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Steller Apiaries




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At Steller Apiaries we serve the community by providing information and education on backyard and sustainable beekeeping. It sounds like a lot of words, but here is how we break it down so that people can understand a little bit more of what we're working towards. Backyard represents that we're small scale. We are not commercial beekeepers, but we are a business- and with that business we try to maintain a strict code of ethics when it comes to the safety and well-being of our bee's. We don't mass-produce colonies of bees. We rely on Mother Nature to provide us with natural feral swarms that we can capture and observe. We harvest only the bee's surplus honey, but offer raw, local honey to the community. We do not apply any type of chemical, insecticde, medication or pesticide on our land nor our bees.

It sounds crazy, right? Of course you wouldn't put chemicals on your bees, but did you know most commercial beekeepers do?

On our eight acres in Jackson, MI we operate about 10-15 hives. Smaller communities are taking charge and getting more in-touch with how food is grown, harvested, treated, and shipped. We're interested in using that approach with our beekeeping; many people getting together, to all do a small share, for a better end result. 

We tend our bees strictly in alternative hives. From historically acurate log hives to newer alternative designs, we operate our apiary with our honey bees best interest at heart, not the amount of honey they can provide us. Honey bees, first and foremost, pollinate our food source. We rely on honey bees to pollinate over 90 varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts and herbs. Yet, the honey bee is mostly famous for producing sticky, sweet honey. But did you know honey is created to be the honey bee's sole food source during the winter when there isn't pollen and nectar available? With that in mind, we have shifted the focus of our beekeeping, to promote a more natural seasonal cycle for the honey bee. For them to live as if we weren't here intervening at all!

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As alternative beekeepers, we are frequently asked the same number of questions, and they basically all relate to how the top bar hive method is different than the commercial, Langstroth method. So, please peruse our FAQ's and should you have further questions that are not answered here, please feel free to contact us via Facebook, twitter, phone or email and we'd be happy to spend a few minutes discussing all things bee's with you! Or better yet, schedule your alternative beekeeping lesson and have every questioned you've ever desired answered (to the best of our abilities!)

Q: What’s the difference between a top bar and a frame?
A: A Top bar is just that, a single bar. It does not contain sides or a structured bottom. This allows for more free movement of the bees to draw out their wax cell to the desired size without obstruction. However, this does make the comb very fragile, therefore Kenyan Top Bar Hives should not be moved or transported once they have been established.

Q: I’ve heard top bar hives don’t over-winter, how do they do?
A: We personally have found greater success with our top bar over-wintering. We tend all of our hives in Michigan, which is known for having snow or frosts from Mid-October to May. Usually the only people that claim that they do not over-winter well are the ones who have never attempted to tend bees in a TBH.

Q: How do you keep your queen from laying in your honey?
A: There are no queen excluders in nature, what makes you think you need one? The queen bee will only continue to cross drawn out comb that she can easily maintain. So if she desires to increase her brood chamber as a whole, she will always continue to lay eggs in those combs. If you let her naturally establish her brood chamber, you won’t see brood in the honey combs. If you ever do see any undesirable brood in your honey comb, you can remove that top bar and move it all the way to the back of the hive, or to the last drawn out comb (where the honey is) and the worker bees will continue to tend the brood, and then store honey it once they’ve all hatched!

Q: How much honey can a hive produce?
A: A Top Bar hive takes about a full year to establish and we think it’s best for the bees to harvest the honey in the spring only after they’ve survived the winter with their hard earned stores, but a fully established top bar hive can produce anywhere from 50-75 lbs of honey per year. It may sound like a lot of honey, but any commercial beekeeper will tell you their hives can produce 150-400 lbs of honey in a year. It just depends what you’re looking to get out of it; Honey or the bees?

Q: How do you harvest honey in a TBH?
A: We do what is called a crush-and-strain method. We remove the top bar from the hive and completely cut the honey comb from the top bar to harvest. We then crush up the cells of the honey comb and strain the honey comb through aluminum window screen (never fiberglass) or through a fruit pressing or silk mesh bag, into a five gallon bucket with a honey gate on the bottom. Bonus: When you crush and strain honey you’re getting beneficial vitamins, nutrients, pollen's, and propolis that is normally left behind in spun honey (honey that is harvested using a centrifuge or honey spinner. Also, honey loses floral quality as it is exposed to more air; spinning allows a lot of air to mix with the honey as it is draining, losing quality taste.

Q: Kenyan Top Bar Hives implies it was designed in Kenya, which has a tropical climate, so why does it work here?

A: Although it is called a ‘Kenyan’ top bar hive, original designs have been found in Greece and Rome from thousands of years ago. They’ve even found clay pots in Egypt that had been turned up and top bar-like sticks were used to help reinforce the comb. The top bar hive itself is a method that works for the bees in any climate; they’ve only been popularized in Kenya and Africa since the 1600’s.

Q: How do you install bees into a top bar hive?
A: You would install your bees into a TBH almost exactly as you would in a Langstroth hive. We prefer to feed our bees supplemental feed in a gallon storage bag placed in the bottom of the hive with a ½ -1 inch line cut into the bag. You would then install your bees with 6-8 top bars worth of space and then place your follower board. Keep an eye on the comb production through the observation window and provide more space as the colony grows.

Q: Where do you place your entrances in a top bar hive?
A: We use end and bottom-end entrances in all of our hives, unless specifically requested to place them elsewhere by customers. We place our entrances in the ends and under-sides of our hives so that the bees are installed and begin constructing comb on one end of the hive, therefore they will establish their brood chamber at the entrance of their hive and all of their honey stores fall after the brood comb. With middle or side entrances the bees can establish themselves in the center of the hive and store honey on either side of their brood chamber. This can lead to bees starving to death because they will not move back and forth in a colony during winter.

Q: I’ve heard you can use end or side entrances in TBH’s? What’s the difference?
A: Yes, you technically can place your entrances anywhere on a top bar hive. We prefer to place our entrances on the end, so that the bees can easily establish first, their brood chamber and then their honey stores. Placing an entrance on the side or middle of a hive can lead the bees to establish their brood chamber in the center of the hive with honey stores on either end of the hive. There is nothing wrong with this other than the bees do not cross over empty combs to reach full combs. In early winter a side-entrance top bar hive would need to be broken apart to place the hive in the correct order to eliminate starvation. Brood combs would need to be moved to one end to ensure the queen is at one end of the hive and honey at the other end. This can stress bees by breaking their brood and honey stores and easily escapes all of their heat and nest scent retention and can harm their chances of surviving the winter. Side-entrances can also affect the way the bees do their cleansing runs in the winter as they can’t always push dead bees from both ends of the hive toward the center to remove decomposing bees that have perished during the cold winter

Q: Do you get a lot of cross-comb or comb bridging with KTBH’s?
A: Yes, we do get some cross comb or comb bridging with top bar hives, but cross comb can mean something more than just a minor annoyance to the beekeeper. In the past, we used to use full sheets of foundation and we would still find the bees would sometimes eat away at that comb and bridge or cross it anyway. Honey also bees use the bottoms of their constructed comb to help control or eliminate excess ventilation within the hive as well as using it to insulate themselves from weather. Ventilation can be affected seasonally by things such as the wind pattern and speed or the amount of rainfall, so if your bees are crossing some comb, you can cut it away, but if they keep doing it, consider other factors too (wind, rain, sun exposure, etc) and try changing some of those factors by possibly moving the directional placement of the hive, or giving them more air flow. If they still build cross comb, truly step back and consider is it hurting their progress or do you just not like it??

Q: What is the purpose of the angle on your top bars? I’ve seen some with steeper angles on them? What’s the difference?

A: The purpose of that beveled angle on our special cut top bars is to help reinforce the structural integrity of each individual hexagonal cell on an entire top bar. Honey bees typically use burr or bridge comb at the top of frames to help reinforce the wax structure to keep it from breaking when the beekeeper pulls out the frame. This is not as necessary on a top bar, that angle allows the bees to get a better attached honey comb with less burr comb, and more wax comb that can store honey, nectar, or brood. Some top bars contain a steeper cut angle, they are designed for the same reason, to reinforce the structural integrity of the comb, but the steeper angle still requires the bees to build burr or bridge comb. We prefer that it take less time to build out comb, so we use a special cut in our top bars to complement that goal.

Q: I’ve heard a lot of top bar beekeepers are cut comb honey producers, what is cut comb?

A: Cut comb honey is rarer, and often seen as more valuable, than just strained honey. Cut comb is literally pure honey. It is still within its wax cells and is not even being touched by its surrounding air. The last living thing to touch cut comb honey is the honey bee, not even humans.