Experiments with Warré hives

Warre beehive

David Friend gave a fascinating presentation at our Annual General Meeting on Monday 9th November on the merits and considerations in using Warré hives for which he has kindly provided us with his notes reproduced here for others to read. 

His presentation entitled "Experiments with Warré Hives" certainly got many of us thinking!  Here's what David wrote:

I was keen to try out what I had read about the Warré hive so I made some boxes and at the end of June I collected a late, small cast looking for a home. I feel that the hive offers a practical alternative to the modern styles and methods for domestic beekeepers or those wishing to keep bees for pollination.

How many of you have clean brood combs every year? ~5%
How many of you buy foundation? 90%
How many of you enjoy making frames and fitting foundation? 10%
How many of you think that a simple open box should cost £70 in the flat? 0
How many of you believe that we eat too much sugar? 60%
How many pet owners or parents unzip their pets or children every week to check for hunger, disease or reproduction? 0

Over the last 100 years or so beekeeping equipment has become increasingly more complex. This has involved not just using precious materials such as Western Red Cedar and stainless steel but also extremely advanced manufacturing methods to cut, bend, weld, press and plane. All this is to provide a nest cavity for insects so that we can eat their food and develop diabetes. There's more. These new methods of beekeeping are not even good for the bees. We huddle the colonies unnaturally close together, only use one size of worker cell, force them to use recycled wax and every week or so dissect each colony in the open air. There's more. Every year the good citizens of Exeter complain that swarms of bees invade their homes and businesses but where else can they go? It would cost a minimum of £300,000 just to buy enough bait hives for a 200m grid of Exeter. We would do well to rethink our whole approach to keeping bees.
 
This is not new. There are records of such thoughts being expressed over the last 300 years. Émile Warré was a French Abbot, or Abbé, living from 1867 until 1951, who not only witnessed this absurd complexity develop but decided to do something about it. He argued that we should learn from the good and the bad of all the extant and extinct equipment, practices and ideas and devise something which primarily suited the bees and then us. The Warré hive and practices were not original but they have now been developed all over the world. Credit should be paid to Patricia and David Heaf who translated his books and published them for all to benefit.

In 1948 Warré wrote:

"Apiculture or beekeeping is the art of managing bees with the intention of getting the maximum return from this work with the minimum of expenditure. Bees produce swarms, queens, wax and honey. The production of swarms and queens should be left to specialists. The production of wax has some value, but this value is diminished by the cost of rend ering. The production of honey is the main purpose of beekeeping, one that the beekeeper pursues before everything else, because this product is valuable and because it can be weighed and priced."

That is what he believed based on his current knowledge and a generous state fixed - price for honey . After all he was French. Some of his ideas remain valid today but others may be more doubtful. We should not resent change.

Firstly, bees need a cavity or box. The simplest material would probably be wood. Warré noted that, during spring and summer, bees built comb down from a ceiling, storing honey at the top, then an arch of pollen and finally the brood nest and nectar below. During the autumn and winter they clustered underneath the honey and slowly moved up as the stores were consumed. If the combs were too wide then the arch of stores would be divided at any ceiling such as between boxes. The colony would creep over to one side and abandon the other side. Colonies could be starved merely because they were unable to cross over or climb above a very small gap. This would be more common in a Kenyan Top Bar Hive being used in cold countries. However, the gap between National combs can be in the order of 40 mm or 5 bee spaces. (4+17+8+6+4) This suggested that the box should be approximately 300mm square internally so that the active core of any cluster spanned the whole comb. That comb should be continuous vertically. He found that the bees needed a volume of 30 to 40 litres over winter with more in the summer. Thomas Seeley felt they needed a bit more and Yates claimed 40 to 80 litres. Warré developed a series of stacking boxes, each one 300 mm square internally by 400 mm deep. He used one box for wintering and added another box in spring. His workers then found that the top box was often not full of honey and sometimes had brood in it; so he simply cut each box in two. He now had 300 mm square internally and 210 mm high and fitted with 8 top bars each. Two such boxes would serve for winter and another pair nadired in the spring for summer. The bees would build down into the empty boxes underneath and breed in the clean comb of their own design. This allows them to raise drones and workers of different sizes, just like any other animal, rather than of a size fixed by a rolling mill at Thornes. They can locate their brood nest where they want and don't have unused comb waiting for wax moths and Small Hive Beetles. Furthermore, the beneficial hive flora from the brood, and necessary for pollen processing, is preserved and presumably slowly migrates as it has done for millions of years. In the autumn, the bees would be driven down with smoke and tapping on the sides, from the top two boxes before these boxes were removed and the honey could then be harvested. This was the only operation considered to be an opening of the hive and probably sets another limit on the depth of each box. 200 mm is about as deep as you can smoke down. The nadiring of boxes in the spring does not disturb the colony, if the upper boxes and roof are lifted as one, so it is not considered to be an opening of the hive. This minimal opening of the hive leads to nearly continuous vertical combs and, consequently, greater vertical mobility of the colony. It also does not provoke a tetchy colony. Although he advocated nadiring in spring it could be that nadiring prior to harvesting in the summer would be better as we may have more prolific bees and they do need somewhere to hang. The floor was a simple board with alighting projection. Covering the top bars was a hessian sheet to contain the bees and exclude pests. Above this was a 'quilt' resembling an empty super , 100 mm deep, containing any porous material such as wood shavings, sawdust or dry grass. This material was retained by a cloth underneath and either a cloth or porous board, as part of the roof above, to exclude mice. This was covered by a ventilated wooden canopy or roof. He felt that metal covers were far too noisy under rain and hail and would condense water vapour, leading to damp. He called this the 'People's Hive'. He did have a version with frames as a sop to the modernists but he strongly advised against it. His arguments were that moving the frames hurt the bees, they were not necessary, they took up room, and they left a curtain of cold air around the cluster and many ceilings above the cluster. Curiously, he still preferred the bees to build flat combs for easier harvesting without any regard to the bees' preferences. Transporting and ventilating immaculate parallel combs is far more likely to trouble bees than well braced 'wild' comb would. Frames also involved more work to manufacture and clean than the rest of the hive. Frames and sections mean beespace has to be controlled. Bees are perfectly able to sort out their own beespace. Let them get on with it. Frames and beespace are an addiction we would do well to avoid.

Warré believed that the health and development of the colony could be assessed from the outside to a sufficient degree; just like any domestic animal or human. The hive could be weighed by hefting or by spring scales. The activity at the entrance would show the degree of foraging or robbing and any aggression. The harvesting of pollen would indicate a laying queen. The presence of drones during a nectar flow indicated to him a strong colony whilst drones after a flow indicated a collapsing colony. If a roof was momentarily lifted the smell and warmth of the rising convection current would also give a clue. He believed that a hive with thick, single walls chilled the bees sufficiently in the winter to break many disease cycles and minimised consumption. It was also considerably cheaper, easier, harboured fewer pests and warmed quicker than a double wall hive. If the hive became too heavy for its size, or the bees bearded in summer then more boxes would be nadired but if the colony was poor it would be culled. Just as now, there were plenty of good swarms deserving a home, why spend effort and money persevering with a lost cause thereby spreading infection and bad genes?

He believed that adding foundation either when it is too cold to be worked, or when the bees are sweating wax anyway, are both pointless and expensive activities. Furthermore, wax foundation has either, been heated and filtered to destruction or it is raw and adulterated. Neither situation seems helpful to the bees. The mere action of sweating wax would probably harm, if not kill, many pathogens. When foragers leave en masse to harvest from an early flow they abandon their uniform and parallel sheets of worker brood which cool rapidly in the morning. Wild comb allows far more drones to be raised in a more insulated cluster which is then heated by the drones who do not fly before lunch. Clearly the drones have a very good union.

Warré was keen to maximise his honey harvest. He felt that the profit was necessary to finance the activity although he did acknowledge the benefits accruing to mind and body, employment and the pollination of crops. He believed that honey was far more beneficial as a human food than cane or beet sugar. These were the halcyon days before obesity, diabetes, Recommended Daily Allowances and, now, sugar tax. He believed that beekeeping kept young men out of public houses and flesh pits yet advocated the fermentation of honey in all its many forms, perhaps for consumption by young ladies or old monks as the fancy took him. The honey from his hives had been stored in cells previously holding brood so, nowadays, would not be acceptable to all. Warré advocated centrifugal extraction using special cages; however he also pressed and simply drained the combs. Another option was the use of a section rack. Sections are unlikely to have had brood but do use foundation, though starter strips and the absence of brood minimise the objections. Frames and sections show that he could compromise to avoid the hubris of dogma. I would suggest that a rather more controversial use would be to simply feed honey comb to wasps and badgers. If you were a fruit or cattle farmer, then drawing these creatures away from your livelihood could be far more valuable than selling the honey. Also, an early harvest from rape could be fed back to the bees over the following swarming period to suppress swarming. Contract pollination by honeybees is likely to become crucial if we wipe out the other pollinators. If you invest £300 per hive and make a return of £10/hive/annum then this is simply not sustainable. Whereas, an investment of £50/hive for a return of £100/hive/annum is attractive. The agricultural industry and their customers have a choice.


Since his publications there have been many ideas suggested and tried. Some folk have tried boring an entrance hole in each box. These can then be opened or closed as required with bungs or sliding elements. This must disrupt the bees and add considerable complexity for no particular advantage.

One Canadian development was to add a box with a side hole as a 'sump' floor. This was to minimise draughts in their bitter winters but must have accumulated a very deep, festering litter of death before the floor rotted away.

Having an open floor prevents a returning queen from lodging underneath and prevents the accumulation of debris and condensation. The natural fall of debris can, if carefully collected, indicate the state of the colony. An open bottomed hive makes life a challenge for mice, wax moth, Small Hive beetle and draughts. On top, his porous quilt minimises heat loss and also removes the source of condensation, some of which may be useful to the bees in winter. Warré and others have claimed that a porous quilt will absorb the water resulting from the digestion of honey. It will absorb a tiny proportion of it for a while but then the rest has to either be ventilated away or condensed. It cannot magically disappear. A range of loose materials can be used in the quilt and some could attract pests. Most of these materials, such as dry grass and rotten wood, shredded paper, sawdust and shavings, could be burnt in the smoker, if one is used, thereby usefully removing the pests. Both the complex gabled roof and the modern hot, cold and noisy metal roof have to be secured against the wind. Simpler, surely, is a plain 400 mm square concrete paving slab. It is cheap, water proof, rot proof, insulated against heat and noise and won't blow away. When placed on the ground it makes an ideal temporary stand.

Frames have also been developed. Some now only have half length side bars and no bottom bars. This prevents the bees attaching combs to the hive walls yet allows them to minimise the vertical gap between boxes. It is particularly favoured when combs have to be movable, either for queen rearing or US and Canadian inspectors. If hopeless colonies were more frequently culled in favour of good swarms then there may not be a market for farmed queens. Not only can the entrance and debris be 'read' as Warré suggested but modern thermometer probes, microphones and the like can be inserted through small holes and biopsies taken at any level. Surely this negates the remaining needs for movable combs. No other animal has to be so mutilated. Many designs have windows formed in the box walls but only the outer - most reaches of the combs are visible and even these may not be visible for long.

I have used sawn boards of 100x22x2400 cut into 8 lengths of 295 for each box. This simplifies manufacture and gives boxes of 15 litres each. These are smaller than Warré in one direction but this should not be noticeable. I have treated the exterior with Cuprinol 5 Years Ducksback water based wood preserver and am very pleased with it. There is hardly any odour, it seems to be fairly innocuous, it is cheap, and is very easy to apply. However, my hive stands under a shelter so it may not be necessary. One particular advantage is that any loose splinters arising from the rough sawn timber are sealed making handling so much more pleasant.

I have used separate top bar racks to simplify manufacture and cleaning. The bars are of 15 mm square section on Warré's 37 mm pitch. Although the bars do provide initial anchoring for the combs the combs can also be supported by the walls. Then, above the racks, is an area of weakened virgin comb which is easily cut by a wire to allow the boxes to be separated.

I haven't yet tried sections but, with slight modifications to a standard half box , square or round sections should be perfectly acceptable. The round sections are normally fitted into a 4 section cassette which is too long for a Warré hive. However, if you are very careful you can cut each cassette into two for a Warré rack. 12 round sections or 10 square sections each fit particularly well. Even combinations are possible. I suggest that 10 square sections would stand a better chance of being filled properly in the average Devon summer than 32 in a standard rack.

Warré suggests adding these as a super during a good nectar flow. He also advocated reversing the top two boxes so that the bees would move the honey from under the brood, into the sections. This rearrangement is totally against his general principles but he claimed that it was profitable. I feel that waiting until after the flow and then placing a box of bruised stores over a crown board, over the sections, would fill the sections very quickly. This is normal procedure to dry supers and avoids brood splitting and granulated honey in the sections. If the flow was poor then the box just serves for winter and the beekeeper does not end up with a worthless rack of half filled sections. After all who can tell how good a flow is until after it has ended?

My floor is based on a standard box with two extra hand rails. The bottom was initially completely open. The hive stands on wooden rails on concrete blocks. Paving slabs under the hive suppress weeds. Several departing foragers fell on to the slabs upside down, righted themselves and then flew off. Returning foragers flew straight up into the hive. There was no cloud of foragers outside waiting to be ambushed by wasps. Wax moths did not have a pile of debris in which to lay their eggs. Recently, I produced an optional sloping mesh floor for monitoring so that large debris clears automatically. This could alert any beekeeper to potential trouble before opening the hive and may be worth considering with conventional hives. The entrance is easily defended, ventilation is unobstructed and it lifts out for easy cleaning. The many robbing wasps were given a nearby feeder with very dilute sugar syrup or a pile of windfall apples both of which successfully diverted them from the hive. All boxes are fitted with 6mm bolts which allow stainless steel straps to join each to its neighbour and the rails thus making a tall hive very stable and awkward to steal. The bolts also allow thermometer probes and the like to be easily inserted without any disturbance. Other animals are already designed for such probes so why not bees. In many cases a tall hive will be warmed by the sun for significantly longer than a squat hive. A narrow hive uses a smaller and potentially cheaper, floor, clearer board, crown board and roof. A narrow hive with thick walls leaks less between boxes so uses less propolis and energy to heat and less medication.

A quilt or crown board should insulate in summer and winter, conduct any condensation out of the hive and attenuate the noise of rain and hail. Warré's quilt could become quite mouldy and would not attenuate noise. The quilt and the roof are also quite complex.I would recommend another solution for all hives.

I replaced Warré's hessian sheet and quilt with a thermal aggregate block cut to fit within a standard ½ box envelope. A sawn 100x22x1800 board was cut into 6 off 295 as normal. These were all glued together with PVA but nails may be needed later. I drilled a hole in the centre to be able to smell the hive odour, measure the temperature, to adjust the ventilation and, perhaps, accommodate a feeder if desirable. The hole can be plugged with grass or covered with a plate. I found that bees will come through the thick quilt as normal to feed in a small rapid feeder and will feed all night. The block is fairly inert, fire proof, air tight and frost and mould resistant. It is dense enough to resist the wind. The thermal conductivity is almost identical to plywood but it is 16 times as thick and is entirely sustainable. Best of all, it is free, from all good builders merchants. (0.15 W/mK cf 0.044 and 0.022 for glass mineral wool and foam. However, neither of these is environmentally friendly and fibrous materials have to be supported).

The quilt sits over the top bars and absorbs any condensation without losing any warm air. If the hive is outside then this maybe covered by a small concrete slab with vents underneath. Having made the hive from equal lengths of board I have now found that lengths of 297 and 290 will greatly improve the fit of the round and square sections. What's more it will still fit the existing boxes, top bar frames, floor and quilt. It is now a complete system assembled from the simplest of parts.

Beekeeping will not continue as now. It will only take a sudden realisation by our customers of how disgustingly honey is sometimes produced, or the deleterious effects of sugar and antibiotics, for the honey market to vanish. At £2 a jar few could afford to use hives costing hundreds of pounds in unguarded out apiaries or for pollination contracts. If the Police, DEFRA and NBU services were privatised then we would need to revert to simple but effective hives and practices for which Warré has offered solutions.

A simple wooden tube with a roof is all that is required to bait and carry off most of the swarms in Exeter. They could then be used as required without any further effort. All we need are agreed internal dimensions and places to hang or stand them.

In this hive it is the bees who change the brood comb every year. There is no foundation apart from optional sections and they can have starter strips. There are no frames to make, wax and clean. The bees choose their own cell sizes. It is the cheapest you'll get and makes an ideal bait hive. It is not designed to maximise honey harvests but by minimising costs may well maximise profit. If you want to unzip them every week, that is up to you.

Let's keep it simple, let the bees prosper and let us share in their prosperity. I recommend this hive and Warré's principles to the house.

The discussion during and after the talk raised some points.

How do you check for queen cells? Swarming queen cells are generally on the bottom of combs under the brood nest. By monitoring the temperature profile the position of the brood nest can be established and the hive opened under this. www.arnia.co.uk claim to be able to detect swarming preparations by monitoring parameters but they don't say how. Having an open floor does make viewing upwards using a mirror and torch quite easy. If the bees have nectar and pollen flowing in and they are not stressed by heat, congestion, disease or disturbance then swarming is unlikely and the provision of a bait hive may be all that is required. Take the temperatures from the shaded side as the sun can significantly warm one side. It is also often the side with the fewer bees flying.

How do you lift a hive to nadir extra boxes? Various lifting devices have been used but it is far simpler to remove boxes singly or in pairs as with any vertical hive. Temperature monitoring to establish the position of the brood nest can easily help to prevent dividing the nest.

My boxes are made in two halves which are then glued together with pva. Once set, the glue joint is backed by gluing and nailing sawn 38x19 battens externally on the two short sides to serve as hand holds. Holes for 6mm x 30 bolts are drilled 7mm diameter 50 mm from the top and the bottom centrally along each long side. The top bar racks use the same 38x19 mm sawn battens.