This blog concentrates on comparing the main natural beekeeping hives. See Hives for Natural Beekeeping for an introduction to natural beekeeping hives and the main differences between these and orthodox hives.
Currently the hives most used by natural beekeepers are the vertical Warré and horizontal top bar hives although the new sun hive is gaining rapidly in popularity.
Vertical Warré hive
The Warré hive consists of boxes (usually 4) stacked vertically with a floor, roof and quilt. As you can see from the picture the Warré system resembles the dead tree trunk shape favoured by wild honeybees. The space can be expanded by adding new boxes from beneath or ‘nadiring’. This allows bees to build their comb downward as they would naturally.
The small boxes, thick wood, quilt (insulation under the roof) and vertical stacking makes for good heat retention. Although bees dislike damp more than any other condition, they have to use energy to keep warm and this means using up food stores. Helping them keep warm means preserving food and ultimately a better chance of survival through the winter.
There are a couple of drawbacks with this system however. Nadiring a Warré hive means lifting up several heavy boxes in order to slide a new one underneath. There is no way this can be done by a single person and is quite a job for two. Expanding and contracting the space available in accordance with the bees’ needs and honey extraction is not easy therefore.
Secondly, I said that the bees can build their comb as they want but each Warré box has its own top bars so there is an interruption and bees have been known to choose not to cross the gap down to an empty box below. It is possible to use top bars on the top box only. The bees can then build long pieces of comb as they want but the problem comes if the beekeeper wants to extract honey or to lift out comb to inspect it. The long combs are too delicate for them to be removed from the hive.
I like the Warré as a conservation hive. If enough boxes are stacked does it matter if the lower ones aren’t used? In fact the idea the hive of having a sump (see Warrebeekeeping sumps and Warrebeekeeping ecosystem discussion thread) is gaining favour in some circles. Then there is no need for the beekeeper to get involved in the expansion and contraction that is part of the bees’ natural yearly rhythm. Some say you shouldn’t leave a ‘cold space’ that the bees have to heat however. I’m always looking for the least interventionist approach and I admit it isn’t solely for the bees but also to save lifting.
Warré stacks can get quite tall which makes them potentially unstable. A sheltered spot will help but it’s worth being aware that high winds and badgers or deer could be a problem.
A homemade but extremely effective Warré hive lift. It was light enough to move easily and strong enough to lift a person (at least). It was made from shelving slats and a Mercedes car jack. Clever. I hope it will save a lot of back strain for our group!
Horizontal top bar hive
In horizontal hives there’s a heavy lid to remove which can be done by one person but it’s a challenge to do it smoothly without knocking the hive and alerting if not actually annoying the bees. The colony space can be expanded or contracted fairly easily using dividing boards (follower boards) and honey can be taken from the end without too much disturbance or heat loss.
The question that is often raised about horizontal top bar hives in the UK is do they provide enough insulation? There is a greater potential for heat loss from the wider horizontal surface than from the vertical, quilt-topped Warré hives.
For ease of handling horizontal top bar hives win hands down unless a totally hands-off approach is adopted, including no honey! Honey can removed from the extremities of a horizontal top bar hive without disturbing the warmth of the brood nest in the centre. Top bars can be lifted for inspection relatively easily too.
How this influences bee life I can’t say but I have a couple of greenhorn observations. This sturdy rectangular box of a hive (despite beautiful decoration courtesy of Natural Beekeeping Trust), does not in my opinion have the aesthetic appeal of a Chartres cathedral!
Long rectangular frames are used rather than just top bars which has the advantage of being easier to move ie to harvest honey. Complete frames may reduce the flexibility of the comb and so the ability of bees to communicate via vibration. However they may be able to attach at points to increase stability without losing pliability. Who knows? If you do please comment!
I can’t claim any experience of the sun hive but in terms of providing for the bees it seems to get closer than any other hive system. Suspending a rounded, straw hive in the air away from the cold, damp earth and vegetation is to place honeybees ‘in their element’.
On a practical note the reason I haven’t explored the sun hive further to date is my woodwork phobia. Making a structure in which to support a sun hive is, I’m sorry to say, beyond me and my funds. To see and learn more about this bee temple go to Natural Beekeeping Trust
There’s little doubt that bees love the straw that skeps are made from and it’s a great insulator. The trouble with skeps is they will need protection from the weather as they aren’t waterproof. A shelter is ideal but not always possible. Here a skep in placed over a Warre box to provide more room. It sits on the verandah of a summerhouse, perfect. Skeps are also good for collecting swarms – the quickly make themselves at home by building comb.
Harvest honey by carefully removing a single comb from the skep.
Chris is running a skep making course on 27/28 March 2015 more details here
The ultimate in conservationist approaches, the log hive does what is says on the log. It provides excellent insulation and mimics the bees choice of site in the wild better than any other hive. Drawbacks? Honey harvesting is nigh impossible. And the sun hive may pip it as it sets their home high above the damp, cold earth in a warmer drier atmosphere. However some log hives are being placed in trees. For more see Bee Kind Hives