What Is A Horizontal Hive?

Top Bar Hive

A horizontal hive (or “long hive”) is a single-box beehive designed so that honey bees build comb structures parallel to the ground. Horizontal hives mimic spaces bees inhabit in the wild, like a tree hollow.  By contrast, the more common Langstroth hive consists of multiple, vertically stacked boxes.

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Top Bar Hive

Horizontal Hive Types

Horizontal hives can take various forms. Common types of horizontal hives are:

  • Top bar hives
  • Horizontal (or “long”) Langstroth hives and
  • Layens hives.

In general, place horizontal hives of all types on stands so they sit about waist-high. Keep them off the ground to reduce ground moisture and keep small animals out. At waist level, you can easily access the hive for inspections and honey harvesting.

Note: In a top bar hive, bees hang comb from the “top bar.” There are no side or bottom bars like in a Langstroth frame. For simplicity, when we refer to frames in this article, we’re meant to include the top bar arrangements.

Top Bar Hives

Top bar hives (“TBH”) have been around for centuries. With a simple structure, they can be made of all types of materials. Here’s an example of a TBH made from a 55-gallon drum.

Bars sitting across the top of the hive are wedge-shaped or have some other strip where the bees can start to draw comb.

Unlike hives with frames designed to permit “bee space,” TBHs are open cavities where the bees control the amount of bee space. Sloped sides usually prevent the bees from attaching comb to the bottom of the box, but they may attach to the sides.

If the comb is attached anywhere but the top bar, you’ll need to cut it free before lifting the bar.

TBH lids can be flat, but gabled covers provide room for ventilation. A well-designed TBH will let you lift the lid without removing it completely.

Top bar hive
Top bar hive in winter – Image by Mind Control~bgwiki [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]
Bees on comb in TBH
Bees on comb in TBH – Image by Maja Dumat from Deutschland (Germany) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Some places to buy TBHs and accessories are:

If you’re inclined to take this on as a DIY project, a Google search for Top Bar Hive plans will give you plenty of ideas and information.

We generally recommend Langstroth hives for beginners. However, in this article, we’ll discuss some types of horizontal hives along with their pros and cons when compared to more traditional vertical hives.

Horizontal (Long) Langstroth Hives

Horizontal Langstroth hives are precisely what they sound like.

Standard Langstroth boxes have an internal width of either 14 ¾ inches (10 frames) or 12 ¼ inches (8 frames). A horizontal Langstroth increases the width of the box to hold more frames (double or more). It’s essentially like putting a couple of boxes together.

Other dimensions (depth and length) remain the same as a standard Langstroth box so you can use standard frames. This standardization is something to consider if you’re contemplating a move from vertical to horizontal. You will be able to reuse some equipment and find replacements more easily.

Keeping with Langstroth dimensions lets you add a twist to the long hive. Instead of one long, hive body, you can still stack honey supers on top. You effectively create a double deep bottom (horizontally instead of vertically) with side-by-side supers over it. Bespoke Bee Supply sells this type of long hive.

Like TBHs, tops on a long hive can be flat or gabled and are best if they can be lifted without being completely removed.

See our article Best Type Of Beehive For Beginners (And Why) for more details about vertical hives like Langstroth and Warré hives.

Layens Hive

A Layens hive (named for Georges de Layens – see more below) is akin to a long Langstroth except that its internal dimensions accommodate taller, narrower frames.

These frames allow for more honey production on 20 frames than you would get on 20 Langstroth frames.

Since the expectation is that Layens hives are inspected only a few times per year, you may be able to manage more colonies with less work.

According to Bee Culture magazine, “The Layens hive and beekeeping method became one of the most popular in Europe. There are some 2.6 million hives in all of the U.S. Just one European country, Spain, smaller than Texas, uses over one million Layens hives today.”

Dr. Leo Sharaskin, the author of the Bee Culture article, is the editor of Keeping Bees In Horizontal Hives – A Complete Guide to Apiculture by Georges de Layens, which you can get here on Amazon. Dr. Sharaskin’s website www.HorizontalHive.com has excellent information and supplies Layens hive equipment.

Advantages Of Horizontal Hives

Horizontal hives have several advantages over vertically stacked beehives.

No Heavy Boxes To Lift

Vertical hive boxes full of bees and honey get quite heavy. A deep Langstroth box full of bees and honey can weigh 90 pounds. Access to the whole colony requires moving these boxes.

You can make boxes lighter by removing a few frames, but it’s not practical to remove too many at one time.

Warré hives are not moved around as much as Langstroth hives, but they still require manipulation to get the boxes in proper order at times.

With a horizontal hive, the most you’ll lift is one frame at a time. The box remains in place. Your back will thank you.

No Unused Boxes To Store

With Langstroth hives, you will add additional boxes as your colony builds population and bees store honey. As you harvest honey, you’ll remove boxes. (Of course, this doesn’t apply if you use the hybrid long Langstroth with honey supers above a brood box.)

Also, having fewer boxes on a vertical hive in winter helps the colony stay warm. The space in a horizontal hive is easily reduced by adding a blank board (a “follower” board) that closes off a section of the hive from the bees.

You need a place to store unused Langstroth components when they are unneeded.

With a horizontal hive, you don’t need storage space for extra boxes when they’re not in use.

Easier, Minimally Invasive Hive Inspections

Removing and replacing vertical boxes disturbs a lot more bees than lifting a single frame. The less the bees are agitated, the less defensive they’ll be (to your benefit).

Moving heavy boxes around increases the odds of crushing some poor bees as you set a box down. I’ve let a box slip from my hand, sending a few frames crashing to the ground.

Lifting a single frame out of a hive means fewer chances for errors.

No Queen Excluder

In our first couple of years of beekeeping, we used queen excluders to keep brood out of the honey supers. We found that the bees did not migrate so quickly to the upper boxes.

We stopped using excluders and found, for the most part, that the queen kept her egg-laying in the lower boxes.

In a horizontal hive, the queen can go wherever she wants. However, as in the wild, she will likely keep the brood in a close-knit section of the box. The rest of the hive will be available for food and honey stores.

A queen excluder is one less piece of equipment to buy, store, install, and remove.

Foundation May Be Optional

Top bar hives, with no frames, don’t use foundation. Layens and Langstroth hives work with or without foundation. Since Layens hives are not as common as Langstroth, shopping options will be more limited.

Without foundation, bees will build the cell sizes they need. Considered more natural, some people think it reduces varroa mite infestation.

See our article Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide for more information about varroa mites.

Easier For DIY Projects

Building one hive box yourself is a much simpler project than creating multiple boxes of varying sizes. (At least, with my limited woodworking skills and toolset, I think it is).

Top bar hives give you more flexibility in determining dimensions as they don’t hold a “standard” frame. You can adjust the sizing of your bars to your specifications.

Disadvantages Of Horizontal Hives

While the advantages of different horizontal hives are similar, no matter which style you choose, the cons may vary.

Fewer Resources May Be Available

Langstroth hives are the most common type of hive in use. Boxes, frames, foundation, etc., are all widely available in standard sizes. Since they are so widely used, it’s easy to find someone with expertise for advice when needed.

If you need to replace anything with a top bar or Layens hive, your options may be limited. However, if you keep your hive body in good condition, you may not need to replace things often.

More Frequent Inspections

Without foundation, bees are more likely to build cross comb (i.e., build comb connecting multiple frames). Removing cross-combed frames can be difficult. The comb may break, leaking honey all over and seriously disturbing the bees. Try to spot cross-comb before it becomes a significant problem.

Since foundation is not available to limit cross-comb, frequent inspections to avoid it can make a TBH a poor choice for use in a distant outyard.

Check to ensure the bees have enough space if you’ve used a follower board to limit the open area in any horizontal hive.

Layens hives are reputed to require few inspections. The concept is to let the bees live as they do in the wild. You only check at the beginning of the season and again at harvest time.

I suspect if you go foundationless with Layens hives, cross-combing is still a potential issue. I also feel the need to check periodically for small hive beetles, varroa, and other pests.

Single Boxes Can Be Heavy

Earlier, we mentioned that traditional hive boxes full of bees and honey are heavy. Well, EMPTY horizontal hive bodies can be quite cumbersome.

Even though you probably won’t be moving your horizontal hive box once it’s in place, you may need assistance setting it up.

Moving any established colony is difficult. I can relocate a small Langstroth colony alone with the proper equipment. No way that’s happening with a long hive.

Honey Harvesting Limitations

With vertical hives, you can keep adding honey supers if your colony’s output explodes. Limited space in a single box can reduce the amount of honey available for harvest.

When it comes to the actual harvesting of honey, there are fewer options with some horizontal hives.

Using standard frames, you can still use centrifugal extractors with long Langstroth hives. Centrifugal extractors speed up the harvesting process and leave you with frames of drawn comb for your colonies to reuse or for making beeswax products.

Layens frames are too deep for standard extractors. Extractors designed to spin Layens frames are available, but without wide competition, you may find options limited and pricing on the high side.

Top bar hives have no frames at all. Cutting comb honey or using the crush and strain method of extraction are your best bets.

As a backyard beekeeper with only a few colonies, this may not be a disadvantage at all. Electric centrifugal extractors are expensive. Comb honey is wildly popular; crush and strain works fine for modest batches of jarred honey.

If, however, you have a lot of hives or are considering commercial beekeeping, Layens, and top bar hives may not be your best choice.

Our Recommendation

If you’re a real beekeeping newbie, we still recommend that you start with traditional Langstroth hives. It’s easier to find knowledgeable beekeepers for advice and to get standard equipment. There’s a lot to learn, so we’d keep it simple.

However, if you only want to keep a couple of hives or if you have a few years under your belt and want to try something new, a horizontal hive may be just the thing for you.

Additional Reading

Horizontal Beekeeping in Bee Culture magazine

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