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The 5 Simple Steps, 6 minutes Easy-Peasy Vertical to Horizontal Hive Conversion Method

Updated: Jan 3




Langstroth Hives are great for Commercial Beekeepers

Only 1% of beekeepers 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.


Are Langstroth Hives best for small scale beekeepers?

Roughly 94% of us beekeepers in the US (10 times more) 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 50-90lb boxes at a time by hand every time we go in the bee yard to deconstruct each stack of boxes in order to inspect each colony (that's probably you, and for sure me!). We might not really enjoy needing all that off season 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 and the elements. We might also not enjoy spending the hundreds of extra dollars (frames are very expensive, and one complete setup runs about $300 per colony) and hours of our time required to assemble all those hive boxes and frames per colony, especially since they don't last very long (5 years or so), or use plastic in our hives. Even Long Langs (the horizontal version of Langstroth beekeeping), plastic or poly hives, and Layens hives cost several hundreds of dollars per colony just for frames and foundation sold by bee supplies, because they are not easily nor quickly fabricated by us mere mortals lacking advanced woodworking skills. Langstroth frames cost about $3 each, and Layens frames cost about $7 each! All this means keeping Langstroth, Long/Horizontal Langstroth, Layens, Apimaye, and any other frame-based hive makes us dependent on beekeeping suppliers' costly products and their supply chain/delivery timeframes.


Freedom and Flexibility of small scale beekeeping

Luckily, because backyard beekeepers are not, by definition, commercial beekeepers, we don't have to keep our bees the same way commercial beekeepers do, 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.

To illustrate the rich diversity of options available to backyard beekeepers, here is a great summary of the advantages and disadvantages of some of the most commonly available hives today, looking at several key relevant parameters:




The People's Hive of the Future?

Enter Horizontal Hives, and more particularly 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, persisting throughout the ages thanks to their incredibly clever and simple principles, today's versions have been modernized and improved upon to provide an even easier, simpler hive alternative.

These are not only easier to manage (perfect for complete beginners or even children), but they are also much cheaper (each bar costs only $0 to 33cents), and so easy to make on your own with very few materials or tools - 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.... even with purchased lumber, each bar costs a mere 30cents, which is 10 to 20 times less than a single frame! It only takes about 10mns to make 36 of them from scratch, compared to a full day to make 36 frames from scratch, plus time to assemble them! While not everyone is a woodworker, everyone is bound to know someone that is handy with a circular saw, so we encourage you to try them out for yourself using our free plans.

This type of Horizontal Hives is 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). We call it BBBBBB (Beekeeping that's Better for the Bees, and the Beekeepers's Back and Budget).

Because they use frames, Langstroth, Long Langs and Layens hives 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.


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 frugal or 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 ...



HOW TO ADAPT LANGSTROTH NUCS TO TOP-BAR HIVES

by creating a "Les-Is-More FLEX Hive"


You will need:

  • An old or unused Langstroth box (preferably matching the number of frames it holds to those you already have, or a 5 frame at least)

  • A flat board matching the opening of that Lang box

  • An inner cover of the same size

  • A migratory lid of the same size

  • A Les-Is-More Top-Bar Hive (free plans HERE)

  • A drill

  • 4 to 8 screws (1.5in works well)

  • A jigsaw (or a hand saw)

  • A pencil


Step 1: prepare the top-bar hive

  • Take your built/bought Les-Is-More 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, or you may also use a Langstroth NUC to seed this conversion), or place it wherever you want to setup your hive.

  • Orient the entrances facing the same direction if it's an established colony to minimize confusion, or preferably South if you have a choice.

  • Remove the end piece nearest the Langstroth (use legs or a stand under your Top-Bar hive instead of attached at the end - the goal is to free up the end pieces)




Step 2: prepare the Langstroth box

  • Take an empty Deep Langstroth box (a 5 frame NUC works as well for smaller colonies, but 8 and 10 frame boxes provide more flexibility in the future, so even if you're installing a 5 frame NUC, why not)

  • Flip it upside down

  • Attach a solid board as a bottom 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 all I had on hand)



Step 3: locate the Langstroth box opening

  • Flip your box back upside up

  • Take it to the open end of your Top-Bar Hive (the Top-Bar Hive entrances are at the bottom end, near the conversion).

  • Touch a long side of the Langstroth box to the end of the Top-Bar Hive, roughly centering it around the vertical center of the Top-Bar Hive opening

  • 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 (the top of the lang box is no higher or lower than the top edge of the long walls of the TBH)

  • Still keeping it pushed and centered to the TBH, lift the Lang box up by about 1/2in so it is no longer aligned to the top of the long walls but sticks out above it a bit

  • 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 cavity onto the outside of the long wall of your Langstroth.

  • Extend the pencil lines to the top of the Lang box, following the same line.


Step 4: Cut out the Langstroth box opening

Now the fun part: cutting the trapezoidal opening into the Langstroth wall!

Before starting on this step, it is important to understand the concept.

  • In order to respect bee space, frames and bars are built to be 1-3/8in wide shoulder to shoulder (frames) or edge to edge (top-bar), and consequently 1-3/8in center to center, so that they can be easily pulled out of the hive and inspected.

  • To respect that bee space during the conversion process, it is important to ensure that the center of the first bar is 1-3/8in away from the center of the first frame. To achieve this spacing, we push the first frame flush against the inside wall of the lang box near the conversion opening (see below), and we need the first bar to sit exactly at the outer edge of the first frame's shoulders closest to the opening (again, see below).

  • In order to make sure the top bar does not travel over the Langstroth bar sitting below (and beyond the red dotted line), violating bee space and creating cross combing (combs parallel to the Langstroth frame but off center to the first top-bar and the following ones), the first top bar needs to stop no further than above the frame's shoulder at the red line when pushed into place.


Hence the necessity for the the extra cuts into the Langstroth box, per below:

  • Using a jigsaw (or a handsaw), cut along the diagonal and horizontal lines you've traced following the inside cavity of the top-bar hive, removing the entire section of your Langstroth long side that matches the opening of your Top-Bar Hive (see below for end result).

  • Vertical Cut: Starting above the very internal edge of the long wall of the Langstroth box near the carved opening (red dotted line), cut the top of the short wall down by about 1/2in (it will create a stop for the bars when tucking them against the Langstroth box to respect bee space)

<--





  • Horizontal Cut: Stopping at the internal edge of the long wall (the red dotted line, horizontally cut out the top part of the long wall at 1/2 inch depth, matching the depth of the first vertical cut

  • Repeat on both sides to create a stop for the first bar on both sides -->












Step 5: attaching your Langstroth conversion box

  • Bring your Langstroth box back to your Top-Bar Hive

  • Re-align it to the open end of your KTBH, making sure the horizontal part of your notch cut is now aligning to the top edge of the long wall of your top-bar hive

  • Maintain the langstroth box opening in place (using your knee, a friend or a support of some kind) and drill in screws (you may prefer to predrill pilot holes for your connecting screws first) at regular intervals (2 or 3 along each of the diagonal or horizontal cuts) to attach the langstroth to the end of the TBH

  • For the next step, take care to not drill too close to the top notches or too close to the cut opening, or the Langstroth wall might crack and split.

  • The screws need to be drilled through the inside wall of the Lang box, at about 3/4in from the edge of the opening, and through and into the thickness of the long wall (1.5in thick) on each side to attach the Langstroth box to the Top-Bar Hive near the top

  • We use 2in lumber for our Top-Bar Hives because it's cheaper than 1in and provides more insulation and thermal mass, but incidentally, it makes it easier to drive a screw into the end of the long wall!




Step 6: Transfer your Langstroth NUC or colony and close

  • If you are working with a small Lang colony, you are ready to install the bees.

  • If you are working with a large/heavy Lang colony, we strongly recommend adding some reinforcement to support the Langstroth hive weight (cinder blocks under the box, or vertical 2x4s attached to it as legs, etc.) to avoid gravity led detachment or tilting.

  • When ready, suit up and open your Lang colony

  • Start transferring your Lang colony frames of existing food and brood (don't forget your queen!) in to your Lang conversion box

  • Take care to tuck your brood's nest frames tight against the inner edge of the Lang wall by the opening

  • Move any honey frames to the opposite side and away from the connection opening to encourage build-up into the Top-Bar Hive (otherwise, honey acts as a barrier and your colony might not build into the top-bar hive).

  • Add an inner cover and a migratory cover on top of the Langstroth box, pushing it 3/4in to the side so it sits flush against that first top-bar and 3/4in off to the other side (still keeping the colony enclosed)

  • Place all the top-bars in place, adding shim in the back as needed to hermetically close the space, and add a rain cover over the whole thing.

  • 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.




Voilà!

It takes me 10minutes with a power drill and a jigsaw....


How did I come up with this concept in 2020?

  • 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 to work with expansive frame based hives like Langstroth or Layens. These challenges feed my creativity!

  • My easy conversion method 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 having to work with Langstroth or frame beekeeping in general.


I do 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 (like my friend's Richard Lacaba beautiful custom hand-crafted version of this idea, the Hybrid Hive)....

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 ...

Nathalie B.




Important Notes:

  • It will take a nectar flow for the bees to build any comb and expand into the Top-Bar Hive, so plan to install just before a nectar flow, not after the flow has died down or when the bees are preparing for the Winter dearth.

  • The bars will not need guides of any kind, as the bees will build the combs perfectly parallel to the Langstroth frames, in the center of the 1-3/8in wide bar, and attach it directly to the center of the bar's underside!

  • To entice the colony to move the brood's nest into the Top-Bar side of the Flex hive, keep pushing the brood frames as close to the opening as possible, moving any food frames away from the opening or possibly harvesting them.

  • As the colony naturally expands into the TBH and progressively moves its brood's nest in it, you can start either making Top-Bar NUC splits to start other Top-Bar Hives, or keep growing the colony into the Top-Bar hive and use it as a larger colony or for production of top-bar comb or comb honey.

  • We recommend keeping the Langstroth box attached for increased flexibility (donate or take Lang frames as needed), but if you prefer to phase it out completely, keep harvesting the honey as the bees backfill the Lang frames away from the opening, and keep pushing the brood's nest into the Top-Bar. If needed, consider using a queen excluder and placing the queen into the Top-Bar hive nest (after at least 3 combs are built out) to speed up the process.



OPTIONAL: Keeping Supers On














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