Introduction: Make Your Own Honey Cow (Top Bar Bee Hive)

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Beekeeping is an ancient DIY art, performed by amateurs and makers for centuries. Anyone can produce natural honey at home. People keep bees in many different kinds of hives, but we will focus on a cheap and simple design, called the Honey Cow.

The Honey Cow is designed to mimic nature as much as possible. Unlike commercial hives, it does not have frames, foundation or excluders. Instead, it just has top bars, allowing the bees to do what they would in a fallen log: build beautiful, natural combs. Because it is less intrusive to the bees, it's easier to make and manage, which makes it a perfect beginners backyard hive.

Once you have a hive, you will want to gather a few extra bits of equipment, like a veil, a smoker, and a bee feeder. With your equipment at hand, you can explore ways to get your bees, from capturing a swarm to buying a package or nucleus from a fellow beekeeper. After your bees have had a full summer to build up honey, you can start reaping the rewards of tending bees: wonderful, home-grown honey.

I encourage everyone interested in beekeeping to join a local bee club. These clubs are filled with wonderful people who love to help get beginners started. Don't be discouraged if folks in your bee club don't have the same type of hive as you. There are as many ways to keep bees as there are beekeepers.

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Picture of Materials and Tools

55 gallon plastic barrel, preferably food grade (makes two hives)
22 feet of 1”x2” nominal lumber
46 feet of 1½”x1” lumber
2 X 8 foot of 2”x4” nominal lumber
A 3 feet by 4 feet piece of tin
20 - 1½” wood screws
10 - 2” wood screws
8 - ½ “ screws
Bungee Cord or tie wire
45 feet thin moulding OR natural fiber string and beeswax

circular or jig saw
tin snips
tape measure and marker

Step 2: The Barrel

Picture of The Barrel

Cut the barrel in half lengthwise, making sure that there is a bung hole in each half.

Clean it well. You never know what was in it.  Choose a food-grade container to avoid potentially dangerous chemicals.

Lay the barrel down like a canoe, so that it would catch water. This is the position it will be in from now on.

On one end of the barrel (which used to be the top when it was whole) there is a rim of plastic that protrudes. Cut this away.

Rub the interior with beeswax. This will remove any foreign smell that remains and make it more attractive to a hive. A drop or two of lemongrass oil is good as well.

Step 3: The Frame

Picture of The Frame

Measure the length and width of your barrel and cut the 1”x2” lumber to make a frame. For example, if your barrel is 36” by 24”, cut 2 lengths of 25” and 2 lengths of 37” (the extra inch allows you to screw one piece into the next).

Glue and screw the frame together.

Screw the barrel inside the frame.

Cut the 2"X4" boards into 40" pieces.  These boards are now the legs.

Screw the legs into each side of the barrel. Make sure you screw the frame to the leg and put several screws from the barrel into the leg for a good, sturdy fix.

Step 4: Top Bars

Picture of Top Bars

Cut 23 X 24” lengths out of the 1 ½”x1” lumber.

These are the bars to which the bees will attach their honeycomb. However, you need to provide a guide so that they make straight combs. There are several ways to do this, for example:

a) Screw a thin piece of moulding, 20” in length, centered on each top bar, with at least an inch on the ends of the top bar. This moulding will face down, into the barrel, when the bar sits on the frame. Rub some bee's wax on the molding.
b) Attach a piece of twine, coated in wax, also centered on the top bar, at least an inch from the ends of the top bar.
c) Carve a narrow groove into the top bar and fill it with molten bee's wax.  The groove should be about 1/4 of an inch wide, and you need to leave at least an inch on either end of the top bar.

Step 5: The Roof

Picture of The Roof

Using the 1”x2” lumber, make a frame that fits around the barrel frame, with a ¼” gap on all sides.

If you cut 2 lengths of 25” and 2 lengths of 37” for the barrel frame, cut 2 lengths of 27 ½” and 2 lengths of 39 ½” for the roof frame.

Take the piece of tin and screw it to the frame, leaving equal space on all sides.  

Bend the extra bits of tin down and screw to the sides of the frame.

Using the tin snips, cut any extra bits hanging below the frame.

Put the roof on top of the barrel frame.

Wrap the bungee cord around the roof and barrel, attaching it to itself. This will prevent the roof from blowing off. Alternatively, you can use a few bits of tie wire to tie the roof securely to the hive.

Step 6: Ready for Bees

Picture of Ready for Bees

You are now ready for the bees. You can buy a “package”, a queen and bees, however the most satisfying way to get into bee keeping is to capture a swarm.

Get a package here:

When dealing with bees, you cannot think of them as individuals. It is the hive, as a whole, that is the animal. And in this sense, each year, if conditions are right, the hive will reproduce, sometimes several times over. If they have filled the space they inhabit and food is abundant, they will create another queen and the hive will split, creating a swarm. This swarm, laden with honey, will leave the hive in search of a new home.

The swarm is heavy with food and preoccupied, and consequently very docile. Be sure to wear protection when handling swarms, because bees can always sting, even when they are docile. If you come across a swarm on, for example, a branch, you can put a box beneath them, shake the branch, and the bees will fall into the box. Take that box to your hive and empty it into your barrel. They will do the rest.

Step 7: Resources

Picture of Resources

Gold Star Honeybees is an excellent resource for top bar hive  beekeepers.  They offer kits, information, tools, and accessories for top bar hive beekeeping. They feature three levels of DIY hive kits for both novice and experienced beekeepers.  You can find them on the web at

Gold Star Honeybees
PO Box 1061, Bath, ME  04530
207-449-1121 - author's website – natural beekeeping forum – the people's hive and natural beekeeping theory


velacreations (author)2011-04-08

Any questions related to management of a top bar hive, please make sure you visit this forum:

Most of your questions can be answered there by lots of folks that have more experience than me.

céline67 (author)2017-02-21


I live in France and I am making this hive. What is the hole at the bottom for? Do you cover it with a screen ? Other question : you recommend 1,5 " for the bar (38 mm). In my country they say 35mm most of the time. What is your experience with this width ? It's not too much, especially in winter ? Do you have cold temperatures sometime ? Thank's for your explanations.


EvanF29 (author)2016-11-04

cnt tpye triyd wthut gaer

TomC57 (author)2015-09-21

With this type hive, won't the bees freeze in winter?

MohsenG2 (author)2015-09-20


Niki-nicole (author)2015-08-05

I'm almost finished with mine but does the roof need any insulation to keep it from getting too hot?

It depends on the material, give it some space between the roof and the top bars, you can always lay a sheet in there if you are worried about it

sarahfish (author)2011-04-03

Was SO excited to see this in the last MAKE, thanks so much for the ible!
The detailed pictures are great!

We just finished our first year with bees, and unfortunately, we're moving out of the country, so we won't get the big harvests off the established hive. I can't wait to get one of these set up when we get settled, but easier to come by than traditional hive boxes!

velacreations (author)sarahfish2011-04-03

thanks for the kind words! Let us know if you get any set up when you get settled!

ErnestF (author)velacreations2015-07-19

I'm thinking about making a honey one , any info I can get on how to put it together not enought picd lol?

rasimmonds (author)2015-06-17

Thanks to the creator, I have made this (without the legs as it is on top of a hen house). Thankfully a local bee keeper found a swarm and a week in they are building comb on bars 4-9 already.

debbie.durham.925 (author)2015-04-18

I have made this with my grandson, now we need to know how do you feed the bees?

You can make a simple syrup feeder with a water bottle and a small hole in the lid. Fill with syrup and hang at the entrance. If you want to feed inside the hive, just set a feeder right inside, or just a tub of fondant or sugar.

ken.wilson.1848816 (author)2015-03-20

Neat and simple. i may try this.

chriskepics (author)2014-07-27

Can this be made using a 55 gallon metal drum instead of plastic?

You probably could, but plastic is better.

XannaM (author)velacreations2014-11-16

Don't use metal. You will cook the bees in Summer!!!
The wax will melt and the bees will die or move out.

XannaM (author)chriskepics2014-11-16

Noooooooo!! U can't use metal. You're bees eill cook in the simmer. Sll the beeswax will melt and if they don't die they will go and live somewhere else.

tonysoprano6379 (author)2014-07-08

This is awesome! Great instructable guys. VERY COOL!

mdeblasi1 (author)2011-04-03

Did I miss how one gets the honey out of the barrel?
Does it just come out of the bung hole in the bottom?
Isn't it bound up in discrete capsules of wax.

I would love to keep some urban bees here in Columbus, this may be the idea for me.

velacreations (author)mdeblasi12011-04-03

The bees make honey comb on the top bars throughout the barrel.

To harvest, you pull out each bar at a time, cut off the comb into a bucket. At that point, you can chop and press the comb to get the honey.

To get started with bees, please check out the information, videos, and kits at . You'll learn a lot about how these hives are maintained and what is going on inside. The kits they have are really good for beginners, because they come with equipment and everything you need to get going.

mjohnson84 (author)velacreations2013-02-13

first question - is with the top bar hive - that comb would have bees all over it - how do you get them off to cut off the comb? Smoke, brush, water spray bottle??
And I have seen people use plywood with a top bar cut to size placed in between or behind the last top bar. Wouldnt something like that keep the queen away from the honey comb? Or would that keep everyone away from everything??
When you cut off the comb, I assume leaving some at the top would give the bees something to rebuild on. ?

jam906 (author)velacreations2011-04-07

Nice instructable! This looks like a great design for a hive, but you seem to have no method of excluding the queen from the honeycombs you are harvesting.

Bee keepers rely on a queen excluder (usually a wire mesh) to stop the large queen accessing some of honeycombs so that only the worker bees can access them and fill them with honey. Without a queen excluder - as with this design - the queen will lay her larve in most or all of the cells, preventing you from harvesting usable honey.

Please don't get me wrong, I think what you've done here is great, and I'd like to try it myself, but how do you overcome this issue?

velacreations (author)jam9062011-04-08

We don't use queen excluders, and we never have an issue. the Queen tends to lay in the front of the barrel, and that is the brood area.

Most commercial setups use a queen excluder because their hives are quite smaller than this. The queen is restricted to a smaller brood area than she would naturally have.

Allowing the hive plenty of room to make their brood area large, but manageable, allows for the queen to keep the brood concentrated, not throughout the whole hive.

jam906 (author)velacreations2011-04-08

Ah I see, after some research into natural beekeeping it makes allot of sense. We have 2 of the commercial hives you described, but I we'll definitely be giving the natural approach a try.

velacreations (author)jam9062011-04-08

that's a good idea, try a different approach and let us know your results. It is good to have 2 different types to compare.

greatpanda (author)jam9062011-04-07

Queen excluders aren't entirely necessary

mjohnson84 (author)2013-02-13

have the honey bees - need the hive. I have bees every year and also think who is enjoying the honey these guys are making from my borage! ;/

ljfresh (author)2012-10-21

Question: Where do you get the wax that you rub on the wooden slats? Ive been scouring the web looking for bee wax for raising bees.

wingedfish (author)2012-08-22

This is very cool. I would like to try it. We live where the winter temp are friquently -20 or below. How would I keep the hive from freezing?

hsteinbe (author)wingedfish2012-09-24

It gets to be -20 where I live and we have no trouble overwintering our bees in our top bar hives.

wingedfish (author)hsteinbe2012-10-03

what is a top bar hive

hsteinbe (author)wingedfish2012-10-03

umm, the thing the instructable is about. That is a top bar bee hive.

wingedfish (author)hsteinbe2012-10-06


ari2lj (author)2011-08-21

It seems that the inside of the barrel has the potential to get to hot in climates such as where I live. Any ideas on whether that would be a concern?

hsteinbe (author)ari2lj2012-09-24

Place it under the shade of a tree and it will do just fine. You can also cut a long 3" slot along the entire bottom of the hive for ventilation in hot climates. We screen the slot and also add a hinged board that we then close in the winter.

mpilting (author)ari2lj2012-06-02

If the barrel was made of metal it might get too hot, but since this one is plastic it should be fine. I've read stories about metal hives - not a good idea, since they heat up in the sun and the wax melts.

SIRJAMES09 (author)2011-07-02

that was awesome!!!
wish I lived out in the country & had my own place but instead I live in a city apartment. 8=(

I always wanted to raise bees, but just never had the money for it, or I never had the opportunity. I know that getting started is not cheap...getting all the tools, the hives, etc can be expensive.

TY for sharing Sir. it was a great read! 8-D

hsteinbe (author)SIRJAMES092012-09-24

You can set up hive on the roof. Share the honey with the super to gain access. Bees in the city make more honey then bees in the country.

Chicken Spit (author)SIRJAMES092012-06-02

I bet you could raise bees, even in your apartment! I know, it sounds crazy. But what if you built a shelf that you could set a couple supers on your window sill out side your window? As long as you keep that window shut, the bees won't bother you any, and you really only have to open it once or twice a year. When you open it, just leave it open until night, when all the bees go back into the box. I bet if you read all the contracts and rules for your apartment, they probably left bees out because they didn't think it would come up. If this doesn't work out, you can ALWAYS ask the local arborists if you can leave boxes in their orchard. Any farmer would be crazy to say no to an apiculturist wanting to leave a hive near their crops, even if they already have one. because the bees will be pollinating their crops, it benefits them. Just don't let them charge you; farmers pay migratory beekeepers $200 a box per season to let their bees pollinate their trees. In fact, there are people who are constantly moving their hives north and south along the west coast to keep up with all the apple, almond, and cherry pollination that needs to be done annually.

ldestevens (author)2011-04-07

How do I make sure I don't end up with Killer Bees?

brucedenney (author)ldestevens2011-05-21

Don't believe what they show you in the movies.

Killer bees do not exist.

If you do something really silly and upset any colony then it is possible they could attack you en masse which, if you did not have any protection, could be fatal.

There are some bees that are very aggressive, so called africanised bees, we don't have them in the UK and they are not in all parts of the world. Not sure how bad they are, if they are really bad, I guess you could re-queen or kill the lot of them.

STEVE BONZAI (author)brucedenney2012-09-23

We have them in TEXAS. VERY AGGRESSIVE. Not all the wild bees are africanized.

ldestevens (author)brucedenney2011-05-21

Killer bees do exist; that's the colloquial name for Africanized Honey Bees. They may not be as bad as depicted in movies, but they do exist and they are excessively aggressive. And they may not be in the UK, but they are here in the southern United States.

Re-queening is one idea. Praying to my impotent god (who thankfully did not end the world today) might also be a good idea. :p

Servelan (author)ldestevens2011-11-16

When you work bees, it is like Tai Chi, you move slowly and deliberately. If you move fast, the bees pick up on it and think 'attacker!'. If you move slow, you're just a moving branch, nothing to look at, move along...

Don't wear leather or wool around bees; they don't like either one. Don't wear perfume, aftershave or use hair/body products with a lot of scent. Wear wellies you've duct-tapped to your pants; in a pinch, a Tyvek painter's overall and veil ought to keep you going until you get a good suit.

Find a beekeeper to mentor you so you can see what is going on and how to do things. S/he should tell you what tools you should get, how to spot disease or problems, and you can ask lots of questions then.

Queens usually determine the gentleness/aggressiveness of a colony; you can get queens with different temperament by choosing by variety.

Alderin (author)ldestevens2011-04-07

Buying a starter is the easiest way to be sure. Capturing a swarm in the Northern states that are killer bee free is the next best bet. Though, from the looks of it, they aren't that common



DeeRilee (author)2012-04-26

I know I'm reading this a year later.....but I've got to say, that the 'debate' between barrem01 and velacreations (the author) quickly made me lose interest. And beekeeping is something that I've always wanted to, maybe not.

As someone who knows very little about beekeeping, barrem01's arguments were very distracting.

captain Jack (author)2011-06-01

this probably won't fly in the city, huh. Too bad, cuz i LOVE honey!

I don't see why not. Check your local ordinances, but most cities allow beekeeping!

Javin007 (author)velacreations2012-03-15

To be more precise, with the recent advent of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) many states are repealing any previous restrictions they had on bee keeping. Indeed, in New York, they're even encouraging hobbyists to keep bees on the top of their apartments! Honey is the one food product that is completely unregulated by the FDA, and the other bonuses (Propolis, Pollen, Wax, etc) you get from the bees make them a well worth-while hobby! Plus, they're absolutely fascinating. For instance, the little "bee dance" they do to communicate the location of resources to other bees we now fully understand and can translate. They're truly one of the most interesting insects in the insect world. I'm getting my first queen in two weeks! EXCITED!

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