Is it legal to keep bees in Warré hives in Québec?
I was asked so often that I decided to write a few lines on the topic. Although specific to the Québec situation, many of the issues raised here are valid for any region of the world where similar laws exist.
The answer: Absolutely!
Small apiary of Warré hives. The hive in the foreground is topped with a green roof, an innovative modification. Photo: Hubert Pilon, Québec. www.rebelbees.ca
The Warré hive can be equipped with simple top bars, half-frames with three sides or complete four-sided frames. Therefore, it would rather be the use of top bars that makes some people claim that Émile Warré’s Popular Hive is not compliant with Québec laws. Consequently, this issue does not concern specifically the Warré hive but all hives equipped with top bars, including the Kenyan or Tanzanian horizontal hive, the Veuille hive, the octagonal or round Warré type hive. The real question would rather be the following: Is it legal to keep bees in hives with top bars in Québec?
I will be dealing with the subject in the following three aspects: What the law states, how to interpret it and how to work with the authorities.
Hubert Pilon during a health inspection after having bought bees from Ontario, by current regulations. Photos: Hubert Pilon, Québec.
Hubert Pilon is monitoring a natural Warré comb. Queen cells are clearly visible on the comb’s right side. Photo: Hubert Pilon, Québec.
1. What the law says
ANIMAL HEALTH PROTECTION ACT
Chapter P-42, Division I - Animal health
- No person shall keep bees in hives without movable frames. (11.10)
- If bees are kept in hives without movable frames, any designated veterinary surgeon may order their owner or custodian to move the bees into hives with movable frames. Upon failure by the owner or custodian to comply with the order, the designated veterinary surgeon may destroy the hives and the bees in the hives. (11.11)
John Haverson, a Natural Beekeeping Trust associate, checking the combs of a colony which had stopped collecting pollen and lost energy. The queen has failed, and the brood is entirely made up of drones. Photo: John Haverson, United Kingdom. www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org
2. Interpreting the sections of the Act
“No person shall keep bees in hives without movable frames.”
A statement that explicitly refers to the individual movability of each of the combs of a hive. During a sanitary inspection, the inspector must be able to observe both sides of each comb adequately. No more, no less.
While the English version of the law uses the phrase “movable frames ” it should be noted that “movable frame” ( cadre mobile ) is used in the singular in the French version of the law. It makes possible the following interpretation: no person shall keep bees in a hive whose frame makes its movability impossible. The word “frame”( cadre in French ) is then considered as a setting, a framework or a scope. Since both versions (French and English) of laws in Québec have the same legal force, this statement is left open to interpretation.
Since laws of many countries - where top-bar hives are somewhat common and found in compliance with the regulations - refer to “movable frames” as being compulsory, the phrase used in Québec laws is to be interpreted as a shortcut. A shortcut because hives with frames are overrepresented worldwide, the Langstroth hive being the most common. There is a questionable near-monopoly that a whole industry has an obvious interest in protecting it.
The phrase “movable frames” is therefore inaccurate to a large extent and overshoots the target. Indeed, we should read: It is forbidden to keep bees in a hive whose combs are not movable. British Columbia, for one, uses the following phrasing in its Bee Regulation: “A beekeeper must ensure that bees in the beekeeper’s apiary are kept only in hives having removable frames or removable combs¹.” That’s a sound policy.
Nevertheless, a superorganism such as a bee colony is quite unconcerned with human laws! In my opinion, anyone should be able to observe, care for or raise bees in their own way, in the shelter of their choice, whether a colony in a hollow tree closely watched, a magnificent “Sun Hive ” in a garden or a “Freedom Hive” hanging from a giant oak tree.
Melissa Berney is inspecting a Warré hive. Photos: Shawn Caza, Ontario. www.beekeeping.isgood.ca
Shawn Caza is marveling at a natural Warré comb being formed. Photo: Shawn Caza, Ontario. www.beekeeping.isgood.ca
The law aims to ban hives with unmovable combs which are impossible to remove individually for inspection. Think about traditional basket hives, traditional Japanese hives or hives without top bars or frames, for example. One cannot remove the combs from such hives without making modifications. It is said that the origin of this requirement comes from the willingness of the authorities to discourage a method of honey harvesting considered cruel, often practiced in the old days with hives equipped with permanent combs. The colony was suffocated, and the honey was collected. Paradoxically, nowadays, this practice of destroying the colony in the fall for honey harvesting still seems to exist, right here in Canada, in fully compliant full-frame hives. As a matter of fact, in a document entitled “Beekeeping for Beginners” that can be read on the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry web site, it is said that in the fall, “Once the honey supers have been removed, the bees in the colony can be killed if you plan to buy package bees in the spring2.” This practice, extremely rare nowadays, is said to have been common among some Canadian beekeepers until the end of the last century, at the time when the Langstroth full-frame hive was already the standard in the country. It is excruciating for me to read testimonials of the time such as the one of a commercial beekeeper from Alberta whom I will not name here, who says: “We killed them with kindness.”
I don't know any beekeeper who nowadays uses fixed comb hives and applies this method of choking the colony for the honey harvesting. Customs, wintering methods and laws on the importation of bees in Canada have changed. All of this has nothing to do with the kind of hive that a beekeeper uses.
Tim Malfroy, natural beekeeper, instructor and wild honey producer is using Warré hives. Photo: Emma Malfroy, Australia. www.malfroysgold.com.au
Some argue that the requirement for movable combs is due to the need for foulbrood screening. According to other opinions, it was precisely the insertion of frames in hives and frequent brood inspections that led to its proliferation. The French priest Émile Warré (1867-1951) stated on the subject:
“The bee has survived for centuries in hives with fixed comb without suffering. Things are no longer the same with the hive and modern methods. 'It is a certain fact', says Berlefech [sic, but could be referring to Berlepsch. Tr.] 'that the invasion by foulbrood in Germany dates from the same time as the framed hive. Before this time there was minimal manipulation of hives, foulbrood was hardly known about as it was so rare; but, since then, it is as well known as it is frequent³.”
“And diseases develop increasingly in modern apiaries, above all foulbrood, the awful foulbrood. People call in vain for inspections by distinguished veterinarians, for remedies from knowledgeable chemists, for registrations and sacrifices from beekeepers. It is the cause that should be eliminated. Let us stop going against the instincts of bees. Let us stop ignoring her needs. Let us obtain healthy bees in skeps and, above all, let us not feed bees on sugar4.”
Since then, studies have shown that the incidence of foulbrood is higher in hives managed by humans than in wild colonies⁵٫⁶٫⁷.
Émile Warré used nails to fix the top bars on the rebate of his People's Hive. This procedure has been abandoned by most modern Warré beekeepers thus complying with the requirements of comb movability. Nowadays, throughout the world, the top bar used in Warré hives (and other top-bar hives) is broadly similar to a frame in terms of its movability. Being movable, it allows the individual inspection of each of the combs and of the brood, which is precisely the purpose of a sanitary inspection. In some parts of the world, some inspectors are equipped with comb knives and are well aware of the procedure for inspecting a top-bar hive. Elsewhere, individual comb inspections are increasingly replaced by laboratory analysis of a sample taken from the hive; a much less intrusive and very promising practice.
Gareth John, a Natural Beekeeping Trust associate, is handling Warré octagonal hive combs. Photos: Paul Honigmann, United Kingdom. www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org
In natural beekeeping, many are convinced that there are many advantages to using the top bar and allow the natural comb to adhere to the walls of the hive, as is the case in a natural honeycomb, in a hollow tree, for example. They include the following benefits:
- reduction of costs and ecological footprint by eliminating the gradual replacement of frames;
- reduced consumption of honey stock by bees during winter;
- minimization of unused spaces conducive to pests;
- optimal nest heat and fragrance retention (Nestduftwärmebindung), a concept developed by Pfarrer Johann Thür⁸.
With this in mind, hives without frames or foundation are a must for natural beekeepers. It is absolutely discriminatory to forbid the use of the top bar alone. It is detrimental to some of the citizens, namely the natural beekeepers. Thereby, one is entitled to question the legitimacy of this portion of the law. This point of view would most likely be defensible in court. Using conventional or social media to gain the support of an entire community is another possibility. Of course, collaboration with the authorities is by far the most desirable approach. However, if it proves impossible, many courses of action are left open...
Gus Mitchell is inspecting a Warré hive. Photos: Gus Mitchell, United States.
3. Working with the authorities
All communications and interactions with your veterinarian and your inspector should be collaborative, open and respectful.
One must make sure to meet the basic requirements for those who keep bees:
- register annually;
- keep a register;
- affix an inscription on each of their hives identifying the owner;
- respect the prohibition of placing a hive containing a colony of bees within 15 metres of a public road or a dwelling. (“That prohibition does not apply if the land upon which the hive is placed has, on the side nearest to the dwelling or public road, as the case may be, a solid fence at least 2.5 metres in height that extends beyond the limits of the hive for a distance of not less than 4.5 meters.” (Animal Health Protection Act, 11.13)
- Start the inspection with the highest box.
- A slight rotation from left to right is usually enough to break the adherence between the boxes. In case of resistance, use a cheese wire.
- If necessary, use a comb knife to disengage the combs from the box walls, always proceeding from the bottom up.
- Using a hive tool, release the top bar from the rebates.
- Firmly grasp the top bar with both hands and take it out gently. The comb is presented in a vertical position, without ever tilting it horizontally: the comb could break away from the top bar.
- Become thoroughly familiar with the appropriate technique to remove the combs one by one. It is a skill that you must master thoroughly; it is your responsibility.
Scott Portis with Warré combs in hands. Notice the passage holes left by the bees on the right comb. Photos: Scott Portis, United States.
Some factors contribute to bees constructing quite parallel combs and thus facilitating their individual inspection:
- a suitable wax starter strip well centered on the top bar;
- a regular space between top bars of a box;
- top bars not nailed on the rebates: just laid down on the rebates and held in place with headless nails fitting in a groove at each end of the top bar, matchsticks, some beeswax or even with castellated spacers;
- good management of situations. If exceptionally, an additional box is added on top of the hive (in Warré hives, the inclusion is usually done from below the hive), one would make sure that it contains at least a couple of already built combs or would use a special half-depth box. Otherwise, the bees will build combs from the bottom of the box: that would make the individual withdrawal of combs laborious or even impossible.
Of course, the procedure for removing a top bar is more delicate than in the case of a complete four-sided frame. But after all, is it in the interest of the bee colony to briskly handle four-sided frames to remove them from the boxes? Of course not!
Natural swarm is taking possession of its new home, a Warré hive. Photo: Hubert Pilon, Québec. www.rebelbees.ca
In closing, it helps to remember that, in principle, health authorities are there to help beekeepers, not to act against them. Communication and listening to each other can help create a harmonious relationship; the kind of relationship I have with my veterinarian and the inspector.
I am very open to discussing these issues with you and advising you whether you are a beekeeper in the making, a well established one or a member of the health authorities. As mentioned to my veterinarian, I can gladly volunteer to provide training to any inspector who would wish to become familiar with the sanitary inspection of a Warré hive.
With the constant rise of Quebecers’ interest in natural beekeeping and the growth of its followers, this portion of the law will have to be rewritten someday. In some countries, more than a third of beekeepers do not register their hives with the authorities, weary of abusive, unjustifiable and unfair regulations. That is certainly not the goal of the ministry.
In the meantime, I hope that by continuing to educate people about the possibility of properly inspecting a Warré hive or any other top-bar hive, the following compromise is reached: That the natural beekeeper agrees to make possible the individual inspection of the combs in his or her hive and that the inspector be patient while the beekeeper frees, as required, the combs from the hive walls.
Hubert Pilon, RebelBees
“As someone who has devoted his scientific career to investigating the marvelous inner workings of honey bee colonies, it saddens me to see how profoundly – and ever increasingly – conventional beekeeping disrupts and endangers the lives of colonies.” Professor Thomas D. Seeley, Cornell University
Natural swarm. Photo: Hubert Pilon, Québec. www.rebelbees.ca
1. Animal Health Act, BEE REGULATION, 2015, c3, art.10 (1)
3. Warré, Émile. (1948) L’apiculture pour tous, translated by David and Pat Heaf. Beekeeping for All. Northern Bee Books. 2015, page 106 http://www.users.callnetuk.com/~heaf/beekeeping_for_all.pdf
4. Warré, Émile. (1948) L’apiculture pour tous, translated by David and Pat Heaf. Beekeeping for All. Northern Bee Books (2015) page 146 http://www.users.callnetuk.com/~heaf/beekeeping_for_all.pdf
5. Goodwin, R.M., Ten Houten, A. & Perry, J.H. Incidence of American foulbrood infections in feral honey bee colonies in New Zealand .. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, vol.21 #3, p.285-287. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03014223.1994.9517996 , March 2010
6. Miller, M.E. (1935) Natural Comb Building. Canadian Bee Journal. 43 #8, p.216-217.
7. Bailey, L. (1958) Wild Honeybees and Disease. Bee World. 39 #4, p. 92-95