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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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    99 Discussions


    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.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    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.


    Reply 12 days ago

    Perfect answer Serverlan! :)
    Most bee keepers don't even know how to open a hive!

    I use a simple veil and no smoker. It's about technique. I think that bee suits and big smokers encourage sloppy husbandry as they think they are invincible!
    My son often worked my hives in shorts and flip-flops - nothing else! Until the day he was inevitably stung! :D

    On "Killer Bees" NO SUCH THING! again NO SUCH THING!
    "Africanized Bees" are fascinating. The issue with them is that they are super keen on defence. While your average bee may be interested in you if you are a few yards from the hive, Africanized bees will follow and attack for anything up to a mile!
    Their success is down to the emergence date of "Africanized" queens, a day sooner than those not carrying the genes!
    Their venom is no more potent than any other bee.
    If you are anaphylactic, a single sting may kill you, from any bee!

    Most American bee strains are very quiet and gentle! Not always so in the UK, and temperament can change by hive and area, it's down to genetics. A good reason not to import queens!


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 7

    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.


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 7

    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


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    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

    USDA Info



    2 years ago


    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.


    1 reply

    Reply 12 days ago

    Spacing on wild comb is about 38mm but may be as small as 32mm
    Dadant (common in France?) use 38mm for brood
    In the UK, the national frames are pitched at 38mm but UK Hoffman tend to be 35mm (?) and Langstroth (American) are 35mm pitch.
    In the super you can use wider spacing since we are not dependant upon pupae length and bee space
    Remember that in a TBH, the bars are generally touching side by side and so you need to add 1/2 a bee space (about 6mm/2) to the depth of cell, otherwise the bees will draw one side more fully than the other, resulting in wavy comb.


    12 days ago on Step 7

    Cool. Very nice, easy to follow project.

    I'd like to expand on your article if I may...

    Hint: Your starter strips will work better with the screw head hidden
    and with a sharp edge rather than a half-round. A bead of wax tapered to
    a sharp edge works well too.

    Hint: Even a thin layer of expanded polystyrene stuck to the inside the metal roof will help with solar radiation cooking the hive.

    Does the plastic not heat up too?

    I would say that TBHs are not the best option for beginners although they appeal due to being cheap. They are virtually unmanageable and so often lead to failed colonies in the first year, causing people to give up - which is a great shame after investing time and emotion into their bees.

    A semi-circle may help, but the "perfect" shape for a hive is thought to be a catenary, this seems to offer the least amount of bridging comb to the side - one of the main problems with TBHs

    ANY hive type can be a TBH, and specific (so called Warre) TBH hives are sold, and so your point about commercial hives is perhaps disingenuous?

    If you have not already done so, then you may be interested to read the history of the KTBH & the TTBH, where, how and why they were developed, you may be surprised. The "Warre hive" was "invented" (chosen from many 100s) as a cheap hive for the French peasants, made of fruit boxes. Alongside the hive, Warre "developed"/stole/collected his odd ideas about bee keeping and seemed very much vested in the idea of not spending money. His main argument against frames was in fact the cost of them and the newfangled extractor. In fact early editions of his book show some odd 3 sided frames with dowel sides (emphasis on cheap manufacture). The Warre hive and the ideas are not inseparable, even though many worshippers of Warre would disagree!
    I would urge you to read his books not "Warre" websites, then make your own mind up. IIRC Warre hives were "rediscovered" in Wales in the 1970s and were soon latched onto by the hippy culture of the time. Unfortunately they have a cult following that is clearly not borne out of understanding, and with the liberal use of the word "natural", more well-meaning people are sold a fabrication. There is no need to whitewash with words like "appropriate", "natural", "holistic". argumentum ad nauseam just proves a lack of strong argument. Just tell it like it is - it's not very good, but I like it, why don't you try it?

    Some very nice ladies came to our club to teach us all about Warre and "natural" bee keeping. We were very gentle with them, but it took just minutes to find that they had no idea about what happened in a hive, how to manage swarms, check for diseases etc. We then took them to the apiary and showed them just how easy bee keeping can be.

    Bee keepers moved away from TBH, skeps, tree gums, etc. in favour of framed hives from about the 1850s for very good reasons. TBHs are certainly not more "natural" than framed hives - bees are wild animals. If they didn't like framed hives, they certainly wouldn't arrive as uninvited swarms! At the end of the day we are interfering with the bees, but framed hives make this easier and less destructive. No mysticism, just easier, more expensive? yes. And if you want to follow Warre and not open the hive (because he couldn't) then that's fine too!

    That's not to say that TBHs in all their forms are not interesting, and certainly have a place in the corner of an apiary as an oddity (our club has a couple), and in some parts of the world they are de facto due to cost.

    This is certainly not aimed as a barb at the author, but at prospective beekeepers who will see a super-cheap hive.

    To all bee keepers, keep up the good work!


    Question 8 months ago

    Hei,i wanted to stert keeping bees but I need afinancial help what should I do?


    11 months ago

    pour le fond ce serait bien je pense d en grillager une partie avec une grille fine pour aerer retirer l humidité et evacuer les varroas et pourqoi pas mettre une fenetre en plexiglass je vais essayer ce projet quand j aurais finis ma bi ruche en refrigerateur


    2 years ago

    cnt tpye triyd wthut gaer


    3 years ago

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


    3 years ago

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

    1 reply

    Reply 3 years ago

    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


    8 years ago on Introduction

    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!

    1 reply