Beekeeping with the Warre Hive: The Original Homestead Beehive

A Guide to Warre Hive Management

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Ernie Schmidt, with single box Warre hive.

By Ernie Schmidt, Washinton – Beekeeping with the Warre hive, for me, is the easiest way to care for bees. The Warre beehive was developed specifically to be a homestead hive. Abbe Emile Warre of France spent the early 1900s experimenting with over 350 different hive designs and methods to produce the Warre. He named it The People’s Hive, but over the years it became known as the Warre hive. The hive is making a resurgence on homesteads around the world, partly because of the current crisis in the beekeeping industry.

Even in his lifetime, Emile knew well of the framed commercial hives, their challenges, the level of investment and intensive management they needed. He was also aware of the lifestyle of the thousands of single-family farms in his region of the country. Many of these family farms were the definition of homesteads.

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Many were living off the grid — everything the family needed was grown or made on the farm. What they couldn’t grow or make, they would obtain by selling or trading surpluses from the farm. He wanted to develop a hive that fit into the homesteader’s lifestyle. The hive had to be easy and inexpensive to build, and require minimal care in addition to the sun-up to sundown chores on the farm.

Emile also cared enormously for the health and well being of the bees themselves. Spending many years on improvements, he worked a fine line, making the hive the best of both worlds. He summed up his objective in developing the hive as simply, “Happy bees and happy beekeepers.”

The way the hive is designed and managed emulates the natural behavior of honeybees in the wild. When a wild swarm finds a tree hollow, it begins building comb at the top of the cavity. The queen honey bee lays eggs in the new comb, and she will follow the newly built comb down.

As the eggs hatch and new bees emerge above, the bees will start putting honey in the empty comb. The downward progress of building new comb, laying eggs, new bees emerging, and storage of honey continues until fall. What happens to bees in winter is the queen stops laying eggs, the bees stop collecting honey, and they form a cluster for warmth. This cluster will slowly move up the comb during the winter, living off of the honey stores. Come spring, they will begin the same process downward again.

Beekeeping with the Warre hive allows the bees to live in the hive in this same natural process. Emile wanted the bees to be bees naturally, as they have been for millions of years. Emile perfected a hive that — as closely as possible — imitates the natural behavior of honeybees and still allows the keeper access to the extra bounty of the bees, with minimal intrusion into the hive.

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Exploded view of Warre hive. Photo by David Heaf.

The complete hive consists of the floor or bottom board; four identical boxes, each with eight bars inside; a condensation box, also referred to as a quilt; then the roof. The Warre has been described as a vertical top bar hive because it has bars instead of frames, but the similarity ends there.

The management style of Emile’s hive makes it even easier to keep bees than the top bar beehive. A new hive is started with two of the four identical boxes with a swarm or package of bees. The new colony starts in the top box and, as in the wild, begins building comb and moving down.

When they have the second box nearly filled with comb, the keeper places a third box under the first two. When the bees have filled three boxes by fall, the top box is usually filled with honey and is removed as harvest. The colony will winter well in two full boxes under usual seasonal conditions. In the spring, another empty box is placed under the two that were wintered over.

I could never give more information on starting beekeeping with Warre hive in this article than you can get by visiting this website: http://www.bee-friendly.co.uk/. It is dedicated completely to the Warre hive, providing detailed free plans for constructing a hive, caring for the bees, and much more.

If you are new to beekeeping with the Warre hive, I would suggest building your hive just as the plans and instructions indicate on this site. Sometimes it is hard to resist changing and redesigning as one is building their hive. One does not have to be an experienced carpenter to build a hive. Minor inaccuracies in construction make little difference to the bees. They will not be overly affected by slightly out of square or a fraction of an inch difference here or there.

I also would highly recommend joining the Warre Yahoo group at warrebeekeeping@yahoogroups.co.uk. This site will give you the opportunity to read about experienced keepers around the world and ask questions about your Warre hive. It is an excellent source for information, support, and is a very friendly group. Just a side note about this site—the picture of the Warre hive on the home page of this group is one of my personal hives.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, Washington State. Bees have been an important part of my farm for many years. I keep bees in top bar beehives, Langstroths, and Warres. The Warre is my favorite. It is the easiest of the three styles of hives to care for and there is just something magical about the Warre colonies. Watching the bees living naturally as they have since the beginning of time, I feel the Warre isn’t just a beehive, it is a bee “home.”

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Active three-box Warre hive.

I would be happy to assist anyone as much as I can that is interested in beekeeping with the Warre hive. I can be reached at email Foxglovewarre@aol.com.

Keeping bees isn’t easy. Like caring for any kind of livestock, it requires a certain level of knowledge and effort. Beekeeping with the Warre hive is easier than a commercial hive; it is designed that way. This hive is not an answer to the challenges of industrial beekeeping; that is not its purpose. It was created specifically for the homesteader.

What types of hives are your favorites? Have you tried beekeeping with the Warre hive? We’d love to hear your stories!

Originally published in the January/February 2012 issue of Countryside and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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