This is a complex question, and it is difficult to keep the issue between topbar hives and Langstroth hives from polarizing into a debate that slides into the realm of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong. In the end, using topbar hives is a personal choice and one that Les has come to over 35 years of working in the beekeeping industry.
Langstroth hives were developed in the middle part of the 18th century and were lauded for their revolutionary capacity to standardize the beekeeping industry. Prior to Langstroth's invention of the standard hive, bees were kept in a variety of skep-like and topbar-type structures, many of which required the beekeeper to destroy the hive in order to harvest the honey. Langstroth's invention was truly a major innovation for the world of beekeeping, and has allowed beekeepers all over the world the possibility of stepping into commercial production.
With the major industrialization of agriculture that happened in the middle of the 19th century, beekeeping became part of the treadmill of chemical and mechanical standardization that large-scale agriculture entailed. Over time, the Langstroth system has become symbiotic with the use of antibiotics, mitecides, bee fumigants and corn, sugar and soy-based feeds. Wooden and wax parts have become slowly replaced with plastic parts, and the cost of starting a commercial operation is dependant on the purchase of expensive pieces of equipment. Small farm-based operations have largely been replaced by migratory trucking operations that are dependent on large quantities of fossil fuels and a steady supply of mono-crop nectar.
The Langstroth style hive nonetheless offers beekeepers many advantages to topbar hives, some of which are increased honey production, potentially less maintenance throughout the season, and the ability to trade frames with other Langstroth hives. These advantages can be crucial for the commercial beekeeper to whom economy and efficiency are a priority. They may also be used along with a chemical free approach.
The organic movement has gained momentum as a response to the agricultural world becoming increasingly poisonous, both to the earth and to the people consuming the products. This has affected beekeeping as well as crop farming, and the results have been a movement away from chemicals toward a more natural approach to keeping bees. Although organic standards differ from one country to another, they generally require beekeepers to use hives made from natural materials that are untreated with any chemicals. They also require that bees build their own comb, forage in an unsprayed environment and are not fed sugar syrup or treated with chemical inputs.
The topbar hive easily accomodates organic requirements. It can be built by a beekeeper for around $30 - $40 out of rough-sawn wood. It's insides mimic a hollow log, and the bees can draw their comb in whatever manner they choose. This is in contrast to Langstroth hives that are prepared with foundation which designates cell size to maximize honey production. In a natural environment, honeybees will draw out various sizes of cells depending upon the needs of the hive. Often the cell size will change over the course of a season, providing the hive with different sizes of bees, correlating with different functions and characteristics of the bees within the hive.
One of the main drawbacks of topbar hives is that they require a high level of skill from a beginning beekeeper. The possibility for cross-combing is great, and once a topbar hive becomes cross-combed, it can be a very daunting task to clean it up. Cross-combing happens when the bees draw their combs in odd angles to the topbars, sometimes spanning many bars at once, causing the combs to drop and break when the hive is opened. The main skill of topbar hive management involves spacing the combs so that the bees do not have a chance to cross-comb. On heavy honey flows in late summer when there is a great number of bees in the hive, it can be difficult to stay on top of the management if a beekeeper has a large number of hives. This makes topbar hives a potentially discouraging choice for a commercial beekeeper. It is also difficult to load and stack topbar hives for large-scale pollination.
The natural topbar movement has mainly appealed to home and hobbyist operations who have the time and an interest in keeping bees intensively. Although there are some larger topbar operations across the US, they are a small minority compared with the number of Langstroth operations, and their owners and operators are very skilled in topbar management, allowing them to operate with some level of efficiency.
As you consider the choice of whether to keep your bees in a topbar hive or a traditional Langstroth style hive, you could ask yourself what kind of time commitment you are willing to make to your bees. In the intial year or two, you may need to spend more time learning how to manage your hive(s) if you choose topbars. Many topbar hive operators feel that working a topbar hive is much preferable to working a Langstroth hive once the learning curve flattens out. The design can be adapted to one's own preferences and offers a versatility that can appeal to folks who like to experiment.
If you choose to work with a Langstroth style hive, you will have a much larger community of vendors and beekeepers surrounding you. Most beekeeping publications are designed to serve the Langstroth community, and there is a great deal of support for beginners. Although there are support systems for topbar hive enthusiasts, they tend to be smaller groups more oriented toward diversity and lively discussions of hive designs and home-built systems for harvest and wax utilization.
Our commitment to topbar beekeeping is solid, as it is the system that works best for us, and we believe it is ultimately a healthier alternative for the bees. The diversity of cell sizes that are created when bees are allowed self-governance in hanging their own comb is a foundation for the health and diversity of the hive. Systems which tend toward diversity are biologically proven to be more sustainable than ones that tend toward homogenization. This is the lesson that agriculture is learning again and again as monocultures fall prey to disease and disintegration.
The management of hygiene and disease is an integral part of our choice to use topbar hives. In a topbar system, the honey is harvested by taking the whole comb off of the bar and crushing it, allowing the honey to drain out through a colander. The bees then have to draw out fresh comb to replace the comb that has been harvested. This is in contrast to the Langstroth system which pulls the honey out of the comb by centrifugal force, leaving the wax comb intact and allowing the beekeeper to put it back into the hive to be refilled by the bees. Economically, this makes a great deal of sense. The bees don't have to rebuild the comb, expending a great deal of resources and nectar to replace the wax. The beekeeper profits from having more honey at a faster rate of harvest. However, the tendency in larger commercial operations is to keep putting combs back into the hive after the point at which they have become unhealthy for the bees.
Each time bees lay brood in combs, a cocoon lines each cell and when the new bee hatches, the cocoon remains inside the cell, is cleaned out, and a new egg is laid. When the next bee hatches, a second layer of cocoon is left behind, is cleaned out, and the process continues. As time goes on, the cell size gets smaller and smaller, and the comb gets blacker and blacker, due to a build-up of residues inside the cells. The resulting bees are smaller, and the hygiene of the hive is eventually compromised due to a greater level of pathogens. The temptation for commercial Langstroth operations to push this line is great, as the cost of replacing comb means the cost of buying more foundation, as well as losing time and money on having the bees build out new comb.
Les recently had a job inspecting bees for almond pollination in CA. What he saw appalled him. It was during the time that CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) was hitting the bees hard. He saw countless dead or empty colonies, full of black combs with multiple strips of miticide hanging in them. Miticidal strips are meant to be administered for a specific amount of time and then removed. Because of a lack of resources and time, beekeepers were neglecting to remove them and they were building up in the hives. Miticides build up in wax, and wax that was tested in CA showed levels of miticidal buildup that was lethal to the bees.
In topbar hive management, attention and care is given to cycling out older darkened comb by moving them to the back of the brood nest so that they may be filled with honey and culled. The bees are continuously utilizing their wax-making glands, keeping their glandular system active and healthy. By virtue of this system of management, the hives are kept clean and healthy, although the honey yields are lower and the wax yields are higher. Many topbar beekeepers utilize these higher wax yields to make candles, salves and balms that can be used to diversify their businesses.
The other important factor in our choice to use topbar hives is our wish to embody permaculture principles and ideals. A topbar hive may be made fairly easily at home, or purchased for a reasonable price. It is made entirely of untreated wood, and when the bees no longer need to use it for a home, it is entirely biodegradeable. Many Langstroth beekeepers are moving toward plastic parts which last longer, and are therefore a more economical choice. Plastic foundation is put on each frame and coated with wax to encourage the bees to build on it. This plastic becomes part of the carbon footprint of the beekeeper, and when it is no longer useful, it ends up in the landfill.
A topbar hive can also be made for very little money, and managed with no chemical inputs or expensive harvesting machinery. Comb can simply be cut up and eaten as comb honey, or crushed by hand over a colander, allowing the honey to drip into a bowl or bucket. It costs very little to maintain the system, and the rewards are great.