There is a very short answer to the question of when you should add honey supers to your hive, and it is when the bees need more space.
The best time to add a super to your hive is when 7 of the 10 frames in the top brood box are being used for brood and for honey storage (otherwise known as the 7/10 rule).
However, it is useful to consider how the hive functions so you can be clear about when the time is right. As you may know, there are several types of beehives available, and the choice of which to use depends on what type of hive you are comfortable using.
Hives grow and shrink during the year as the needs of the colony of bees change. Honey supers play a key role as they provide room for the colony as it grows in size and collects stores. They are also important for the beekeeper who wants to efficiently harvest honey from their hives.
Bees are happy to build a hive in any space that is protected from the weather. The purpose of a hive is to make the work of a beekeeper easier. The common components of a hive are:
- a stand with legs
- a floor with entrance block
- a brood chamber complete with frames
- a queen excluder
- a super complete with frames
- a crown board
- a roof.
Hives can be made of wood or polystyrene. The two main types of boxes used to provide sheltered space are brood chambers and supers.
What Happens in a Super?
The beekeeper fills the brood chamber and the super with frames that help organize the colony in a way that is easy to manage. The bees build their comb on the sides of the wax foundation in the frame; this allows the beekeeper to easily inspect what is happening in the hive.
The queen lives in the brood chamber and lays her eggs here. The brood chamber will have some stores of honey, mainly on the outer frames. This part of the hive is separated from the honey supers by a queen excluder, which is a mesh designed to allow worker bees up to the supers but not the queen. This means that no eggs will be laid on frames in the honey supers.
The purpose of a super is to store honey in a way that will make extraction easy. When choosing what type of frame to put in the super, the beekeeper should ensure that it will fit in the equipment that they will use for extracting the honey after harvesting.
Foraging worker bees collect four things necessary for the survival of the colony: water, pollen, propolis, and nectar. The first three are collected as needed. However, bees will carry on collecting nectar until no more is available. As a result, the colony needs space to store honey. This means that the beekeeper has to keep watch to add new supers when the bees are ready for them.
The process of storing honey is simple. The bees build a honeycomb on the wax foundation in each frame. Each cell is then filled with honey and capped with wax when it is full. Usually, the bees fill the super from the center, working outwards. If there is not enough honey to fill a cell it is left open (described as uncapped).
Inspecting Your Hive
When a beekeeper inspects their colony, there are five questions that always need to be asked:
- Do the bees have enough room?
- Is the queen present and laying eggs?
- How is the colony progressing (building up in size, queen cells present)?
- Are there signs of disease?
- Do the bees have enough stores?
It is an iterative process. Your answers tell you what action needs to be taken. For the purpose of adding supers, only the first question needs to be answered. If they do not have enough room, another super is required.
Space is added to a hive by putting one box on top of the others, building upwards. From spring into early summer the numbers of bees in a hive increases dramatically and the availability of nectar is at its greatest. This is the time when a beekeeper is expecting to be adding supers to their hives.
It is wise to plan ahead and put new supers on top of your hive before the bees have filled out all the frames in the existing supers with honey. As a rule of thumb, you should expect to need three supers for each hive.
When inspecting the hive, remember that nectar takes up three times the space of processed honey. Beekeepers should allow extra space for this early in the season.
The supers are usually left on the hive until the end of the season. However, beekeepers should be aware of what types of crops are growing nearby. For example, If there is a lot of oilseed rape which produces honey that granulates, then the beekeeper should take out full supers and replace them with empty ones as soon as possible. These supers should be extracted before the honey hardens on the comb and becomes very difficult to process.
As with so many aspects of beekeeping, it is advisable to keep in touch with your local beekeeping society and to compare notes on when nectar is widely available in your area. This time of year is known as the honey flow and can vary a lot depending on local conditions.
One reason for this is because when local wisdom tells you that flow is coming to an end then you should not add extra supers even if the hive looks as if it will soon be full. It is better to have supers containing fully filled frames than supers containing partially filled frames. The latter will take more time to handle.
Before removing honey from the super you need to check that the cells have been capped. At the end of the flow, many cells may only be partially filled as the bees will be waiting to gather more nectar. When inspecting the super, shake any frames with a lot of unfilled cells over the top of the super and leave it for a few days so the bees can collect the honey and cap the cells.
When taking the supers out, the supers will need to be cleared of bees. This is done by a combination of shaking the frames and brushing them. Place an empty super near to the hive and take the frames out of the super one by one, clearing them of bees. Once the new super is full, take it away from the hive and cover it to prevent them from returning.
Prior to this, the beekeeper can also use a clearer board to empty the super of bees. This is placed underneath the super and works by allowing bees to go down but will not let them back up. Bees are also more easily cleared when the weather is good for flying.