The Warré beehive

Beekeepers who use Thorne or Paynes for their beekeeping supplies may have spotted a new addition to the types of hive they offer over the last couple of years: the Warré hive. So what is it, exactly, and why all the interest?

Émile Warré was a French local priest and beekeeper who, responding to a serious decline in beekeeping since his youth, started experimenting with the aim of producing a hive that was simple and economical to build, easy to manage, bee friendly, and assured a modest surplus of honey for the owner. He considered over 350 designs and ideas before finalising his Ruche Populaire (People’s Hive), the construction and operation of which is described in his book “Beekeeping for All”. The hive comprises tiers of identical square boxes, a flat entrance floor with a notched alighting board, a coarse weave cloth covering the top of the uppermost box, a quilt filled with a moisture permeable filling (wood shavings, say), and a gabled roof with ventilation and mouse board.

Courtesy David Heaf

Warré described two versions of his hive – one with frames and one with top bars – but made it clear that his preference was for top bars. However, there are many beekeepers running these hives with either frames or half frames (no bottom bar), including some quite large commercial enterprises. In the USA, of course, it is still mandatory to run all hives with inspectable frames. France is home for the most Warré beekeepers, but it has also long been popular in Belgium and Switzerland. More recently, the hive has gained interest worldwide including in the UK, starting in around 2007 after Warré’s book was translated*.

In operation, the greatest distinction between the Warré and, say, a National or WBC hive is that the placing of supers above the brood is replaced by “nadiring” – the addition of new boxes under the first brood box as the colony expands. This, of course, more closely resembles the growth of a colony in the wild, where the brood area moves down as the season progresses, leaving old comb higher up for honey stores ready for the next winter. In subsequent years, once a colony is established in three or more boxes and has plenty of stores, the original top box can be removed, using a cheese wire to separate the boxes if necessary, and the honey taken away along with the old comb. In this way, the colony continues to move eternally downwards in constant renewal, building new comb as it goes, and ensuring that the oldest comb is removed after three to four years. Since each Warré box has only around half the volume of a standard National brood box, the filling of new boxes – and the opportunity to harvest honey from the top – can be very speedy once the colony is established. The downside, of course, is that inserting or nadiring a new box under the column of an existing comb-filled hive can be heavy work.

An important aspect of the original Warré concept was that the hive could be opened just once a year, at harvest. Nadiring – the addition of boxes underneath – does not constitute a true hive opening because, since the quilt is left in place, the all-important nest warmth and scent is retained. More radical or frequent interventions, in response to concerns about the colony or just plain nosiness, are of course possible and if the hive is run with frames (as opposed to top bars) this would be just as easy as in any standard hive. The inspection of individual combs in a top bar set-up requires a special L-shaped knife to free the combs from the box wall: this led to the development of the half frame (shown below) to make removal easier

Courtesy David Heaf

Indeed, the half frame development neatly illustrates the great flexibility of the People’s Hive: it can be run as a low intervention top-bar hive, loved by many “natural” beekeepers, or pretty much as any conventional framed hive and, of course, all stations in between. There are even suppliers of shallow supers and queen excluders for the Warré, such is the breadth of its appeal.

The low intervention approach is a very attractive idea – both because of the much reduced workload for the beekeeper and for the thought that the bees are taking care of themselves – and this understandably resonates with many beekeepers, old and new. However, it has to be said that the 2020s are very different from 1920s. Varroa was not then an issue, and the global transmission rates for disease in general was a fraction of current levels. Pesticides and herbicides were not used at any sort of scale in agriculture, and the pressure on forage was much lower. The beekeeping world is now totally different: there is far more pressure on the bees – the queen in particular – and this means that beekeepers have to be adept at monitoring and getting a sense of the health of a hive.

Work done by a PhD student at Leeds University, Derek Mitchell, has shown that the heat loss from a two-box Warré hive is about half that of a single brood National with a similar volume, so thermally the Warré performs more in line with a well-designed polystyrene hive. The two major reasons for this better energy performance of the Warré are the simple insulating effect of the thick quilt above the colony, and the “form factor” of the hive – which is essentially a measure of the compactness of its shape. As with our own homes, thermal performance matters: for the bees, with less honey expended in keeping warm, it allows more “free” time that can be spent grooming, maintaining the hive and propolising the interior, all of which have known health benefits for the colony. For the beekeeper, it translates directly into either more honey available for harvest, or a reduced foraging pressure on the local environment, particularly if the bees are from a frugal native strain.

Émile Warré was immensely concerned with the decline in beekeeping that he saw around him. He wanted those who used his hives to become better beekeepers, and he believed his hive design provided a basis for this. Many natural or Darwinian beekeepers will have issues with some of the interventions he espoused and, conversely, mainstream practitioners will worry about his laissez-faire approach in a world where disease is so great a concern. The goal was to provide a hive closest to the natural conditions of the bee, whilst being practical for the user: whether the result is a bit of a curate’s egg, or perfectly encapsulates the best of all hives, depends on your point of view.

Guy Thompson

“As a nature lover once said: blessed is he who, lying in the grass at the apiary in the evening, in the company of his dog, hears the song of bees blended with the cry of crickets, the sound of the wind in the trees, the twinkling of the stars, and the slow march of the clouds”

Émile Warré (1867-1951)

* The 12th Edition of Beekeeping for All by Émile Warré was translated into English by David Heaf and is available from Northern Bee Books.

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