It’s time to embrace the lazy way to keep bees, argues urban apiarist and Idler columnist Bill Anderson
A swarm moving into an empty Warré hive would find eight wooden top bars on the ceiling conveniently spaced apart to roughly the distance the colony likes to construct combs to allow enough room for two bees to work back to back. Spookily those top bars are also the same width as a honeycomb. How accommodating. And the bees will start building comb downward from them in exactly the same way they would inside a tree. But once the combs have descended eight inches, bees working upside down at the wax face will feel something on their backs. A quick look around reveals that it’s not the bottom of the hive, only another eight sticks, also with gaps between them exactly wide enough for two bees working back to back: they’ve reached the top bars of the next hive box, and there’s loads more space below.
So the bees crawl through the gaps between those top bars that conveniently align with their beautifully vertical construction work, then hang from the underside of those top bars, and carry on building comb directly downward from there. Into the next box of the Warré hive. Until, eight inches later, there’s that feeling on their backs again, and the bees have to work around the sticks and carry on down into the next box below.
If you were a bee walking down from the top of a fully occupied Warré hive, the comb would feel exactly like it had been built in a tree cavity: beautifully vertical and attached to the wooden sides. The only difference would be that, as on a tiled floor, though the surface you were walking on would be consistent, the pattern would be interrupted every eight inches… hexagon, hexagon, hexagon, wood, hexagon, hexagon…
Our purpose here is not to incorporate aesthetic marquetry into the dance floor of the comb. It’s to take advantage of the bees’ natural tendency to stock their larder of honey at the top of the hive.
The subtly interrupting top bars in the Warré hive allow its uppermost box, the one that’s full of combs of surplus honey in the autumn, to be detached and removed, leaving the rest of the comb hanging from the top bars in the hive boxes below.
This process reduces the volume of the hive available to the bees—“What just happened to our cavity!” But we precisely compensate for that by adding an identical but empty box down at the bottom of the hive. Any hamster that’s run on a wheel without getting anywhere would understand the basic principle of the hive. The bees keep building downward, but they never quite reach the bottom.
We’ve harvested a boxful of honey without killing bees or disturbing their main living area in a hive that allows them to build comb the way they would in the wild, gives them unrestricted freedom of movement, and ensures that they never run out of space. Sweet.
Bill Anderson’s book The Idle Beekeeper: The Low-Effort, Natural Way to Raise Bees is available now
Bill will be teaching us more about idle beekeeping at our Summer Beekeeping Day on the 16th of May
He will also appear as a speaker at the Idler Festival 2020