Thirteen folk gathered at Steeple Aston for lunch and to inspect Warré hives. The colonies have some problems which made for some very informative discussion.
Another major topic was the virtues of horizontal Top Bar Hives and why a couple of us have changed to Warrés.
Update on peoples’ colonies: Shirin reported that her bees were robbed so completely that the colony has died. Ann told us how the swarm she got earlier this year, at one of the other meetings, had thrived for two weeks then suddenly been poisoned, presumably by a nearby farmer or allotment user using a potent insecticide. Helle’s colony died out in August (bee inspector reckoned queen failure or going missing), but she repopulated with a swarm. “They have dark tails and a yellow tummy-band, look a bit like city bees compared to your dark lot”. Gareth has found that this year his bees, and other colonies in West Oxfordshire, have not built up in numbers as they usually would.
One problem no one has had this year is wasps. Indeed the low number of wasps this year was mentioned on the national news a few days ago.
There are two Warrés and a hybrid hive at this apiary. The hybrid is a small (nucleus) TBH atop a Warre: we are trying to convert to just Warrés, but had some bees left in a TBH. By placing them on top of a Warré like this they will expand into it as their colony expands downwards, and eventually – next year – they will be entirely “downstairs” and we will be able to remove the Top Bar section.
Varroa count over 2 days: left hive – 7/day; other two (smaller colonies) – 3 / day. This is obviously very good for a UK hive, and is without treatment, albeit the colony histories include brood breaks from swarming / queen replacement. The bees are a uniform dark colour descended from feral / uncontrolled stock, so have “survivor genes”, and incidentally they are exceptionally mild natured as – due to the low intervention management – they do not associate humans with threats; and the Warré hives’ thermal characteristics and natural comb help suppress varroa reproduction rates.
Gareth supervised and did most of the inspections: although I’m familiar with TBH’s, this was the first time I’d opened occupied Warrés.
The three colonies are far smaller than they should be and had no honey stores; Gareth suggested this is because in this area, there isn’t so much a June nectar gap, it’s more that nectar flows don’t recover after June, probably due to the type of agriculture practised here. A wet August didn’t help. So if a colony has not reached critical mass by June – say, because it is a late swarm – it doesn’t have the spare workers to gather & process excess honey for winter. Also, swarming can greatly reduce stores in a hive. Therefore small colonies need a little feeding in summer to help raise their numbers. In contrast, Carol, a conventional beekeeper who lives a couple of miles from the meeting place, has 30 hives and only lost 2-3 colonies this year.
I should have started feeding as soon as I noticed the hives were light when hefted, but I was away for several weeks and missed the early signs of light hive weight. The bees never acted stressed or defensive which would normally alert me to problems.
The right hand hive appeared to be full of drone laying workers when I checked it in July (Half drones; no fanning when I moved the colony to the nucleus hive; apathetic and directionless; no queen cells). I had assumed the colony was doomed and left it to die naturally (the books say such workers will kill an introduced queen), so I was surprised it seemed healthy when I got back at the end of July. The inspection showed a small area of capped brood and a few eggs and no drones… so if my diagnosis was correct, it seems to have recovered somehow.
Top Bar Hives vs Warrés
I’ve used TBH’s for several years and decided to switch to Warrés for several reasons.
- Smaller footprint, more suitable for normal gardens
- Fed up with fiddly comb problems in TBHs – if you try to add reinforcing structures, or adjustable spacing, the bees build around this and misalignment issues are worse, not better
- Thermal control (ventilation?) issues: I have experienced melting comb in summer, mould in winter. I suspect thermal control is too poor in a horizontal hive to allow the bees to fine tune brood area to >37C to suppress varroa breeding cycle, which they can do in a Warré. (Interestingly, I installed a varroa-resistant strain into one TBH. Its mite drop was about 2/day for a year, then it shot up. I assumed this was a new queen / genetics, but the mite drop has fallen again now it is in a Warré…)
Appendix: how to feed a Warré hive
Ideally, feeders sit above the bees inside a hive, to keep the syrup warm. This permits bees to leave the cluster in winter and go feed without freezing.
Gareth showed us a wooden top feeder he’d made (left hand image) and advised on commercially available types since my woodwork skills aren’t up to much! The key thing to watch out for is that the dimensions of Warre hive sections are smaller than most hives, so you need to make sure what you get will fit in the quilt box. Following the meeting I bought some mini Ashforth feeders, Thorne stock number M1018. These are 250 x 185 x 75 mm and fit snugly, thus: