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Q + A: Warre Hive Beekeeping with Nick Holmes

To follow our series of interviews with upcoming workshop tutors Kay had a quick chat with Nick Holmes who will be at Koanga in September presenting a workshop about the Warre hive system and Beekeeping:

Kay: Nick, why are you a proponent of the vertical top bar Warre system?

Nick: I have come to realise that Warre hives most closely mimic the hive environment that bees create and thrive in naturally in a temperate environment. In our climate honeybees choose nests in vertical tree cavities. Being a tall vertical hive, the Warre hive has the shape and thermal properties of a hollow tree with the quilt forming an internal roof. Both the Warre hive and method support the bees to express themselves as naturally as possible.

Kay: Why don’t you just follow Langstroth ( common industrial system used by most beekeepers today) systems but be organic?

Nick: The big reason people take up Langstroth beekeeping is because it is easy to get hive ware. Langstroth hives are the main hive type in use in NZ. I began my beekeeping journey by doing a Certificate in Apiculture, learning the Langstroth way. I quickly noticed the hive was large and cold, and the method (as dictated by the hive design) is extremely intrusive and destructive to the colony. Bees are heat organisms par excellence, and heat loss in modern hives such as the Langstroth is four to seven times greater than in a hollow tree. This is a huge stress that is created by a hive design and method of beekeeping that completely ignores the biological needs of the bee.

Kay: Why did you choose vertical top bar hives rather than horizontal top bar hives?

Nick: Horizontal honey bee nests are typically found in humid subtropical climates where bees are not so concerned about conserving heat. The vertical format mimics the choice of nest in temperate climates, and is far more thermally efficient.

Kay: Do you actually mange them without any insecticides ( miticides) or do you find you still have to use the ‘organic’ options of miticides?

Nick: I think people have been scared in to believing the misnomer than we ‘have to’ use treatments to ‘save the bees’ from varroa. There are many examples now from around the world of treatment-free colonies having greater rates of survival than treated colonies.

I initially succumbed to that fear, and although I refused to treat with synthetic miticides, I did treat my Warre colonies with ‘organic’ miticides such as thyme oil and Apilifevar (a gel made of of thyme, camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oils). I have never used the ‘organic’ acids like oxalic or formic. I still had losses, the comb took on the treatment smells and they were very aggressive on the bees, you can just tell they don’t like it.

I have since learnt about the myriad of other organisms that call the hive home, that support and strengthen the bee colony, and so have ceased treatment altogether. My hives now are made from strong spring swarms, and are left to get on with it. I harvest honey from the hives that die out, and leave the hives that are surviving with their stores. This story ( of a 3yr old ‘feral’ colony in South Auckland is proof that bees are surviving in NZ without treatment, and we are seeing this in our hives too.

Kay: Do you think that Warre hives are real for home growers and beekeepers? 

Nick: Warre hives are the perfect option for people wanting to keep bees at home, small organic growers wanting hives for pollination etc.  It is also totally possible to go commercial and do it ‘naturally’ with the Warre, as others around the world are doing.

Kay: How much honey could one expect to get from a Warre hive?

Nick: It really depends on your area and nectar sources, but the first thing to remember is that Warre hives do not ‘stimulate’ the bees to produce honey like Langstroth hives do. Warre colonies simply produce less honey. I see this as a reasonable expectation however – we must allow them to regain their health and strength if we want to continue living alongside them into the future.

It is possible to take a small harvest in the first year from a large swarm, however usually you would expect your first harvest in the spring, or summer of the second year. One box is a good guide, or 14kg per hive per year.

Kay: Do you think it is possible  to maintain 1 hive in a regenerative way.. or would one need more hives to keep the apiary going throughout the years?

Nick: The saying “two is one and one is none” comes to mind. Natural beekeeping in it’s truest sense would not seek to compromise one colony to assist another, like transplanting brood to save a failing hive. I do think at least two hives is a good starting point however, for a couple of reasons. Each hive is different and they can teach you different things. If you really need to (and you could confirm that need with another experienced Warre beekeeper) use one hive to help another, you have the option. 2-5 hives would give a a nice dispersed and ‘dynamic’ apiary – some young swarms buidling, some honey producers and some swarm producers.

Kay: How much does it cost to set oneself up with Warre hives?

Nick: If you are handy with tools and wood you can build a Warre hive for the cost of timber and time. I build the hives for others from naturally durable timbers we mill ourselves for the purpose, and charge $380 per 4-box complete Warre. Material costs make up about half, and time the other half.

Kay: How much time and how often does it take to care for a Warre hive?

Nick: Once the hives are built, it would only take a couple of hours over the year of actual work. I tend to spend the most time just observing – what is flowering when, what are the bees bringing in, activity levels throughout the day, sun on the hives, number of bees fanning.


If you want more information regarding the Warre hive and Nick’s workshop follow this link

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