Book Review: “Hive Management,” by Richard E. Bonney

April 2019 Introduction: I’m revisiting this post now and will chime in here and there with some updates and profound insights.

I borrowed of a copy of Hive Management by Richard E. Bonney recently, and I like it. It’s a practical instruction book that seems geared towards second year beekeepers, but it should give beginners something to think about too. If it had the kind of detailed photos like those in The Backyard Beekeeper or The Buzz About Bees, I might consider it essential. Either way, I just ordered a copy for myself. (I also ordered Honeybee Democracy and The Queen Must Die.) I think it’s worth the $15 I paid for it because it’s full of sensible tips that got me thinking more about the nature of honey bee behaviour in relation to how I manage the hives, and it covers the basics of beekeeping but doesn’t overwhelm.

Bonney is wise to mention that he lives the USA, in New England, and that much of the advice he gives should be adjusted to one’s local climate. New England is not the same as Newfoundland, but it’s not too far off, and at least he’s not writing from the perspective of a beekeeper in Arizona or California. Most of what he talks about — beekeeping with double deep Langstroth hives in a climate where it snows — is applicable to beekeeping in Newfoundland.
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Stinkin’ Dirt Never Tasted So Good

I noticed my drinking dirty water last May. They seem to love the minerals from the dark composted soil in my raised garden beds. They’ve been at it again for the past few days.

Honey bee drinking dirty water. (March 30th, 2012.)

Bee drinking dirty water. (March 30th, 2012.)

April 2019 Postscript: Many urban beekeeping areas have policies in place to ensure that beekeepers provide a nearby water source for their bees. Part of the reason for this is to reduce the likelihood of bees crowding around neighbourhood pools to get a drink. Judging from my experience and online conversations I’ve had with reputable beekeepers and researchers, it seems that honey bees love stinky water, including highly chlorinated water in swimming pools. I’ve used marbles in a water dish to provide water for my bees (with okay results). I’ve used a bucket full of water and peat moss (which sounds great but didn’t do much). I’ve use clay, or terracotta, plant pot saucers filled with water and rocks and bits of branches (which, for me, works better than the other two). But a leaky garden hose, especially if the water has chlorine, seems to work best. The hose can leak over rocks or concrete or organic soil, just about anything. Whatever produces the most stink and warmth seems to attract the most bees. Although I haven’t tried it yet, boardman or entrance feeders filled with water might be the easiest way to water the bees.

Dr. Rachael Bonoan, whose curiosity I admire, studied the mineral preferences of honey bees when drinking water, an area of study that stemmed from her observation of honey bees drinking dirty water. She concluded that honey bees likely drink dirty water as a way to supplement the minerals in the floral diet. She said, “Dirty water is like a vitamin supplement for bees.”

The Warré Hive

I recently read Beekeeping For All (8mb PDF), by Abbé Warré. He’s the guy who designed the “People’s Hive,” also known as the Warré hive. It’s a top bar and therefore foundationless hive with small, square shaped hive boxes, no top entrance and a quilt box on top to absorb moisture. Boxes are added to the bottom of the hive, not the top — the bees build comb downwards as they would in nature. Honey is harvested from back-filled brood comb at the top of the hive. Warré called it the People’s Hive because it’s supposedly cheap and easy to build and maintain. The beekeeper need only add boxes to the bottom to prevent swarming, which is done without opening the hive or disturbing the brood nest. The Warré hive, perhaps more than any other hive, emulates the conditions of a natural honey bee hive.

Photo by David Heaf from
(used with permission).

From what I can tell, the hive is designed to minimize interference from the beekeeper. The only time it’s opened is when honey boxes are removed from the top (at most, twice a year). That fact, along with the absence of a top entrance, helps concentrate the queen’s pheromones throughout the hive, which supposedly results in calmer bees. The regular rotating out of old comb from the top also means the brood are more likely to be healthy because they’re always raised in new, clean, natural sized comb.

Another key feature is the small square sided hive boxes. The height of each box is slightly less than a typical Langstroth, but the sides are each 30cm long (about 12 inches). The square shape allows for more even heat distribution and requires less work from the bees. Warré also claims that bees in a smaller, more natural sized brood chamber consume less honey over winter and are therefore less likely to starve before spring.

I’m not yet convinced that any kind of foundationless hive will do well in the exceptionally wet climate of St. John’s, Newfoundland. I’ve only been at this for, what, 611 days, so I still have more than a lot to learn. But some aspects of the Warré design, such as the small brood nest area, seem to make more sense than the conventional Langstroth design, and I’m tempted to integrate them into some of my own hives.

I don’t agree with all of Warré’s claims. In some cases that’s because I don’t have the experience to know what’s what either way. In other cases I can confidently disagree because I know his observations are based on his local climate in France that has no correlation to my local climate where the bees do different things at different times of the year. Nevertheless, I think he came up with a thoughtful design and method that might appeal to beekeepers who aren’t so intent on the consistent hive manipulation that’s synonymous with many beekeeping practices today.

Note: This is an unusually long post, probably not much interest to general readers. I promise I won’t do this kind of thing on a regular basis. But I’ve been out of commission with a weird, rotten flu and I don’t have anything better to do. So without further adieu, here are some notes I wrote while I read the book on my Kindle:
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March is Still Winter for Newfoundland Honey Bees

I keep hearing from beekeepers online about their bees bringing in pollen. None of those beekeepers live in Newfoundland. I didn’t see my bees bring in any pollen until April 13th last year, so I probably have a while to wait yet. The most exciting thing I can report is that my bees were flying around the yard today. At 12°C (possibly the warmest day we’ve had this year), how could they resist?

At least we don’t have varroa mites in Newfoundland.