Natural Beekeeping Allows Bees To Express Their Natural Behaviour
I grew up around honeybees on the acreage in rural Alberta. While I enjoyed the honey, I most loved sitting by the hive and watching the bees come and go. At that time, my dad was using a traditional Langstroth Hive – the same hive used by 99% of the world’s beekeepers today. The modern Langstroth hive is successful because its standardized dimensions make extraction and interoperability between beekeepers easy. There’s no denying that the Langstroth hive is great for beekeepers, but is it good for bees?
The Problem With Langstroth Hives
I’ve written extensively about flaws in the standard Langstroth design, so I won’t go in-depth here except to say that we have learned much about honeybee biology, preferences, and behavior since the standardization of modern beekeeping equipment.
- 5 Common (Langstroth) Hive Problems and How To Fix Them
- 10 Beekeeping Tips Every Beginner Should Know
- Honeybee Entrances According to Honeybees
Shouldn’t honeybees know a thing or two about managing bees? Could there be a better beehive out there? Couldn’t there be a design that works with natural honeybee behaviour?
Warré Hives For Natural Beekeeping
My search for an alternative hive design led me to Abbe Warre’s book “Beekeeping For All” and his Peoples Hive (aka Warré Hive). Impressed by the logic of this design and his affinity for natural beekeeping, I found construction plans for Warré’s Hive.
Warré Hive Design
Appropriately Sized Boxes
Unlike the long and wide Langstroth boxes, Warré observed the dimensions of wild colonies and found their cavities to be narrow and tall. Warré settled on a 1-foot square box. These smaller boxes are easier for beekeepers to manipulate and easier for the bees to regulate.
The traditional Warré hive does not use frames or foundation, which was an invention by Langstroth. However, this does have drawbacks as the bees can attach the comb to the side of the box, making it difficult to inspect. The bees draw natural honeycomb on top bars, and honey is extracted by crushing the comb. This process destroys the comb, but it also removes a potential vector for disease.
Bees Build Down
As far as I can tell, the Warré Hive is the only hive design that acknowledges the fact that honeybees start building at the top of a hollow cavity and work their way down over time. Made possible by smaller boxes, Warré hives take advantage of the bees’ natural tendency to build down. Adding empty boxes to the bottom of the hive (nadiring) expands the brood nest and allows the hive to move downwards (its natural tendency). The effect is that Warré hives act like a never-ending tree trunk, infinitely growing downwards. A happy result is that the top boxes fill with honey, and no queen excluder is necessary. An additional benefit is that the beekeeper always adds space for brood, reducing the likelihood of swarming.
Honeybees work their way down through the summer but reverse their direction in the winter. While they build comb from top-down, they consume it bottom-up. The effect is that an overwintering hive will ball together and rise with the heat (consuming honey as they go).
Insulated Roof Reduces Moisture Buildup
An insulated quilt box protects the top of the Warré Hive. Unlike the solid-roofed Langstroth design, Warre hives have a breathable top box called a quilt. The quilt provides ventilation and insulation from the elements. Honeybees add or remove propolis (a sticky substance gathered from plants) to regulate the airflow and humidity inside the hive. The result is that bees stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.
Warré Hive Drawbacks
Overall, the Warré hive is a great design that is built for bees, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its challenges. Non-standard equipment, for example, is hard to come by (I had to build it on my own), and the exclusion of frames reduces usability.
I kept bees exclusively in Warré hives for a few years before redesigning them to suit my beekeeping practices. The result is an 8-frame Warré-inspired Langstroth hive with a top quilt and standard frames. I call it the Beecentric Hive and have been building and using it since 2011. You can learn more about the Beecentric Hive and how it continues to evolve to support my natural beekeeping approach.