The traditional management techniques of Warré hives differ from those of any other type of hive. Warré believed that minimal intervention by the beekeeper was the best way to maintain strong, healthy and productive colonies, but a beekeeper still needs to manage his or her hives. Over the years, Warré's ideas about beekeeping have been distorted and for the most part limited to only one principal; that bee hives should never, ever be disturbed unless one is enlarging the hive or harvesting honey...period. Although it is true that Warré found the intrusiveness of modern beekeeping methods to be a threat to the long-term health and well-being of honeybees, one needs to understand that Warré's real concern was that some beekeepers using framed hives were spending way too much time inspecting and manipulating the brood chambers of those hives. It is only to very frequent inspections and manipulation of the brood chamber that he truly objected.
The standard rectangular (Langstroth) beehive typically consists of two deep boxes at the bottom, which are used for brood rearing and winter food storage for the bees. Shallow boxes, or "supers" are added above these deep hive bodies during the main nectar gathering time, or "honey flow", into which the bees are supposed to store honey that is to be harvested for human consumption. This causes numerous problems for the bees.
Firstly, since heat rises, adding boxes that have lots of dead air space above the brood nest makes it more difficult for the bees to keep the brood warm during late spring/early summer nights. This problem is made worse by the fact that Langstroth hives are highly ventilated in order to prevent moisture buildup and condensation within the hive. It is common that a significant amount of the brood becomes chilled and dies when supers are added.
Secondly, asking your bees to store honey above a stationary brood nest goes against what they do naturally, which is to work downward. Many of you have been taught that bees like to work upward. This notion is totally incorrect, and proving that it's incorrect is simple. Assemble a hive consisting of two hive bodies. Langstroth or Warré; it doesn't matter. Install a package of bees and watch what they do. The bees will always immediately go to the top box and start building their nest. They will build downward over time. In Langstroth beekeeping, bees are forced to build upward. They are never given any choice but to build upward. Learn more about this very common myth and many others by clicking here.
Thirdly, since the two deep hive bodies are never harvested, the combs within them are used for brood rearing over and over again. These combs become black, dirty and contaminated. When you think about all of the nasty things that have been absorbed into the wax in those old, black combs, it's a wonder that the brood can even survive to maturity.
Warré found that adding hive bodies under the brood nest makes a lot more sense. Doing so eliminates all of the problems that we just discussed. As in nature, the bees will build downward and as they do, the brood nest will move downward into freshly constructed wax. The wax above is then used for honey storage. The brood never become chilled when boxes are added, because empty boxes below the brood nest do not have a negative effect on its temperature. When honey is harvested from the top of the hive in the fall, the oldest wax is removed from the hive at the same time. None of the wax ever becomes black or highly contaminated.
In most cases, only two hive bodies are required to overwinter a bee colony in a Warré hive. The bees need to have one box (the upper hive body) full of honey, and one box of mostly empty comb for them to cluster on. In spring, when the bees become busy foraging, the beekeeper will typically need to add two hive bodies between the floor assembly and the existing hives bodies. It's better to add them earlier than later, since adding them early causes no problems, but swarming may be encouraged if the beekeeper waits too long. We suggest selecting a screened floor when you order your hive, which is not only only helpful for ventilation and varroa mite reduction and monitoring, but allows the beekeeper to inspect the lowest hive body from underneath. If the colony is strong and the summer honey flow is good, one or more additional hive bodies may need to be added in mid-season (this is easily avoided by adding enough boxes in the spring). This is recommended if the beekeeper sees that comb is being built in the bottom hive body and/or that the cluster is near the bottom of the hive in the evening. An alternative to adding a box to the bottom in this situation is to super the hive, which is certainly easier and can give you some very good honey while at the same time discouraging swarming. Hive bodies should not be added if the main nectar flow has ended or is nearing its end, since it is better to let the bees decrease their numbers and begin to settle in for winter rather than to encourage them to continue growing.
Warré's book, Beekeeping For All, is very thorough and informative and gives good instruction. Unfortunately, it's also quite lengthy and, due to the fact that it has been translated from French, can be somewhat confusing. What we have attempted to do in the subsequent four sections (Harmful Modern Methods, Making Splits, Re-queening a Warré Hive and Section Honey production) is to use information that was compiled the 12th edition of the book in order to explain in simple language the Warré technique and also to dispel some of the common myths and misconceptions about him, his ideas and his methods.