The Warre Hive

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Valued for honey production and pollination services, the reasons we keep honey bees have not changed much over time. But we beekeepers are constantly striving to find the best options for our colonies. One style of beehive that has a notable following is the “Warre Hive”. A look into the history, design and philosophy of the Warre beehive exhibits our yearning for a more natural way.

Two images of warre beehive entrance and quilt box roof on top.

First, it is important to remember that there is no one perfect type of beehive to use. Your beekeeping goals, the climate where you live and even your style of hive management must be taken into consideration when making a decision.

What Is a Warre Hive?

The Warre hive (WAR-ray) is often referred to as a vertical top bar hive. It  consists of stackable square boxes that are usually made of wood. 

It is sometimes called the “People’s Hive” and was designed to require minimal disturbance by beekeepers.

This hive was invented by French priest, Emile Warre in the early 20th century. The philosophy behind the Warre hive was to allow bees to follow their natural instincts and rhythms, resulting in less stress on the colony.

Could he devise a hive that allowed honey production for the beekeeper but still promoted better colony health?

He studied hundreds of hive designs from the early bee skeps to the modern Langstroth hive to search for the best design elements.

His goal was a cylindrical hive that mimicked the inside of a hollow tree. However, it was difficult and expensive to make round shaped boxes at the time. So he used square boxes – closer to the tree shape than the rectangular boxes in use.

Key Features of Warre Beehives

A compelling feature of this hive style in its simplicity. In the wild, a bee swarm moves into a new location and begins to build comb down from the top. This is where the first brood nest occurs.

As the colony grows, the brood nest is moved down toward the bottom of the hive with honey storage on top. The simple parts of this hive make use of that natural bee tendency.

Base

The base is the bottom board of the hive. It provides an entrance for the bees to enter and leave the hive and is normally smaller than that of Langstroth entrances.

Boxes

One of more boxes are added to the base for the bees to live inside. These square boxes are smaller than the bee boxes (supers) of Langstroth hives.

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They typically measure about 12” x 12”. It is customary to see outside handles on Warre boxes instead of the inset handles we commonly see.

Inside the boxes are sets of top bars. You will not find removeable frames in this hive, the bees build comb down from the simple wooden top bars or wedges.

Warre hives are foundationless. The colony builds natural comb without the use of foundation sheets of beeswax or plastic.

Quilt Box and Roof

One distinctive feature of the Warre hive is the use of a quilt box. While these are sometimes used on Langstroth hives, they are commonly found on the Warre beehive.

The purpose of the quilt box is the act as an insulator. This helps the bees inside the hive regulative temperature and humidity during the cold season. The roof protects the hive from weather and a gap in the roof allows some hive ventilation.

Hive Management

The whole Warre hive system was built on the philosophy of simplicity. Warre wanted a system that allowed the beekeeper to manage the colony by the box rather than individual frames.

Typically, the beekeeper adds a couple of new boxes to the bottom of the stack in early Spring as part of the hive management and removes a couple of top boxes full of honey in Fall.

Warre hives are expanded by the process called “nadiring”.  A new box is added to the hive when the bottom box is 80% full. This is the same ratio most often given for when to add another box to any other hive.

Smaller front entrance with bees and bees building natural comb.

Advantages

It is easy to see the appeal of this hive management system.

  • fewer beehive parts to buy and store
  • small boxes are lighter weight
  • foundationless-a favorite of natural beekeeping proponents
  • does not require a lot of manipulation – managed by the box – not by the frame
  • aesthetic appearance
  • allows for continuous rotation of brood frames

The Warre hive design closely mimics the natural nesting cavity of wild honey bees. It begins as a single box with 8 wooden top bars or wedges.

Bees build comb down from the top bars until the reach the bottom of the box. Then, they leave an area of bee space and begin to build from the new top bars down.

The smaller sized boxes are not as heavy – even when filled with honey. And, let’s face it they do look cute!

Because the top boxes are harvested, the older sheets of honeycomb are rotated out of the hive. New comb promotes healthier bees.

Disadvantages

No hive is perfect for every situation and every beekeeper. The Warre hive has some disadvantages that you should be aware of.

  • limited hive inspections
  • potential swarming
  • less honey production – no extraction
  • more heavy lifting

Performing fewer hive inspections may seem like a good thing – especially in the heat of Summer. However, when you can not see look at each frame – how do you diagnose problems?

Looking for bee eggs, disease problems or even finding your queen bee may not be possible without tearing out some comb.

Due to the small box size, it is possible that your colonies may be more prone to swarming. Of course, this is a bigger problem in some breeds or types of honey bees but it is still a concern.

Honey production in a Warre hive will typically be less than that of standard Langstroth hives. Honey harvesting is done by the box.

With no frames to remove – honey extraction is not an option. The crush and strain method is most common.

Ideally, you do not need to manipulate your hive very often. But, when new boxes are added to a Warre Hive, they are added to the bottom of the stack – not the top. This means you have to move all the top boxes off and restack.

Due to a lack of foundation with wires, new comb is very soft in the Warre hive. The beekeeper must be very careful when moving the boxes – especially in hot weather.

Bees will attach comb to the sidewalls of the hive – due to a lack of a frame. They will also build burr comb that attaches to the top bars of the box below.

This comb will need to be cut before manipulating the boxes. A small wire (such as a piano wire) will free comb between the boxes – a hive tool can break the seal of comb on the side walls.

A graphic of main differences between the warre hive and the langstroth hive.

Comparison: Warre Hive vs. Langstroth Hive

Both of these hives are used by beekeepers throughout the world to good effect. Here is a quick comparison of the two.

Hive Design

Warre hives feature a more cylindrical shape with stacked square boxes – while Langstroth supers are rectangular. Instead of 4 sided removeable frames, Warre hives use top bars with no added foundation.

Hive Management

Warre hives are designed to emphasize minimal intervention. Beekeepers nadir (add new boxes to the bottom) rather than inspecting from the top down. This reduces disturbance to the colony.

In the Langstroth hive, regular hive inspections are the norm with some inspections requiring looking at individual frames. Warre beekeepers have a more hands-off approach preferring to manage colonies with less interference.

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FAQs

What is the basis of the philosophy of Warre hive beekeeping?

The philosophy of Warre beekeeping is to mimic the natural habitat and behavior of honey bees – while minimizing beekeeper disturbance.

How do Warre hives differ from Langstroth hives?

Warre hives differ from Langstroth hives in several ways. Their stacked boxes are smaller and square instead of rectangular. They do not use 4-sided frames but rely on top bars without foundation instead.

Can you harvest honey from a Warre hive?

Yes, you can harvest honey from a Warre hive. This is typically done by harvest the top box where excess honey is stored.

How do Warre hives handle pests and diseases without chemical treatments?

Warre hive beekeepers often employ natural beekeeping methods to control pests and disease. This includes comb rotation, integrated pest management practices and promoting healthy bee genetics.

Can I use Warre hives for commercial beekeeping?

Warre hives are not normally used by commercial beekeepers. Langstroth hives are preferred due to their efficiency and better honey production.

Are there any specific regulations or legal considerations for using Warre hives in beekeeping?

Beekeeping regulation vary by location. Check with your local association of agricultural agency to understand the rules.

Final Thoughts

You will find many sources of beekeeping advice online and in print for the standard Langstroth beekeeping. If you’re new to the Warre hive, it is vitally important to find a local beekeeping association with experienced Warre hive beekeepers (in your area – or similar climate) for advice and support.

Warre hive management prioritizes a less invasive approach compared to other hive types, with a focus on providing bees with a habitat that closely mimics their natural living conditions. Regular, non-disruptive inspections and a commitment to sustainable practices are key to successfully managing a Warre hive.

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2 Comments

  1. John Eric Day says:

    Charlotte,
    After making the modifications to the hive base/floor that I spoke of with you early this season and doing artificial swarming techniques outlined in “Beekeeping for All”. I have grown from two colonies to start with last spring to 7 vibrant colonies. I forwent any honey harvest to allow the bees additional food to build additional comb. I also used anti-Varroa mite techniques outlined in the educational section of TheWarrestore.com website. There were tons of helpful hints!
    Doing away with the original floor was unfortunately a must to control varroa and SHBs. My redesigned floor seems to be doing the trick! Will let you know how the over-winter…

  2. Charlotte Anderson says:

    Wonderful, I am so glad you are having success!