How is our top bar hive different from a square box hive, and why does it matter?

June 23, 2014

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.

Too few mites? I know the feeling.

May 4, 2012

Too few mites? I know the feeling..

A good Blog by Dennis Murrell – Bee Natural

Imidacloprid – systemic pesticide, systemic problem…

April 6, 2012

Today’s CATCH THE BUZZ email, published by Kim Flottum of Bee Culture magazine offers two completely opposing statements concerning the use of the systemic neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid.

There’s just something really WRONG with a system that can say this:

“This is a key part of our wider commitment to ensure the safe and responsible use of pesticides.”

When will we learn to SCREAM when we hear a sentence so inexplicable – so illogical – so completely  WRONG???


Ground bees? They are not always wasps, hornets, yellowjackets…

April 6, 2012

A lovely and informative post about “ground bees” from Soulsby Farm’s blog by Denise Ellsworth – honey bee and native pollinator education from The Ohio State University Department of Entomology.

With great pictures too!  Check it out…



Frankly, Scarlett — I’m alarmed!

March 20, 2012

ImageIt’s mid-March.  I’m in Maine.  I’m walking out the door and going across the street to the mailbox in jeans and a t-shirt.  Every other conversation I engage in – even with a stranger on the street, or with the person next to me at the health food store – is about the WEATHER!

Why is it 70 degrees in Maine in March?  Right outside my kitchen door there are daffodils about to burst – lupine showing the green starburst leaves – dandelion greens ready to send up the first bright yellow “bee food” – pussy willow trees across the street covered in fuzzy catkins.  This time last year I was shoveling snow for the umpteenth time – four feet of the stuff, that hung around nearly into May!

And did you now that the USDA recently published a revised version of the Plant Hardiness Zone map?  Yep, it’s true – you can check it out here:

What does THAT tell us?  Are we still thinking global warming/climate change is some sort of amorphous fairy tale made up to frighten children?  Well – it’s working – because I’m scared for sure!

Sometimes it’s a little bit much to take – changing weather means changing forage for bees.  Changing forage for bees affects their ability to store food, and to survive through the winter.  Bees surviving through the winter affects what you and I have to eat every day.  It’s all CONNECTED to EVERYTHING!

The emerging skillset for today’s human needs to include the ability to withstand the sort of insidious stress involved when you live in a time of such utter uncertainty.  And the only antidote I know is to stay focused on what I WANT.  Focusing on what I do not want gets  me more of that – just as surely as looking at something I do not want to hit when I am aiming my bow makes me send an arrow into the wrong target.

When I started Gold Star Honeybees I said:  Our focus will be on healthy honey bees.
Join us in the paradigm shift that has begun – Focus on what you want more of – healthy bees, clean agriculture, organic food – and together we can make it happen.  Those crucial connections that make us fragile also make us stronger – and somewhere in the midst of it all is the most important thing – love.  And from there – comes life.  A life worth living.  All because of these connections… and frankly,  I think we all give a damn…

Watch the TED talk here:

The resourcefulness of beekeepers…

January 12, 2012

Recently I read a response to a blog post on Dennis Murrell’s Natural Beekeeping blog.  Dianna wrote to describe how she had recycled oak fence boards into a Warre hive with her circular saw, for next to nothing in $$$ and happily, still has all her fingers!

We thought she was pretty smart, and the oak must look awesome!

Here’s what we said back to her:

Dianna – What a great example of recycling and resourcefulness!  We would love to see a pic of your Warre hive – maybe you could post it on our Facebook page?  It’s here: and we love to see pictures!  (We also love it when you click “like”if you like our Facebook page!)

There are a lot of extremely resourceful beekeepers out there – and many of them with a very well developed woodworker “gene”.  They also understand the value of having interchangeable parts – so that beekeepers can work together.  They understand that “a hive can save a hive” – an open bar of brood is the natural solution to a queenless hive.  But the parts have to fit between hives!

So in addition to our  “bells & whistles” Deluxe TBH hive ($495), which comes as a complete kit,  we also have the plans for a Gold Star hive kit in both of our DIY kits —  DIY#1 ($50) AND DIY#2 ($295).

The Deluxe kit contain all the wood, the glass window, the hardware, painted roof – everything – and goes together with nothing more than a screwdriver and a staplegun –

But with the DIY #1, YOU do ALL of the woodworking, and you are building the same box you see for sale on the website – and you know that it matches up with all existing Gold Star hives.

With a DIY #2, you build the box, roof and legs, but you GET the top bars.  And if you’ve GOT the top bars, then you want to be darned sure it all works together, so we also include the follower boards.   We like to call those follower boards “the keys to the kingdom” – because if you build the box to be a fit to the followers, then the top bars will also be a perfect fit.   Voila!  Gold Star quality, and hive interchangeability!

Both DIY kits include all the hardware as well.  This is our response to the “Big Box Bubble Pack” – where you have to buy a plastic bubble package containing 60 of something you only need 14 of.  Or a 100 foot roll of hardware cloth/screen that you only need 4 feet of.

And as Dennis mentioned – it’s very nice to have all your fingers – we think beekeepers should be able to count to ten!  You can read Dennis’ blog (in its new format!) here:

There’s a video about our different kits here:

You can find our website here:

And you can ask us questions here:

Thanks for listening!

Christy Hemenway

Gold Star Top Bar Hives since 2007

About honey bees and January… and April…

December 31, 2011

About honey bees and January… and April…

Beekeeping is funny, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a spring thing, right?  The flowers are blooming, gardens are growing, bees are buzzing, it’s an exciting, growing time. But to understand how “things bee” get started up in the spring, you have to go backwards into the winter, to see how things arrived at spring. For instance, honeybees finish up the summer season and go into the hive in the fall, where they cluster, and they do something akin to hibernating all winter long. Continuing beekeepers have to force themselves to sit on their hands all winter long–you can’t open up a hive in freezing temperatures, at least not with happy results.

New beekeepers, on the other hand, who are just getting started in the spring, have been planning for their brand new hives since the dead of winter. So these beekeepers discover that ordering bees should be done in January! The honey bee suppliers that I talk with are, like me, usually sold out of package bees by mid-March at the latest.  So new beekeepers are usually johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to ordering their first bees.

But consider the continuing beekeeper whose bees don’t overwinter. April is said to be the cruelest month in beekeeping, at least here in New England. Sometimes you see these hives flying in February, and again in March–but come April that hive is dead. That beekeeper did not even stand a chance when it came to ordering bees; and so, it’s not unusual for experienced beekeepers to order some packages of bees in January as “insurance”. Yes, that seems counterintuitive – if you think that’s odd, you’re right. January by rights is the month for sitting by the fire, and thumbing through your seed catalog, not for ordering honeybees.

The thing to know is this: if you are just beginning your beekeeping journey, be prepared to order package bees as early as possible. January is not too early. And if you are continuing your beekeeping journey, it is not a bad idea to order an insurance package, in the event that April does you wrong. The thing about having ordered a package in January, and then not needing it–is that now you have a cause for celebration! And a sad beekeeper, who didn’t order bees but then learned that their hive was gone in April, will celebrate too – and will be grateful to you when it turns out that you don’t need that package of bees.

So the moral is: order early, order often! It’s far more frustrating to need bees and not have them, then it is to have bees and not need them. I can almost guarantee you that somebody will be happy to get your “insurance package” when April rolls around. Of course, if your bees successfully overwintered, and now you have an additional colony, well – what part of this is a bad plan?

But when it comes to planning–if you think you *might* need bees–order bees. You’re not likely to be sorry. And besides, it’s a cheerful thing to think about bees when you’re huddling by the wood stove in January!


**For quality top bar beekeeping equipment, be sure to visit our webpage at!**

A Christmas beekeeping blog…

December 25, 2011


Just what IS beekeeping? Is it art? Is it science? Is it magic? It’s notoriously difficult to define… Is it a hobby?  Is it a habit?  Is it an obsession?  Just what is it?

And what about those funny little bugs? Just what is it about bees?  They sting, yes – so it’s prudent to be cautious when you’re around them – but they only sting when they’re defending something?  Who knew? And it’s a kamikaze mission, that once-in- a-lifetime sting of a honeybee.  They never do it frivolously – it’s a life or death proposition for the honeybee.

Yet beekeepers can be seen standing, sitting, lounging in the vicinity of their hives for hours, and just… watching. That’s it – just watching the bees flying in and out of the hive. It’s mesmerizing.  It’s as if we think that if we watch long enough, we’re going to figure out their secret.

Truly, what we humans really know about honeybees is pretty limited. We cannot see inside the hive, we cannot see inside their minds, we barely even believe in a concept as advanced as a hive mind or a holistic super organism.

That’s probably one of the reasons that so much damage has been done – not only to the honeybee, but to our food system over the course of recent history. Because we don’t necessarily believe in magic or in a hive mind. We’re used to living isolated and alone, so how could this humble insect know, and live by, something so community-oriented, something so complex that we humans can’t understand it?

The honeybee has much to teach us about cooperation. Living and working together, taking only what we need, never damaging the planet that sustains us–but only ever helping and supporting it. We could go a long way on the things that we could learn from bees.

My Christmas wish to all of us would be this–that we take a lesson from the honeybees. That we learn to live in connection with the world around us–supporting and nurturing it, instead of industrializing and destroying it. That we learn to live in harmony with each other, recognizing the importance of each to the whole.

And as we take steps in that direction, we will find a sense of peace, of joy, of good will towards all men.

And that would make for a pretty good Christmas gift.

4th of July Message from Gold Star Honeybees

July 1, 2011

Hello Fellow Top Bar Beekeepers —

Well, here we are – it’s almost the 4th of July.  I know that all of you first year top bar beekeepers  have had some interesting experiences since becoming a beekeeper this spring, some good, some bad, all of them different – and I just thought I’d offer a few insights to you all about the way beekeeping season progresses from my point of view as a beekeeper, bee school teacher and equipment manufacturer.

In the early spring, there’s a great deal of excitement – making plans, buying equipment, going to bee school, learning everything you can, waiting for your bees.  We interact a lot – school is fun, questions are interesting, lots of anecdotes get passed around.

Then your bees come!  Everyone is SO excited, and you all go home and put your bees in their hive, then wait and worry and wonder.  You discover questions you hadn’t even thought to ask – how to do this or that, why are the bees doing x or y.  Then your bees get their bearings and start doing what bees do.  It’s fun and we all enjoy it.  You tell your friends about your new enterprise.

At that stage, it gets pretty quiet at Gold Star Global Headquarters.  I don’t hear from anybody.  Sometimes I check to see if my phone is even getting a dial tone!  Then the season progresses – to right about now, when folks have had their bees for somewhere between 4 – 8 weeks – and then I start to get a different set of questions.

And what I can generally tell by the 4th of July is that everyone is a little worried.  Everyone would like a little reassurance.  Everyone would like it if I could come and inspect their bees.  Some of you even offer to pay me to come and inspect your bees.  I appreciate it that you see me as such an expert!

But I hope that I have been able to get it across that the reality of beekeeping is that bees do what bees do – they are not machines, and they are definitely not predictable.  We want to see them build a brood nest, and store honey.  We inspect them and try to keep them making their combs straight so that our top bar hive remains a “moveable comb” hive.  But other than offering them sugar syrup to supplement what nature provides, or providing a new queen, or the means to make a new queen if needed, or monitoring for mite levels – there is not much we can actually do to change the course of things happening in the hive.  Nature is in control of that process and it is for us to watch in wonder.  That means that sometimes we will see things thrive, sometimes not.

Nature is awesome and in the face of her wisdom, we often feel powerless.  I get it.  Sometimes it’s thrilling, sometimes it’s heartbreaking.  Often it makes me feel small and inadequate.

So I know how much you want that reassurance.  There are days that I want it too.  I wish I could provide it.  But as Gold Star Honeybees grows – that becomes less and less feasible.  Which is truly bittersweet for me – I would love to stay personally connected to each and every one of you and see all of your bees.

But this growing is also a good thing.  Because it means that together we are building a larger community!  It’s getting more bees onto natural beeswax and into treatment-free lifestyles, and away from contaminated wax foundation and “Big Ag” style manipulations.  For most of you, that was the reason you gave for starting this journey – to keep healthier bees – for the bees, for beekeepers, and for the planet.

So I just want to remind you that what you’ve done is take a very bold, brave step.  You’ve become an iconoclast – breaking with established systems and practices that no longer make sense, and you’ve struck out and begun doing this very different thing, and I know that you sometimes feel very alone.

But all of you are Thinking Beekeepers – and I just want to repeat to you what you may have heard first at the end of a Gold Star Weekend Intensive class:

“Walk on, Beekeeper – this journey matters.”

Thanks for listening.  All the Best to you and your bees.  And have a great 4th of July weekend.

— Christy

22 Days to Swarming? Wow! That doesn’t seem good…

June 13, 2011

I hived a good sized package of bees on Friday May 20th in a Gold Star Top Bar Hive here in the Gold Star Apiary…

Yesterday, June 11th I did an inspection. This makes the hive 22 days old.

While I was pleased to see several bars of capped honey – which is a little surprising in a three week old hive, I was surprised as well that I found several torn open queen cells – on the edges of the comb. This edge of comb placement would indicate that they were “swarm” cells, not “supercedure” cells, and there was very little brood in the comb, another indication of a “queen replacement event” – since there is a “break” in the brood cycle when a colony swarms or supercedes their queen.

But 22 days seems very early for a colony to swarm, and since it’s difficult to say whether the population of the hive has dropped – we are mulling over whether they might have swarmed despite our disbelief, or superceded with a cell built closer to the edge than one would expect.

The other nagging concern that this brings up is the concern about just what are we doing to bees by selling packages and shipping them from hot southern climates to colder places such as New England? The bees in the package we hived came from Georgia – and had been foraging for months in that climate. Not much information is available about the effects of the shock of being shipped and having to start over again in an area where temperatures and forage are just getting started in May. We have heard a lot of stories of queen failures this season, so it is worrisome.

But at any rate – they’re building wax and filling it with stores and we’ll look again in a week or so and see whether we are seeing the laying pattern of a new and healthy queen, or whether some catastrophe has occurred and they are now queenless altogether!

That will bring up new and different stuff to talk about!