Adding Supers

Once a colony has about 6-7 frames of brood in the spring it will be time to add a super. The procedure is simple in that a queen excluder is put on the top of the brood chamber and then the super placed on top; crown board on top of that. If you have supers with drawn comb the bees will take to them easier than if the supers contains foundation only. If the bees fail to move up to a super of foundation only, then there are a few tricks that can be tried to encourage them to start. If you put the super on early it may be a few weeks before you see much happening. Generally once they start drawing the comb, they will get on with it OK. However bees will only draw wax when they have to, so if there is not enough income (honey) they will not draw wax and they will not go into the super, so don't worry!

These are some options available to you:-

a) Remove the queen excluder for a few days. The queen won’t be able to lay eggs in the super as there is no drawn comb but the lack of a barrier may encourage wax production on the new frames. Once the comb has been started the queen excluder needs to go back on with the queen below.

b) Put super foundation in the brood box. A couple of frames can be put in the brood chamber for a few days. Once it’s been started, then it should be removed and placed in the super before eggs are laid in the comb. Make sure the queen remains in the brood chamber afterwards!

c) Paint or dribble syrup on the foundation when it’s in the super. This might encourage the bees upstairs - or it might not (!) [I'm not convinced that it makes much difference but some suggest it].

d) Feed the colony with thin syrup. Bees will not produce wax if there is not enough income. We do not want the super comb filled with sugar syrup rather than honey but a little feed will give the bees the income to get them going and will encourage them through the 'excluder and up to the feeder. Once some frames have been started they should all be drawn out OK. A contact (bucket) feeder will be found more quickly than a rapid feeder as a contact feeder will tend to drip when it gets warm and the contents expand a little as a result.

Note that bees need warmth to generate and manipulate the wax; so some insulation over the top of the crown-board will definitely help.

Norfolk Honey

What separation should I use between frames in the super?

If you are perhaps a new beekeeper and you only have frames with foundation and you space them wide there will be a good chance that brace comb (unwanted comb) will be built in between the foundation as the gap is just too large; bees are sometimes reluctant to draw from foundation and they like to annoy us just a little bit too! So new frames should be spaced at 35 - 38 mm until drawn. (Manley frames are spaced at 42 mm which is as wide as you can go without brace comb being built - or so they say). Once drawn, the spacing can be increased. A BS National hive can contain 12 frames – just – in the super or brood chamber. Once drawn, 11, 10 or 9 frames can be used. (WBC’s can use 8). This reduces the number of frames you need to buy and reduces uncapping time too.

Something you might like to consider with frames of foundation is keep them close for the first year on plastic ends, then uncap and extract. The following year – or the next time in the hive, you can increase the spacing if you wish – either by plastic spacers on each frame or by using castellated spacers which are fixed to the supers themselves. On most of my National I have moved from 10 frames to 9 and I have reduced from 9 to 8 in my WBC's. Tip: Once you have a few supers of drawn comb and need more honey space, rather than buy more frames and foundation, you could perhaps just buy a super and a different sets of castellations to suit and space the comb out more.

Once a super is partially filled and the wax drawn and some honey has been capped, a second super can be added. If it is of foundation only, then swapping (alternating) some foundation for drawn comb will encourage the bees to use it however for the first year this might result in wide and narrow comb. Once extracted the comb can be cut and it will work better the next year. Bees need quite a bit of space to ripen the honey (evaporate off the water content before it is capped) so extra space of another super is always useful - especially early in the season. Should you put the new super on top of the old one or underneath? There is argument about this. At the end of the day, the bees will store the honey anyway. However if empty supers go under the partially filled ones there is a tendency to have a vertical column of partially capped supers with the outer frames empty, whereas if you put an empty super on top of a partially filled one, the lower super will tend to get capped first and the bees will then move upwards. However if you only have foundation for your next super, it's probably better to put that above the brood nest to get it drawn out.

Bees store the honey above the brood chamber in a conical shape - it's warmer above the centre of the brood-nest. Adding an empty super under a partially filled one will, perhaps, give bees the feeling of more space and will make them feel less congested and slightly reduce the risk of swarming. However at some time you’ll want to take off a capped super so it can be put on top of unsealed ones during an inspection and with a clearer board the bees can easily move down to the super below.

Large colony of bees in Norfolk

To remove full supers: As honey comes in, I place empty supers on top of what's there. Once I need to extract, I remove the full supers from the bottom of the stack, replace the part-filled ones on the hive; add a clearer board and place the full supers on top of that with a crown board and roof above. Once the clearer board has worked - say 24 hours, then the full supers can simply be lifted off without further manipulation; with luck there won't be many bees remaining in there! The picture on the left illustrates this as you will see two supers over a clearer board with 6 further supers underneath. Below that is a queen excluder and three brood boxes. The upturned beer crate was to stand on!

Generally supers should only be removed when the honey has been capped as we know that capped honey will not ferment as the bees have evaporated off enough water to stop this happening. If the water content is too high – above 20% - the honey can ferment and then you have mead! In Norfolk and other parts of the country, the exception to this is honey from oil seed rape. (I will ignore heather honey for now). This sets very quickly in the comb and if you wait until it is all capped, you might not get it out! Partly capped OSR honey should be OK to extract. Ivy honey is similar to OSR in that it sets hard. It has a strong flavour and is usually left for the bees as good winter stores. If you are unsure about the water content and you don’t have a hydrometer, a simple test is to hold a frame of honey horizontally and shake it. If uncapped honey falls out, it’s not ready. However on a good honey-gathering day, the frames will be quite wet with newly collected honey so it's best to check in the morning as the bees will have partially dried out the honey overnight.

Bees fanning at Browston Apiary
Bees fanning at the entrance at night

On a warm summers evening you can sometimes hear the colony fanning like a small air conditioning unit and see bees fanning on the landing board, trying to evaporate the water from the honey before sealing it in. A good time to do this is just after dark with a glass of beer or wine in your hand! I don't recall seeing any studies on it but we might assume that it would be good practice to leave the feed hole open at the top of the hive with just a mesh covering to allow warm air to be fanned up and out of the hive. It must be a lot easier than fanning downwards.