Friday, January 13, 2012

The Bees Knees - A Warre Hive

Keeping Bees in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Well, the bees are ordered and should be ready for us to pick up in May from a local supplier here in Nova Scotia. The province does not allow any importation of bees except for queens from Hawaii, NZ and Australia so all new hives here are started from locally raised nucs. Even bees and equipment from other areas of Canada are not allowed so as to help stop the spread of diseases and pests. A nuc (nucleus) is basically 4 frames of comb with brood (bee larvae) that are growing plus some honey stores, pollen and several hundred worker bees to look after it all. If a queen is not included in the nuc she'll be in a little cage attached to one side where the bees can smell her and are getting used to her. This is a good start for any hive. Bees will release the queen from her cage by eating her out (the cage has a candy plug) or if it's a plastic cage then the beekeeper lets her out. She quickly begins laying new eggs and the population of bees can take off like crazy. A young queen can lay upto 2000 eggs per day, that's an amazing number and usually happens during the spring build-up where a hive can increase in number from your nuc of several hundred to over 60,000 in the space of just 6 or 8 weeks. It does depend on the quality of your queen, availability of food and the available space within the hive, but you'll know as soon as the brood are hatching because your hive will suddenly get much busier. If the bees are hungry they'll raise less brood. If they're short of space then they'll likely think about swarming. So it's a delicate balance. This (top right) is a Warre hive with the 2 winter boxes and 2 summer boxes all stacked together to form a beautiful and practical hive.

Don't panic if this all seems like a foreign language to you. All this basic beekeeping wisdom can be learned from reading and there are some good books out there. And joining your local club can be terrific too. Once you've got your book knowledge, bought or made your equipment, registered as a beekeeper with your province, state or county, and ordered your first bees...there's nothing else to do but learn from hands on experience and from observing your bees. We've found that you can learn a lot about what's going on inside the hive just by watching the bees as they come and go from the entrance. But we're by no means experts...and I myself am particularly nosy, so when we built our hive last time we included an observation window. Then I can peek to my hearts content without really disturbing the bees or taking the hive apart.

If you've followed our blog for a while you know that In BC we used both Langstroth and top bar hives. But now we're in Nova Scotia where the weather is different, hotter in summer and much colder in winter. So we're re-evaluating the benefits of both styles. Personally I like the natural approach to beekeeping that's favoured by the top bar hive but a horizontal hive won't make it easy for the bees to cluster or get their honey stores when the weather is very cold. So we've decided on a compromise...the Warre hive. The Warre hive is pictured at the top of this post. At the left we can see a Langstroth hive super (box) containing the frames upon which the bees draw out the comb and store honey and raise brood. 10 Frames fit snugly in a super with enough room for the bees to climb around between and do their work. But if left alone to build naturally, bees will make their own combs without any help from humans and they'll make this same space called the 'bee space' between their combs whether built in a hive, a tree or a skep.

The Warre hive is a very low maintenance hive consisting of boxes that use top bars in place of frames. The basic principal is that since bees build new comb downwards, you place your new boxes on the bottom of the existing hive in the spring and then in the summer after the main honey flow you remove the top box or two that's full of honey. The advantages are that you are removing older comb from the top of the hive and so removing any build up of pesticides contained in the wax, the bees raise larvae on the newer comb near the bottom so the top boxes should not have any larvae in them at all, you don't have to move and jostle the brood combs so you disturb the bees far less, the hive maintains it's own smell and is in a more natural environment (simulating the inside of a hollow tree). I like this idea because it's easy to build but also, unlike a Kenyan (horizontal) top bar hive, the bees should be able to form a tight cluster and overwinter better due to easier access to their food and an insulated 'blanket' layer on the hive and the fact that heat rises and the bees can cluster in a smaller space at the top of the hive. I know that some beekeepers do wrap their hives in insulating blankets but that can cause problems with moisture building up in the hive so it's never fool proof. Ventilation is really important. In an ideal world Steve and I would move all our hives to a central location for the winter such as an unheated garage that would still allow the bees to be cool enough to hibernate but out of the wind and wet and away from marauding bears.

There are lots of free plans for making your own Warre hive including these ones. And while you're there at the Bee Space website, check out the original book written by Abbe Warre about his experimentation and study of different beekeeping hives and methods. There is a lot of good info about using Warre hives both as a hobbyist and commercially so be sure to follow our progress this coming year. We think that this allows for the bees to build their combs naturally and yet at the same time offers ease of management and a natural environment for them. After all ... mother nature never intended for bees to be making rectangular combs or eating white sugar syrup during the winter. Oh yes that's one good thing to point out...if you do have to feed a new or starving colony syrup, use only white granulated sugar. Don't use brown sugar.

Here's some basic info on how a top bar hive works, hope it's helpful. Please feel free to leave a message or comment with any questions you have about bees or keeping bees in Nova Scotia and I'll be happy to point you in the right direction. A lot of management styles are personal preference of course so whatever works for you is what you should stick with. Keeping bees is really interesting and can be very rewarding too, but we enjoy watching them pollinate our flowers and the neighbourhood trees and gardens so we know they are helping out our food security too. It's a win win situation. And if we're lucky, maybe this summer we can catch a swarm of bees and add to our apiary naturally. If you are in the Annapolis Valley and happen to see a big ball of bees hanging off a tree branch we'll be more than happy to come get the girls and give them a new home! Swarms may sound scary but they're docile and just looking for a new place to live. They won't hurt you if you just leave them alone.


  1. Whom did you order your bees from?

  2. First I registered my apiary with the gov't. Here's the info if you need it. Her name is Joanne Moran, the bee health inspector. Very helpful.

    She gave me the name of a couple of big commercial guys. Roger Morash and Kevin Spicer. They sell 4 frame nucs for about $145 in May.

  3. Good evening Elizabeth,
    I just came across your blog via Kijiji. There are a lot of parallels to our life. We came from Vancouver Island in 2010 and have a place on the South Shore of NS.
    We have ordered our first bees from Roger and Ann with the May pickup. I still have lots of reading to do between now and then. The Warre hive sounded good to me so that is what we will be building and using. I had wondered if there would be any difficulty in the transfer of the bees from the nuc to this hive since the size/shape would seem to be different?
    I am sure that there will be lots of questions if you are open to answering and maybe we can meet you on a trip over to the valley.
    Orrin (& Tracy)

    1. On the other coast the usual method of buying bees is to buy a 3 lb package with a queen so introducing them into a hive is easy. Same with out top bar hives...we just made them the same width as a regular frame and let the bees build their nest and then removed them once they were full of honey. I'm going to have to figure out what to do for my Warre hive. I may start out with a larger box followed by a regular sized Warre box and have some transition between them, eventually removing the larger box. Afterall, hollow trees are imperfect inside too. Keep me posted and let me know how you make out.


  4. We just got our fist bees a few days ago and are investigating the best hive structure. The Warre Hive looks like it will fit the bill as we are also in Nova Scotia [Scots Bay]. I will get the plans and start building ASAP. Thanks!

    Ian McKay

  5. Hi Ian. We're still waiting for our bees...hopefully this weekend :) Let em know how you make out with your Warre hive would you? And best of luck!

  6. Hello Elizabeth, I'm a Brit living near Berlin in Germany and also a new beekeeper. I've been reading a lot about the Warre Hive and it almost all fits in with my own 'feelings' but I'm getting quite a lot of 'negative attitudes' from other, more experienced, beekeepers, even some who have previously used the Warre Hive themselves. The main arguement seems to be that: since the days of Warre's expierences, (heading towards 100years ago) farming has become more industrialized. This means that massive amounts of nectar etc. is availible in 'bursts' and so the Warre Hive is too small to accomodate the flow. It should follow that by 'harvesting' several times a year, instead of just once, one could counter this development. This however means 'opening' the hive several times, which goes against one of the main principles of Warre himself.
    I should be interested to hear how things have developed at your end.
    Oh yes, and thanks for writing in 'understandable English' which, unfortunately most sites do not !

    Kind regards Bill & team.

  7. Hello Elizabeth,
    Welcome to Nova Scotia. I have been keeping Kenyan style Top Bar Hives for 3+ years and to let you know that I've little problem with over-wintering them here just inland from Bridgewater. In fact, the past 2 winters I haven't wrapped them, and they've done just fine. For whatever reason I haven't been able to coax any bees into living in my Warre Hive, so have stopped trying, they just don't like it.
    I have made modifications to my hives, so they are not quite the same as most, although the internal dimensions of the hive are as detailed by Phil Chandler at Biobees (UK). The major difficulty that I'm struggling with for the past 2 summers with the hotter than normal weather is the honey filled comb falling off the bar during hot humid conditions, making for a very sticky situation on many levels. So I'm looking at changing the depth of the hive so the comb is not so long (plan A) and/or modifying the top bars to include side and bottom frames so the weight of the full comb is supported on all sides, and the bottom (plan B). I'm also tinkering with supering one of my TBH this summer, so will see how that works. Any thoughts on these ideas would be appreciated.
    I've also assisted two other farmer's on the South Shore to set up Kenyan top bar hives, so we're all having some fun.
    Best Regards
    Edward Howell
    We Are One Farm
    Newcombville, NS B4V 8M9

    1. We had comb sliding off and it made a terrific mess which the bees kept using as brood chamber even in its fallen state. My husband experimented using hollow frames hoping that the extra support would help and that the bees would be happy filling in the middles. How did yours all work out?

  8. Hello:
    Just another transplanted BC family living in Nova Scotia LOL. Moved here in 2002 (South Shore) and now live in Wolfville. Have really wished we had a bee club here in the valley like we had out West, any interest?
    Perry Brandt
    Brandt's Bees
    Wolfville, NS

    1. Any chance you'll be selling nucs at some point?

    2. We'd be interested in such a club. Scots Bay isn't that far from Wolfville. I actually saw your truck in Canning a few weeks ago and thought about contacting you.

  9. Getting into bees...restoring a century farmhouse, building a Strawbale home, sustainable living....Oh my, what have I gotten myself into? LOL!

    Bee club in the valley? I'd be up for that, even if it was just discussion over coffee at Tans/Just Us/Timmies.
    Shawn P.
    North Alton, NS

  10. Hi Everyone,
    I am also going to get into bee's this spring, will soon start construction of 2 hives very shortly to get ready for this upcoming season. We are located in Farmington on the South Shore. It is nice to see all of u bee keepers here and will look forward to further corrosponding and perhaps getting together sometime in the near future!
    Colleen & Sheldon
    Hubley Farm
    Farmington, NS

    1. Hey, you guys are just up the road from me. Maybe 10 kms, I am down on MacKay just down from Maders.

      Are you buying your hives? Or building?

      I plan on building a couple TBH's as soon as this horrible winter eases up a bit. I havent figured out where I will get mybees yet, but will start calling around soon.

  11. Hi. I started bee keeping im may of last year, the two hives i had were doing great untill a bear got into them both. The majiorty of the bees lives but with very little honey. I am douting that they have survived the winter and i was woundering if there was some place in Nova Scotia the i could buy a nuc hive or 2. P.S after the bear attack my uncle came up with a cage to keep bees safe from bears to inshure it would not happen again.
    Zach Williams
    Westchester NS

    1. Sorry to hear about your bear problem, we can sympathize. For a list of people selling nucs I'd contact the bee health person. Her name is Joanne Moran and her number is (902) 679-8998 She's the person you would have gotten your registration from when you started and she's very helpful. I got my nucs from Kevin Spicer near Berwick but a couple of my hives didn't do well this past summer. Waiting for Spring to see what we have to start the new year with.

  12. So sorry I haven't checked back. If anyone is interested in talking bees, club or otherwise, please don't hesitate to contact me. We are the only Brandt in Wolfville.
    If enough people show an interest I would be only too happy to try starting up a club of sorts. I also sell nucs and am willing to help most anyone wishing to start, or those that just need advice or a helping hand.

  13. does anyone near Barrington Passage have any nucs to sell?
    Cathy 302 320-1074

  14. does anyone know where I can get a nuc near Barrington Passage?
    Thanks Cathy