People are surprised to learn that here in New Zealand bees are being managed on an industrial scale. Tens of thousands of hives are transported long distances and managed as commodities for pollination and honey production, and the feeding of white sugar and pollen substitutes is common practice. Increasingly hives contain plastic frames and foundation, queens are artificially inseminated and replaced yearly, pesticides and herbicides are accumulating in the wax in fixed brood chambers, and apiaries are overstocked, facilitating rapid disease transfer.
It may be no coincidence then that in 2015 the New Zealand media reported on honey bee health more than usual: increasing chemical resistance of varroa to miticides,[i] the discovery of two new deadly gut parasites Nosema cerane and Lotmaria passim,[ii] [iii] and, most alarmingly, the mysterious disappearance of entire colonies,[iv] hinting at colony collapse disorder (CCD).
Is modern industrial framed-hived beekeeping, spanning little more than a century out of some three thousand years of beekeeping, contributing to the rapid decline in honey bee health? To answer to this question we must ask: what are the optimum conditions that bees need to be healthy?
The honey bee whole
The whole honey bee organism is far more than the simple sum of its parts. Its heart is the comb; literally made from bee bodies, the comb is more than a shelter, a food store and a nursery. It’s an integral part of the superorganism: its skeleton, sensory organ, communication network, nervous system, memory store, and immune system.[v]
Increasing numbers of scientific papers shine the light on aspects of honey bee biology and behaviour, most of which is completely ignored by modern beekeeping. The list is too extensive to publish here, though a comprehensive PDF of journal abstracts can be downloaded from the UK Natural Beekeeping Trust website.[vi]
What the bees are telling us, supported by peer-reviewed research, is that we need a radical shift in the way bees are kept to most closely mimic the hive environment that they create and thrive in naturally. On my journey to keep bees in such a way, I discovered the Warré hive and bee-friendly management methods that mimic the nests and behaviours bees typically express in their natural state.
The Warré hive and method
Abbé Emile Warré (1867–1951) was a French beekeeper who trialled over 350 hive types before arriving at his final design. The Warré hive is a bee-friendly hive that any person with basic tools and woodworking skills could make from locally sourced timber. Primarily the hive is founded on the concept of ‘Nestduftwarmebindung’;[vii] that the maintenance of brood nest scent and heat are essential for optimal colony health. Modern research supports the concept; the hive environment is constantly moderated by the bees to maintain certain heat, biochemical and scent conditions which are severely compromised by regular hive intrusions such as swarm prevention and honey ‘supering’ in modern beekeeping using the Langstroth hive.
The Warré hive is a tall, narrow top-bar hive comprising at least two and up to six square boxes of (internal dimensions) 300 x 300 x 210 mm. The box walls are at least 20 mm thick; mine are 25 mm. Unlike the ubiquitous Langstroth hive, in which the bees are forced to work upwards, the bees begin their comb building in the top box of the Warré hive and work downwards as the season progresses. There is no foundation; the bees build virgin comb as they want, and there is no queen excluder; the queen is free to go wherever she wants. As space is needed beneath the cluster, the beekeeper ‘nadirs’ boxes underneath, and this can be done on the first spring visit. Note that inserting boxes does not involve ‘opening’ the hive, little to no heat is lost and it can be done without smoke and often without a veil.
Warré’s original design was for eight top bars with 36 mm between the centre of each top bar, however in New Zealand the combs must be removable to inspect them for American foul brood (AFB), and so a necessary deviation from his design is semi-frames without a bottom bar. The semi-frames rest in 10 x 10 mm rebates and each has a starter strip of wax, which guides the bees construct their comb along the top bar. Each box has protruding handle cleats front and back as hives are worked from the sides.
On the top box is a hessian top cloth toughened with rye flour paste, and above that is a 100 mm deep quilt full of absorbent material such as sawdust. Apart from its insulating function this also helps to control humidity by absorbing excess moisture. The underside of the quilt is hessian and the top is left open. A gabled roof with a ventilated cavity sits atop the quilt and reduces the effect of solar heating and the drumming of rain and hail on the colony.
The Warré hive has the shape and thermal properties of a hollow tree with the quilt forming an internal roof, which has a thermal conductivity much like rotting wood. Bees are heat organisms par excellence, and heat loss in modern hives such as the Langstroth is four to seven times greater than in a hollow tree.[viii] Langstroth colonies typically require at least 25 and up to 50 kg of honey to overwinter, whereas the same sized colony in a Warré requires between four to 14 kg, proving its vastly superior thermal efficiency.
The hive has a flat floor with a scalloped entrance of 120 x 15 mm deep, which is far smaller than modern hives and greatly assists the bees in hive climate control and defence against robbing, especially by wasps.
The easiest way to populate a Warré hive is by catching and installing a prime swarm of more than 2 kg in spring. If introduced at the start of the main flow, the bees draw comb at a surprising rate without the need for supplementary feeding. A large swarm may produce a surplus in the first year.
The largest swarm I have hived, over 3 kg, drew four boxes of comb with some honey stored in just four weeks during a spring flow. Where a small secondary swarm would be too small to populate a Langstroth hive, they succeed in the Warré because of its greater thermal efficiency. In the strict sense the hive need only be opened twice in a year, once on a warm spring day for the annual disease inspection and once in late summer for harvest. The combs can either be mashed and the honey strained, pressed, or extracted by spinning the combs supported in a modified comb-holding basket. The wax is rendered and the box returned underneath the growing colony if needs dictate.
The Warré hive is easy and cheap to make, and the time it takes to make and manage a Warré colony is very little. I hope I have encouraged others to take up Warré beekeeping! For a complete description of its construction and management I urge others to read not only Warré’s book Beekeeping for All,[ix] but also Dr David Heaf’s excellent volume.[x]
Developing varroa tolerance
The Varroa destructor mite perhaps presents the greatest challenge in keeping bees, but despite our best intentions, how most bees are kept is suppressing their ability to develop and express varroa tolerance.
The Langstroth hive has a lot to answer for; the bees are under constant stress as they attempt to maintain comb building and brood nest temperatures in a large hive that is constantly being opened for management. The prevention of reproductive swarming and instead dividing hives by ‘splitting’ reduces genetic diversity and varroa is directly transferred to the next colony, as there is no brood break. Crowding hives in apiaries greatly increases the varroa transfer between colonies.[xi] Feeding sugar and pollen substitutes severely compromise the bees’ gut health and immunity, [xii] [xiii] and the overall outcome is weak bees.
Within the hive coexist over 8000 species of microorganisms, fungi and bacteria, 30 species of insects and over 170 species of mites. Treating a hive for varroa risks undoing the whole point of Warré beekeeping, namely letting the bees maintain their health by suitably structuring their home, and this includes its ecology.
Chemical acaricides, as well as the organic acids and essential oils like oxalic acid and thymol used by organic beekeepers, kill these microorganisms and insects in the hive, not just the varroa mites. Included in the references is a thoughtful article about achieving a treatment-free balance with varroa.[xiv] With the recent discovery of ‘superinfection exclusion’ in varroa-vectored viruses,[xv] the evidence is really piling up that going without treatments and allowing bees to coevolve with varroa is the only long-term option.
[v] Jürgen Tautz, The Buzz about Bees. (Springer-Verlag, 2008)
[vii] Heaf, D. 2011. Nestduftwärmebindung – a useful hypothesis or just ‘complete nonsense’? www.dheaf.plus.com/warrebeekeeping/heaf_response_to_shaw_wbka_2011.pdf
[viii] Mitchell, D. 2015. Ratios of colony mass to thermal conductance of tree and man-made nest enclosures of Apis mellifera: implications for survival, clustering, humidity regulation and Varroa destructor. International Journal of Biometeorology.
[ix] Beekeeping for All by Abbé Warré (translated from the French) can be downloaded for free from www.users.callnetuk.com/~heaf/beekeeping_for_all.pdf
[x] David Heaf, The Bee-friendly Beekeeper (Northern Bee Books, Oxford, 2015)
[xi] Seely, T. & Smith, M. 2015. Crowding honeybee colonies in apiaries can increase their vulnerability to the deadly ectoparasite Varroa destructor. Apidologie 46(6).
[xii] Vásquez, A. & Olofsson, T. 2009. Lactic acid bacteria: Can honey bees survive without them? Presentation to Apimondia Congress 2009.
[xiii] Vásquez, A. & Olofsson, T. 2009. The lactic acid bacteria involved in the production of bee pollen and bee bread. Journal of Apicultural Research. 48(3).
[xv] Mordecai, G. et al. 2015. Superinfection exclusion and the long-term survival of honey bees in Varroa-infested colonies. ISME Journal.
The above is an article by Nick first printed in the Jan-Feb 2016 Issue of Organic New Zealand Magazine.
The English translation of Warré’s book is available to download for free from here Beekeeping for All thanks to Dr. David Heaf.