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Copyright 2001 by Leonard G. Barton - rights released for noncommercial use.


A Modified Kenyan Top Bar Hive (KTBH), the CalKenyan (Kenyan hive adapted for California).


This documents the first hive I built (August 2001). I have developed a second and third version with some more advanced features [KTBH3_Complete]

Click here for CalKenyan 3 pictures only.

Complete instructions for building the 4th version, a 22 degree Keynyan with mite screen and bottom board are now available.

Click here for CK4 construction instructions and pictures.

 The fifth version is now complete (two hives constructed) and combines the best features of CK3 and CK4 for lower maintenance and ease of construction.

Click here for the CK5 page.

Please e-mail me if you intend to build.


For some pictures of a newly developed Tanzanian (vertical sides) see Steve's site at http://www.xscd.com/tbh For the construction group:


Click here for the latest wood top bar fabrication instructions.

Click here for frame holder pictures.

If you intend to build a hive along these lines and you want to receive up to date information and plans, contact me as noted below.

The Hive Body and Roof:


While well developed for African circumstances this particular example is an experimental variation that I am developing as a first hive for a North American hobbiest without previous beekeeping experience (me).

Recently a neighbor took up beekeeping using several conventional (Langsroth) hives (these are the stacked boxes you may have seen placed in fields and orchards). Lansroth hives are useful for commercial honey production, but have some disadvanages for the casual hobbiest. As I am more interested in observing the bees coming and going and in their utility as polinators than in their honey, the high production of the Langsroth was not a factor in hive selection.

From study on the internet it became clear that a horizontal top bar hive (Kenyan or Tanzanian) would offer a number of advantages over the usual hives for my particular needs.

In particular, I had sufficient scrap materials that were in my way, only simple woodworking tools (including a hand power saw) and would need to only buy material only for the top bars, and even that could have been ripped from larger stock.

Advantages for the casual beekeeper:

Ease of Construction:

Building conventional Langsroth hives for standard frames requires precise construction, complex joinery, special woodworking tools and careful consideration of the material sizes used.

Ease of Operation:

The African hives have an additional advantage in that once in place no heavy lifting is required (Langsroth deep boxes are typically 85 pounds when full) and are even suitable for use by disabled persons, including the wheelchair bound.

High Quality Product:

Top bar hives produce the highest quality comb honey as all wax is first generation, produced only by the bees, rather than being drawn on recycled wax foundation of unknown origins. This is important as comb honey may be chewed to get the honey. Liquid honey is extracted by crushing the combs and draining the honey. A careful warming to melt the wax or filtering through cheescloth can be used to clear the honey. Since cells with stored pollen may be excised before crushing the combs the resultant honey will be of the highest clarity without further processing. The wax can then be made into candles and other products.

Simple Equipment:

Also, there is no need for centrifugal extractors, important to reduce startup costs for the home hobbyist. In some impoverished contries there is little or no native wood but lots of 55 gallon drums and plenty of bamboo, it is relatively simple to make top bar hives from these materials.

Design Variations:

Between the Kenyan (sloped sides) and Tanzanian (vertical sides) I selected the Kenyan as the most interesting and possibly trouble free and built the first hive with two different wall angles (I'll pretend that that was an experiment and not a layout error).

I have also completed a second generation version that contains a removable bottom board for cleaning and inspection and a removable mite screen, should that be necessary and a third version that has a bottom vent without screen. The fourth version combines the desireable features of the previous three.

Body Design:

The theory of a Kenyan is that the sloping walls are percieved by the bees as floor, to which a bee will never attach comb. In any event, since the hive can be worked back to front from the movable interior back wall it should be easy to free any side wall attached comb with a knife or hive tool.

The First Kenyan Hive with Roof Removed:


Top Bar Construction:

Since I expected to be using Italian bees, a 35 mm (1 3/8 inch) bar size was used, rather than the 32 mm specified for african bees. The bees tended to make very deep cells on one side, however so some shims were added to a number of bars. It appears that a larger bar width could be used for the honey stores for the bees that I finally obtained (see below).

Note: I am now using 37.5 mm (1.5 inch) bars. These require some initial effort in inspection and comb correction as new comb formed but appear to offer the best long term results. See the CalKenyan 5 page for details.

A particular advantage of this style of hive for the casual beekeeper is that bees are easily confined even when the hive is open by smoking them away from the open end (with a Langsroth, bees can fly up between the frames throughout the open part of the hive).

The top bars are masonite webs inserted into sawn slots in resized fir door stop stock. The bars are waxed when placed in service, but it appears that only a tiny amount of wax along the edge is needed. Any excess wax will be removed by the bees.

Both the movable end wall in place and the cleat used to retain the top lockdown bar can also be seen in the picture. The bees obtained would lay in propilus between the top bar web and the box side (even though there is no draft there), so most of that part was cut back 1/4 inch (6mm) from the end, leaving only a small locator tab. Also, the bees intially build comb down from the edge and then build up onto the web. They tend to turn the corner, with these web cells pointing downward. As an experiment several bars have been modified to 1/4 inch of webbing to see what the bees will do.

Note: I am now using very shallow web bars, less than 1/8 inch (3mm) with beveled cheeks. CalKenyan 5 page for details.

Some of the Top Bars:


I have also developed a plastic top bar that does not expand and contract with humidity changes. With wood bars, when they are dry the bees propalize the space, then when the expand in dampness they press too tight and can push the bars. The result is a propalis build up between the bars. The plastic bar eliminates this problem and is fabricated with corrugated polypropylene and high impact styreen (used to stiffen the polypropylene). Click here for plastic top bar pictures only.

Note: Even though reenforced with high impact styrene these bars tend to sag under the weight of the comb. If mixed with wood bars they leave gaps into the roof area.

Wild Comb Frame:

Sometimes bees are removed from locations where comb may be obtained. Several experimental frames were constructed to hold such comb. This proved useful recently when drone brood was being removed from a corner of the comb and the removal was started with a horizontal cut first (DON'T DO THIS). The comb tore horizontally, leaving a pile of useful worker brood. After excising the drone brood the remainder of the comb was placed into the wild comb frame. To avoid this problem, make the vertical cut first or use a cappings scratcher to remove the drone brood from the cells. [KTBH_WildCombFrame]

Movable End Wall:

The end wall can be placed at varying distances from the entrance and so controls the hive volume. A narrow shim on the bee's side ensures adequate bee space (but sufficiently restricted to discourage comb bulding on the end wall. A similar shim is attached to the entrance end wall

For the third generation hive I constructed a queen excluder to keep brood out of the stores portion of the hive. This is a modified full depth partition with portions of plastic queen excluder along the edges. [KTBH_end_wall]

The Lobby:

Between the porch and the interior is a vertically confined "lobby" making a more defensible space for the guard bees and a good fanning area (the bees can hang from the ceiling). The bees seem to prefer to move air out of the entrance rather than in, but this makes sense if the fanning bees are to monitor the temperature of the escaping air. The lobby ceiling (textured fiberboard) is painted white so the bees can follow the morning light to the exit. In the third and fourth generation hives the fanning area is on the outer face of the hive (behind an outer cover), above the landing porch, with upper vents so that the hot humid air is moved out.

Anti-Swarm Bars:

With the mite screen removed, the combs were being extended down into the bottom space. To discourage that, a section of swarm bars was constructed, forming a virtual floor as a limit to comb construction.

Bees tend to hang on to one another, forming drapes several inches deep. The theory of the anti-swarm bars is that by giving the bees a lot of places to hang from that the draperies will not get too long. I theorize that the tension of long draperies stress the uppermost bees, causing them to emit stress scents that signal a full hive to the queen, which encourages her to swarm. (In an initial swarm the resident queen leaves with about half the bees.)

The Hive with Legs:

The legs were attached using inverted joist hangers and screws. I expected to add additional bracing but that proved unecessary with the addition to each leg of a pair of deck screws from the inside of the hive. This looks so much like a Star Wars walker that I added some cat food tin "knee joints" to complete the effect. Also, the "feet" were slimed down so that more durable cat food tins could be used for ant proofing.

The second and third hives use a more refined mechanical design that eliminates the joist hangers, is more rigid, and has a more elegant leg design. The third hive has integrated some of the leg attaching pieces with the end walls in order to reduce the number of parts and is is deeper, but with a similar wall angle. The fourth hive has a steeper wall and a mite screen with a removable bottom board below. The legs are readily removable in the latest designs so that they may be reused in subsequent hives. [KTBH_HiveWithLegs]

Obtaining the Bees

Answering a distant call I was well rewarded with a substantial swarm of bees - estimated 1/4 cubic foot (7 L.). These proved difficult to remove as they were wrapped around the limb, which was too stiff to jerk and not appropriate to cut. I had to brush the bees off in clumps into a box which got too heavy to hold in one hand, and then to paper bags to transfer to the box. Remaining bees were herded to the twigs with smoke where the twigs could then be cut off for cleaning into the bags.


We think that the bees are a mix of Yugoslavian (dark abdomen with greyish yellow stripes) and Yugoslavian/Italian crosses (similar to Yugoslavian on the distal end, amber toward the thorax, with three wide and one narrow black stripe.


In the hive

The bees were initialy fed sugar water so that they could quickly make wax. Below is a shot inside the hive after about ten days of residency. They greatly reduced their feeding during our cool wet season (November through January) and are now doing fine with only the nectar they forage.


New Comb is Beautiful


The bees are free to build any size cell they desire. When comb is to be used as a nursery for drones these cells are substantially larger than the other cells. Comb for polen storage is rather small, while comb for honey stores is drawn rather deep.

Within a month of introduction well developed brood was formed and new, young bees emerged. Usage of sugar water feed was then greatly reduced as the bees now have sufficient comb and are now gathering and storing polen as feed for the brood. The feeder was positioned inside the hive near the back wall, rather than as an entrance feeder.

Working the hive:

Casual demonstration:

With this type of hive it is possible recharge the feeder or to to demonstrate to the casual visitor the formation of the hive mass and to pull out the last few combs for demonstration - without smoke or protective clothing (but don't wear a striped or dark shirt). The roof, frames back of the wall frame, and wall frame are removed. By viewing into the gap at a low angle the comb and bees may be seen clearly. The appearance is almost identical to that seen in wild hives, unlike a conventional hive in which the shape of the combs is mostly artificial (picture below). Only a few bees fly up through this back opening and they are not agressive (although a guard bee may come around from the front and make close passes). It is only when the brood frames near the center of the hive are pried apart that a large number of bees crawl up and out and the situation may get hot. This can be avoided by using smoke working the hive early in the day (when it is warm enough).

Detailed inspection:

For a complete inspection and floor cleaning a few extra frames are removed, giving space reach into the hive and a place to set the frames down after inspection. I was intially able to inspect all frames without smoke or protective clothing. This became less practical as the hive matured. I now apply some smoke before suiting up with protective gear - at the entrance and in in my latest hive through the gap in the bottom.

Each frame is inspected for adheasion to the side wall, freed as necessary with a bread knife or hive tool, and then pried away from its neighbor with the hive tool. A bar holder (set across the hive) is used to hold the frame. Below is developing comb with some sealed honey.


As the frames are replaced snugly to the rear there is be only a single opening and the bees will mostly be either undisturbed or returned to a dark, familiar environment of closely spaced combs. Excess propalis and wax adhesions are scraped from the frames and the hive body at this time.

For more detailed pictures on working the hive Click Here.

An inspection of devloping drone brood after about six weeks by an experienced beekeeper failed to find any mites or other pathologies, but a few weeks later I found some varroa mites. I am now removing drone brood on a regular basis and at six months appear to have the situation under control without medications. The hive is "strong", with lots of field bees around the entrance when the weather is favorable and lots of rapid comb development.

I have recently built an inspection frame holder. Click here for pictures only. This holder was originally as a single comb demonstration hive, with glass on both sides. A single glass when installed will act as a draft stop.

Mass Bar Movement:

After inspection of all combs the top locking bar may be replaced and the entire mass of frames levered forward so that the bees are not disturbed (taking care to not crush bees at the final closing). If adhesions are rare and small (as is typical) the of bars may be initially freed at the sides and then all bars levered to the rear in the same way. Working front to back the bars may then be each inspected and then replaced in their original positions. Note that it is important that the top locking bar be in place when the bars are levered as a mass so that all bars remain flat.

Top Bar Replacement:

There is a small trick in replacing the bars so as to avoid crushing bees, which tend to continue to climb out of the space between bars. The bar is set at an angle with one end snug against the next. The free end is then slowly pivoted to bring the bar parallel to and snugly against the next. As this is done, the hive tool is run along the closing slot with a jiggling motion, guiding the bees out of the closing slot. If done with care, no bees will be crushed.

After inspection there will be a substantial number of confused bees on the top of the bars, trying to return downward to the familiar scent of the hive. These strays are individually flicked off and into the air with the bee brush, and then the roof is replaced. (Once in the air the bees quickly orient to the hive and return through the front entrance.)

Got Mites?

Varroa mites showed up in quantity about 3 months into the project. This has been the inspiration for the third and fourth generation CalKenyan hive, developed in January and February 2002.

The mites preferentially infest the drone brood, and since the drone brood is mostly placed at the corners and lower edges of the comb, I have found it easy to simply excise the drone brood by cutting the comb back. Examination reveals about one mite per drone on average, some have none but some have three or four. Few mites have been seen in examined worker brood. After examination I microwave the entire mess and feed it to my dog. (I have read that it is good pressed through cheescloth and scrambled, I might try it someday as an addition to my Sunday morning omelette.)

The second generation hive is not optimal for mite rejection, yet I get substantial mite fall onto the bottom board. The third hive was optimized for mite rejection but the sides appear to not be sufficiently steep.

The most notable effect of the mites is their damage to worker's wings. Each day about 5 to 7 rejected workers are seen below the entrance. I still have lots of workers and worker activity on sunny days, so it appears to be below the danger point.

Note: Mites appear to be under control. The drone brood was excised in the third hive, which greatly reduce the appearance of mites. The steep sides and open bottom appear to be effective. The steeper sides of the fourth hive should be even more effective.


So far, this has proven to be an interesting experiment and has provided much enjoyment and education in the observation and tending of the bees. Expectations as to ease of construction and use have been fulfilled so far.

For more detailed pictures on working the hive Click Hereclick here.

If you have comments or questions, mail me with subject "KTBH" at the address shown below in the graphic.


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