Trying to set up virgin beehives is not an easy task for those new to the hobby. You get so wired with all of that new equipment sitting in the garage that you want to get it all set up right away. And of course, there is the thought that you might as well use everything you have in your initial setup. But is that the right way to go? Should you use all of your supers right from the start? And what about brood boxes? How many brood boxes should you have?
The general consensus in most regions of the world is to use either one or two brood boxes. Using three or more means that you are probably doing your bees a disservice. In this case you would be better off splitting the large hive so you can get back to one or two brood boxes.
Before we get to answering all of your questions, let us first talk about supers and brood boxes. These make up the bulk of a beehive.
What is a Brood Box?
A brood box is a single-level box that contains the queen and all of the eggs she lays. The brood box is typically at the bottom of the stack and is separated from the supers with a screen. That way the worker bees can see the queen, and vice versa, but there is no direct contact between them.
What are Supers?
Supers are the extra boxes stacked above the brood box. The purpose of supers is to give worker bees a place to store honey. This is where much of the confusion comes in for new beekeepers. They get the idea that more supers mean more honey. While that is technically true, installing all your supers early on could cause more trouble than it’s worth.
One or Two Brood Boxes
Your brood boxes are the key to successful hives. Without a brood box there is no queen laying eggs. And without a queen and her eggs, there is no need for workers to stick around. In fact, they will not. A hive without a queen will be quickly abandoned by bees in search of a new hive with a functioning queen.
Another thing to remember is that you do not have to settle on the number of brood boxes right away. You can start with a single box with just a couple of supers on top and see what happens. When the bees begin running out of space, add one or two more supers. If you get upwards of five or six supers and the colony continues to grow, then you can add another brood box on top and more supers on top of that.
Consider Your Climate
There are quite a few factors that influence bee productivity. One of them is climate. Let’s say you live in a region where winter temperatures can get pretty harsh. You should notice that hive productivity starts slowing down in late summer or early autumn. This is because falling temperatures are telling the bees to start transitioning to efficiency mode.
On the other hand, you might live in a temperate climate pretty close to the equator. Your temperature fluctuations may not change all that much between the seasons. As such, you might observe no slowdown in productivity. Your strategy for brood boxes is going to be different.
For purposes of illustration, I’ll go with the first example here. A colder climate would dictate that your queen is going to be busiest during the spring. This is when you keep a close eye on your single brood box and the supers stacked above it. You might add a second brood box before summer starts. But by the time summer draws to a close, you are ready to pull out that second brood box because production is slowing.
Conditions Inside the Hive
Another thing to consider are the actual conditions inside the hive. Bees like to be cozy and warm whenever possible. As such, if you give them too much space, they have to work harder to maintain the right temperature and CO2 volume. This will slow down the production of honey accordingly. It will also slow down the growth of the hive.
This is why it is better to start with a single brood box and just two or three supers stacked on top. You can add more supers as the colony grows. If you can figure out just the right amount of space your colonies need at various points in the season, you will find managing productivity a lot easier. Excess productivity could mean a second brood box which, ultimately, results in even more bees.
Pay Attention to the Queen
The question of brood boxes also cannot be adequately answered without observing your queen. The average queen bee is just capable enough of keeping up with one brood box. So even if your colony is outgrowing the space you provided with your supers, that still may not warrant a second brood box. You have to check your original brood box and see how she is doing. If she is not keeping up, do not add a second box.
An older queen will more than likely have trouble filling two brood boxes. Younger queens will be better at keeping up. This suggests that the number of brood boxes you use may fluctuate from time to time based on the age of the queen.
If you would like to know how to locate the queen, check out my article Beekeeping Basics: How to Find the Queen.
Your Harvest Schedule
One last consideration is the schedule on which to harvest honey. Hives with single brood boxes and just three or four supers tend to fill up with honey earlier in the spring. That’s okay. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need another brood box or more supers. You can consider harvesting the honey as soon as the box fills up but leave the actual structure of the hive intact.
On the other hand, you might not have time to harvest the honey right away. Now you are looking at adding extra supers to give your bees more space. That is when you also have to consider a second brood box. Again, consider all of the other things you have read thus far. They will all play a role in deciding whether or not a second brood box is appropriate.
Consult with a Local Expert
If you still don’t know what to do after reading all of this, we recommend you consult another beekeeper in your local area. Hopefully, there are others who have more experience than you do. They can help you figure out a good arrangement for your brood boxes and supers.
If there are no other local beekeepers you can consult, branch out to your general region. You are ideally looking for an experienced beekeeper who works in an environment similar to yours. The closer to home that person is, the more valuable their insight will be for your operation.
Just remember that there is no hard-and-fast way to determine brood boxes and supers. Everything from climate to food sources affects beekeeping. A lot of times, what you learn about your bees is through trial and error. So maybe you get the number of brood boxes wrong the first season or two. Don’t sweat it. You will figure it out with enough practice.
When to Add a Second Brood Box
As mentioned above, the brood box is where all the main action of the beehive takes place. It is where the queen lives and lays her eggs. And by now you know that at some stage, every beekeeper will face the question of whether to add a second brood box or not. And you also know by reading this article up to here that the answer is not clear cut.
The size of the brood box is determined by the number of eggs that the queen lays across a 23-day cycle. Eggs take 21 days to become a worker bee. After the new worker bee emerges, the cell has to be repaired before it can be reused.
All of this life takes place in the brood box. The queen is confined to this space by a queen excluder that is placed on top of the brood box. The worker bees are small enough to move through the queen excluder and they will store honey in the super boxes at the top of the hive.
A key part of the regular inspection of your beehive is checking the frames in the brood box to see that there are fresh eggs, which indicates the queen is healthy (and alive).
If you have one brood box and things are starting to look very cramped, then you know the queen is at the peak of her egg-laying powers and you will have to decide on whether to add a second brood box. In temperate climates, this situation is likely to arise in spring.
Your Options for The Brood Box
As a beekeeper you have three options:
- To stick with one brood box
- To add a second, smaller brood box (one-and-a-half)
- Or to add a second brood box.
When making this decision, you will come across a wide range of views from other beekeepers
Many experienced beekeepers in temperate climates will advise against using a second brood box. Indeed, most would say to never add one. But the yield of their first super can be compromised by the bees treating the center parts of it as part of the brood box, which results in higher pollen content.
The number of brood boxes that you use is also determined by the type of hive that you use.
The Key Consideration
As a beekeeper what you are trying to balance is:
- enough space in the brood box for the queen to lay eggs and for the colony to survive through winter, while keeping the honey supers above the queen excluder so that you can harvest the honey.
- Queens lay on average about 1,200 to 1,400 eggs a day, which means that roughly 13 or 14 frames are required. In addition to the worker bee eggs, there will also be some drone bee eggs and many cells will be needed for pollen and honey stores.
If you put too much space below the queen excluder, then the bees will store honey there and you will not be able to extract it.
Two or One-and-a-Half Brood Boxes?
As a result, some beekeepers will use two deep boxes while others use one deep and one super as a brood box.
The disadvantage of the former is that there will be so much space below the queen excluder that in poor years you will have no honey to extract. The disadvantage of the latter is that you will have a mix of differently sized frames that are not interchangeable.
As a general rule, honey from frames in the brood box is not considered suitable for human consumption.
Moving Back Down to One Brood Box
For inexperienced beekeepers, another aggravation of adding a second frame is that you will be unsure where your queen is in the hive. This will make the inspection of the hive more time-consuming.
In temperate climates, the beekeeper will also be faced with the decision about reducing the number of brood boxes back down to one. As well as finding the queen, you will also need to consider the stores that will be available for the colony to survive winter.
Using a Second Brood Box for an Artificial Swarm
One time when you will need a second brood box is if your bees are about to swarm. If you can find the queen in a hive that is about to swarm, you take the frame she is on out of the first brood box and put it in the second brood box. Then you add the queen excluder and close the hive, moving it away from the first hive containing the brood and the young bees.
In the old brood box, you remove most of the queen cells, leaving just the biggest and best. The virgin queen, when she is born, will take control.
If you cannot find the queen, then you take the old brood box and move it to the new site and put a new brood box on the old site. There are more steps involved but instead of losing your colony to a swarm you will end up with two colonies.
The Need for a Spare Brood Box
As with most things in beekeeping, you will learn with experience what is right for your bees. Your role is to manage the hives so that your colonies are successful.
However, you should always be prepared. It is good practice to have a spare brood box available so that you can carry out tasks like an artificial swarm. You can use a super box as a half brood box, but this will not be big enough for the purpose of an artificial swarm.