warre hives

Warré Hives - A Complete Guide

When you think of a beehive, you may be picturing the classic rectangular Langstroth hive. The Warré hive, on the other hand, is smaller than the Langstroth, but it provides a new way of beekeeping.

The Warré hive is growing in popularity in North America. Many new beekeepers are finding its low maintenance appealing. Let’s take a closer look.

When and Why Should You Choose a Warré Hive?

The Warré beehive was created by French designer Emile Warré in the early 1900s. He studied bees and the different beehives available at the time. Eventually, he designed this square hive.

The Warré hive was designed to make beekeeping as simple and as natural as possible. In North America, we’re used to the design of the Langstroth hive, which consists of eight to 10 frames. The Warré hive, on the other hand, features vertical bars which allow the bees to build their comb in a downward position.

Wild honeybees often build their combs within hollow trees, high above the ground to avoid honey thieves.

Who Should Choose a Warré Hive?

Being as simple as it is, the Warré hive will be a good choice for anyone with the same mindset. Emile Warré didn’t fancy the quite invasive management of individual frames. Instead, he focused on the simplicity and features to allow bees to build a natural comb.

With a Warré hive, you actually don’t have to harvest honey more than once or twice a year. And when you do, you won’t be disturbing the bees too much. Less disturbance to the bees leads to more productivity.

Beekeepers who want to harvest huge amounts of honey several times a year may not be patient enough for the Warré.

Emile Warré used to add a few empty boxes, or supers, to the bottom during spring. When fall came around, he would harvest the top boxes.

As Natural as It Can Get

The Warré hive actually mirrors the natural behaviors of honeybees. Unlike the Langstroth, the Warré hive is foundationless, meaning the bees build all the comb themselves. An empty Warré hive really is empty, all you’ll find in it are eight bars, ready for a comb.

The bees will begin to draw their comb, which is actually beeswax that they create from glands in their abdomen. They will build it around the bars and down into the box.

In nature, bees will usually build comb for brood first, this will become the bottom of the comb. The bees will then use the top of the comb for honey. Bees will do similar inside the Warré hive.

Before reaching the top of the bars in the nest box, the bees will stop. They do this to leave a little bit of space, also referred to as bee space.

They leave this bee space between structures so they can pass through easily. The ideal bee space is about ⅜ of an inch. When they get close to this, the bees stop building the comb and move on to the next.

This bee space instinct is actually what makes the Warré hive so convenient. As the bees finish one box, they leave space before moving on to the next box. That means the beekeeper can remove the top boxes without breaking the comb.

Adding new boxes at the bottom allows the bees to continue their comb undisturbed. Because there is no foundation, the bees get to decide the size of the cells they build.

Beekeepers who like to allow their bees to live as naturally as possible will find the Warré hive one of the best options.

Individual Components and Features of a Warré Hive

A Warré hive has a fairly simple design. It consists of three main sections: a base, boxes, and a roof and quilt top.

Base

The base of the Warré hive is very simple. It consists of a square, with either wood or a mesh-like netting covering the middle.

It’s got a small entrance, much smaller than the Langstroth. Due to the size, you won’t have to purchase an entrance reducer. The small entrance, however, also means that fewer bees can enter and exit at the same time.

When you purchase a Warré hive, you may wish to choose one with the option of legs. Adding legs to the bottom will raise the hive a little. This will also make it easier when you want to add empty boxes to the bottom.

Boxes

The boxes of a Warré hive are the components which will hold the comb. In a Warré hive, the boxes are square and usually measure 12 inches by 12 inches. The size of the boxes is very similar to that which bees look for in nature, when searching for a new nest site.

A nice addition to the Warré boxes is the external handles. The handles make it much easier to move the boxes, especially when adding new ones to the hive. Another useful feature is a window, so you can check on your bees without disturbance.

Because the boxes are smaller, it’s easier for the bees to keep them warm during winter. The winter “cluster” will be much closer to the walls.

Winter cluster is something honeybees do within a hive or nest, when temperatures drop below 54 degrees Fahrenheit. The bees will cling tightly to the combs in the hive.

The tightness of the cluster and hive also helps to reduce condensation created inside. Moisture build-up is still a concern though.

Roof and Quilt Box

The last part of the Warré hive is the roof and quilt box. The quilt box was designed to help keep the hive at optimal temperatures during cold days. The quilt box is usually filled with either sawdust or wood shavings, it’s then lined with cotton cloth.

The true purpose of the quilt box is to insulate the top of the hive during cold weather. The materials will prevent water vapor from condensing into droplets which could drip onto the winter cluster. If the bees become wet during the winter, they will most likely die.

The roof itself is made of a thicker wood compared to the Langstroth hive. It also has two gaps which help to keep the hive well-ventilated.

Simplicity at Its Best

Because the Warré hive is such a simple construction, there aren’t many extra options. We mentioned the base legs above. Apart from that, you can choose the insulation you would like to use in the quilt box.

One useful accessory you can opt for is a Warré spacing tool. Remember above how we mentioned the importance of bee space? The spacing tool simply helps you to keep the correct distance between the bars within the hive.

How to Maintain a Warré Hive

Warré hives were designed to be managed by the box, rather than by the comb, such as with the Langstroth. This design makes the hive very low maintenance.

A Warré hive is expanded using the nadiring method. Nadiring means you add boxes to the bottom of the hive only.

This is unlike the Langstroth hive where you can either expand it by supering or nadiring. When supering, you add boxes to the top.

Bees will usually build their comb from top to bottom. When the last box becomes 80 percent full, you place a new one underneath. Adding a new box can be difficult for one person; despite the small size, the hive can be heavy.

After installing your bees, observe the hive over the coming months. Monitor the bottom boxes by tilting them slightly. If the boxes are filling up, you can add one or more empty boxes as necessary.

When fall approaches, it’s good to check the bottom boxes for honeycomb. If they are empty, it’s a good idea to remove them, thus, reducing the hive to only two or three boxes.

A smaller hive will be easier for the bees to keep warm during the winter. The bees also won’t need as much space since they won’t be producing honey.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that the bees will most likely attach the comb to the side of the hive. They do this using propolis, also referred to as bee glue. Bees do this to stabilize the comb.

To easily remove the comb without breaking it, you might need a tool. You can use a small crowbar or any other L-shaped tool.

Winter Maintenance

As with all beehives, it’s crucial to check that your bees have enough stores for the coming winter. If a colony’s food supply is low, you may have to compensate with sugar syrup.

During the winter, it’s important to check the content in the quilt box. You want to make sure it stays dry, as this means the hive is dry. If you find it wet, you will need to replace the filling.

The bees will be busy keeping the hive warm, therefore, the entrance may become vulnerable to unwanted guests. You could attach a mouse guard at the entrance, this will keep out pests, while allowing a few bees a cleansing flight.

A cleansing flight is something bees do when staying in the hive for long periods. It basically means they leave the hive to relieve themselves. They only do this on warm days.

Honey Harvest

Since you’re most likely managing your hive box by box instead of by individual combs, you can harvest the honey this way also. Before removing the top box though, you will have to remove the bees.

When removing the bees from a Warré hive, you can use something called an escape board. There are various designs available and they allow the bees to travel further down into the hive without returning.

You simply slip the board in between two boxes and leave it for 24 hours. If you leave the board for longer, the bees will figure out how to come back.

After 24 hours, remove the top box and take out the bars. Cut the comb from the bars using a knife or any other tool.

You can then crush the comb and let it strain in a mesh bag. The great thing about Warré hives is that they don’t require an expensive honey extractor. The downside is that it takes a while for the honey to fully strain.

How Much Do Warré Hives Cost?

A Warré hive is actually very easy to build yourself. It doesn’t require other materials than what you can find at a building supply store.

The price of a Warré hive depends on where you buy the hive, what style you choose and, of course, the size of the hive. As a general idea, you should look at spending around $200 for a basic hive, without any of the accessories.

Pros and Cons

As with any beehive, the Warré hive has its good and bad features. The Langstroth is currently the most popular beehive in North America; however, the Warré is gaining in popularity. The low maintenance and natural methods are drawing many to this beehive.

Pros

  • Provides the bees with a natural way to build their comb.
  • Size of the boxes is very similar to those that wild bees prefer.
  • It doesn’t require constant maintenance or monitoring, but when you do, you can check the whole box.
  • The Warré hive has a beautiful design that blends in with nature.
  • A Warré hive is easy to build yourself.
  • Honey is easily harvested and doesn’t require any expensive tools.

Cons

  • Honey production is a bit slower, some beekeepers even recommend to not harvest the first season. This is to help the bees build up their supply.
  • Adding boxes cannot be carried out single-handed and requires help from one or two people.
  • Since the comb is naturally built (foundationless), it’s also more fragile. It can be difficult to handle for new beekeepers.

Summary

The Warré hive is a great choice for natural beekeeping enthusiasts. It gives you the chance to see how bees build their comb in nature, while profiting on the delicious honey. The hive’s creator, Emile Warré, wanted his beehives to be as simple as possible so that everyone could enjoy beekeeping.

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