are in all seven bars of deal" [in a 10-inch-diameter (250 mm) hive] "to which the bees fix their combs"[4]. Wildeman suggests to the readers a less destructive form of beekeeping over the old skep and killing the bees for the honey. [5]  Wildeman even thought to include a straw top at a later time similar to modern supers.

Sir George Wheler, accompanied by Dr. Spoil of Lyons, published “A Journey into Greece in 1682. Sir Wheler studied many ancient artifacts in Greece including a Greek hive—an inverted skep with wooden bars 1 1/2 (38 mm) wide across the top to which bees attached their comb[6]. The sloping sides of which reduced the bees tendency to attach combs to the sides allowing the beekeeper to manage the colony with minimal disruption.

The Honey Bee; its Natural History, Physiology, and Management, published in 1827 by Edward Bevan details a multi-story top bar hive. Lorenzo L. Langstroth frequently references Bevan’s work in his “Hive and the Honey Bee”. Edward Bevan made his top bars 1 1/8 wide, with a 7/16 gap between center combs (1 1/2 between combs) and gradually increasing the gap to 9/16 (1 5/8 between combs).

Dr. Eva Crane, founder of the International Bee Research Association(IBRA), documents seeing top bar hives in various cultures starting in 1949 [7]. Eva traveled to such places as Greece, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Mrs. Crane compiled 60,000 works on apiculture currently housed at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. It is no wonder so many cultures discovered the bees propensity to attach comb to any horizontal surface.

The present day top bar hive, with sloped sides (Kenyan) was developed in the early 1970’s by a Canadian, researcher, Dr. Maurice Smith. It has sloped sides, about 30 to 40 degrees, similar to Dr. Whelers Greek findings. The original top bars were of wood 1 3/8 inches wide. Vertical guides with wax were suggested to promote straight comb building. Top bar length was 15 to 24 inches. Langstroth used the same 1 3/8 spacing for his frames almost 150 years ago.