Thursday, November 22, 2007

Abbé Émile Warré and his vertical top bar hive

Abbé Émile Warré experimented with over 350 hives of various types over a period of 50 years. During that time he developed a bee-friendly, fixed-comb hive designed for minimal intervention, easy harvesting and enlargement as well as for producing honey at minimal cost of labour and capital. He called his hive la Ruche Populaire, which could be translated as 'the People's Hive'.

The vertical top bar hive designed by Abbé Warré and described in his book, "Beekeeping For All' is an alternative to the Kenyan or Tanzanian styles of horizontal hive with which readers of this forum will be familiar. It is designed for minimum intervention through the season. Although some box lifting is required at times (so it is less suitable for people with disabilities) the boxes are smaller than those of framed hives.

An English translation by Pat Cheney and David Heaf has recently been published and is available for free download here

We have added a section to the forum for discussion of
Abbé Warré's vertical top bar hive; see
The Barefoot Beekeeper

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

African 'killer' bees: correction

In the first edition of 'The Barefoot Beekeeper', I described how the so-called 'Africanized' bee (or Africanized Honey Bess - AHB for short) - also popularly (though inaccurately) known as the 'killer bee', came into being in Brazil.

It turns out that my version of this story was not necessarily accurate. My fellow 'radical beekeeper', Marty Hardison, who supplied several photographs for the book and who has been inspirational to me and many other top bar beekeepers in the USA and especially Africa, gives this account of the story:

I don't consider the Brazilian bee breeder to have carelessly released the African bee. In 1956 the geneticist Warich Estevam Kerr imported some queens from Africa. A year later his bees were mysteriously released. We will probably never know the actual circumstances but Mr. Kerr was not only a scientist he was also a highly respected human rights advocate. His criticism of the mistreatment of Brazilians limited the repressive actions of the military government.
In 1964 a smear campaign was launched against Mr. Kerr in the press. The bees he was working with were called "abelhas assassins." This label which literally means assassin bees was badly translated by time Magazine in their September 24th, 1965 edition as "killer bees." The title caught the fancy of the American press and Hollywood. The bees have been given a lot of hype and have caused some problems. But they don't attack without provocation. They just defend their colony aggressively. You don't want them in your yard. But they are not as fatally dangerous as bathtubs. I have worked with several colonies of the hybrid Africanized bees down in Texas. They are not as much fun to work with as our Europeans but neither are they impossible.

Thanks for that correction, Marty - which will appear in the second edition some time early in 2008.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Why do you want to keep bees?

(extract from The Barefoot Beekeeper by P J Chandler)

If your main concern is to obtain maximum amounts of honey from your hives, regardless of all other considerations, then you are reading the wrong book. Not that this style of beekeeping cannot produce decent amounts of honey – it certainly can – but the emphasis here is on sustainability and keeping healthy bees rather than setting records for honey crops, which inevitably has a cost.

The essence of sustainability is to work well within the limits of a natural system: pushing any living thing beyond its natural capacity can only lead to trouble.

Let me lay my cards on the table right away: I believe that beekeeping should be a small-scale, 'cottage industry' or hobby and should be carried out in the spirit of respect and appreciation for the bees and the part they play in our agriculture and in nature. I disapprove of large-scale, commercial beekeeping because it inevitably leads to a 'factory farming' mentality in the way bees are treated, handled and robbed and a lack of consideration of its effects on biodiversity.

Bees evolved to live in colonies distributed across the land according to the availability of food. Forcing 30, 50, 100 or more colonies to share the territory that, perhaps half a dozen or fewer would naturally occupy is bound to lead to concentrations of diseases and parasites that could not otherwise occur and that can only be dealt with by means of chemical interventions, which, I and many others believe, weaken the bees' natural defenses.

Bees love to feed on a multiplicity of flowers, as can be easily demonstrated by the variety of different pollens they will collect if sited in a wild place with diverse flora. Transporting them to a position where there is only a single crop of, say, oilseed rape within reach prevents them from exercising their desire for diversity and causes an unnatural concentration within the hive of a single pollen, which is most likely lacking in some of the elements they require for full health. Yet migratory beekeeping is practised in just this way on an industrial scale in some countries, especially the USA.

From a conservation point of view, unnaturally large concentrations of honeybees can also threaten the existence of other important and, in places, endangered pollinating insects, such as bumble bees and the many other species that benefit both wild and cultivated plants.

Sustainable beekeeping is small-scale by definition. It is 'backyard beekeeping' by people who want to have a few hives at the bottom of their garden, on their roof (there are a surprising number of roof-top beekeepers in our cities) or in their own or a neighbour's field or orchard.

Probably you want to produce modest quantities of honey for your family and friends, with maybe a surplus to sell at the gate or in the local market. You will have by-products; most obviously beeswax, which you can make into useful stuff like candles, skin creams, wood polish and leather treatments, so beekeeping could become the core of a profitable sideline.

And you are interested in bees for their own sake, I hope. If not yet, I have no doubt that you will be soon.
You may have been to an open day hosted by your local beekeeping association, or read a book or two, or perhaps you have taken the plunge already and bought a second-hand WBC or National hive and captured a swarm or obtained a 'nuc'1. You may have browsed through the catalogues of beekeeping suppliers, wondering at the enormous number of specialized gadgets and pieces of equipment you seem to need and wondering where you would put it all and how you would pay for it.

In this case, you will be truly thankful to know that my mission throughout this book is to show you that, (a) beekeeping does not have to be as complicated as some would make it out to be and (b) you need none of the stuff in those glossy catalogues in order to keep healthy, happy and productive bees.

None of it at all.

You will recall that the sub-title of this book is 'A simple, sustainable approach to small-scale beekeeping' and that is what I have in mind throughout and I would like you to keep in mind: simple, sustainable, small-scale.
The system I will describe here is about as simple as beekeeping can get, while maintaining provision for inspections, comfortable over-wintering and non-destructive harvesting. Everything you need is in one box – the beehive – which you can make yourself if you follow my instructions. You can buy or make yourself a veil. If you are nervous, you could even get a beekeeper's suit or a smock, but any light-coloured shirt will do as well. A hive tool can be handy, but a strong, sharp, flat-bladed knife will also work.

Some of the things you will not need include:
foundation wax
centrifugal extractor
bottling equipment
de-capping knife and tray
bee escapes
mouse guards
queen excluders
fancy feeders
space suits
bee blower

and you probably won't need gloves or a smoker, but if you already use them, or are nervous of bees, then by all means use them if they help you to feel more confident.

What you will need is a hive – probably two or three or more in time – and I will show you how to build them cheaply and easily, using only hand tools if you prefer, with only rudimentary woodworking skills.

Bees are fascinating creatures and among the many beekeepers I know or have talked to – even commercial men - I can't think of any who keep them just for the income they generate.

So be warned: if you start keeping bees and develop a real interest in them, it will be with you for life. And I doubt very much that you will regret it for a moment.

The Barefoot Beekeeper is available from

The free supplement, 'How to Build a Top Bar Hive' is available from the same site.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Barefoot Beekeeper now available

Just to let you know that I have published The Barefoot Beekeeper in both PDF (downloadable) and printed form on Lulu (see for links and stuff).

I will most likely offer a DNL version soon for those of you who liked the page-turning effect, but it will have to wait a while as I have a stack of other stuff to catch up with - including building some more hives!

Many thanks to those of you who wrote back with comments and thoughts about why women seem to be more attracted to this style of beekeeping. Of course, you all have your own reasons so I cannot generalize, but it is interesting that just under half the people on this list are women, which compares to what - maybe one beekeeper in 20 or so in conventional beekeeping.

I designed my TBH to be accessible to people with disabilities, so it would be great to hear from anyone with mobility issues or other disability that would normally prevent them from taking up beekeeping, but who are now able to do so.

So, thank you all for your interest, enjoy the free downloads and get a copy of the Barefoot Beekeeper if you can - I think you will enjoy it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

How To Build a Top Bar Hive

I'm getting a lot of interest in the free 'How to build a top bar hive' ebook, especially since I made a PDF version available. The most remarkable thing is that the majority of feedback I am getting is coming from women!

Now I have been to quite a few beekeepers' meetings and you can usually count the number of women present on the thumbs of one hand, so it is great that women are attracted to this particular branch of the craft. There is, of course, no good reason why women should not be beekeepers, but I suspect that a lot of you have been put off by the heavy lifting involved in using 'normal' hives - and maybe by the rather 'male', controlling attitude of modern beekeeping?

I'm speculating here and would be pleased if some of you will tell me your reasons for being drawn to top bar hives and sustainable beekeeping.

The Barefoot Beekeeper is more-or less on track for release around the end of April. Perhaps May 1 would be an appropriate date - or maybe May 2 on the full moon and a biodynamic 'flower day'.

This online publishing business has become complicated of late by the addition of new formats, my favourite being DNL (see where you can find the TBH book under 'samples'). Unfortunately, this format is Windows-only at present, so I will have to produce a PDF version as well for the anarchists!

OK, that's enough from me. Best wishes for your beekeeping efforts and do email me with comments and questions. I can't promise a rapid response, but I will do my best to answer everyone.

Happy beekeeping!

Phil Chandler