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The Warré Hive – the Beginner’s Introduction

Photo credit: Maja Dumat

Modern beekeeping for honey bee conservation and beehive products makes use of a variety of beehives. Among these is the Warré beehive. Other beehives are the top bar hive and the Langstroth beehive (check out our article on the comparison of these beehives).  This beginner’s introduction to the Warré hive explores the history of the hive and its key features. It also looks at other important areas for beekeepers using the Warré hive, including its management and components of the hive.

History of the Warré Hive

Emile Warré
Photo credit: “Beekeeping for All”

The Warré hive was invented by French monk Émile Warré. The monk had studied different beehive styles of the time and settled on one particular design. He then perfected the design to make the Warré hive ideal for both honey bees and the beekeeper. The Warré’s design of the beehive focused on ease of management, simplicity and mimicry of natural environments favored by honeybees. The beehive stacks vertically and incorporates natural comb. It also performs well at heat retention and mimicking the natural scent of the beehive.

Abbe Emile Warré came up with the Warré hive after many years of research. It is commonly stated that he took more than 50 years of studying beehive designs before he came up with the Warré beehive design. Warré publicized his beehive design in the 1950s as what he called ‘The People’s Hive’. He did not like the invasive management practices used on many other beehive designs of the time. He also disliked the apparent micromanagement of individual beehive frames and comb. Warré described the beehive, its construction and operation in a book called ‘Beekeeping for All’.

Early Testing

After his research, Émile Warré had found out that bees thrive better when they are managed box by box. Going into the beehive and opening it up only a few times per year is also better than taking the hive apart to inspect comb every few weeks. As a result of these findings, Émile Warré came up with his beehive design to minimize hive inspections and allow management to be done at hive box level. This was, and still is, a major shift from common beekeeping practices of then and now. Minimized disturbance of the bees makes them feel more secure in the beehive and focus their energies on production.

In his use of the beehive, Émile Warré would add empty boxes to the bottom of the beehive in spring. The boxes at the top would be removed in autumn. He found the top boxes full of honey in autumn when he removed them. This is because honey bees move stores of honey to the top of the hive before the onset of winter. The continual removal of comb from the beehive makes the beehive not very attractive to wax moths and other ‘clean up’ pests and parasites of honey bees. It is also argued to constantly keep the concentration of pesticides and toxins in the beehive very low. This is all achieved with this beehive design without destruction or invasion of the brood chamber in the beehive.

Key Features of Warré Hives

Beehives used in modern beekeeping have distinct features that distinguish them from each other. The key features of Warré hives used today do not differ much from the original design of the beehive. Warré beehives are designed to mimic a tree trunk.

Hive Boxes

A Warré hive box measures 300 x 300 x 210 mm on the inside. It has uniform length and width, with the depth being 210 mm. It has more depth than a Langstroth beehive medium box, but is not as deep as a Langstroth beehive deep box. The boxes have handles on them for easier handling.

Top Bars

A Warré beehive does not have frames. For honeycomb attachment, it has top bars. The top bars are evenly spaced out over the top of a beehive box. They are made into a wedge shape with the top being wider than the bottom. These bars measure 24 mm wide at the bottom and 36 mm wide at the top. A typical Warré beehive box can hold 8 of these top bars. The top bars of a Warré hive rest on rebates built into the inner surfaces of the beehive box.

Wax Starter Strips

Wax starter strips are used in a Warré hive. The starter strip is applied on the bottom surface of the wedge-shaped top bars. Foundation is not used in Warre hives.

A flat floor for the hive is best. It has a 120 mm wide entrance notched into it for honey bees. A landing or alighting projection of the flat floor board is recommended. Changing beehive conditions and honey bee colony strength may require you to reduce the entrance of your Warré hive.

Weave Cloth

A coarse weave cloth is used to cover the top bars of the uppermost hive box in a Warré beehive. It keeps honey bees in the hive from accessing the uppermost section of the beehive made up of the quilt box and roof.

Quilt Box

A box that is 100 mm high is filled with sawdust, straw or wood shavings retained using cloth and placed on the top of the Warré hive stack. This box is called a quilt box. It helps with humidity and temperature regulation in a Warré hive.

Roof

A roof over the quilt box of a Warré hive completes the setup. It has a ventilated loft and has a mouse proof board between it and the quilt box. The roof should be gabled to drain water and allow snow to fall off.

Additional Features

  • In a Warré hive, bees build comb in the upper boxes and then moving down into the lower boxes.
  • New boxes for Warré hives are added at the bottom and boxes of honey at the top of the hive stack are harvested.
  • Honeybees in the hive winter in 2 boxes with not less than 12 kg of stored honey.
  • Hive boxes are added in spring and removed in fall/autumn or the following spring depending on your preference.

Precaution

In strong winds including hurricanes and storms, it is recommended that you tie down your Warré hives to prevent them getting toppled over by the wind. You should also consider strong fastening for the roof and beehive boxes if your Warré hives are in a location where there are strong gusts of wind.

Components of the Warré Hive

Roof and Shavings box

From the top towards the bottom, a Warré hive starts with a roof and shavings box. The box is also called a quilt box and it helps with heat and moisture control. It is not often removed from the Warré beehive stack.

Hive Body Boxes

These are boxes made using wood for housing bees in a Warré hive stack. They are added at the bottom in a Warré hive. The boxes hold bars in them for honey bees to attach honeycomb.

Floor and Entrance

A Warré hive has its entrance at the bottom of the hive. The hive rests on a bottom board with an entrance and landing board. You can use an entrance reducer and mouse guard when needed.

Top bars

In the Warré hive boxes are top bars for honeycomb attachment. The top bars are wedge shaped to make comb attachment better. Honey bees in a Warré hive may attach comb from one box to the top bars of the box below it.

Bee Feeders

The design of Warre beehives makes feeding honeybees within the beehive difficult. As a result, external feeders are used. The alternative is beekeepers designing their own hive feeders that they can use in the Warré beehive. You can also try placing a feeder in an empty box at the top of the Warré hive stack.

Queen Excluder

You do not need queen excluders in a Warré hive. A queen excluder can be added if the beekeeper chooses to, but it may not serve any purpose. This is because bees in a Warré hive use the upper section of the beehive to store honey. The bottom section of the beehive is used for brood rearing. In a Warré hive stack, the queen rarely needs to venture into the upper sections of the beehive to lay eggs.

Pros and Cons of the Warré Hive

Warré Hive

Warré beehives are suited for beekeepers aiming at keeping their costs low. The beehive is not labor or resource intensive. Maintaining the beehive is also easy for both beginner and experienced beekeepers. With Warré hives, beekeepers are spared from some capital draining, labor intensive and potentially harmful requirements found on other beehives of different design. Most notably, Warré hives require less hive inspections and they do not encourage reuse of honeycomb. Additionally, there is no need to use foundation with Warre hives. This is especially alluring to naturalist beekeepers that are afraid foundation may introduce chemicals into their beehives.

Pros

1. Less invasion and ease of management

A Warré hive is ideal for beekeepers who want to largely let their bees be. You do not need to visit the beehive often to make sure everything is alright. Bees in a Warré hive are resilient and in a nearly natural setting. They also tend to show more resistance to invasions by pests and parasites of honey bees.

Management of the beehive is by the box; not by the comb. This also works towards reducing invasion of the beehive by the beekeeper.

2. No foundation

Foundationless beekeeping is easy to practice with Warré beehives. This is a major factor for beekeepers that do not want to use plastic in their beehives or risk chemical accumulation in their beekeeping.

3. Observation windows

Observation windows can be fitted onto Warré hives as seen in modern beekeeping trends. These help to further minimize opening up the hive for inspections.

4. Interchangeable Pparts

Warré hives have interchangeable parts. Beekeepers with several Warré hives can use parts from one hive in another hive. The parts are specific to Warré hives and cannot be used in hives of other designs.

5. Standardized measurements

Beekeepers with a practical approach to beekeeping and woodworking skills can easily built a Warré hive. It does not have many measurements for different parts and boxes to adhere to. The boxes for Warré hives have the same measurements and can be used anywhere in the beehive stack. This is unlike the Langstroth beehive whose boxes come in 3 different depths and 2 widths.

Cons

1. Hive boxes are added to the bottom and can become difficult to lift

For the aged, short and not very strong persons, a Warré hive box with honeycomb and honey can be difficult to lift. This is especially noted when you have to lift the entire stack of boxes to add more boxes to the bottom of the beehive stack.

2. Lack of support

Beginner beekeepers using Warré hives encounter difficulties finding a mentor who has similar hives. Beekeeping clubs and associations often have beekeepers with top bar and Langstroth beehives. If more people take up beekeeping using Warré hives, this may change over time.

3. Low honey yields

Low honey yields make the Warré beehive not very popular with beekeepers that are in beekeeping for beehive products. Warré hives give significantly lower honey yields per season per unit space than beehives of other popular designs. You should be cautious adopting Warré hives for commercial beekeeping operations.

Warré Beehive Placement and Location Selection

Your choice location for Warré beehives is important. A good location ensures high comfort for the honey bees. Safety is a major consideration for the location of beehives. This includes the safety of the beehives from theft and nearby foot traffic. Where possible, place the beehives at low-foot traffic areas. The hive should be out of sight of people so that they are not fearful and complain about the presence of bees in the area.

Easy Access

Easy access to the beehives is also a major consideration. The beehive should be easy to access and work around. Have about 3 feet of space around individual beehives for best results.

Level Ground

The ground on which you place your Warré beehive should be level. Honey bees follow gravity and build honeycomb perpendicular to the ground. If your beehive is on a slope, the comb will be sloped and may touch the sides of the hive. If you do not have any level ground, use supports to level out the beehive.

Facing the Sun

Early morning sun helps bees get active early in the day. Honey bees require a body temperature of around 950 F for flight to be possible. They get this temperature from the sun or heat themselves up by vibrating their muscles rapidly. When there is more sun, they use less energy warming themselves up. Place your Warré beehives facing the morning sun to give them more time gathering resources outside the beehive.

Proximity to Water and Forage

Proximity to water and forage sources is another consideration when locating beehives. Honey bees use water to regulate the temperature of the beehive. They also use it to make bee bread by mixing pollen with water. They also need to be able to forage nectar and pollen from nearby plants.

Other Factors

Other factors to consider when locating your beehive are a wind barrier and legality of beekeeping in the area. A wind barrier to prevent winds entering the beehive helps with better temperature regulation. Any obstruction that keeps the winds out without blocking the beehive entrances or flight path of honey bees can be used.

About legality, many jurisdictions now have laws about agriculture and beekeeping. Consult the authorities so that you do not run into legal challenges in your beekeeping.

Installing Package Bees in a Warré Hive

Warré Hive

Package bee installation in a Warré beehive is done using two starter boxes. An extra box may be use to hold a feeder. Set the bottom box with bars and the upper box without top bars. For package bees, place the queen cage on the top bars of the bottom box. Remove the cap of the queen cage to expose the candy plug.

Shake worker bees into the upper box and then lean the box with package bees on the entrance of the Warré hive. This encourages bees that did not get shaken out of the box to climb into the Warré beehive. Add top bars to the upper beehive box and then place in the separator covers. The quilt box comes on next and the roof last. Swarms caught in swarm traps or from nucleus boxes are installed using the same procedure without the queen cage.

After installing honey bees in a Warré hive, check on them for a couple of months. Look into the hive through observation windows (if one is present) or by tilting the boxes slightly forward. If you find the bees are nearly filling the bottom box with comb in spring, you should add another box under it. If the bees are not building comb in the bottom box in fall, you may remove it.

Warré Hive Management

Maintenance hive checks for Warre beehives are few and spaced far apart. Indeed, using a Warré beehive is similar to hands free beekeeping. In his design, Émile Warré wanted minimal invasion into beehives for hive management.

Adding Boxes

Managing a Warré hive is done by adding boxes to the lower end of the stack. This process is called Nadiring. The bottom box is lifted and an empty box added under it. It causes honeycomb built in the beehive to be frequently harvested. This continuous and frequent removal of used comb from the hive prevents build up of chemicals and toxins in the beehive. A Warré beehive gives you very pure honey that you are sure has the lowest levels of agricultural contaminants.

L-shaped Hive Tool

For Warré hive management, you need an L-shaped hive tool. This is because honey bees attach comb to the sides of the beehive. The L-shaped hive tool detaches comb from the sides easily during honey harvest. Honey bees may also attach comb from the upper box to the bars of the box under it. Such comb needs to be detached before lifting boxes off to avoid breaking the comb. It is done by cracking open the propolis seal connecting the boxes all round then passing piano or guitar wire between the boxes.

Inspecting a Warré Hive

Indications of good colony health

When you visit your Warré hives for inspection, here are some of the things you should look for as indicators of good colony health and hive integrity:

  1. Capped brood in tight compact patterns on honeycomb. Few or no gaps in the cells indicate a healthy and laying queen bee in the colony.
  2. Freshly laid eggs that look like tiny grains of rice in cells. The eggs have a clear gel surrounding them on closer inspection. Eggs that have not hatched indicate a healthy queen bee up to 3 days before the time of inspection.
  3. New waxy white honey comb drawn on Warré hive top bars. Building comb shows that the honey bee colony is ready to keep rearing brood and storing honey. You can see this through observation windows in the sides.
  4. Nectar, honey and pollen in cells inform you that foraging bees are active and keeping the honeybee colony well fed. Honey indicates food stores for the colony.
  5. Drone brood at between 10% and 15% of all brood. Drone cells are slightly larger than worker bee cells. These male drone bees help with ensuring genetic continuity of the colony. They also assist worker bees in some environmental regulation and control functions.

Indications of poor colony health

Indicators that all is not well in beehives including a Warré hive are:

  1. Supercedure cells among the honeycomb. These cells are larger than all other cells made in the beehive. They are for the production of new queen bees. Supercedure cells are an indicator that the current queen is failing or absent. They are found in the middle of comb, not at the edges.
  2. Swarm cells at the edges of comb. These are also cells for production of queen bees. They indicate that the honeybee colony is preparing to swarm.
  3. Too much drone brood that is more than 20% of the total brood in the Warré hive. It is usually a sign that the worker bees in the hive are laying eggs. This is often a result of the queen bee dying or somehow getting out of the beehive. Worker bees lay unfertilized eggs.
  4. Brown-ish eggs present in uncapped cells and other signs of diseases such as chalk brood and foulbrood.

Harvesting Honey from a Warré Hive

If you have managed your Warré beehive well, you may harvest honey in spring or autumn. You should clear bees from the boxes to be harvested.  A bee escape board between the boxes to be removed and those that are to remain in the beehive stack helps with this. Bees can get through the escape board out of the boxes to be removed but cannot go back in. After a few days, there are no bees in the selected boxes. You should then remove the boxes.

Cut out honeycomb from the sides of the beehive boxes and the top bars. The honey can be packaged and sold as comb honey or extracted. The best method to remove honey from the honeycomb is by crushing and straining.

It is best if you do not harvest honey from honey bees you installed in a Warré beehive in their first honey flow year. Let them keep the honey to use in winter. You can then commence harvesting in the year that follows. This honey harvesting method saves you costs of buying, operating and maintaining a honey extractor.

Wintering Honey Bees in a Warré Hive

As winter approaches, check on your beehive colony to make sure it has enough honey stores. You can share supplies between colonies so that all colonies have enough.  You can remove boxes from the beehive stack in preparation for winter. Getting the boxes down to 2-3 boxes is possible and allowed.

Bees in winter are focused on clustering and keeping the beehive warm. They are especially found clustering around brood comb in the beehive. Use a mouse guard to reduce the entrance and keep out large animals.

Warré beehives come with a quilt box at the top. The box aids with humidity and heat regulation in the beehive. Check the absorbent cedar toe in the quilt box for dryness. If you find it wet, replace it or dry it out and then return it to the quilt box.

Since Warré beehive boxes are square, they can be turned so that comb in one box is not aligned with the comb in the box below or above it. The alternating of comb in boxes reduces the space that cold drafts can find to travel in the beehive during winter.

Building a Warré Beehive

In this section, we’ll do a quick run-trough of the things you’ll need if you desire to build your own Warré hive.

Quality Wood

Use top quality lumber to build your Warré beehives. The wood used should be long lasting, friendly to bees and friendly to the environment. Western red cedar and pine are great for use in constructing the beehive. Other suitable wood types that are good with honeybees can also be used. Your choice of wood should be a balance between availability and the best wood type for honeybees.

Viewing Windows

Modern beekeeping has seen the viewing window incorporated into all beehive designs. With the minimal opening of the beehive required with Warré beehives, a viewing window allows you to take the occasional peek and see how your honey bees are faring. The observation windows will allow you to determine if it is time to add more boxes to the stack or not. Position the observation on a different side from the entrance of the beehive. You do not have to stand in the flight path of honey bees when taking a look into the beehive. Have covers for the windows so that light does not go into the beehive through the observation window.

Rabbet Joints and Screws

In beekeeping, rabbet joints are superior to butt joints. A combination of wood glue and screws also gives better strength, durability and reuse value than when nails are used.

Copper Composite Top

You can use any material to make the roof of your Warré beehive. Copper gives the best in aesthetics and durability. Copper keeps rain and snow out of the beehive very well. It reflects away the sunlight to keep the beehive cool. You do not need to paint the copper top or seal it every now and then. Copper composite does not corrode or get leached into the soil.

Feet and Stands

A Warré hive can be placed close to the ground on feet. You may also have a stand for the hive so that it is raised from the ground. This makes sure that water does not enter the beehive. Additionally, pests, parasites and predators of honey bees cannot get easy access to the beehive.

Single Piece of Wood and Shape of Top Bars

Make your top bars without joints. Each top bar should be from a single piece of wood for durability. The top bars should also be wedge shaped for better comb attachment. Wedge top bars are good at promoting straight comb building with honeybees.

Ease of Assembly

The Warré hive you build should be easy to put together. Pre-drilling often helps with joints where they are found.

A Final Word

A Warré hive tries to mimic the spaces honey bees use in the wild for their colony housing purposes. The beehive design utilizes top bars and in this aspect resembles a top bar hive. It is vertical in its build and expansion, and in this aspect resembles a Langstroth beehive. Use this beginner’s introduction to the Warré hive to help you settle on the best beehive for your honey bees.

What are your thoughts on the Warré hive? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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