Honeybees are incredibly important in pollinating many agricultural crops, so they are vital to sustaining the food supply.  Most people do not understand how critical honeybees, solitary bees, and other pollinators are to agriculture.

I’ve always loved bees, and my apiculture course at MSU still brings back fond memories, so I’m looking forward to establishing some hives in 2013.  They will be based in Bear Lake, Michigan close to the Lake (Lake Michigan).  My sister has also caught the beekeeping bug, and is documenting her beekeeping co-adventures on her blog, and a friend at work just told me he was building two Langstroth hives, so bee fever may be contagious.

Honeybees are an ideal livestock component to consider for Permaculture systems, and they are useful both in urban and rural settings.  Alternative hives allow aspiring beekeepers  options for affordable starting costs and less intensive and intrusive management than traditional Langstroth hives.  Native bees can also be promoted by providing nesting places and habitat.

One reason that backyard beekeeping is growing steadily in popularity is the use of alternative hive designs, including top bar hives of various styles.  Top bar systems use wooden guides for bees to build honeycomb on, instead of frames as in Langstroth hives.  (Do note that Langstroth hives can be managed in a top bar style, as well.)

Increasingly, alternative hive beekeepers are having success keeping honeybees naturally, without the need for using chemicals to protect the hives.  Strains of bees with strong hygienic behavior help colonies keep free of parasites such as varroa mite, helping reduce the need for chemical inputs.  A large factor in the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) affecting honeybees is exposure to chemical pesticides, either inadvertently or though poor management in treating honeybee pests.  Several pests and diseases are also a factor in this ongoing problem.

Horizontal or Kenyan top bar hives seem to be the ideal starter hives for new beekeepers, as they allow easy observation and reduced need to disturb the hive and can be constructed relatively easily and inexpensively.  It is only recently that this style has caught on in the US, and with proper design, horizontal top bar hives can be a good option even in cold climates.  I’ve chosen the horizontal top bar hive for my beekeeping efforts.

(Warré Hives are an additional top bar option.  These hives are square, vertical  hives which use top bars instead of comb foundation.  See the Online Resources section for links about Warré hives.)

Honey harvest is reduced in horizontal top bar hives compared to Langstroth hives, though wax production is significantly increased, due to reusing wax comb after extracting honey in Langstroth systems compared to crushing comb to extract honey in top bar systems.  Real, unfiltered, unpasteurized, unadulterated honey is nothing like the store bought “honey” available commercially.

Beeswax is an ideal ingredient in herbal salves (mix beeswax 1:5 with vegetable oil to make the base) and is often used to make candles and other products.  (Think value added.)

One challenge of starting top bar hives is that a nuclear colony (nuc) for a Langstroth hive will not fit into a top bar hive without significant modification.  Package bees are therefore typically used, though some suppliers are starting to offer top bar nucs.  New colonies established from package bees are slower to establish than those from nucs.  Adding some brood comb from another hive and scenting the new hive with lemongrass oil or beeswax may help package bees to quickly feel at home and accept a new hive.

Hive Design

There is no standardization among top bar hive designs, and bar size can vary from 17 to 20 inches.  Generally, a 36″ long hive is the smallest recommended for Michigan for a fully productive hive (smaller colonies can be overwintered as starter nucs.)  Hive depth can also vary, as does the size and style of top bars used.

Some beekeepers use a relatively long hive with an entrance at either end, housing two colonies in a single hive.  The colonies are separated by a divider called a follower board.  Housing two colonies in a single hive may help with winter heat retention and increase overwintering success.

Feeding a New Hive

Particularly when establishing a new hive in spring, it can be helpful to feed bees with a sugar solution to help the colony get off to a good start.  The sugar solution is an artificial nectar.  Some beekeepers use 1:1 water to sugar, others 2:1 sugar to water (some like the stronger solution when doing fall feeding and the weaker solution for spring).  I plan to use a 2:1 mixture.

Note that only refined white cane sugar should be used when feeding bees.  Less refined cane sugar (including brown sugar, turbinado sugar, and raw sugar), molasses, pasteurized honey (any commercial source), high fructose corn syrup, and corn sugar all contain compounds that honeybees cannot digest.  The resulting diarrhea can appear similar to the effects of infection with the bacterial disease Nosema.   Avoid boiling a sugar solution when making it, as carmelization also creates undigestable compounds.  Beet sugar can be used as a substitute for refined cane sugar, though some beekeepers avoid it due to concerns about adulteration.  Growing sugar beets is extremely energy intensive, erosion promoting, and subsidized heavily, as well.

Granulated, unadulterated honey is an ideal food for starter colonies.  Only honey from trusted beekeepers not using pesticides should be considered safe to use to feed bees.

As a supplement to a sugar solution, some beekeepers include a few drops of essential oil of lemongrass (Cymbopogon) or mint (Mentha) or add a weak tea made with  aromatic herbs (Mentha, Thymus, and Agastache species) and nutrient concentrating weeds (dandelion, stinging nettle, horsetail).


Smokers are not used frequently in managing horizontal top bar hives, as the hive is typically disturbed only at the back.  But even with horizontal top bar beekeeping, smokers can be a useful tool.

The ingredients in a good fuel for a smoker vary widely among beekeepers and bioregion, and there is art as well as science to learning to use a smoker properly.  A small amount of smoke can help to mask any alarm pheromone the colony produces, calming the colony.  Too much smoke can incite a stress response.  Some beekeepers spray bees with a sugar solution instead of smoking them when installing a package of bees in a new colony.

Dried cow manure is reportedly a good base fuel for smokers.  It is widely used as a fuel source in many parts of the world.  Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) in a smoker is reported to effectively kill varroa mites without harming bees.

Planting for Bees

The key to providing good bee forage is a diversity in flowering throughout the season, from early to late.  Some plants are good pollen sources, some are good nectar sources, and some provide both.  Many woody species are important bee plants, and dandelion is an important early food plant.

HoneyBeeNet is a great resource to check for good bee forage species by bioregion.  I will be posting detailed information about bee forage species as my beekeeping project develops.


Bees also need a good, consistent water source.  If not provided, they can become a nuisance when they choose to drink from dog bowls, swimming pools, or other sources.  Placing rocks in a shallow container keeping it filled can be sufficient if no suitable natural water source is available.  A shallow, rock-filled pond could potentially be constructed, and perhaps fed with runoff from hive roofs…

Regional Bee Suppliers

Here is a list of regional package bee suppliers (many of whom offer Langstroth nucs as well), some of which will ship packages.  It’s best to order early (January) as bees often sell out quickly, and I got a late start in my research this season.

  • Classifieds at Michigan Beekeepers Association are good for finding California and Georgia package bees in Michigan.
  • Bobilin Honey – Canton, Michigan.  Langstroth nucs and package bees.
  • Don Lam Bees – Holland, Michigan.  Offers Langstroth nucs and Italian package bees.
  • Gold Star Honeybees – Bath, Maine.  Supplies, pre-built hives, hivebuilding kits, and bees.  Nucs and package bees are available for pick up in Maine, and they are shipping package bees starting in 2013.  Bees are small cell, treatment free “mutt” genetics (hybrid of Carniolan, Italian, and Russian genetics).
  • King nuc – Benton Harbor, Michigan.  Offers queen genetics from (CA) and pick up of deep Langstroth hive nucs.
  • Napoleon Bee Supply – Napoleon,  Michigan.  Bees and beekeeping equipment.
  • Olivarez Honey Bees Inc. – Chico, California.  A large commercial package bee producer, with their own genetics.  Has local pick up locations for package bees and small orders, including: AWS Bees – Swartz Creek, Michigan; Queen right colonies – Spencer, Ohio.  Beekeeping supplies and package bees (pick up only) from Olivarez Honey Bees.
  • Parsons’ Gold Apiaries – Forest, Ohio.  Offers Georgia and Ohio Langstroth nucs and 3# and 4# package bees from Georgia.  Will ship packages and nucs.  Russian and Italian genetics.
  • Spille Honey – Morning View, Kentucky.  Offers 3 banded Italian and Russian hybrid genetics and will ship packages.
  • Steller Apiaries – Jackson, Michigan.  An apiary focusing on natural beekeeping methods using  top-bar and other alternative hives.  Also offers swarm and feral colony removal.  Offers introductory workshops, hivemaking workshops, and custom built hives.  I have secured one of their micro top bar nuclear colonies (nucs) to install into a newly built Kenyan top bar hive.  They are sold out of nucs and package bees.
  • Turtlebee and Honey Tree Farms – Byron, Michigan.  Offers packages, nucs, and starter hives as well as equipment.  Hybrid Italian genetics.
  • Wolf Creek Apiaries – Centerville, Tennessee.  Offers supplies and package bees of  hybrid survivor stock produced on small cells.
  • Zia Queenbee Co – Truchas, New Mexico and Marquette (upper peninsula) Michigan pick up locations for Langstroth and top bar nucs, featuring their own genetics.

Online Resources

  • Africanized honey bee information – USDA agricultural Research Service (ARS) information on Africanized honey beees, including maps of yearly spread.
  • ATTRA Apiculture information  – a good overview of beekeeping from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.
  • Backyard Hive – Sells Kenyan top bar hives, plans, bars and supplies including insulation panels and hive tools.
  • Bee Hive Journal – an online resource for hive plans, DIY projects and apiculture information.
  • Beekeeping For All – a free .pdf of Abbé Émile Warré’s book on beekeeping, translated to English by Patricia and David Heaf.
  • Bee Source – an active online community which includes a good section of DIY plans
  • The Barefoot Beekeeper – good information on horizontal top bar beekeeping, including free downloadable plans.
  • COLOSS – An organization working to prevent honey bee CCD. The COlony LOSSes (COLOSS) Network includes scientists, veterinarians, beekeepers, and students worldwide working to improve understanding honey bee health and prevent the CCD.
  • Gaia Bees Alternative Hive Page – information on Sun Hives (German:  Weissenseifener Haengekorb), a new Biodynamic hive based on a straw skep, and Golden Hives, a large, single box square hive.  Also offers prebuilt hives.
  • Glenn Apiaries – no longer supplying bees, but they offer a wealth of information on honeybee breeding, and a list of regional suppliers of pest-resistant queen honeybees.
  • HoneyBeeNet Bee Forage Species map – a NASA (yes, NASA) resource with good information on important honeybee forage species by bioreion.
  • Micro Eco Farming Natural Beekeeping page – good information on a range of top bar hive systems, including Warré and horizontal top bar designs.
  • Natural Beekeeping Trust – a UK organization promoting Biodynamic beekeeping and Sun Hives (a very unique, modified skep hive with comb guides).
  • Perone hive – information on making a Perone hive, another alternative top bar design.
  • Small Scale Beekeeping Guide – A free .pdf of a Peace Corps manual for beekeeping.  Includes information on Kenyan top bar hives.  Note that most warm climate Peace Corps beekeeping efforts involve working with Africanized honeybees.
  • University of Minnesota Resources for Beekeepers – an excellent source of information about beekeeping in northern climates.
  • Warré Hive information from David Heath
  • Warré information at BioBees
  • The Warré Store – Kingsley, Michigan.  Offers Warré hives in square and octagonal shapes made from local cedar wood.

Michigan Beekeeping Resources