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.
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:
Page 27: Boxes added underneath. Warré says that adding boxes underneath doesn’t affect the temperature of the brood nest, whereas in Dadant hives (and Langstroth hives), the heat rises above the brood nest into the newly added supers and temperature regulation gets all messed up.
Always new comb: Harvesting honey from the back-filled comb in the top of the hive insures that old comb is always rotated out of the hive and the best new comb is always saved for the brood, which means healthier bees who’s incubation cells (if you want to call them that) are not reduced in size over time by cocoon debris. Warré has plenty of criticism for Dadant hives (similar to Langstroth hives).
Frames are not good for bees: Warré claims that frames cause disease (or perhaps dis-ease is a more accurate way to consider it). Frames facilitate visits to the hive that “exhausts the bees in re-establishing the hive temperature, weakening the colony and increasing its chance of contracting disease.”
Page 29: First year honey harvest. He argues that Dadant hives can take two years to harvest where as his hive can be harvested in the first year. Humidity is apparently a problem with Dadant hives, but the thick quilt box on his hives prevents that problem.
Minimized cocoon debris: He reiterates how the cells from old comb in Dadant hives gradually become smaller with age as cocoon debris build ups, thus resulting in weaker bees. It’s not a problem in his hives because old comb in constantly removed from the hive during honey harvests.
Page 32: Evenly heated hives. The square dimensions of the Warré hive box distributes heat more evenly.
Page 33: Natural swarm prevention. In commenting about the DeLayens hive (similar to the Langstroth hive? I don’t know), he says: “When the bees have filled the frame positioned next to the brood chamber with honey, they cannot pass across this frame to carry nectar to the subsequent frames. This frame has to be monitored. When it is half-filled with honey one has to move it back and put an empty frame in its place. Otherwise the bees swarm because of shortage of usable space.” The point is that none of this happens with Warré hives. The honey is always above the bees. The brood chamber is always expanded downwards.
Page 39: Less winter consumption. Warré also says, “…the smaller the brood chamber the smaller the winter consumption of stores.”
Page 41: I’m #1. After discussing other hive designs, Warré concludes: “Therefore it is now the People’s Hive with fixed combs that deserves everyone’s attention, for the People’s Hive with fixed combs is an economical hive par excellence: easy to build, in any case less expensive — no frames or foundation; fewer inspections; opening the hive only once a year; 12 kg winter provisions [25 pounds] instead of between 15 and 18 kg [33-40 pounds]; respect for the laws of nature, thus no diseases.” Then he goes on to describe the hive in detail. See David Heaf’s Warré Beekeeping page for more info.
Page 48: Naturally small bottom entrance. A typical Langstroth hive has a bottom entrance that runs the full length of the hive. The Warré hive has a small 12cm entrance (about 5 inches) because it’s easier for the bees to defend when the population is low while still providing adequate ventilation.
Page 49: Top + bottom entrance = trouble. Warré hives have only a bottom entrance. He argues that hives with a top and bottom entrance will create an air current that can detach the bees from the cluster. Michael Bush does the opposite. He builds his hives with only a large top entrance, again with no air flow between top and bottom entrances. Supposedly he has no worries about mice getting in or grass growing high or overheating, and the hives explode with bees in the spring.
A note on follower boards: More on Warré’s small, square hive boxes: “All evidence shows that bees consume more in a large brood chamber than in a small one. I even venture to say that the difference is between 3 kg and 5 kg [7-11 pounds]. And this is each year.” This gets me to thinking about follower boards (or dummy boards) that can be placed in the brood chamber of Langstroth hives to reduce congestion, improve ventilation and help prevent rolling the queen. Two follower boards take up the space of a single frame, thus reducing the brood chamber of a typical Langstroth to 9 frames. But if each follower board was made to take up the space of a full frame (which would make them much easier to build), would the reduced size of the brood chamber be more beneficial to the colony in the same manner as the small Warré brood chamber? The brood chamber still wouldn’t be square. In fact, it would be even more rectangular. But instead of measuring 38cm (15 inches) over 10 frames, it would be come to 30cm (12 inches) — the same as the Warré hive — over 8 frames. I’m tempted to try it this spring with some of my new hives and see what happens.
Page 56: Benefits. Warré summarizes the benefits of his hive:
— “…sufficiently simplified for any amateur to be able to make it with an ordinary set of tools.” He also argues that messing with traditional frames only disturbs the temperature of the hive and the frames get gunked up propolis anyway, so don’t bother.
— “The shape and the volume of the People’s Hive guarantees the minimum consumption of honey whilst at the same time allowing the bees to develop normally.”
— “The shape, the volume and the ventilation of the People’s Hive give the bees a healthy home where they are saved from over exertion, weakening and disease, all things which necessarily reduce the production of honey.”
I skimmed through the remaining pages of the book (about another hundred pages) where he explains the use of various beekeeping tools, how to catch and house swarms, how to extract honey and other info that’s more or less common beekeeping knowledge, or outdated or not applicable to beekeeping in Newfoundland.
Other notes about the book that don’t necessarily relate to the design of the hive:
Page 12: Lots of drones = more honey? Warré claims that the presence of plenty of drones during a nectar flow is a precursor to a strong honey harvest. The opposite was the case during my first year with a foundationless hive (though we did have an historically lousy spring and summer).
Page 13: Foraging temperature. Warré states that foragers become sluggish around 8°C. That corresponds with my observations that the bees will go out in cooler temperatures on sunny days for orientation flights, but the foragers don’t go out en masse until it’s at least 10°C.
Well, I’ll be: Another claim for beekeepers who like to wow the public: “To bring in a kilogramme of nectar, it is necessary for the bee to make 50,000 trips or 50,000 bees to make one trip. A bee can make twenty trips a day of one kilometre return, bringing in 0.4 g nectar. The harvest of 1 kg of nectar thus represents more than 40,000 kilometres, i.e. more than the circumference of the Earth.” (The emphasis are mine.)
Pages 21: Bees don’t sting. Try this: Watch a honey bee on a flower in a field or tree away from the hive and pester it. Push it off every flower as it tries to land on it. The bee won’t sting you. “The bee only gets angry when she has collected her load of nectar. She never stings you.”
Page 22: Why bees sting. Give the bees food and shelter and they won’t sting you. They see you as a friend (not my wording). I’m not ready to believe that just yet. Warré writes like he’s trying to be the Walt Whitman of France. I skimmed through the first 15 or so pages. At any rate, he claims that bees sting people who exhibit violent gestures and have a strong smell, “whether pleasant or not,” dirty or perfumed or just bad breath. (I have to remember to chew more peppermint gum when I’m around the bees.)
Page 24: Misleading beekeepers. Under the heading, “Question the advice of others,” he states: “Beekeepers do not see the defects of their hives. They mislead you without realising it.” I agree.
Page 27: Rely instead on external observations. “The number of arrivals and departures indicate the strength of the colony.” He’s all about watching the bees to see how they’re doing instead of tearing the hive apart. He argues that if a colony becomes weak, then it’s inherently weak and should be replaced. Don’t bother trying to save it. Really?
Page 39: Good cold winters. Warré claims that colonies inside hives like his that have walls that are less insulated eat less honey over the winter and are less likely to starve. This seems to be one of those balancing acts that can take on the appearance of a contradiction. I hear beekeepers who say their hives do better during colder winters because the bees eat less honey, so they don’t bother wrapping their hives. Cold is good. During warmer winters the bees are more active and subsequently eat more honey and are therefore more likely to starve in late winter, so again, wrapping or providing extra insulation is not advised. Warmth is not good. But if the bees get too cold, they can’t break cluster enough to move around the hive and eat honey, and so they starve. And so it goes. I’d be happy to paint my hives a dark colour for some extra heat, but then never wrap them again, mainly because if I don’t have to wrap them, it’s one less pain in the neck thing I don’t have to do, so why not? I’ve heard from many beekeepers who don’t wrap and say it makes no difference. I’ll keep wrapping until I can afford to experiment.
Page 47: Winter clusters. Warré says: “During cold periods, they [the bees] cannot easily move horizontally, whether from frame to frame or on the same frame. But, on the other hand, they move easily vertically, from bottom to top, as movement takes them towards the warmth which is always greater at the top of the hive.” I’ve heard this claim from beekeepers who use only medium sized supers for their brood chambers (and their entire hives). The bees are supposedly less likely to starve in cold winters on medium frames because they barely have to break cluster to move up and over a frame to get to the honey on the other side.
Page 52: Don’t wrap those hives. Warré doesn’t seem to be a big believer in insulating hives. “And let us not forget that comfort weakens the stock, that striving, as Pourrat said, is the condition of life…” He says the bees create enough heat themselves to stay warm at night and during the winter. The “…insulating walls do not achieve their aim. In spring they delay the bees foraging sorties. In winter they do not economise on stores. On the contrary, the bees consume less when they are torpid with cold than when they are kept active.” I wonder then, am I safe in making my own supers from 3/4-inch wood instead of the standard 7/8-inch wood? Will the difference of 1/8th of an inch have an adverse affect of the conditions inside the hive? 7/8-inch wood is hard to find and if I can make my supers from easier-to-find and cheaper 3/4-inch lumber, then I’m all for it. I’m beginning loathe the price of shipping wooden ware to Newfoundland. Almost 50% of the money I’ve spent on beekeeping is just on shipping. Yeah, it’s starting to get to me.
The above notes are based on my reading of the following book available as a free download: Beekeeping For All (8mb PDF), by Abbé Warré, translated from the original French version of L’Apiculture Pour Tous (12th edition) by Patricia and David Heaf. Sixth electronic English edition thoroughly revised February 2010. Copyright through terms of Creative Commons.
March 2019 Postscript: The Warré Hive still appeals to me. I’d love to build one and see how it goes. My main concern is that if it didn’t work out, I’d be stuck with two or three boxes of funky comb that I probably wouldn’t be able to reuse in any of my regular hives.
I probably wouldn’t consider the Warré Hive if I wasn’t on the island of Newfoundland where honey bees have never been exposed to Varroa mites and are probably the healthiest honey bees on the planet. If I had to concern myself with treating for Varroa or any diseases that are prevalent in other parts of the world, doing that in a hive without frames sounds like a royal headache. I just wouldn’t do it.
I didn’t know it at the time I wrote this post, but the Warré Hive essentially incorporates a moisture quilt in its design, which is similar to the ventilation box found on The D.E. Hive sold locally by Gerard Smith. And not having a top entrance isn’t a bad idea either. I’m still in the early stages of experimenting with bottom entrances only, but so far I’ve had impressive results from hives that, all summer long, had an empty moisture quilt for ventilation on top and only a bottom entrance. I’m not sure if it results in an increase in honey production, but the bees store the honey in such a way that the brood nest is always down below and the honey is always up top, so that going into winter the bees are insulated by honey — a big block of honey on top of them and frames of honey on the sides. The bees don’t starve or get cold and the hives don’t require any winter wrap. It’s kind of a perfect system, hypothetically anyway. I’m not sure how much fun it would be to lift a Warré Hive every time I needed to add a new box to the bottom, but certain aspects of its design make sense and I’ve seen the concrete results.