The Hardison Hive

This preface to "The Appropriate Beehive: An Introduction to Topbar Beekeeping" appears with the permission of Marty Hardison. Read all the way through for the link to download the booklet.

Top-Bar Beekeeping: Promoting Development through the use of topbar hives

Topbar beehives have been designed, redesigned and utilized here in the US for at least three decades. They have become a valued innovative tool for the hobby beekeeper, the third world development worker, and in a few instances the basis for successful cottage industries. The first well known application of topbar hives occurred in Kenya. The Kenya Topbar Hive or KTBH became the starting point for the many variations that followed. Several hive designs have been promoted through The Peace Corps, educational workshops and the internet. Some of those who promoted the use of these hives have been Curtis Gentry, Paul Magnuson, James Satterfield, Dennis Murrell, Conrad Berube, Les Crowder, Corwin Bell, Phil Chandler, and I, Marty Hardison. This is not an exhaustive list but it serves to identify the source of many potential designs for a topbar hive. Every one of the designs of those mentioned has proved successful in managing healthy, productive colonies of bees. But the hives are different. It is indicative of the very nature of beekeeping that all of the re-designers of the KTBH disagree with one another about which hive is best.
   The cause of our disagreements is not couched in obstreperousness. We are a fraternity bonded by a whole lot more than what divides us. But to keep bees is to attend to a matrix of variables. Some of them are defined by local climate and biological conditions. Some have to do with individual preferences and some are influenced by the richness or limitations of craftsmanship, finance and availability of materials.
   My personal beekeeping focus is third world development. I have been privileged to participate in a number of efforts aimed at exporting topbar technology to economically challenged destinations like Haiti, Mozambique, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Texas. The conditions varied vastly and so have the availability of financial and material resources. In each of these locations the hive that I designed which has become known as the “Hardison Hive,” has proved its practicality and worth.
   The Hardison hive has only a handful of features that differ from other topbar hives. The first is shape. The angle of the hive sides is less acute than that of most other TBHs. The height of the hive is also less. The hive length is 40 inches. This hive has an extended landing board and a front entrance. The manner in which the sides connect to the hive bottom differs from many other topbar hive designs. There is no back cleat. All topbar hives have a front cleat that extends into the hive body enough to allow a bee space between the front of the hive and the first comb. Many topbar designs also have a back cleat so that the space for topbars is defined. The Hardison hive does not have a back cleat. Since topbars expand and contract with hydration and propolis buildup, no back cleat allows the bars to expand and contract so that they can be taken out and put back without undue difficulty. These comprise the distinctive features of the Hardison hive.
   The length of 40 inches for a topbar hive is just a workable average. Longer or shorter hives may be needed depending on local conditions or specific purposes. All of my production hives here in Colorado are 40 inches long. Once in a while we have an ideal combination of factors that cause my hives to fill up with honey faster than is convenient. During those seasons I need to harvest more frequently to avoid swarming. This is a happy inconvenience. A longer hive would reduce the number of harvests needed. But on the whole the 40 inch hive works well for me. I average three harvests per season. During those rare years when three is not enough I have harvested as many as six times. I also employ a few 20 inch long boxes. These are handy for collecting swarms and raising queens.
   One of the applications that topbar hives have been used for is crop pollination. The best hive for this purpose in not a 40 inch hive. Pollinators need hives that encourage rapid spring buildup and which are easy to pick up and move. Honey production is not a priority. My brother employs a hive that is 28 inches long. Each spring he moves his hives somewhere between 10 and 20 miles to pollinate almond orchards. The return does not yet equal an income but for dollars invested the profit margin is good. I warned him that he would not produce much honey. But the bees have proved me wrong. He continues to get a couple of gallons of honey per hive each season. He is also able to split most of them every year. Dr. Wyatt Mangum has also employed topbar hives for pollination. His hives are even shorter than my brother’s. The point is that different purposes can lead to the construction of hives that are shorter or longer than the average of 40 inches.
   Leaving the issue of special uses aside, the advantages I have observed in the managing the standard Hardison hive since spring of 1980 are as follows. The less acute angle of the sides and the reduced height allows the bees to build more compact combs rather than longer deeper ones. The reduced length of my topbars gives the bees a better advantage when it comes to preventing cross combing. The longer the topbar the more likely the bees will begin to curve their combs. Bees don’t like right angles. But that is what we rely on to make the combs manageable. The shorter span helps the bees build their combs centered on a single topbar.
   The overall dimensions of the Hardison hive result in the maximum volume for the least amount of construction material. This is an important feature if costs must be held to a minimum. The less angled sides still preserves the basic concatenation shape that accommodates a natural comb or cluster of bees. It also provides an interior volume of 80 quarts or in metric 76 liters. This is the average volume of natural hives as researched by Eva Crane in her book, The Archeology of Beekeeping. A hive with this volume has a good record of colony overwinter survival. It has also produced good harvests of honey and beeswax in varied locals.
   The rationale behind the more acute side angle of many topbar hives is that it discourages the bees from attaching their combs to the side walls. I’m sure this is not true in all cases. I have a colony in a hive built to the specifications suggested by Phil Chandler. From the first comb to the last one built they are all securely attached to the side walls. My observation over time has been that attachment depends on three factors: the angle of the sidewall, the inclination of a particular colony to attach and the material used to construct the sidewalls. In any event I do not consider the attaching of combs to be a problem. They can be unattached easily with a thin knife without hurting the bees. In hot climates attached combs can withstand the heat better than the unattached. The attachments help prevent new fragile combs from collapsing. The attachments also can help combs stay intact when a hive must be moved.
   The Hardison hive has an extended landing board and front entrance. I extended the landing board on my hives in response to Ormond Aebi’s instructions in The Art and Adventure of Beekeeping. But even without that master beekeeper’s advice one could easily come to the conclusion that an extended landing board is of immense value to the European bee. Just watch the bees land during a nectar flow. They are tenuously airborne, landing is serendipitous and chaotic. Anything that helps is a good idea. The front entrance may be a matter of prejudice. But I have reasons for preferring it. I work to locate the brood chamber toward the front of a hive. This gives the bee’s easy access to the brood and reduces their need to walk on the honey combs to reach the brood. Once the brood chamber is defined the honey area is also delineated. The whole back end of the hive is normally used to store honey without any brood. The hive can be opened from the back and honey removed without undue disturbance to the brood chamber. The back of the hive can also be blocked off during winter in colder climates helping the bees overwinter successfully.
   Several of the other topbar designs utilize round holes in the sides or fronts of their hives instead of having a hive entrance with a landing board. I think this makes it harder for the European bee to come and go from the hive. In my visits to Africa I observed the African bee zooming in and out of their hives without landing. For those bees a round opening with no landing board works fine. It also limits access to the hive for potential predators. In my judgment the round hole entrance advantages the African bee and a hive with a landing board advantages the European bee. One other use a landing board serves is air circulation. In hot humid climates I have observed phalanx of fanners extending their ranks several inches out on the landing board moving air in and out to dry down the nectar inside. A landing board helps them accomplish this difficult task.
   The preference that some beekeepers have for locating the hive entrance in the middle of the hive body is one that I don’t appreciate. However three of my esteemed colleagues do prefer it. Les Crowder, Christy Hemenway, and Phil Chandler all like a middle entrance. I have managed a couple of hives with middle entrances for a couple of seasons and just don’t get it. The front entrance works well for me and I will continue to build my hives this way. I’m open to information on this subject. Perhaps there is something about the middle entrance that I’m not aware of. If so I’d like to know about it.
   The final distinctive feature of the Hardison hive is the attachment of the sides of the hive to the bottom. Many of the hive designs I have seen have a bottom board with right angle edges. The sides of the hive are attached to this board through the bottom. In the case of the Hardison hive the bottom board has angled edges. The side boards attach to the bottom through the side boards. This connection produces a geometrically locked joint. A hive built in this manner can last for decades. I know it is hard to visualize what I am describing so pictures are provided here.
   My purpose in comparing the different hive designs is not to denigrate anyone else’s work. I am committed to making topbar beekeeping technology more available to those who need it most. It is my opinion that the Hardison hive could further that goal by providing a model that can be duplicated with the least possible expense. I have looked for a practical means of exporting it for almost 30 years. But a full sized hive is too heavy to ship. And one beekeeper can’t put a patch on this challenge by trying to visit all the locations where topbar hives could help promote economic development. My frustration was replaced by hope when I read an article written by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum in American Bee Journal. The title of the article is “Home Grown Hives.” In it Dr. Mangum describes multiple options for constructing topbar hives out of just about any material that happens to be available wherever the hives are needed. This sounded great to me. I have had some experience doing just that over the years. But a beginner needs more than a good idea.
   I have put together what I think will bridge the gap between theory and practice for new topbar beekeepers: a topbar starter kit. It is made up of a short Hardison hive filled with a bee suit, smoker, gloves, hive tool, strainer for processing honey and enough topbars for the short hive and also for a full sized hive. I am also exploring economical sources for beekeeping equipment and focusing on developing instructional material giving specifications and examples of how to build a hive out of whatever is locally available. The rest of the informational materials that I have developed over the past decades are available to print out here (downloadable PDF).

May your season be blessed,
Marty Hardison

The Hardison Hive
EDITOR'S NOTE: Need more info on constructing a Hardison Hive? Click on the photo of Marty. You'll be taken to a photo album showing him building a Hardison Hive.


Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum said...

For an update on my “Home Grown Top-Bar Hives” including how to build them and most importantly how to start a colony in them and manage the bees, see my new book and website at
There is not much information on taking care of bees in top-bar hives, which the book highlights with lots of color photographs.

Kind Regards,
Dr. Mangum/ WAM

mike ray said...

Hey Marty-- Mike Ray here! Hope you still look at your site! Adam (my son) is talking about bee keeping-- he lives next to us on our Broom Tree property. I started looking for you and finally found this place. I down loaded your PDF and printed it out. (his family and Amy --do you remember her?--are coming over for breakfast) and will show your PDF to them. On question I have: I know wasps are deadly to bee hives and we have tns of them around-- anything that might help keep them away from a hive? Contact me at and i will give you a call-- would love to touch base with you and Dawn.
BLessings, Mike

Post a Comment

Join the Conversation. Leave a comment.