There are a number of differences between Gold Star Honeybees’ top bar hives and the square-box Langstroth hive. The most obvious difference is that a Gold Star hive is a single-unit, horizontal hive, while a Langstroth hive consists of multiple boxes stacked vertically on top of each other.
But the most important difference between a top bar hive and a square-box hive is what goes on inside – it’s in the way the bees make their beeswax “comb” – the inner structure of their nest.
In a Gold Star top bar hive, the bees build the comb as they would in the wild, by hanging in groups or “chains” from the “top bars.” The top bars are just what they sound like – bars that go across the top of the bees’ nest. Tiny wax ovals are secreted from the abdominal wax glands of the bees; the bees then chew this wax and use it to create panels of hexagonal cells – these panels are known as comb. The queen measures the size of each cell to determine the gender of the bee egg that she then lays in it. The bees determine how many female eggs (worker bees) and how many male eggs (drone bees) will be laid by building the appropriate sized cells. In a top bar hive, the combs will be built this way naturally, just as they would if the colony was living in a tree.
In a Langstroth hive, the bees are forced to build their comb on sheets of wax-coated plastic, known as “foundation.” Hexagons embossed on the surface of the foundation pre-determine the size of the hexagonal cells, causing the queen to lay all female eggs (workers) and virtually eliminating male bees (drones). Since female bees make the honey, foundation is used by beekeepers that want to increase the production of honey for sale. This impacts the genetic diversity of the hive, and weakens the bees.
All of the bees’ natural processes happen inside the hive on the comb, so it’s important that the bees be able to build their own natural beeswax comb. This is what happens in a top bar hive.
The use of foundation in the typical Langstroth hive disturbs these natural processes, so foundation is the most important thing to avoid if you want to raise bees naturally.