Something short and sweet this week 1 … though perhaps ‘tall and sweet’ would be preferable as I’m going to discuss supering.
The noun supering means ‘the action or practice of fitting a super to a beehive’ and dates back to 1840:
Duncan, James. Natural History of Bees Naturalist’s Library VoI. 223 The empty story which is added, may be placed above, instead of below the original stock, and the honey will thus be of a superior kind. This mode of operating is called super-ing, in contra-distinction to nadir-ing.
I don’t quite understand the description provided by here. Adding a super underneath the colony (original stock) is unlikely to lead to it being used as a honey store. Bees naturally store honey to the side and above the brood nest.
And does James Duncan mean the honey is superior because it’s better? Or is he using superior in its zoological sense meaning ‘at or near the highest point’? 2
So … let’s get a few definitions out of the way first.
- Supering – the addition of a super to a hive, which could be either:
- Top-supering – adding a super to the top of a stack of existing supers, or
- Bottom-supering – adding a super below any existing supers, but above the brood box(es)
- Nadiring – the addition of a super below an existing brood box (which won’t be mentioned again in this post 3.
I prefer the term top- or bottom-supering as the alternative over- or under-supering could be misinterpreted as the amount of supers being excessive or insufficient.
Which is better – top- or bottom-supering?
Let’s get the science out of the way first.
There’s an assumption that bottom supering should be ‘better’ (in terms of honey yield) as it reduces the distance bees have to travel before they are relieved of their nectar.
A study conducted two decades ago by Jennifer Berry and Keith Delaplane 4 showed that – in terms of the amount of honey stored – it makes no statistical difference whether top- or bottom-supering is used.
This study was conducted at the University of Georgia (USA). It used 60 hives – 3 different apiaries each containing 10 hives over two distinct nectar flows.
Note the deliberate inclusion of the term ‘statistical’ above … the bottom-supered hives did end up with ~10% more honey in total but, considering the scale of the experiment, this was not statistically significant.
To determine if this difference was real you’d need to do a much larger scale experiment.
This was not simply weighing a few hives with the supers added on top or below … each colony used was balanced in terms of frames of brood, numbers of bees and levels of stores in the brood box for each nectar flow. That’s not my idea of fun when it would involve a few thousand colonies 🙁 5.
The Berry & Delaplane study reached the same conclusion as earlier research by Szabo and Sporns (1994) who were working in Alberta, Canada 6. They had concluded that the failure to see a significant difference in terms of honey stored was because the nectar flows were rather poor. However, this seems unlikely as the Berry & Delaplane study covered two nectar flows, one of which was much stronger than the other (measured in terms of honey yield).
Before we leave the science there’s a minor additional detail to discuss about the Berry & Delaplane study. All their hives consisted of a single Langstroth brood box with a honey super on top underneath the queen excluder (refer to C. in the figure above).
This first honey super was termed the ‘food super’. The remaining supers were the ‘honey supers’. It’s not clear from the description in the paper whether the queen ever moved up to lay in the ‘food super’. I’m assuming she did not.
That being the case, the bottom supering employed by Berry & Delaplane is probably not quite the same as understood by most UK beekeepers.
When I talk about bottom-supering (here and elsewhere) I mean adding the super directly above the box that the queen is laying in (refer to A. in the figure above).
Whether ‘true’ bottom-supering leads to increased honey yields I’ll leave to someone much stronger than me. It’s an experiment that will involve a lot of lifting … and a lot of hives 😉
Which brings us to other benefits associated with where the super is added …
Benefits of bottom supering
I can think of two obvious ones.
The first is that the frames are immediately above the warmth of the broodnest. This might help get new foundation drawn a bit faster. However, if the flow is so good you’re piling the supers on it’s likely that the bees will draw comb for fun.
Note also the comments below about frame spacing and brace comb. I start new supers with 11 frames and subsequently reduce the number to 9. To avoid brace comb it’s easier to get undrawn supers built when there are no other supers on the hive. However, if that’s not possible I usually bottom-super them … it can’t do any harm.
The second benefit is that by bottom-supering the cappings on the lowest supers always stay pristine and white. This is important if you’re preparing cut comb honey. It’s surprising how stained the cappings get with the passage of hundreds of thousands of little feet as the foragers move up to unload their cargo in top-supered colonies.
Benefits of top supering
Generally I think these outweigh those of bottom-supering (but I don’t make cut comb honey and I’d expect the sale price of cut comb with bright white cappings trumps any of the benefits discussed below).
The first is that it’s a whole lot easier on your back 🙂
No need to remove the stack of supers first to slide another in at the bottom. This is a significant benefit … if the colony needs a fourth super there’s probably the best part of 50 kg of full/filling supers to remove first 7.
Lifting lots of heavy supers is hard work. A decade ago I’d tackle three full supers at a time without an issue.
More recently, honey seems to be getting much denser 😉 … three full supers, particularly if on top of a double brood box, are usually split into two (or even three) for lifting.
Secondly, because top-supering is easier it’s therefore much quicker.
Pop the crownboard off, add another super, close up and move on.
Some claim an additional benefit is that you can determine whether the colony needs an additional super simply by lifting off the crownboard and having a peek. That might work with a single brood box and one super 8, but it’s not possible on a double brood monster hive already topped with four supers 9.
Of course, all of the benefits in terms of ease of addition and/or lack of lifting are null and void if you are going to be inspecting the colony and therefore removing the supers anyway.
Frame spacing in supers
Assuming a standard bee space between drawn, filled, capped honey stores, the more frames you have in the super the smaller the amount of honey the super will contain.
This might never be an issue for many beekeepers.
However, those that scale up to perhaps half a dozen hives soon realise that more frames per super means more time spent extracting.
That’s exactly what happened with me. My epiphany came when faced with about 18 supers containing almost 200 frames and a manual (hand cranked) three-frame extractor 🙁
By the next nectar flow I’d invested in an electric 9 frame radial extractor and started spacing my frames further apart.
That first ‘semi-automated’ honey harvest paid for the extractor and my physique became (just) slightly less Charles Atlas-like.
With undrawn foundation I start with a full box of 11 frames. However, once drawn I space the frames further apart, usually 9 per super. The bees draw out deeper comb and fill it perfectly happily … and I’ve got less frames to extract 🙂
I know some beekeepers use 8 frames in their supers. I struggle with this and usually find the bees draw brace comb or very uneven frames. This might be because our nectar flows aren’t strong enough, but I suspect I’ve spaced the frames too far apart in one go, rather than doing it gradually.
Frame alignment of supers
Speaking of brace comb … remember to observe the correct bee space in the supers. Adding a super with mismatched frame numbers will result in brace comb being built at the junction. The same thing happens if frames are misaligned.
Inevitably this brace comb ends up fusing the two supers together and causes a ‘right mess’ 10 when you eventually prize them apart.
And you’ll have to because they’re probably too heavy to lift together.
The example above is particularly bad due to the use of misaligned foundationless super frames. The comb is, as always, beautiful … and unusually in this example the bees built from the bottom upwards.
Note that the frame alignment between adjacent boxes does not appear to apply to the brood box and the first super. At least, it doesn’t when you’re using a queen excluder. I presume this is because the queen excluder acts as a sort of ‘false floor’. It disrupts the vertical bee space sufficiently that the bees don’t feel the need to build lots of brace comb.
You can use castellations to space the frames in the supers. I don’t (and got rid of my stock of used and unused castellations recently) as they prevent re-spacing the frames as needed 11. The bees quickly propolise up the frame lugs meaning the frames are effectively immovable without the application of significant force.
Like with a hive tool … or if you drop the super 🙁 12.
Caring for out of use supers
After drawn brood comb, drawn supers are probably the most valuable resource a beekeeper has.
You can’t buy replacement so it makes sense to look after it.
Of course, having written the sentence above I realised I was almost certainly wrong. A quick Google search turned up this Bad Beekeeping post from Ron Miksha who described commercially (machine) produced drawn comb.
Three Langstroth-sized combs are €26 😯
There’s also this stuff …
OK, so I stand corrected. You can buy replacement drawn comb, but a single super will cost you about €78 13 so they should be looked after.
Empty drawn supers should be stored somewhere bee, wasp and rodent-free. I store mine in a shed with a solid floor underneath the stack and a spare roof on top.
I have friends who wrap their supers in clingfilm … not 30 cm kitchen roll, but the metre wide stuff they use in airports to wrap suitcases 14.
Wax moth infestation of drawn supers is generally not a problem. They much prefer used brood frames. However, it makes sense to try and make the stacks as insect-proof as possible.
Caring for in use supers
If the supers are full of bees and honey then the drawn comb is only the third most important thing in the box.
Don’t just pile the supers on the ground next to the hive. The lower edges of the frames will be festooned with bees which will get crushed. You’ll also pick up dirt from the ground which will then be transferred to the hive.
Instead, use an inverted roof. Stand the super(s) on it, angled so they’re supported just by the edges of the roof. This minimises the opportunities for bees to get squashed.
If you’re removing a stack of supers individually (because they’re too heavy to lift together) do not stack them up in a neat pile as you’re very likely to crush bees. It’s better to support the super on one edge, propped up against the edge/corner of the first super I removed.
Again, this minimises the chances of crushing bees. It’s distressing for the beekeeper, it’s definitely distressing for the bee(s) and it’s a potential route for disease transmission.
Once the supers are emptied of bees but full of capped honey you’ll need to transport them home from the apiary. I use spare Correx hive roofs to catch the inevitable drips that another more caring member of the household would otherwise discover 🙁
These Correx hive roofs aren’t strong enough to stack supers on. I always ensure there’s at least one or two conventional roofs in each apiary to act as temporary super stands during inspections.
At the end of the season it’s worth tidying the super frames before stacking them away for the year.
I use a hive tool to scrape off any bits of brace comb from the top and bottom bars of each frame. I also use a breadknife to level up the face of the comb. The combs are then arranged in boxes of nine and stored away for the winter.
A small amount of time invested on the supers saves time and effort doing much the same thing when you need them.
Drone foundation in supers
Over 50% of my supers are drawn from drone foundation.
There are two advantages to using drone foundation in the supers. The first is that there’s less wax and more honey; it takes less effort for the bees to build the comb in the first place and the larger cell volume stores more honey.
In addition, with less surface area in each cell, it’s at least theoretically possible to get a greater efficiency of extraction 15.
The second benefit is that bees do not store pollen in drone comb. In a strong colony you sometimes get an arch of pollen stored in the bottom super, and this is avoided by using drone comb.
That doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily fill the comb with nectar. Quite often they just leave an empty arch of cells above the brood nest 🙁
The major problem with using drone comb in the supers occurs when the queen gets above the queen excluder. You end up with my million drones fiasco and a lot of comb to melt down and recycle.
The super frame shuffle
Bees often draw and fill the central frames in the super before those at the sides. This can lead to very unevenly drawn comb (which can be ‘fixed’ with a breadknife as described above), and grossly unbalanced comb when extracting.
To avoid this simply shuffle the outer frames into the centre of the super and vice versa. The frames will be much more evenly filled.
If you have an out apiary, keep spare supers in an insect-proof stack in the apiary.
Alternatively, keep spares under the roof but over the crownboard. As a strong nectar flow tails off, or if the weather is changeable, it might save a trip back to base, or having to carry yet another thing on your rounds.
I’ve now done the calculation … 11 National super frames have an area of ~5500 cm2 which would require 6.5 Langstroth-sized sheets of drawn commercial comb. At the prices quoted above (€26 for three) that would only cost about €56 … but you’d still have to slice’n’dice them into the frames.
Hmmm … almost 3000 words … not so short and sweet after all 🙁
- Not least because I’m swamped with work and nucs and unmated queens and mated queens and keeping up with a spectacular nectar flow.
- As an aside, note the date … 1840. This predates the development of Langstroth’s moveable-frame hive by over a decade. Thomas Wildman had described supering a skep-type hive in the late 1760’s that negated the need to kill the colony when harvesting honey.
- Ask me again in the autumn, as that’s when it is usually relevant.
- Berry, J. & Delaplane, K. Effects of top- versus bottom-supering on honey yield. ABJ May, 2000 pp. 409.
- Considering the standard error of the experiment involving 60 colonies I think you’d need at least fifty times that number … however, be warned, stats is not really my speciality.
- Szabo, T.I. & Sporns, P. A comparison of top and bottom supering on honey quantity and quality. ABJ 134:695-696 … note here that the title includes the word ‘quality’ which sounds a bit like Duncan’s ‘superior’.
- And remember, you’ve probably done this when you added the second and third super as well.
- Unless you’re ‘vertically challenged’.
- Unless you’re freakishly tall … or take a stepladder to the apiary.
- A beekeeping technical term that means ‘sticky and with lots of swearing’.
- You can also buy frame spacing tools or use metal or plastic ends on the lugs – I’ve done neither so can’t comment on the benefits of these strategies.
- Look carefully at the picture above and you’ll see that the super did have castellations. The photo was taken about 7 years ago. The super is an earlier incarnation by Denrosa/Swienty and contains no frame runners. I mended the super and it’s still in use today … what’s more, I bet those frames are still in use today as well.
- It’s late and I can’t be bothered to do the calculation for the smaller amount of comb in a National super frame versus a Langstroth brood frame. And, even if I could, the prospect of joining together bits of drawn comb would take ages and be a real hassle. See also the note at the end of this post.
- Or used to … maybe there’s a beekeeping sideline business opportunity there.
- The most difficult honey to spin out of the cells is the last few bits adhering to the sidewalls of the cells.
1/ Thanks – very useful and interesting as always. My mind is also eased over wax moth in winter. I endeavour to be tidier come the autumn when stacking though.
2/ Please do write about nadiring come the autumn or sooner. I haven’t used it, don’t know the advantages, and wonder if it is useful as an extra supply of stores for the winter which is my annual source of fretting on those dark early mornings…
3/ How do you vary the spacing of the frames accurately from 11 to 9 without using castellations (aka glove tearers) or plastic spacing thingys?
I’ll try and remember to return to nadiring in the autumn. It’s not something I do a lot as I usually just make sure they’re stuffed with fondant. However, there are a few other occasions when it’s a useful technique.
I achieve my frame spacing by that age-old and well-respected technique called ‘eyeballing‘. I align them roughly in the super before putting it in place and then make a few last minute adjustments to make sure they align with the frames in the super below before adding back the roof. Of course, it’s more difficult if you’re bottom supering … or not very tall.
This did make me chuckle: “And does James Duncan mean the honey is superior because it’s better? Or is he using superior in its zoological sense meaning ‘at or near the highest point’?”
I would have thought it’s fairly obvious that the honey from above will have a ‘superior’ flavour because there has been no brood in the comb. If you put a super below, the brood nest moves down and you take the old brood combs that are now filled with honey.
That might well be the reason it was termed ‘superior’ but quite a few beekeepers spin out honey from brood frames and they’re likely to have been used for brood rearing at one time or another. I’m not aware the honey is qualitatively different, though the thought of spreading stuff on your toast after a few hundred larvae have pooped in the same cells is not too appealing 😉
Yes, most of my honey comes from brood combs (I use 1 frame size and no queen excluder) there is quite a difference in taste, especially from a well used comb. As you might expect the honey from a new comb has a cleaner, lighter, sweeter, maybe even purer taste (as in more of the flower that is promenant). I find brood comb honey generally darker and more complex, which I prefer, but I can certainly see the merits of a pure honey super, as I’m sure would beekeepers trying it for the first time after inventing the super.
Very interesting. I’ve obviously tasted honey from brood frames, but have never extracted it. I should try and remember to do a side by side ‘taste test’ before I remove the honey supers in the next couple of weeks.
Great article, love the fact it’s now possible to bankrupt oneself buying drawn comb, thankfully it wasn’t available when I started.
I’ve often considered brood comb to be the best honey store, I’ve no science to back that up though, just a hunch. The logic being the bees would store the best nutrient rich honey closet to the nest, and the more sugar rich honey furthest, stored for winter, as the winter bees pretty much only need carbs.
I’m not aware of any analysis that shows different honey composition in various parts of the hive. I thought honey is stored relatively unadulterated (though there is obviously some pollen present). However, note also the previous comment (above, from James) about honey from brood frames.
Something else to look into 🙂
As always, a nicely-written, well-researched piece!
You mentioned the cost of manufactured, 100%-pure beeswax combs. The price has fallen a bit. This spring, I bought a perfect, deep-Langstroth comb from a local vendor (here in Calgary). It was wired into a wooden frame and cost about US$6. A full ten-frame super would be roughly 50 Euros – similar to your calculation for 11 National-sized frames, but this includes the wooden ware and they are preassembled. The wax comb is beautiful – almost spooky in its perfection. The comb originated in Hungary, the wooden frame was local. Later this spring, I will follow up with a blog piece at badbeekeepingblog.com on the outcome of using this manufactured comb.
Thanks for the updated pricing … though it won’t tempt me. Call me old fashioned, but there’s something magical about drawn comb that just doesn’t feel right if it’s produced by a machine (though I acknowledge it’s a clever achievement). I note that one of the suppliers I quoted suggested you should add the machine-produced comb in a block of adjacent frames, rather than interleaving them with natural comb. This suggests to me that the bees can detect the difference.
I’ll be very interested to hear how you get on with the stuff. I wonder if anyone is going to do some residue analysis on this commercial comb? Does it contain apistan/coumaphos residues? What about other undesirables? Recent studies have identified stearin-adulterated wax as being a problem with some commercial foundation … something I’m intending to return to later in the season.
Thanks David, another in a batch of several very helpful posts recently. I wasn’t taken in by that ‘short and sweet’ remark, so scrolled down to see that it must have referred to something other than word count!
I didn’t know about aligning super frames with the boxes above and below. I mostly use Manley frames and ten fill the box tight – but isn’t it awkward if you have some boxes starting with 11 frames, others filling out at 10 frames, and still others, mature at 9 frames?
Glad to hear that SOME queens are mated now, after your doom-laden comment last week about your worst ever year for queen-mating (which in a funny way was a bit of a relief to hear!)
Good to hear from you. Most of my drawn super frames are approaching a decade old already. I got them drawn as I scaled up, shifting them then from 11 to 10 or 9 frames per box. Now over 90% of them are probably at 9 frames per box. Those that aren’t should probably be rearranged to 9 frames per box! They’re likely to be a ragtag bunch of odds and sods that may not get used too much – not completely drawn, foundation with holes etc. These tend to be the very last supers I use before I run out completely during a strong nectar flow. Because they’re used last the flow is probably stopping, so they never get fully drawn.
Bad organisation on my part – I should space them at 9 per box and add them at the peak of the flow. But that would take better organisation than I’m capable of 😉
Since I’m currently scaling back my production colonies I need fewer supers so there’s no real pressure to replace things. If I needed more I’d add them at 11 per box and then, once drawn (perhaps at the next good flow), space them at 9 per box and let the bees fatten them up during the strong flow.
Some interesting observations with queen mating. I might get to write something about it soon. Sample numbers are small, but older queens (but not too old) appear to not get mated as fast as younger queens that experience the same weather. I’m also dabbling a little bit more in local weather recording to see if the ‘ideal’ conditions, a) EVER occur here on the west coast 😉 , or b) are critical for successful mating. Or, to rephrase that, how bad can the conditions be to still get successfully mated queens?
The queen mating might be a bit patchy, but the grafting and cell raising is going really well. Perhaps I should ship the queens to Kent to get them mated in the balmy weather you have?
Re “Adding a super underneath the colony (original stock) is unlikely to lead to it being used as a honey store” I know a few beekeepers around here (where we have a long and largely uninterrupted flow from April to October in case that matters) who deliberaltely place a super under the main part of the colony – usually in other words the bottom box. It is locally called a pollen box (nothing to do with pollen traps) and seems to make a thick almost treacly really dark honey, full of pollen and hard to extract but a delicious and unusual taste, very different indeed to the tastes of the actual supers.
This might be much more common than just my locale, but it definitely works as a honey store. I rarely get brood in it, and don’t use a queen excluder down there.
Yes, it is an utter pain to reach!
Very interesting … but where are you? Your IP address suggests Saratoga Springs, New York. I presume the ‘pollen box’ is left there all season and spun out (melted out?) in October? That – and the pollen – might help explain the complexity. A smorgasbord of different nectars from your ‘uninterrupted flow’ between April and October … not that I’m jealous at all 😉
Sorry, yes, that’s right, Saratoga Springs.
Makes notes in diary to self … season-long nectar flows in Saratoga Spring, NY … is it time to think about emigrating?
Ha! That’s what I did. I’m from Camden (London not NJ).
I didn’t mention the upstate NY winters though…I keep a few supers on at the end of the flow so I can find the hives in the snow 🙂
Deletes note in diary … 😉
At least all that snow shovelling means you have the upper-body strength to lift lots of supers.
Thanks for this timely post David. As a new beekeeper it’s good to pick up these nuggets. I am trying to space my frames in the supers as you suggest and shuffling the middle ones. Only having foundation is probably a draw back but we have to start somewhere. Keep up the good work.
We’ve all started with supers full of sheets of foundation … for there to head-high stacks of supers (and nowhere to store them!) takes a surprisingly short time. It really helps to have a good strong nectar flow to get supers drawn. OSR works well but is now near to finishing here. The other things is that workers are sometime hesitant to cross the QE and some people start their supers by omitting the excluder.
Another reason for under supering could be that it puts empty volume next to the brood chamber – and this might help the colony feel there was no congestion and so discourage it from swarming.
That’s a good point Jeremy, thanks.
I realise there’s physically more space in an empty super but, assuming it’s drawn, most of the space is comb. I know that bees occupy cells (for example to warm the brood – Jurgan Tautz’s “heater bees”) but do they occupy cells otherwise? Conversely it might be argued that a capped super has fewer bees resident and working – for example, unloading foragers, drying honey or capping cells – and so might offer more usable space for bees to ‘hang about’ in, therefore freeing up space in the brood chamber.
I always enjoy your posts. But instead of stacking the supers sky high and breaking your back, why not extract the honey when a super is full? Return the empty frames for the bees to clean up. In fact, I know some hobby beekeepers who extract a few frames at a time when they are ready. Wrap the extractor to keep the insects out.
I also know some who do that. They have no problems with bad backs or teetering stacks of boxes.
However, think of all that preparation of the room and cleaning up after extracting! It’s one of my least favourite tasks … but it’s about the same amount of work whether it’s 3 or 300 frames. It would also mean I’m extracting more often than I’d like. Finally, as has happened over the last 3 weeks, the non-existent nectar flows of early/mid May have turned into a positive deluge. It’s coming in so fast (or was at the beginning of the week) that the bees haven’t ripened it enough for me to extract it, let alone for them to cap it. I didn’t check every frame (I have a life 😉 ), but the hives in the last picture all have three full, uncapped supers of honey and the additional super I’d added that afternoon.
I consider myself a hobbyist, but that description covers everything from the 1-2 hive owner to someone with 25 or more. A few frames here or there for someone with three hives might make sense, but I suspect I’d find it a bit of a chore.
The other thing that might be relevant are the nectar flows. Our major spring nectars yield for 3-4 weeks and then there’s a dearth. Summer can be patchy, but some of the good sources again yield for a relatively narrow timeframe. This simply reflects the semi-arable area most of my bees are in. If there was a long and steady – though perhaps not a deluge – flow it might both make sense and be rather interesting to harvest periodically at a smaller scale.
Ha, so not quite the Charles Hautrey statuesque physique after all! Your self deprication sins have found you out😉
I only wish I had some brood nests… Despite plenty of supering ( no Q excluders and an mt super on top which has a frame of honey and some brood for good measure as an enticement my double broodboxes are rammed with honey… The buggeresses just don’t want to climb the stairs .
Not quite Charles Hawtrey, though some of my beekeeping is a bit like a “Carry on …” film (without the innuendo).
You could try reversing the brood boxes – top to bottom and vice versa – so leaving the majority of the honey stores below the bulk of the brood. They should then move it above them. If the stores in the brood box are sealed, ‘bruise’ it by running the flat of your hive tool across it so a few cells weep honey. If the supers above them are mostly undrawn foundation make sure it’s not old and brittle. If it is, try warming it with a hairdryer to bring out the oils and smell of the wax a bit more. Finally, they’ll only be keen to move up if it’s warm enough and there’s a good flow on. It’s probably warm enough, but if the flow is over they might just be sulking a bit.
I’m sure there are a bunch of additional tricks that others know about (and that I’ve forgotten, or never knew in the first place) … but the international readership of these posts are busy Googling Charles Hawtrey because, unsurprisingly, they’ve never heard of him 😉
And, of course, those of us who have heard of him are having a quiet snigger thinking about what his response would have been to being ‘Googled’ … ‘Ooh matron’.
Thanks for another interesting post. You mention that when tidying up the supers you use a bread knife to level up the face of the comb. How much wax do you take off and what’s the reason for doing so, would the bees not use the super as it is if you didn’t level up the comb? Or does this save the bees from doing the levelling up themselves?
I take as little off as is practical to get a reasonably level face to the comb. It’s inevitable that, during extraction, the order and orientation of frames gets mixed up. That means ‘high spots’ might end up facing, rather than fitting into the ‘low spots’ they originally faced. Alternatively, two ‘low spots’ might leave a wide gap between adjacent combs. The danger here is that the bees then do the filling in – in a way that suits them and not me 😉
Since I want the deepest comb possible with a reasonably level face I shave off as little as I need to try and achieve this. I’m not even sure it’s necessary to do this. However, it means I can mix’n’match frames between supers without worrying too much about beespace and brace comb.
Scraping the top and bottom bars clean is more important as it saves crushing bees …
An empty arch in the bottom super above the broodnest and the queen excluder (which may be partially filled with pollen) is what I have heard German beekeepers refer to as:
“Das virtuelle Brutnest” or “the virtual broodnest”.
It seems the virtual broodnest is the arch above the queen excluder the bees are keeping free for the queen to lay in as they consider it part of the broodnest. They don’t know the queen can’t go through the queen excluder. If you consider the broodnest is spherical (or egg) shaped, the virtual broodnest is the top (of the egg) cut off by the queen excluder.
It seems this term is used especially often by beekeepers who practice “Die Betriebsweise der angepasste Brutraum” which means: Beekeeping method with adjustable broodspace. This method was (re)invented and promoted in Germany by Hans Beer building on the methods of brother Adam but as I understand it actually goes all the way back to Charles Dadant.
With this method increasing and shrinking the broodspace is done as needed, one large broodframe at a time, and by inserting insulating dividing boards next to the broodnest frames. This way the broodnest is “squeezed” horizontally so the broodnest frame are only used top to bottom for brood and a little pollen. The idea is that the bees can keep the brood warm easier and more honey goes in supers. When you squeeze the broodnest it is probably no wonder it “pops out” at the top as the virtual broodnest?
As a young beekeeper I saw the virtual broodnest for the first time this year and I was wondering if it maybe means I should give them more space in the broodnest?
As I am not using “der angepasste Brutraum” method (yet), I can only add a brood chamber which may be too much.
I think pollen is not a problem when extracting honey but it may be a problem when it is still there when storing the frames over winter as the pollen may attract wax moths?
Searching on the internet I did find that a virtual broodnest is actually seen as a positive thing as it means the bees have a place above the broodnest where incoming fresh nectar is transferred between foraging bees and other worker bees and that pollen is stored there is to be used in the broodnest below. And that it is seen as a sign the broodnest space is well adjusted.
See for instance: https://gurtenbiene.ch/unsere-betriebsweise/angepasster-brutraum-in-langstroth-farrar-flachzargen/philosophie-grundlagen/ and then the paragraph “Ein «virtuelles Brutnest» ist positiv zu bewerten”.
Maybe “the virtual broodnest” would be a nice subject for a future blogpost?
How do the bees determine what cells are part of the broodnest and how do they determine whether they should keep the virtual broodnest space empty? Is it maybe determined by being in the right temperature range or by pheromones?
PS: Watching German beekeeping videos and reading das “Deutches Bienen Journal ” and other German beekeeping information has been very beneficial for my German! Once you get past the German beekeeping jargon it gets easier and it opens up a whole other world of beekeeping. 😉
I am still learning about “der angepasste Brutraum” so I apologise in advance if I have misinterpreted the method or if I have made any German translation or grammar errors.
Fascinating. The virtual broodnest makes perfect sense and describes well the space I show in the drone comb super (above). I tend to see it in my strongest colonies, or those that are getting restricted for space in the broodbox. I prefer single brood hives, but these are often a bit on the small side. Double brood colonies take longer to inspect and involve more lifting.
The late Ian Craig MBE was an enthusiast for a tall, thin brood nest, 6-8 frames in each of a double brood box. This would have the effect of allowing a ovoid brood nest with the honey stores above it, rather than to the sides. His methods are described in the Scottish Beekeepers study notes and are well worth a read.
Interesting ideas about the benefits of the virtual broodnest as a site for offloading nectar.
Pollen in the supers might attract wax moths but it will certainly attract pollen mites. This is unsightly, but the supers can still be used. A couple of times I’ve rinsed them under a tap in the garden, shaken them dry and then pressed them into service.
I struggle to understand some beekeeping information in English, let alone German. I’m in no position to know whether you’ve misinterpreted “der angepasste Brutraum” 😉 There’s a small but significant (and very welcome) readership of these pages in Germany – perhaps 1% of the total – and they are the first country for where some version of English isn’t the native language. I’m sure someone will comment in due course (if you’re way off the mark).
Whether I can understand enough about the virtual broodnest to write a post about it without learning German is another issue altogether 🙂
Have you noticed whether the position of the super in the stack affects the speed with which it is capped? I was just wondering, if you put empties on the top will the bees continue to squeeze extra drops of nectar into the bottom super close to where they’re bringing it in, instead of capping that one off and moving upwards?
So maybe if I bottom super, the nectar receivers will fill that one, as it’s less far to go, and so the top one will get capped off as they won’t want to walk so far past easy storage.
Just thinking about the easiest/quickest way to get supers off so I don’t need a step ladder! Or am I presuming the bees are as lazy (sorry, time efficient 😉) as me??
An interesting question. I haven’t ever looked and actually rarely look in the supers other than to confirm that they’re capped (often by eyeballing from above, or just looking at a few of the peripheral frames which usually lag behind those in the middle of the box). I think the rate limiting step for capping is that the honey is ‘dry’ enough. They have to evaporate much of the moisture to get it to about 17-18% water (many nectars are 40-60% water) and this probably happens at different rates at different heights in the stack. However, they won’t cap it if the cells are significantly underfilled …
I don’t think the bees are lazy, but I do think they’re efficient 🙂
Good luck with your stepladder and look after your back!
Who would have thought 3 weeks ago that a piece on supering would be relevant now?
It is spot on as usual.
I have a mixture of national and commercial supers and find the bees do not always “respect the bee space” and relentlessly build brace comb which is a bit of a crush hazard. I am experimenting with placing alternate supers at 90 to each other but too early to know if makes any difference.
I know it’s probably a good thing in some ways to remove honey frames as they are ready but Come On there’s nothing more satisfying than a teetering tower of supers.
Really enjoy the blog, thanks so much !
A teetering tower of full supers 😉
It’s worth remembering that the BBKA report the average honey yield per hive in the UK (probably largely England as Scotland and Wales have their own national associations) is between 8 lb and 40 lb (3.6 – 18 kg) over the last decade. If you assume that these honey yield surveys capture an accurate cross-section of the beekeeping community* then for every towering stack of full supers there must be a lot of empty supers somewhere else 🙁
* Which I bet they don’t … like Amazon or TripAdvisor reviews there are likely to be some significant biases, though hopefully no outright fake submissions.
Thank you for another great post!
Could I ask, do you put your wet supers straight back on for the bees to clean up, or store them wet? (probably one of the most divided beekeeper questions/answers along with top or bottom supering!)
We tried marking our supers last year to make sure the supers went back to the same colony after extraction, (good intentions maybe regarding possible disease transfer?) Do you think it is worth it, or just makes it more complicated the following year?
Thank you again for sharing your knowledge, best info out there!
Most years I give them back to the bees to clean up. For the last couple of years I’ve stored them wet, largely due to time constraints (last year I did all my beekeeping remotely and didn’t have the luxury of time to add the supers back, re-clear them etc.). I’ve no idea what will happen this year. Frankly, I don’t think there’s much to choose between the two options. I like to treat as soon as the supers come off, and don’t want to have supers present (even being cleaned out) and Apivar strips in the brood boxes.
I don’t keep separate supers for individual hives. There’s so much movement of bees between hives that I consider all the hives in a single apiary to be effectively the same. Something like 1% of bees drift in a 3 day period … think of the numbers of bees and the duration of the season. Those bees are primarily the young bees on orientation flights, but it still means that all the hives in one apiary are ‘sharing’ the same environment (and diseases 🙁 ).
Pleased you enjoy the posts.
Thanks so much David, really appreciate your time & advice…
Going to go ‘wet’ this year then, as we struggle with time here, supers off, treatment on, treatment off, feed on… Same every year! So wet is a good call, thanks!
Like you, extracting is our least favourite job, doing it with 15 children doesn’t improve the joy (or mess) any! 🙄
Doing anything with 15 children must be nearly impossible.
Another timesaver is to feed and treat at the same time. I’ve done this for years. It might be dependent upon the particular treatment and/or feeding regime you use, but works for me.
Another thought provoking blog; thank you
I see you use a lot of drone comb in your supers. I have tried this and stil have quite a lot, but I find some problems.
Bees do store pollen in it – this year has been particularly bad
I have found eggs in the arch above the brood nest – and the queen didn’t get in becasue she is definitly below and the QE is sound – I am sure bees move eggs – but why just unfertilised ones? Again a 2021 problem (strange weather here in N England)
I use a hot air gun to uncap – it is much less efficient on drone comb and I suspect the cell diameter makes the surface tension effect drawing the wax to the rim less effective.
I am now reverting to unwired worker foundation
That’s interesting. I’ve just finished extracting today and don’t think I saw any pollen in 100+ drone foundation super frames. I wonder what conditions prompt your bees to store pollen there? I’ve also found eggs in the ‘brood arch’. And in one hive I’ve found a lot of brood – this was the one that turned into laying workers. Fortunately, we’re doing a lot of experiments on drones at the moment, so they’ll some in useful (despite being otherwise unwelcome).
I suspect the efficiency with drone comb uncapping is because the wax often touches the underlying honey – they seem to overfill the cells. Consequently it doesn’t melt quite so quickly or easily. In contrast, the worker frames I was uncapping require a single pass by the hot air gun and they instantaneously ‘pop’.
Hi John and David,
With the ‘brood arch’ surely you mean: the virtual broodnest 😉
Although once you find eggs there… it is not quite virtual anymore.
Uncapping with a hot air gun is not something I have done myself. But last year I saw a delightful video from dr. Pia Aumeier (she is a bee researcher and a beekeeping celebrity in Germany) where she demonstrates how she uncaps honey frames with a hot air gun (der Föhn) and when uncapping this way works and also when it does not work.
In short: to be able to use a hot air gun to uncap there needs to be air underneath the capping and it should appear white. When heated the air expands and pops off the wax capping (Spritzing wax everywhere… hence the all the black plastic!). If a capping is not white and there is no air underneath you will not be able to uncap that cell and you will need to use your uncapping fork afterall.
Watch it all here: https://youtu.be/lAbJAuPO3j4
At 4:00 minutes into the video she pushes out he air underneath the wax capping and draws a smily face on the honey frame and demonstrates the hot air gun will not work to uncap those cells!
‘Virtual broodnest’ … exactly 😉
I’d not seen the video, thank you. Somewhere in this thread is a comment I made about cappings being in contact with overfilled cells. Even from the same super it was noticeable that there was more problems (i.e. cappings in contact with the honey that melt less fast/incompletely) with drone comb than worker.
I think there are differences noted in ‘wet’ versus ‘dry’ cappings with different strains of bees (though, clearly with the super I refer to above, a single – mongrel – strain can produce both depending upon the type of cell).
Thank you. Interesting about the air pockets – I must admit it hasn’t been obvious – but i haven’t specifically looked! I will now.
I get a huge amount of pollen stored – whole 14/12 frames often restrict the brood nest and i have to move them outwards.
Question on the effect of number of available supers on capped honey water content.
Presumably if there is insufficient supers are the lack of drying space may result in the capped honey being wetter than if a larger number are provided.
I don’t know the answer I’m afraid. I’ve not read anything on how much the bees spread nectar about to maximise the drying surface area. If there’s not enough space they’ll backfill the brood box, blocking brood rearing. If the hive is that congested with stores they’ll probably swarm as well.