For starters, the name comes from the developer, a French Abbe, Emil Warre. He did the majority of his work in the early 1900's, passing away in 1951. From a beekeeping standpoint his work is fairly recent. His thought process was simple: Build a hive that mimics the inside of a log, install the bees and get out of the way. His secondary goal was to construct this hive in the most inexpensive way possible.
What he developed is a simple series of open, stackable boxes. On the top of each box are 8 thin wooden slats from which the bees would draw down their combs and establish their hives. The slats are 24mm wide and spaced 12mm apart. The 12mm spacing is a fairly critical measurement in that it recognizes a proper "Bee Space". He found that if this Bee Space is too narrow the bees would build one big comb across the adjacent slats. If it is too wide it will cause problems with overall hive management and heat retention which makes for winter warmth problems.
Another important factor in the maintenance of a healthy hive is moisture control. The heat produced by a hive is remarkable. Condensation can be a devastating problem in the hives, especially in the colder weather when ice can form. Warre addressed this issue by building a separate, smaller box that was covered with cloth on the bottom and then filled with sawdust. This "Quilt box" was placed on top of the hive to absorb the warm moist air the bees produced. The whole construct was then covered with a simple (and in our opinion attractive) roof.
The floor of the Warre hive is a straightforward flat piece of wood with an alighting board and an angled 12mm opening for the bees to use for their coming and going.
I suppose if you had to place this design in a category (which might become necessary when speaking with old school beekeepers) it would be classified as a "Top Bar" design. However, most top bar hives run horizontally. Nothing wrong them - or any other style for that matter - I simply prefer the Warre vertical style. Now, speaking of old school Beekeepers (colloquially called "Beeks"), I have found it somewhat challenging to have a discussion with them about Warre hives. It's not that they object to the design in any way, it's that their frame of reference is so skewed towards the traditional "Langstroth" design that it is hard for them to conceptualize what we're trying to establish. I have had empty hives out on a table, walked them thru the entire process and still got questions like, "When do you super the hive?" "How often do you go into your hives?" "Where's the queen excluder?" (The answers would be: you don't... never.... and there ain't one). I mention this because if you embrace this design as we have you will find yourself in these conversations. Be patient and understanding, especially with the real old schoolers. One other thing, don't expect to find any help in a beekeeping supply store, It's simply not something they sell.
How about harvesting the honey?
Well, 2 things: First, How do you know when to harvest?
Here's the quick answer... When the girls have built and filled comb in the 3rd box (counting from the top, i.e. the top box, just under the quilt box, is #1) it is then safe to remove the top box.
Here's the reasoning: It is well established that bees build from the top down in nature. Their comb structure has a sort of rainbow effect (which a langstroth Beek would verify). The brood - or nursery - would be clustered in the middle with the honey, developing nectar, and pollen stores constructed in arched layers above. Like everything else the bees do, this is the most efficient use of space. They surround the developing brood with the essential brood-food, this way they don't have to travel far to get what they need. As the brood hatch, the cells are cleaned and filled with nectar, which will eventually become capped honey. This cluster of brood moves in a downward fashion. The bees build more comb below, the queen lays more eggs, and the process inches downward throughout the season. Keep in mind though that this process moves left to right and fills the 8 "slats" before it moves downward. This means that your first year with Warre hives may not produce honey for you depending on the available food sources. But that's OK right? Our primary interests here are Preservation and Pollination!
Now the second Question: How do you harvest the honey?
Again, the short answer, grab the comb, squish it like a sponge over a big bowl. Strain the resulting honey through a pasta strainer to get the big stuff, then through a finer cheesecloth type strainer directly into clean jars.
**ALLOW ROOM FOR EXPANSION AS VIRTUALLY ALL RAW HONEY WILL CRYSTALIZE**