Warré Bee Hive Construction – Part I

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From relatively early in the process of planning for greater self-sufficiency, it became clear that honey bees would be would be an important part of the design, and implemented early.  Of course the honey harvest is eagerly anticipated, but their service as pollinators cannot be overrated; according to EcoNews,[1], “Honey bees—wild and domestic—perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but the best and healthiest food—fruits, nuts and vegetables—are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.”  The EcoNews article claims an estimate higher than most I have read; nevertheless it seems inarguable that the impact is significant.  Another key reason for early implementation, even before we might be permanently on-site, is that bees are relatively low maintenance.  Depending on the type of hive employed, and whether or not the beekeeper chooses to feed and medicate the bees, only a few visits to the hives may be necessary each year.  As a general rule, we intend to let our bees fend for themselves, save for a feeding upon initial installation of the colonies this spring; a sole harvest would be made in late August or early September each year.

This is a photo of our first Warré
hive almost ready for exterior finish

Having decided to be beekeepers then, there are some other earlychoices that need to be made: 1) the species of bee, and 2) the type of hive.  We have chosen Italian bees, and the type of hive will be the Warré (pronounced WAR-ray), designed by Abbé Émile Warré in the early 1900’s.  The building of the Warré hive  (aka, the People’s Hive) is the primary subject of this post.

In choosing the type of hive, there are several factors to be considered, and until only recently I was on the default path of using Langstroth hives.  The Langstroth hive is the most popular in the United States, and is the hive of choice for the vast majority of commercial beekeepers; because of its popularity, a large selection of accessories is also available.  The Langstroth hive is perhaps also the most complex of the common hive designs.  The Warré hive is of the top bar, frameless hive variety, and is a favorite in so-called “natural beekeeping” circles.  It is much simpler, and therefore less expensive and easier to build.  Interestingly, Warré was an ordained priest, and the Langstroth hive was designed by the Reverend L. L. Langstroth.

To build the Warré hives, I have referred to two books, Building Beehives For Dummies, [2], by Howland Blackiston, and Beekeeping for All, [3], by Warré.  The former has designs for several hives, including both the Warré and the Langstroth, with materials lists, cut lists, and detailed assembly instructions.  In Beekeeping for All, Warré explains his design in all its particulars, and gives his original specifications for some critical dimensions.  In general I have executed the Blackiston design, though on occasion I have reverted to dimensions in the original design, specifically with respect to the dimensions of the entrance to the hive.  Obviously I have chosen to build our hives, rather than to purchase new or used assembled hives, or hive kits.  The decision to build instead of buy came down to a matter of “dollars and sense,” and to my desire to actually build something from time to time.

Now then, let’s get to the building of the hives.  The first step is to acquire the materials, and while I will leave the details to Blackiston, my list is:

  • five (5) 1” x 10” x 8’ mid-grade pine (not knotty pine, Blackiston calls for knotty pine) boards (hive boxes, the
    “quilt,” tops bars, and the roof)
  • one (1) ¾” x 2’ x 4’ sheet of exterior plywood (floor of the hive, and the inner cover board (roof assembly component)) ( Blackiston calls for 3/8” plywood)
  • one (1) 2” x 3” x 8’ pine stud (legs of the hive)
  • waterproof wood glue (optional according to Blackiston)
  • approximately 150 – #8 x 1-5/8” stainless steel deck screws (Blackiston calls for a combination of #6 x 5/8” and #6 x 1-5/8” deck screws, and 6d x 2” nails.  I opted for stainless steel screws exclusively, to cut down the screws to 5/8” with a small bolt cutter as necessary, and to use deck screws instead of nails elsewhere; I bought a 1 lb. box.)
  • primer and paint suitable of exterior use, or boiled linseed oil, or varnish, or some other combination; the point being to
    protect the exterior of the hive from the weather (avoid dark colors to prevent overheating the hive in summer)
  • basswood (due to availability, substituted for balsa wood called out by Blackiston), one sheet 3/16″ x 12″ x 36″  (cut into “starter strips” for each top bar)
  • burlap fabric, one piece 13-5/16″ x 13-5/16″ (permeable, forms the bottom of the “quilt” box, allows moisture to pass from the hive to the quilt.)
  • twenty 3/8″ staples (for a heavy duty staple gun, to staple the burlap to the quilt box)
  • insulation for the quilt box; e.g. wood chips, coarse saw dust, dry leaves, straw, etc.
  • beeswax, 1/2 pound (brushed onto the basswood/balsa wood strips as foundation for new comb)
Floor of Warré hive on the deck of a 1975 Craftsman
Radial Arm Saw (RAS)

The hive is built from the bottom up.  The two-piece floor of the hive is pretty straightforward; I made the cuts to establish overall length and width of the floor and “landing board” on my “new” radial arm saw, and I made the cuts in the floor (that in combination with the lowest box forms the hive entrance) with a jig saw.  The width of the opening in the floor, and the thickness of the floor, establish the width and height of the hive entrance.  Warré recommends 120 mm by 15 mm, or 1,800 sq. mm, for the hive entrance.  Since the 3/4″ plywood floor is 18 mm thick, I made the width of the opening 100 mm to attain the same 1,800 sq. mm opening.  The size of the opening controls not only access to the hive, but ventilation of the hive as well.  In winter there are numerous ways to make the opening smaller to reduce airflow, and to prevent rodent access.

Short side of hive boxes showing rabbet, and stack dado set
and guard installed on the RAS

The design and materials list include the construction of four identical, square, hive boxes.  Warré thought that a square was the next best thing to a circular cross-section as would be found in a hollow tree.  He also thought that relatively smaller was better; the more cross-sectional area, the more empty space that the bees need to keep warm in winter.  Cutting the sides of the hive to the specified length and height is a simple matter of cross-cutting or ripping on the RAS.  However, there is a rabbet on the top edge of the short sides that will eventually support the top bars; to cut this 3/8″ x 3/8″ rabbet, I fixed a stack dado set and guard attachment to the RAS.

Completed hive box less handles; note three #6 1-5/8″ square-drive deck
screws securing each joint, holes of 7/32″ are pre-drilled and counter-sunk

The construction of the quilt box and roof, preparation for finish, and finishing, among other things that might be of interest, will be presented in Part II.

Your comments and criticisms, your inputs and acknowledgements, are welcomed, and will help me to improve my posts.  Please “follow” the blog.

Special thanks to Russ W. for having maintained the 1975 Craftsman RAS so well, and for agreeing to sell it to me.

— John, 27 Feb 2014.

[1] EcoNews, “Worldwide Honey Bee Collapse: A Lesson in Ecology,” http://ecowatch.com/2013/06/11/worldwide-honey-bee-collapse-a-lesson-in-ecology/
[2] Blackiston, Howland. Building Beehives For Dummies.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013. Print.
[3] Warré, Abbé. Beekeeping for All. Translated from the original French version of L’Apiculture Pour Tous (12th edition) by Patricia and David Heaf. Sixth electronic English edition thoroughly revised February 2010.
12 replies
  1. Peter
    Peter says:

    WOW!!! Absolutely Awesome Job.
    Can you find time to build us a guest house? Then we will SERIOUSLY reconsider this Hawaii thing! 🙂

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      🙂 thanks Peter. It's been fun. Geri is looking forward to the painting part of the process!

  2. Gina
    Gina says:

    OMG! This is so great. I love it. So much detail. That hive is huge, oh and might I add that you will have the best honey from Italian Bees (says the Italian)
    So exciting. Can't wait to hear more.

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      Ah yes, the Italians. They are supposed to be the most docile of the available nationalities, NOT! I think the assembled height of the hive is about 4 ft., with 4 boxes; the colony will likely winter-over in two boxes, and I have heard of colonies requiring up to 7 boxes at the height of summer, so it could get bigger yet! Thanks for the compliment, and Part II soon!

  3. Gigi
    Gigi says:

    Wonderful construction and labor of love. john's attention to detail shows in every way! Gina I can use your help to paint them too!

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      Thanks Gi! I am excited about having this first hive completed soon! And then it is on to number 2, and 3, and…?!

  4. Russ Ward
    Russ Ward says:

    Glad to see my old saw doing good work. Much nicer than my grandfather's old beehives.

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      Thanks for visiting Russ! They're probably too nice, but I will pride myself on being a good landlord for the bees! I would be interested in chatting about your grandfather's bees; that's cool.

    • Russ Ward
      Russ Ward says:

      My grandfather was born in 1878 and in the 1950's he was the Milton township tax assessor (which includes a piece of NE Naperville). He had several hives on the north side of Glen Ellyn off of St Charles Rd and would take me there with him sometimes. He wore a bulky suit with a screened hood and had a smoker. I would keep my distance as he opened and worked with the hives. We always had plenty of honey in mason jars.

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      That is a great story Russ. Bees are truly remarkable, and there seems to be something about folks who keep bees; as a kid that must have been quite the experience. And thanks for following!

  5. Peter
    Peter says:

    I am hoping to see each beehive with it's own name burned into it. Whaddya think Mr, N.? How about 'Bee-Ootiful' or 'Bee-Lieve' 🙂

    • homestead
      homestead says:

      I had thought of that, and will be taking the "versa tool" back to Naperville. We have some ideas, too, and I like your suggestions!

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