Thursday, 24 February 2011

Starting a Warré hive

Our 30th April 2011 hive building workshop is drawing closer and although there are still a few weeks to go there is much to do for those starting their first bee hive or planning their first Warré:

Although we at YABeeeP practice the easier and less-interventionist natural beekeeping, we recognise that keeping honeybees is a responsibility so everyone intending to keep bees needs to do their homework first.

You need to learn about bees, their biology, physiology and needs. Whilst you will carry on doing this throughout your beekeeping life, you do need to learn the basics of bee biology, habits and behaviour to be a good beekeeper. A good basic grounding in how bees behave in nature and what they want, rather than what we as bee farmers want, will help you understand exactly why we favour sustainable beekeeping over the now outdated conventional beekeeping practices carried out in large highly managed colonies.

There are lots of books and websites on bee biology you can seek out. A good place to start is the US Cooperative Extension System - Follow the many links under Honey Bee Biology but bear in mind this is not a sustainable beekeeping website. For another great little summary, download this 9 page paper from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory -  pdf download (7mb)

You'll need to learn about the principles and philosophies of Warré beekeeping. This page has been written to help get you started in this. Please make sure that you read this page and the information it points to. Whilst you will learn much by being a YABeeP member, if you keep bees in a Warré without understanding the principles and philosophies you will be an irresponsible beekeeper.

You need to get ready for building your own hive. If you are doing this as part of our hive building workshop you will be making a Warré hive – the major decision about what hive type to build has taken for you by the group. The day will be challenging enough with one hive design without overseeing alternative hive models. Of course, if you want to build your own horizontal Top Bar Hive (aka Kenyan or long hive) or another variant you are free to do so - just follow the Starting a Horizontal Hive link instead.

However, there are elements of the build where you will have to make your own mind up regarding what you want. Let's call them optional extras, customisations or pimping, to give it a modern parlance. To make it easier for the beginner each option will have a recommendation, but you do need to consider whether you wish to go with that or not.

You must Choose......
The five choices you will need to have made by the day of the workshop are as follows:

1. Standard or modified Warré hive?
I have written a separate page on this topic here, please read it to make your choice. The recommendation is that you build the modified version, unless you are confident that you are going to be able to get hold of a swarm or you are prepared to wait a year or two for one.

2. Windows
Do you want to have windows in your hives? Windows aren’t necessary but they are useful to:
  • see what's going on inside the hive without opening it, 
  • checking whether boxes are occupied without hefting (partially lifting it)
  • showing friends, neighbours and particularly children who will be fascinated, a great educational tool.
If you have windows they should be used very sparingly - don't use often or for long periods; just an occasional quick peek should do and never in the December to February (inclusive) period. Remember any use of your windows disturbs the bees and effect the internal hive temperature.

So what's the downside of windows?
The main one is time. Building a Warré is relatively simple in that the main body is just a series of square boxes – 2 sides and 2 ends, simply glued and screwed together, quick and easy to make. By adding a window you are doubling the work involved in making each box. Please bear in mind that if you do choose to have windows then you probably won't finish building your hive at the workshop and will need to complete your hive at home. You will make a box or two and therefore know what to do and how to do it. However, it is  something to consider. Adding windows will also increase the cost as there is extra material required – that said the increase should be well under £10 per hive of 4 boxes. (We haven't yet priced the wood but I'm guesstimating that a 4 box hive with windows should come in at under £50 all in.)

Despite these drawbacks, I would personally always recommend windows.

3. Varroa inspection floor
Varroa is an insect parasite mite that attacks honeybees. Not natural to our native honeybee, it jumped species and was spread around the globe by beekeepers seeking a 'better' (i.e. more productive) bee'. Yes, man's greed actually introduced one of beekeepings biggest problems to Europe and the US. All honeybee colonies in the UK will carry the varroa mites, except for a few isolated pockets of the country. It's a problem that we now have to live with.
Warré Sump Floor
with optional varroa floor & feeder
(click to enlarge)
Update: I now use a single 25mm round hole
rather than the slit entrance shown

Conventional beekeepers and many sustainable beekeepers monitor their mite levels using a varroa monitoring floor – a fine mesh that allows the mite, but not the bee, to fall through to a sticky catching board. They can then, using tables that factor in the time of year, count the number of fallen mite to try and estimate their infection rate. If it gets too high they treat the bees with chemicals and other non-natural treatments which we think actually helps weaken the bees further. This page is not the place to debate the pros and cons of treatment but suffice it to say that in a Warré hive you will be relying on the bees rather than chemicals to manage their own mite infections which they can readily do if you don't open the hive to inspect them like conventional beekeeping demands1.

When Warré designed his hive varroa did not exist outside Asia where it only lived on its local species which had evolved over millennia to cope with it. I suspect that had that not been the case he would still have opted for his basic floor because of his management methodology. I choose to never treat my bees for varroa infection2 so I take the attitude 'why bother monitor them if I'm not going to treat?' A standard Warré floor is therefore quite suitable if you don't fancy the additional work and expense of a varroa inspection floor, unless you choose to feed.................

Personally I use a sump floor without a varroa screen on all my Warré hives as I believe it better replicates a natural tree cavity. There have been several reports of colonies dying over winter where the accumulation of bee bodies on the floor (they are not removed in the very cold weather) blocks the exit trapping in and starving the live bees.  If I need to I can still monitor the varroa drop in a sump floor without a screen - it works just as well.

4. Sugar Feeder
Most conventional beekeepers, and some natural beekeepers feed their bees. Sounds kind and helpful doesn't it? Well it's not. There is only one natural product to feed your bees and that is their own honey which they made themselves. What these beekeepers feed their bees is a sugar solution3. Now although sugar is a near-natural product and has similarities with honey, it's heavily processed and ain't natural to bees! Just study the way bees break down varying proportions of fructose, glucose, water, oil and special enzymes to see why they make honey, not sugar. Their honey also carries many other trace elements and beneficial bacteria which is good for them - it's a a bit like comparing mother's breast milk to formula, mum's has the beneficial microbes, anti-allergens, etc..

The reason why beekeepers feed sugar is that they have either stolen too much of their honey for their own use/sale or that they are too nervous to trust their own bees. They think that they know more about the bees needs than the creatures themselves do. You will work out from this that I am against feeding bees - I am!

That said there are those who do, especially those who feel that weak bees need help. If you want to join their ranks then you'll need a device to feed them inside the hive4.

There are two ways this can be done:

Top Feeder - Abbé Warré himself designed two of these, one for use for use in Spring & Summer and another for autumn feeding which you can see here. My advice is don't build or use one. You should already have read the Warré information signposted on a previous page, this explains the importance of retaining the colony's heat and scent; it's 'Nestduftwärmebindung'. This is key to a healthy Warré hive. Adding and changing a top feeder and replacing the quilt compromises this by opening the hive more often.
Warré's Spring/Summer feeder

Bottom Feeder - These allow you to put liquid or cake sugar (depending on the time of year) in the hive below the colony so not disturbing the Nestduftwärmebindung. The same feeding box can double as a Varroa Tray (see 3. above) so you could kill two birds with one stone. See this page for instructions on 'How to Modify Standard Warré Floor'. You can use it to either monitor varroa with the mesh screen in or feed sugar with the mesh out. The disadvantage of a bottom feeder is that in very cold weather bees won't go down to feed, only upwards. That said, their not feeding in the very cold is probably preferable to having no quilt and a void above their brood nest that you have with a top feeder.

As I don't feed then I'n NOT going to recommend a varroa/feeder box but it's your choice.

5. Top Bars
A Warré is a top bar hive so has bars at the top of each hive box - the clue's in the name! Unlike in a horizontal top bar hive (hTBH) the bars don't form the roof so they need spaces between the bars for the bees to pass up and down.

Warré's horizontal bars
(click to enlarge)
Horizontal Bars - Warré's design provides for horizontal top bars each spaced 12mm apart to allow the queen to pass between them. Many of us have success with this set-up. However, it is not uncommon for bees to fill the box they are in then stop building comb rather than move down to the next box, especially in their first year of occupation. If this happens then as more bees hatch they get overcrowded and swarm. Now swarming isn't a problem to a natural beekeeper but you don't really want a mass exodus of bees when there are more boxes below your colony for them to fill.

Why are we seeing this problem now when Warré didn't experience it? The answer to this is probably that in man's past greed to have bees that produce more honey we have introduced larger bees from around the globe. These have bred with our native bees to the extent that there are no untainted 'native' bees surviving other than in tiny isolated pockets of the UK. It may well be that these larger bees need bigger gaps. Because of this problem many Warré beekeepers have been experimenting with.......

Alternative vertical bars
(click to enlarge)
Vertical Top Bars - These are the same top bars but rotated around 90o to the vertical. These provide the same strength as the horizontal bars but a much bigger space between each one. Similar vertical shims under the top bars are also proving successful in hTBHs where the need to have straight comb is more important than in a Warré. There is some evidence to suggest that when crossing the bars from one box to the next the queen, who doesn't like to leave the safety of the comb, will gather a cluster of bees around her to make this passage. The wider spacing in a vertical bar hive more readily allows this.

Your final choice therefore is to decide whether to have the traditional horizontal bars or the verticals. If you want a recommendation then I would suggest trying vertical bars; at least that's what I'd do, but you pay's your money and takes your choice!

Whichever type you choose it is important that your bars are completely covered in bees wax when they are installed as there is strong evidence that the queen won't travel over bare wood to go down into the next box and this may be a major factor in premature swarming in a new Warré. It's easy to wax your bars, just buy a beeswax tablet from a reputable local beekeeper and rub it thoroughly all over your top bars when you install them.

It's usual to pin them with something like panel pins, just to stop them from moving when your shift the boxes about. Make sure that you leave the heads of the heads of the pins slightly proud so you can easily pull them out without damaging the bars when you eventually remove the comb to harvest.

Once you have weighed up the pros and cons of each of the above choices you are ready to build your Warré hive.

© Robin Morris - YABeePFacebook smileys

You may also be interested in these pages - Finishing touches to a Warré hive (2011) and the updated  Completing your Warré hive 2012

1 - Bees keep their hive temperature at around 35oC. The varroa mite cannot breed above 33oC. By not opening the hive the temperature is maintained above the varroa's breeding temperature so keeping them to levels the bees can manage. Is it any wonder that conventional beekeeping with its 'pull it apart each week' inspections have problems?

2 - This is not strictly true as I will sugar dust them if they are opened like at the annual harvesting/winter prep period. I won't open the just to treat them. Dusting bees with icing sugar stimulates them to groom the sugar off. It also clogs the sticky pads the mite use to cling onto the bees so the grooming knocks then off. It's considered to be the most 'natural' friendly varroa treatment so worth doing if you have access to the bees for another reason.

3 - Never, under any circumstances, feed bees honey you have bought. Most UK honey is blended with honeys from around the world. It is not sterilised as heat ruins the honey so may contain disease spores and pesticide from other countries and could well introduce diseases into your hive and the area. This is a very real threat so DON'T DO IT.

4 - Sugar must be fed inside the hive or you risk attracting bees from other colonies who will rob out your bees and leave them without any stores.