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Like so many Americans,
she was trying to
construct a life that
made sense from things
she found in gift shops.
– Kurt Vonnegut
The Buzz About Bees
by Preston Shea
Understanding Father Warre's Simple Hive Design
There is a lot of buzz about bees these days. Pesticides, parasites and diseases have reduced the population of these vital pollinators, lowering yield from gardens and orchards as well as putting commercial food growers under threat. Besides helping bees make a comeback, more and more folks are interested in a backyard beehive as a fun hobby, a fascinating science project and a source of precious propolis, beeswax and, of course, delicious local honey.
But then there’s the downside: the cost of all that clothing and equipment, the need for time-consuming training, and what about getting stung? There have been some major changes in the ancient art of beekeeping in the past couple of years, changes that make a hive or two at the end of the garden simpler, safer and cheaper than it used to be.
As with any other form of agriculture, beekeeping depends on a combination of equipment and techniques. Different equipment has arrived that is simpler yet allows techniques that take a lot less time and effort to produce those honey-sweet results. But before we get to the new-fangled help available for the backyard beekeeper, let’s take a minute to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional methods that are being replaced.
Over 90% of all the hives in America today are “langs,” named after their inventor, Lorenzo Langstroth back in the 1880’s. If you have seen a stack of square beehives in somebody’s yard, chances are that they were langs. Beekeeping with langs is intensive, with keepers taking the top off the hive and pulling out the frames on which the bees build their comb every week or two to check for problems. Not surprisingly, bees don’t like being disturbed this way, which is why the keeper wears that screened-in hazmat suit and carries a smoking gun. When harvest time comes around, the frames are uncapped with a special knife and the honey spun out in a centrifuge extractor.
The lang system is expensive and the boxes and frames are heavy but langs have real advantages, which is why all commercial bee operators use them. The system lends itself to mass production – it is not unusual for a commercial operation to run thousands of hives and yields a high ratio of honey to wax, as the wax foundation on the frames is reused after the honey has been extracted. On the other hand, the frequent opening of the hive and reusing foundation increases the risk of parasites and disease.
The alternative to the lang system was designed by a French priest, Emile Warre in the 1920’s. Warre spent his life designing hives and studying beekeeping in a search for what he called the people’s hive (la rouche populaire). He wanted a hive that was not only easy and inexpensive to build, but which would require much less time and work for the beekeeper. The Warre system is less stressful for the bees as well and appears to provide better protection against the Chinese Varroa mites which were unknown in the West before the 1980’s but have become a major plague today.
Put a lang and a warre side by side and two differences are immediately apparent. First, the warre boxes are smaller. This makes them easier to handle for the beekeeper, but more important, the smaller volume makes it easier for the bees to keep warm in the winter, an important factor in their survival in our cold climate. The second difference is that where the lang has a plain, flat roof, often covered with aluminum flashing, the warre has a house-like pitched roof with open eaves.
Under the warre roof is an “attic” filled with a cloth bag stuffed with leaves, dry grass or some other natural insulation. This attic breathes, allowing excess moisture to escape while insulating the bees against the winter cold. The bees actually control the climate, sealing off the attic with propolis to keep circulation down and removing their antiseptic glue to allow moisture to escape when necessary.
The warre roof with its attic is bulkier and more cumbersome than the simple box top of the lang, but this is where the sophisticated features of the warre design begin to become apparent. Whereas the lang beek (“beek” is slang for apiculturist – a beekeeper) frequently removes the top of the hive to inspect the bees or add a new box (or “super”) for honey storage, the warre beek leaves the bees alone to do their magic and adds honey supers from the bottom, a task made easier by the smaller design of the boxes.
While the lang beek inspects his hive frequently, adding supers and harvesting honey across the season, the warre beek puts an empty box under the hive in the spring and pulls it out in the fall to harvest the honey. This more natural management system is not only much less work, it is far less stressful for the bees, who don’t like having their hive opened up one bit! Warre beeks who like to check on “the girls” but don’t want to stress them, build a simple glass window into the side of the box. This allows the beek and friends to observe the miracle of a beehive without worrying about stings or using smokers, veils etc. The lang will yield a bit more honey per hive, but one or two warres will provide all the honey a family can use and, with a good season, some extra to sell or give away.
The third major difference between langs and warres shows up inside the hive. The lang uses a system of frames, four-sided wooden shapes covered with a wax or plastic foundation in which the bees build their comb, lay eggs and story their honey and pollen. This setup is tricky for the amateur to make and a significant part of the cost of a purchased set-up.
The warre, on the other hand, uses a simple series of slats (called top bars) across the hive box, leaving the bees to build their comb freestyle as they do in the wild. The top bar system is cheaper and simpler. Because there is no foundation re-used from year to year there seems to be less transmission of disease and parasites. Allowing the bees to choose the size of the cells in the honeycomb rather than forcing them onto the template of a foundation also seems to affect the bee’s ability do mange the hive. The bees, after all have been doing this for fifty million years, they don’t need help from human newcomers!
The natural honey comb produced in the warre is harder to process in mass production than the lang frames that fit into a mechanical centrifuge, but for a family honey harvest things couldn’t be simpler. The honey comb is cut off the top bars with a knife and either stored in the comb, as beeks have done for centuries, or the comb is mashed up and the honey strained into jars.
A simple glass-topped box serves as a solar powered wax melter, separating the beeswax from the remaining honey, which can be added to the harvest or just left out for the bees to clean up. They won’t waste a drop!
The wax makes the finest candles in the world. It is also used for soap and cosmetics. In fact, beeswax sells for more than honey. Besides honey and wax, the hive can be set up to harvest propolis, so-called “Russian penicillin,” the powerful antiseptic that has been a staple of traditional medicine since ancient times. The demand for propolis is growing all the time, propolis sells for more than beeswax.
Father Warre’s simplified design and low-maintenance management techniques have brought backyard beekeeping within the reach of thousands of gardeners who are interested in bees but do not have the time or resources to invest in commercial-type operation. If you would like to know more about beekeeping with the Warre system, try one of these links:
http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/warrebeekeeping (great forum with an emphasis on sustainable beekeeping)
http://www.biobees.com/forum/index.php (another UK forum with emphasis on natural methods)
http://thebeespace.net/warre-hive (free plans and ideas to get you started)
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