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Supering a warré hive

Some people have expressed concern that honey production may be impaired when boxes are only added to the bottom of the hive (nadiring), rather than to the top, as with a Langstroth hive (supering). These concerns are in fact, valid. There are indeed times when you will benefit greatly by supering your Warré hive. The reason for this is as follows:

In the normal scheme of things within a Warré hive, as within most feral nests as well, worker bees fill the cells above and beside the brood nest with nectar, which once dehydrated becomes honey. No significant amount of nectar will ever be stored below the brood nest. As brood emerges, workers clean the empty brood cells and quickly fill them with nectar while at the same time, newly constructed cells are added to the bottom of the brood nest, in which the queen will then lay her eggs. Now, it doesn't take long to realize the limiting factor here. Worker brood takes about 19 days to develop and emerge from the cell. Drone brood takes even longer; up to 24 days. That means that the worker bees may run out of space to store nectar while they wait for empty, cleaned, former brood cells to become available.

Very often this is a non-issue, since the honey flow is such that the bees have to forage a large area (one colony may forage up to 50,000 acres) in order to collect any significant amount of nectar. Also, remember that much time is spent foraging for pollen for feeding the brood and much is also spent bringing water into the hive. Some areas of the country just aren't that rich in nectar to begin with, but many others are, especially in the upper mid-west. If you look at the background of this website, you'll see our biggest source of nectar here in Michigan. It's called "purple (or star) thistle". It's an invasive plant that might be a nuisance to some, but is loved by bees and beekeepers alike because of its abundance and because its nectar makes some of the best honey available! During the approximately 6 week bloom time of purple thistle, there is an infinite amount of nectar very close to the hive. It is during this time that bees kept in Warré hives may actually become less active, because they quickly find that they have nowhere to put any of it. Supering your Warré hive during the heaviest honey flow is not only a good for you, it's good for your bees, too! Working bees are happy bees, and there's nothing worse than an anxious workforce that is impatiently waiting to go to work!

The main thing that you want to be sure of is that you're adding two boxes to the bottom of the hive each spring, and then removing the two boxes that the bees had wintered in, filled with honey, from the top of the hive at the fall harvest. In this way, you will be helping your bees to continuously renew all of the comb within the hive. If your bees are unable to produce enough honey for you to at least do that; don't super. You may live in a nectar-poor area, or perhaps bad weather is to blame, in which case you might be able to super during years when conditions are more favorable. Now that you will be keeping bees, you will become very aware of nectar flows in your area. Within a couple of years you will know exactly what you can do, and when. Trust me...you will. If you have added two boxes to the bottom of the hive in the spring and are in a very heavy honey flow, you may be able to super and get a "bonus" box of honey. It is not uncommon during the star thistle flow for our bees to fill a standard Warré hive body with fresh wax and capped honey, ready to harvest, in less than two weeks. Supering has several benefits, including:

  • Puts a large number of worker bees into high-gear foraging mode, keeping your bee colony busy and contented.
  • Allows for production and harvesting of a mostly one-nectar honey, so that it can be labeled as such and sold to a specialized market.
  • Allows for the production of chunk honey (where a chunk of comb is placed into a container, suspended in honey) or section honey (section of honey comb, usually 4" square, filled with honey and sold in a cut-comb box), since the super will yield very clean honeycomb, and nothing else (no pollen).
  • If modified Warré hive bodies are used as supers, the frames of drawn comb can be extracted and reused, since they will be clean, virgin wax. You can learn all about the process of honey extraction by watching this video!

    NOTE: If you are going to use an extractor, it is a good idea to use wired foundation in your frames and leave the super on the hive for at least a few weeks if the comb is freshly drawn. New wax comb is relatively weak and may come apart in an extractor. In lieu of using foundation, you can wire your frames.

Comb and honey from supers has a beautifully clean appearance and is 100% edible. This is because, in a super, no brood has ever been raised and no pollen has ever been stored. Although excellent honey can be harvested from hives that are managed using the traditional Warré methods, combs that once contained brood are not edible. Therefore, if one wishes to produce section (comb) honey or chuck honey, a super must be used.

Here, you can see the difference in color between honey harvested from the regular fall harvest and honey harvested from a super that was on during the star thistle bloom. They are both excellent honeys, but the one on the right contains only pure, star thistle nectar. This type of honey is preferred by many, although the honey made from multiple types of nectar and containing some pollen is a healthier choice.

People are always asking us how much honey can be produced each year in a Warré Hive. This is, of course, an impossible question to answer with any accuracy because there are just too many variables that factor into it. But if you learn to recognize the honey flows in your area and install a super when conditions warrant one, you will maximize production. In this photo, you can see how much honey comes from just one standard Warre hive body. Then realize that you should easily get two, and could possibly get even three or more from each hive!

Contrary to what many folks may think, supering your Warré hive does not violate the basic management principles of the man himself. Warré had practiced hive supering with a sections box as is described in Section Honey Production, an excerpt from Beekeeping for All. Although he never mentions using hive bodies as supers, Warré acknowledges in the book that he spent many years keeping bees in a relatively nectar-poor area, so it seems likely that there simply would have been no benefit in doing so. He also emphasized that he was a firm believer in the health benefits of mixed-nectar honeys, which are obtained by using his traditional methods.

One important consideration when using a standard Warré (top bar only) hive body or an octagonal hive body as a super is that oftentimes, the bees will build at least some of the combs in these boxes from the bottom up. This means that they may actually start combs by attaching to the top side of the top bars below and then building upward until they attach the tops of the combs to the top bars of the super. For this reason, using modified hive bodies with foundation is the easiest and most reliable way to super your Warré hive (this option is, of course, not available for octagonal hives). If you do want use a standard hive body as a super, please be sure to review the information regarding harvesting honey so that you will know what you need to watch for.

Do you have to super your Warré hive? Absolutely not. If you want to manage your hive in the traditional Warré manner, by simply enlarging the hive in the spring, harvesting honey in the fall and leaving the bees to do what they do on their own in between, that is perfectly fine. The purpose of this page is simply to dispel the myths that you cannot super these hives or that you have to use a Langstroth hive in order to produce more honey, clear honey, chunk honey or section (comb) honey. As you have now seen, you can do all of those things while still allowing your bees to live in a bee-friendly Warré hive.