My personal beekeeping philosophy is, "It’s all about the bees". I have kept bees in Warres, Top Bars, Langstroths, and various other hive styles over the years. I love keeping bees in any manner of hive. I have never felt one particular style of hive was right or wrong, better or worse then any other. Bees can and do adapt to nearly any form of cavity that provides the basic needs for them to form a healthy colony. What makes a hive style or management method right or wrong is- what is right or wrong for the keeper. The right or best style of hive depends on the beekeeping style of the beekeeper. Let me make this particular subject a bit more confusing in an attempt to make it clearer. It is possible to blend, mix and cross different hive styles and management methods from one hive style to another. Also in the art of beekeeping there are exceptions to every rule. It is really hard to say, "Bees never do this or bees always do that." As I write about the different hive styles and management methods I will speak in terms of the normally, usually, generally accepted methods of management. Along with the "most of the time behavior" of a healthy colony of bees.
The best way to describe the pure definition of "alternative beekeeping" is to explain what it isn’t. It isn’t conventional mainstream beekeeping management methods using commercial style framed hives such as the Langstroth. It is important to know that I have no bias toward conventional beekeeping. I keep Langstroth hives along with my alternative hives. Many times keepers explaining how to use specific hives have biases toward styles they don’t use. There are arguments in the beekeeping world for or against hive styles using a comparison of the hives themselves. That is really more of a comparison of management methods preferred by the beekeepers. When compared side by side each style has it’s own advantages and disadvantages. Trust me, there is no such thing as the perfect hive. It boils down to what kind of hive has more advantages then disadvantages for your personal style as the keeper of the bees in the hive.
The absolute best advice, I can give to the first time alternative keeper is to start with your choice of alternative hive and a Langstroth hive at the same time. Understand that your first year of beekeeping is the steepest part of the learning curve. Much of what you learn about bees from your Langstroth is applicable to your alternative hive. The best way to get through that first year successfully is to surround yourself with experienced keepers. Being a member of the local bee club is an important way to find those mentors. Since the majority of the members will have Langstroths it is much easier to ask questions about your Langstroth and apply much of that knowledge to your alternative hive. Things you should be looking for and understanding will be the same in both hives. The bees aren’t different in the two hives only the keepers management of them in either hive. You will be a better alternative hive keeper knowing how to manage a mainstream hive. Do not be fooled into thinking that beekeeping is as easy as putting bugs in a box and waiting for honey. It is like every other form of animal husbandry; it requires specific knowledge of the bees and a level of managerial skill to be successful.
Together we are about to start down the path of Alternative Beekeeping. Each month I will discuss and share the joys, methods, philosophies, and realities of keeping bees in Top Bars and Warres, along with other different and unique hive styles and methods. There will be times I get straight to the point and other times I will meander about, but always remember -
The Warre hive, (pronounced war-ray) was really named The People’s Hive. It was developed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s by an Abbe in Northern France named Emile Warre. Emile wrote a book about this method of beekeeping called "Beekeeping for All". The hive has experienced a resurgence in popularity recently because it’s design and management style promotes natural principles, ease of construction and relatively simple management. Emile had a simple focus for developing this hive, he wanted Happy Bees and Happy Beekeepers. After experimenting with over 350 different hive designs and methods he produced the Warre, blending the best of both worlds for the bees and the beekeepers.
The Happy Beekeeper is the easy part, Emile's hive is easy and inexpensive to build, easy to maintain, and easy to harvest. He wanted a hive and system that appealed to the family farms and homesteaders, because farming and homesteading can be time and labor intense, Emile wanted the Warre to require a minimal level of management to be successfully maintained. It is designed for the bees to behave as they would in the wild. Building their own combs and moving down in the hive on their own as they need more room.
It has a similar method as the Top Bar hive in that the Warre has bars also and not frames. It has been referred to as the Vertical Top Bar hive, but that is where the similarities end. The Warre has a unique management style of stacking the boxes from the bottom. As the bees fill a stack of boxes, from the top down, the stack is lifted and an empty box placed on the floor then the stack set down on it. The bees then move down into the next empty box building comb. Again this is very similar to the behavior of wild bees in tree hollows.
The happy bees part of the hive is relatively simple also. The hive lets bees be bees, it's design and management emulates the life style and behavior of wild bees in a hollow tree cavity. The bees in a Warre do what bees have done for millions of years in the wild. Emile developed a bit of a hands off management style, feeling the less intrusion into the hive the better. However, modern day beekeeping has some problems that Emile Warre do not have to face. Now we should enter the hive periodically to inspect for the problems facing today's bee colonies. To monitor hive health removing a bar with comb can be done the same as one would with a Top Bar hive. Emile also designed frames for his hive. Any keeper wishing to use their Warre hive with frames can find out how in Emile's book. The framed method does increase the investment, time and labor involved in keeping the bees. The Warre hives tend to have smaller colonies and produce less honey then commercial hives. However since the Warre is normally about 1/3 the size of commercial hives with 1/3 the amount of bees, it is attractive and practical for backyard beekeepers and hobbyists. The Warre isn't as intimidating as a large commercial hive. It also usually produces proportionally less honey then larger Langstroth hives. The honey is ready to harvest in the Fall after the bees have filled 3 boxes or more with comb. It is harvested by removing the top box, reducing the hive down to 2 boxes. Many keepers, such as pollinators, hobbyist and backyard keepers, are willing to except the difference in honey production in exchange for the lower costs and less time spent managing the hive.
The best book on the market for keeping Warre hives is "Natural Beekeeping with the Warre Hive-A Manual" by David Heaf.
Emile Warre's original book "Beekeeping for All" can also be found on Amazon.