Honey Cow

Here are instructions on how to make your own top bar beehive, using a 55 gallon barrel and some lumber.

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.

We 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.

Materials & 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 1: Barrel
  1. Cut the barrel in half lengthwise, making sure that there is a bung hole in each half.
  2. Clean it well. You never know what was in it. Choose a food-grade container to avoid potentially dangerous chemicals.
  3. Lay the barrel down like a canoe, so that it would catch water. This is the position it will be in from now on.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 2: Frame
  1. 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).
  2. Glue and screw the frame together.
  3. Screw the barrel inside the frame.


Step 3: Legs
  1. Lay an 8 foot, 2”x4” board on the ground.
  2. Start at one end and, on the right side of the board, mark 40” (called A) and then 36” (called C)
  3. On the left side of the board, mark 36” (called B) and then 40” (called D).
  4. Cut the board along the diagonal line between A and B.
  5. Cut the board along the straight line between C and D.
  6. Butt the two diagonal lines of each cut board against each other (to form an inverted V) and screw them together.
  7. Take the leftover 2”x4” and put it on top of the inverted V that the boards have formed. It doesn’t matter where you put it.
  8. Mark both sides of the leftover board on the inside of the inverted V to get the angles.
  9. Cut the board with these angles.
  10. Screw this board into the inverted V, so that you now have an A.
  11. Repeat steps 1 through 10 to make the other leg.
  12. Screw a leg 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
  1. Cut 23 24” lengths out of the 1 ½”x1” lumber.
  2. 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: Roof
  1. Using the 1”x2” lumber, make a frame that fits around the barrel frame, with a ¼” gap on all sides.
  2. 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.
  3. Take the piece of tin and screw it to the frame, leaving equal space on all sides.
  4. Bend the extra bits of tin down and screw to the sides of the frame.
  5. Using the tin snips, cut any extra bits hanging below the frame.
  6. Put the roof on top of the barrel frame.
  7. 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.


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.

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.