Make: Projects

Your Own Honey Cow

Make a simple beehive and enjoy the sweet fruits of your labor.

honey cow

Beekeeping is an ancient DIY art, practiced by amateurs and makers for centuries. Anyone can produce natural honey at home by making their own hive. Here’s how to build a cheap and simple beehive called the Honey Cow.

The Honey Cow is designed to mimic nature. Unlike commercial hives, it doesn’t have frames, foundations, or excluders. Instead, it just has top bars, allowing the bees to do what they’d do in a fallen log: build beautiful, natural combs. Because it’s less intrusive to the bees, it’s easier to make and to manage, so it’s a perfect hive for beginners. Once you have a hive, you’ll want to gather a few extra bits of equipment, like a veil, a smoker, and a bee feeder. You can procure bees by capturing a swarm or buying a “package” or nucleus from a fellow beekeeper. After one full summer, you’ll reap the reward: wonderful, homegrown honey.


Step #1: Make the barrel.

Your Own Honey CowYour Own Honey CowYour Own Honey CowYour Own Honey Cow
  • Choose a food-grade container to avoid potentially dangerous chemicals. Saw it in half lengthwise, making sure there’s a bunghole in each half for the bees to enter.
  • Now you’ve got 2 barrels; you’ll use one per hive.
  • Clean your barrel well. You never know what was in it. On one end of the barrel (the end that used to be the top) there’s a rim of plastic that protrudes. Cut it away.
  • Rub the interior with beeswax. This will remove any foreign smell and make it more attractive to a hive. A drop or two of lemongrass oil is good, too.

Step #2: Make the frame.

Your Own Honey CowYour Own Honey CowYour Own Honey Cow
  • Measure your barrel rim and cut 1×2 lumber to make a frame that fits around it. For example, if your barrel is 36"×24", cut 2 lengths of 37" and 2 lengths of 25" (the extra inch allows you to screw one piece into the next).
  • Glue and screw the frame together. Then screw the barrel’s rim into the frame.

Step #3: Build the legs.

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  • Lay a 2×4 flat. Mark one edge 40" from either end (points A and C) and mark the opposite edge 36" from either end (points B and D). Cut the board into 3 pieces, along the lines between A and B and between C and D.
  • Butt the 2 long pieces together at their pointed ends (A and C) to form an inverted V. Lay the short piece across them to form an A, then screw it down.
  • Repeat to make the other leg.
  • Screw a leg to each end of the barrel’s frame, and put several ½" screws through the barrel into the leg for a good, sturdy fix.

Step #4: Make the top bars.

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  • Cut twenty-three 24" lengths of 1½"×1" lumber. These are the bars to which the bees will attach their honeycombs. On each bar, you need to provide a guide so that the bees will make straight combs. There are several ways to do this:
  • » Screw a thin piece of molding, 20" long, centered on each top bar so that you leave 2" free at each end of the bar. This molding will face downward, into the barrel, when the bar rests on the frame. Rub beeswax on the molding.
  • » Or attach twine coated in beeswax, centered on each bar, leaving about 1"–2" free at each end.
  • » Or carve a narrow groove, about ¼" wide, into each bar and fill it with molten beeswax. Again, leave 1"–2" intact at either end of the top bar.

Step #5: Make the roof.

Your Own Honey Cow
  • Make a frame of 1×2 lumber to fit around the barrel frame with a ¼" gap on all sides. For example, if you cut 25" and 37" lengths for the barrel frame, now cut 27½" and 39½" lengths for the roof frame.
  • Screw the sheet of tin centered onto the roof frame. Bend the excess tin down and screw these edges to the sides of the frame. Using the tinsnips, trim any excess hanging below the frame.
  • Secure the roof on top of the barrel frame with a bungee cord or with wire.

Step #6: Get some bees.

Your Own Honey Cow
  • You can buy a “package” of queen and bees, but it’s much more satisfying to capture a swarm.
  • When dealing with bees, you can’t think of them as individuals. It’s the hive, as a whole, that is the animal. And each year, if conditions are right, the hive will reproduce. If they’ve filled the space they inhabit and food is abundant, the bees will create another queen and the hive will split, creating a swarm that will leave in search of a new home.
  • The swarm is laden with honey, and preoccupied, and consequently very docile. If you come across a swarm on a branch, you can shake the bees off, into a box. Take the box to your hive and empty it into your Honey Cow. They’ll do the rest.
  • In future articles, we'll cover accessory and harvesting equipment for natural, simple, low- cost DIY beekeeping.
  • Wear protection when handling swarms, because bees can always sting, even when they’re docile.

Step #7: Resources

Your Own Honey Cow
  • Tools, accessories, and DIY kits for top-bar hives:
  • Natural beekeeping forum:
  • Author’s page:
  • Join a local bee club; they love to help beginners.


This project first appeared in MAKE Volume 25.

Abe Connally

Abe Connally

Abe Connally and Josie Moores live with their two sons off the grid in the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert. They develop innovative and practical solutions to homesteading on a budget. is the online documentation of their experiments and adventures.

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  • Rock


    Beehives require constant ventilation as they are highly susceptible to mold, humidity and pests. Plastic does not breath, and bees cannot control the humidity as as well as in wooden boxes.

    This is a traditional “top bar” hive. Instead of the half barrel, just take five planks. Make a trough, angle long sides slightly outward. The rest is the same.

  • Marvin Emil Brach

    Rock is right…
    It dont really has to be wood, but there should be at least ventilation openings with metal gaze or something… This will give the bees the possibility to react to changing temperatures… They have to keep the temperature exact the same, all day and all night for their spawn…

    But Wood is definitly the bettor option… It’s a little more efford you have to do, but otherwise the hive will have to do that for you, what will result in lower yields, because they have to invest energy, which they took from the sugars they collect to make the honey…

    • Rahere

      The list of no-nos here is a mile long.
      How will you control swarming, when you can’t monitor the frames for queen cells? If you don’t, you’ll have a colony which is perpetually weakening itself, and a load of angry neighbours furious with you for allowing them to swarm. Catch the swarm? How will you return them to the main hive afterwards, let alone find the queens to decide which one to keep?
      How will you monitor varroa, when you can’t see what’s on the floor of the colony? How will you extract sacrificial drone comb, the easiest natural way of keeping it under control? Unless you do, you’re weakening a conoly so much further you’ll be condemning it to a slow death.
      You’re using lemongrass oil, therefore plan on attracting a stray swarm. How do you know what diseases they have? Their aggressivity? The queen’s age and fertility? You’re not quarantining them in isolation, so maybe you plan on making American Foul Brood a home?
      Sorry about being so negative, but this is irresponsible both to bees and the neighbourhood, both beekeepers and others. TANSTAAFL, you’ll have to invest a bit and take a chance on breakeven, but it’s doable, just not if you want to be greedy.

      • Asa M

        Isn’t there a bee shortage as it is? Does swarming not result in another colony? Even if it is just the annoyance of a swarm of bees, why would this be a problem in the middle of the desert? Are there no wild bees? You make it sound like bees cannot survive on their own. Maybe think of it like birdhouse in that you’re providing a slightly better location for the bees than what they’re likely to find on their own. But I do think wood sounds like a better idea.

        • Rahere

          Actually, there’s a shortage of places to keep bees where they’re needed, in the fields. The cities are getting rather full, they’re OK now, it’s the monoculture in the countryside which makes it unsuitable to keep bees in. You cannot reprogram bees to fit in with that, they are living creatures and need to feed continuously from February to October, or later. If the only crop’s in flower for a fortnight in April, the bees will have starved before they get there, or after. They have a maximum range of c5km/3miles, and need constant variety within that distance from wherever they are.
          It’s not difficult to make colonies, what is difficult is keeping them alive and productive.

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  • sean wynn

    gday mate i recon i might try your idea and hope bees come. is that an option, or do i have to buy bees?