If you plan on harvesting honey, then you will need to add honey supers to your hives at some point. Rest assured, you’re not alone in wondering this.
In fact, a very common question among beekeepers is at what point in time should they start adding honey supers.
Here, we discuss three things to consider before you add your first and second honey supers to a new hive.
But first, let’s bring you up to speed and tackle the definition of a super.
Honey Supers Explained
Your typical Langstroth hive operates like a maisonette.
On the first floor, they set up the nursery, kitchen, and pantry.
The second floor is the garage where they hoard a lot of food for rainy days.
Well, call it a rainy month because they have the capability to store a lot of food. The principle applies to the hive.
First, you have the bottom board. Then you have the brood box.
You can choose to have just the one or add multiple brood boxes depending on where you are located.
The amount of honey needed to get through the winter will determine how many boxes should make up the brood area.
If you have a good queen, you’ll have a nice tight sphere of brood flanked by honey and pollen.
Now, just like you wouldn’t go putting groceries in the garage when the kitchen is still empty, the bees aren’t going to store honey far from the brood nest unless it’s full.
The box that is placed above the brood boxes for the purpose of storing only honey is the super.
It can be a medium-deep or smaller size.
Now we know what a super is. Let’s look at when to add it.
When is it Time to Add a Honey Super?
There are a few things you need to consider before your bees are ready for their first super.
Construction of Comb
The bees are very orderly creatures. They need to do their construction in an orderly fashion.
So, before you add a super, look at the box below and check if the bees have constructed at least 8 of the 10 frames below.
If they have drawn comb, then they are likely to welcome any additional space provided by you.
Each colony is different, so don’t assume that because one is ready for the super, that all the others are too.
Treat each colony individually.
Simply put, if the bees have nothing to store, then putting a super over their heads won’t inspire them to do anything about it.
As a beekeeper, you need to become a minor botanist. What is the main source of nectar in your area?
Was there a cold snap that affected the blooming pattern of the trees and weeds that would have provided nectar to your bees?
Has there been a drought minimizing the flourishing of wild flowers?
Was there a field that was previously uncultivated but now is being used to grow some non-nectar producing crop?
These are scenarios that can have a significant effect on your bees.
This is when being a member of an association pays off.
Becoming a member of an association can help you get information on the main nectar flow, what affects it, and how long it lasts.
Then observe the bees.
If they haven’t stored enough honey in their brood boxes, they are unlikely to take to the supers.
If you do manage to coax them up, you might harvest honey and then spend months feeding your bees because they stored what they needed in the supers rather than the brood area.
Strength of the Colony
As mentioned earlier, every colony is different.
Sometimes it’s the genetics of the bee that determines how quickly the colony grows.
Other times the colony may have suffered a loss, caused by a pest or disease and has a harder time building the numbers.
Another possibility could be swarming.
Sometimes, after swarming, the new queen may not be as prolific as the previous one and it takes her a while to build the colony to its previous strength.
Whatever the case, weaker colonies may not have the bee power to adequately stock up a super.
If you have more than one colony, remember that even if they came from the same breeder, they can behave differently and need to be treated as such.
And one more thing…
Worker bees don’t seem too excited about drawing comb in a section that the queen cannot access.
It helps to keep the queen excluder away until they have drawn some comb.
To dissuade the queen from laying eggs in the super, arrange the frames such that those with honey are situated above the brood.
This honey barrier will be like a “nothing to lay here” sign and she’s unlikely to hike up to lay eggs in the super.
When to Add a Second Honey Super
The rules are similar to adding the first super. Once the bees have drawn about 6-7 frames, you can add the second super.
The more space the bees have, the more they can store.
If this is the first time you are adding supers, you won’t have drawn comb, which bees love.
So, to get them to build comb on the foundation, you can use the checkerboard system.
This is where you take some of the frames from the first super and exchange them with some from the empty second super, alternating drawn comb and empty comb.
The bees will quickly build comb on the foundation flanked by frames with drawn comb.
When is it Too Late to Add a Super?
There are several factors to consider here.
What is the floral calendar in your area? That is the main determinant.
The sole purpose of adding supers is so that the bees have more space to store nectar.
Once the blooms have done their job and start to die off, there’s no more nectar for them to collect.
This is why beekeepers add the supers during the spring time but harvest in the summer.
That gives the bees enough time to dehydrate the nectar.
So look around you and find out from beekeepers in your area what the main source of nectar is and when the blooms appear and disappear.
That said, observing the behavior of the bees could also clearly give you an indication of their foraging behavior.
If they are coming back with pollen, they are likely still collecting nectar as well.
When it comes to adding supers, let the bees decide when it’s time.
Read their language by observing how many frames of drawn comb they have constructed and their foraging patterns.
The beekeeper may get it wrong sometimes, but the bees never do.