HIVE: What is a “Kenyan Top-Bar Hive”?

6 November 2014

The Short Answer (TSA)

The Kenyan Top-Bar Hive is a variation of the horizontal top-bar Hive. The Kenyan’s name is often abbreviated with the acronym, “KTBH.”

In nature, a colony of honeybees will build a structure, a shelter, called a beehive. When bees are “kept” by “beekeepers” for commercial purposes, special pre-built hives are provided for the bees. For many centuries, commercial beekeeping was devoted to honey production. But over the last 40 years, the market has changed.

Now, beekeepers rent the services of their honey bees as pollinators. That is, honey bees pollinate flowers so that the blossoms will produce seed. This seed, in turn, will produce the next year’s crop.

Seasonally, many beekeepers transport their hives over long distances to areas in which pollination services are needed. So, commercial beehives must be easy to move. The Langstroth hive is the most popular with commercial beekeepers because it offers convenience in honey production and mobility

The Kenyan Top Bar Hive isn’t mobile. So, this hive is of little interest to commercial beekeepers renting out their bees for pollination.  But, the KTBH is an extremely popular design among commercial beekeepers exclusively engaged in honey production as well as with amateur beekeepers interested in honey for their own personal use.



The KTBH is basically a long wooden box. But, unlike the typical commercial hive, which uses frames that slide in and out like drawers, the KTBH hive uses bars. Wooden bars are inserted so that they extend across the top of the box. Honeybees will use the bars to build honeycombs (and brood combs in which they raise their young).

The bees use the bars as a base from which they build downward. This produces honeycombs hanging from individual bars. When the bees have built a full comb and stocked it with honey, the bar holding that comb can be removed and the honey harvested. Then, the empty bar is replaced, and the bees will begin to build and restock another comb with honey.

The KTBH is quite different from the ancient Greek style of beehive, but many have compared the two because both use bars. Each of these hives, the Greek and KTBH, has an entirely different shape and dimensions requiring quite different maintenance practices. But each uses removable bars in a similar way placing them above the open container holding the bee colony. In both, bees are encouraged to build honeycomb’s hanging from the bars. And, the bars will, later, be removed to harvest the honey.

The history of the KTBH is a bit of a surprise. The prototype of the Kenyan hive was developed entirely in Canada. Dr’s Maurice Smith and Gordon Townsend of the Canadian University of Guelph developed what is now called the KTBH under the sponsorship of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

How did Kenya get into the act?

The actual hives were first used in a project in Kenya. Popular and successful, the “Kenyan” hives gained their reputation while they were exclusively used in that country. Kenyan fans of the new hive raved about it in the media. And . . . one can’t help wondering if this didn’t help the early marketing of the hive in North America and Europe. After all, who wants a hive developed down the street, when you can own a strange and exotic beehive from Africa?

The hive changed in a number of ways during its first use in Kenya. There are more than a few mean and aggressive animals in Africa who like honey every bit as much of as the American and European honey bear. So, the KTBH was designed to hang from trees or poles. This made it more difficult for the largest honey robbers to reach the hive and, also, protected the hive from invasion by a variety of large and aggressive ground-crawling insects.

But, you don’t have to hang this hive. Different versions use legs. Other versions change the shape and dimensions of the original KTBH. Custom designed and built hives are extremely popular particularly with first-time, amateur beekeepers.

After all, a custom built hive can allow the owner a degree of personal expression. The ideal, individual design can accent the appearance of the owner’s home and landscaping. That is why so many ignore a piece of good advice: buy mass manufactured KTBH hives of a standard size with standardized parts.

A warning.

Custom built hives are wonderful, until a necessary part breaks in the middle of a season. Then, the original builder, or an artisan of equivalent skill, must be found to hand-make a replacement. Custom parts are expensive and, when they must be built very quickly, the buyer is put in a poor position to negotiate the best price.

In other words, those who can’t resist custom designs would be well advised to take up a second hobby after beekeeping – carpentry.


About the Author

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s