The 5 Simple Steps, 6 minutes Easy-Peasy Vertical to Horizontal Hive Conversion Method by Nathalie B
Updated: Aug 27
Only 1% of beekeepers in the US are commercial operators, who overwhelmingly use Langstroth vertical Hives for their operations because they are easily palletized, stacked, moved with forklifts and transported around the country to pollination contracts, or because equipment can be bought in bulk, by the thousands. Because of that, Langstroth commercial hives are ubiquitous, and to a high degree, fairly standardized. For the 1% of beekeepers out there who are commercial and own and transport thousands of hives, the Langstroth hive is well adapted to their intensive, industrial beekeeping needs.
However, roughly 94% of us beekeepers in the US are actually backyard, small scale beekeepers, who do not transport hives on a regular basis, and might not enjoy (or be capable of) lifting multiple 40-90lb boxes by hand every time we go in the bee yard (that's probably you, and for sure me!). We might also not really enjoy needing all that storage space needed 9 months out of the year for pulled supers, extractor, uncapping tank, and extra boxes and frames that we also need to protect from critter damage. We might also not enjoy spending hundreds of dollars buying and hours of our time assembling hive boxes and frames that don't last very long, or use plastic in our hives. Even Long Langs (the horizontal version of Langstroth beekeeping), plastic or poly hives, and Layens hives cost hundreds of dollars each themselves, but more importantly in frames and foundation sold by bee supplies, because they are not easily fabricated by us mere mortals. Which means keeping Langstroth, Long/Horizontal Langstroth, Layens, Apimaye, and any other frame based hive makes us dependent on beekeeping supply exorbitant prices and their supply chain/delivery timeframes.
Luckily, because backyard beekeepers are not, by definition, commercial beekeepers, we don't have to keep our bees the same way commercial beekeepers do, both in hive styles or beekeeping methods!
That means that, as backyard beekeepers, we collectively have the luxury to use hives that are more adapted to our circumstances as well as beekeeping style and philosophy, and which do not require any heavy lifting of boxes or breaking the bank with expensive equipment.
Enter Horizontal Frameless Hives, also known as Kenyan Top-Bar Hives, or KTBHs for short. While the concept of horizontal frameless beekeeping (and intuitively bee space) has been around since antiquity, these have been modernized and improved upon for easier, simpler beekeeping.
These are not only easier to manage (perfect for complete beginners or even children), but they are also much cheaper, and easy to make on your own - plus they require zero heavy lifting! As an example, as a non-wood worker, I can make a double horizontal hive from scratch in about 1.5hrs using free reclaimed lumber, or about $50 spent on three thick 2inx10inx8ft boards, a metal panel, a couple of 2-by-4s, and some screws....each bar costs a mere 30cents, or 10 times less than a single frame, and it only takes about 10mns to make 36 of them from scratch! And while not everyone is a woodworker, everyone is bound to know someone that is handy with a circular saw!
These Horizontal Hives are also much easier on your back (no heavy lifting, bending and twisting, or crushing bees making them mad, and all work is done at waist level), less stressful on the bees, and simpler for the beekeeper to manage (expansion and contraction is all on the horizontal axis so it's easy to know where the brood's nest is and where the honey is at all times). Long Langs and Layens simply cannot replicate the simplicity and low cost of these Horizontal Frameless Hives, as they require much more advanced/precise woodworking skills, time and expense to build, and they rely on complicated and expensive frames instead of simple bars.
See, at its core, a Horizontal Frameless Hive is simply a wooden trough made of 5 simple pieces of wood (3 long boards and 2 trapezoidal end pieces, 3 if you want a double hive until the colonies are ready to occupy a full single hive) and a few simple bars, all of it protected by a simple rain cover.
With these simple Horizontal Hives, no expensive frames to build, buy or contend with, no Supply Chain or expensive suppliers to rely onto, and almost anyone can make one or knows someone who can. Because they sit at a constant, customizable height and there is no need for heavy lifting or upper body strength, there is also an increased accessibility to beekeepers of all physical abilities, age, and financial means. All of this makes them more inclusive, and a real favorite of tight budgets, profit driven operations (low cost, high returns on investment, and a powerful niche market with little competition for Top-Bar NUCs of bees and comb honey), underserved communities, children, injured veterans or differently abled people, and community outreach projects.
While the concept of these Horizontal Frameless Hives has been around since antiquity, their modern version, the Kenyan style, and more specifically the more frugal and simpler, yet elegant Les Crowder style of wider, shallower hives on a 30 degree angle, is spreading like wild fire these days; and for good reason, as discussed more in depth on our free plans page. For the profit savvy beekeeper, or anyone who prefers to work smart, not hard, there is also a great financial incentive to try these easy and cheap to build hives: Top-Bar NUCs of bees are short in supply and very high in demand, and represent a lucrative, largely untapped, niche market .... in Texas, for example, TF Top-Bar NUCs that fit the Les Crowder style hives sell out quickly at $360 for 4/5 bars of food/brood! And since it costs only $25 per colony in woodenware, instead of $200-$300 for a Langstroth or even $400-$600 for a Long Lang or a Layens box with costly frames, their return on investment (ROI) is absolutely unsurpassed!
If you are curious about what all the fuss is about, like to learn about different styles of hives, or simply would like to join this hot trend and try it out for yourself; but you have already invested in Langstroth equipment and have established colonies you can leverage (or if you're getting your first NUCs this season), take a look at this new, easy-peasy Lang to TBH conversion method ... literally anyone can do it in 10 minutes (once you've built or bought a Top-Bar Hive) with a handful of screws and a saw .....
Ok, so if you've read this far and I have convinced you to give Horizontal Top-Bar Hives a risk-free try, here is what I call the Nathalie B. Easy-Peasy Langstroth to Top-Bar Hive conversion method, explained in 5 easy steps and in images ...
Take your newly built/bought Top-Bar Hive next to an existing Langstroth hive of any size (the more established colonies will build into the Top-Bar Hive faster than NUCs, but you can also use a Langstroth NUC to seed this conversion), with the entrances facing the same direction, then remove one end piece (use legs under your Top-Bar hive instead of at the end, or set your "trough" directly onto cinder blocks - the goal is to free up the end pieces)
Take an empty 8frame or 10frame Deep Langstroth hive box (a 5 frame NUC works as well for smaller colonies, but 8 and 10 frame boxes provide more flexibility in the future, so why not), flip it upside down, and attach a solid board using a few screws (no entrances, just a flat board to the same dimensions/footprint of your box, or in this case I used a migratory cover because that's what I had)
Flip your box back upside up, and take it to the open end of your Top-Bar Hive, which should have entrances drilled at the bottom end, near the end piece you removed.
Touch a long side of the Langstroth box to the end of the Top-Bar Hive and center it around the opening, then align the top of that long side of your Lang box on both sides to the very top of the Top-Bar Hive long walls.
Maintain the Lang box in place that way with your body or supports, or the help of a friend, and draw the shape of the Top-Bar Hive open end onto the outside of the long wall of your Langstroth.
Now the fun part: cutting the trapezoidal opening into the Langstroth wall!
Remember, I am not a wood worker, so it's not perfect.... but it does not have to be perfectly straight or exactly matching the Top-Bar walls and floors - the bees don't care!
Take your Langstroth box back to your work table/bench, and with a jigsaw or a handsaw if you don't have one, cut along the lines you've traced, removing the entire section of your Langstroth long side that matches the opening of your Top-Bar Hive.
Bring your Langstroth box back to your Top-Bar Hive, re-align it to the open end of your KTBH, then drive one screw through the inside wall of the Lang box through and into the thickness of the long wall on each side to attach the Langstroth box to the Top-Bar Hive near the top (not too high though, or the Lang wood might crack and separate), then continue with several screws along the entire opening. We use 2in lumber for our Top-Bar Hives because it's cheaper than 1in and provides more insulation and thermal mass. Incidentally, it makes it easier to drive a screw into the end of the long wall!
That's it, really!
All you have to do now is add some support under the Langstroth hive (cinder blocks, boards) or some counterbalancing weights on the other side of the Top-Bar Hive if you think your Lang colony will be too heavy and might tilt the whole apparatus downward or make it fall/detach it from the Top-Bar Hive under its weight.
Finally, when you are ready, suit up, transfer your Lang colony frames of existing food and brood (don't forget your queen!) in to your Lang conversion box and add a migratory cover on top (as well as any supers and inner cover the large colony may have had), taking care to tuck your brood's nest Lang frames to the Lang wall by the opening and moving any honey barrier to the opposite side of the Lang box to encourage build-up into the Top-Bar Hive.
Complete the process by closing the Top-Bar Hive with bars, starting next to the shoulders of the first Lang frame to respect the bee space.
The bees should have NO entrance/exit through the Langstroth box, so they are forced to go in and out through the Top-Bar Hive entrances, again to encourage build-up into the Top-Bar Hive.
Keep in mind that no comb building will happen if you're not in a nectar flow, but if you are, and you've placed the honey away from the TBH and the brood close to it, with no other space for them to grow into, they will soon expand into the TBH and progressively move their brood's nest in it, at which point you can make splits or keep growing that colony and leveraging the power of a larger population to speed things up.
Once the conversion is far along enough, you may keep the Langstroth hive attached, or phase it out, possibly removing it or just closing it off for future use, possibly by using a queen excluder to speed things up (don't leave unprotected drawn comb in it if you are going to separate them completely though!). Or leave it as is and keep a truly hybrid hive going, for the best of both worlds! You can even add supers to the Langstroth side of your hybrid/conversion hive.
It took me 10minutes with a power drill and a jigsaw....
How did I come up with this concept?
My motto is work smart, not hard, and I love to simplify things rather than make them complicated, taking the path of least resistance to make these concepts accessible to all, and being mindful not everyone has access to all the tools, materials and financial means others may. That feeds my creativity!
My easy conversion aims at democratizing what I call The People's Hive of the Future (the original People's Hive was the warre hive), so that backyard and small scale beekeepers all over the world can free themselves from the constraining world of Langstroth and frame beekeeping.
But I also realize there are plenty of creative people out there that can help take these concepts even further, and I would love nothing more to see y'all's version of my concept....
So feel free to post your comments, suggestions and constructive criticisms, the pictures of your own Lang to TBH conversions, pictures of you putting my concept into practice and what you think or if you have questions, etc.
Because like Les Crowder always says, Together We Rise!
For the love of the bees and those who keep them ...