Beekeepers use a variety of terminology in describing both their technique and equipment. Often beekeepers speak about a technique or equipment using one word to describe something that can have different meanings based on the “context” in which that word or term is being used.
“Supers” is such a word. So being curious, and wanting to better understand advice from various beekeepers, I decided to try to better understand the full breadth of what a beekeeper may be saying when they use the term “super”.
When should I add a “super” to my beehive?
A deep Brood Super should be added when bees have built out all but the two end frames.
Honey Supers are added to the top Brood Super when bees have built out all but the two end frames.
Two Brood Super hives need to use a Queen excluder to protect the honey, three Brood Supers do not.
A second story deep Brood Super is added to the first story deep Brood Super until there are two or three Brood Supers, depending on the beekeeper’s philosophy and local climate.
Each Brood Super needs to
Brood Box Supers are always DEEP SUPERS.
Adding a super, be it a Brood Super or Honey Super is the most effective way to prevent swarming. Overcrowding is the primary reason for a beehive to swarm.
Learn more about swarming…
What is a honeybee hive “super”?
A honeybee hive super is a loose term applied to any box added to a vertical beehive.
A “super” added to raise more bees is AKA a “brood box”.
A “super” added to collect honey is called a “honey super”.
Supers come in different heights and widths.
Heights can be intermixed, widths cannot.
Vertical beehives, such as the Langstroth and Warre hives, are erected in stories, much like a skyscraper is built by adding floors to the building.
The size of the first story of the beehive determines the width of every
The beehive’s foundational story is built to accommodate either 8 or 10 frames inside the super. Every added story will need to be the same width as the foundational first story.
Ten frame supers are the most common but some beekeepers elect to use the smaller, lighter 8 frame supers. The downside to 8 frame supers is the requirement to add additional supers to get the same amount of frames.
There are three different heights for a super:
Deep Supers are the size beekeepers chose for the Brood Boxes. It gives the bees the best size to proliferate and store enough honey reserves for themselves. A deep super takes a frame 9 ⅝ inches tall.
The number of Brood Box Supers the hive will need to successfully overwinter depends on geographical location.
Deep Supers are also used to gather harvestable honey, but a deep super full of honey will weigh between 75 and 100 pounds. This may be difficult for some beekeepers to lift.
Medium Supers, AKA Illinois Super, are 6 ⅝ inches tall and weigh about 50 pounds when full of honey.
This is much easier for the beekeeper to lift off the top of the hive.
Shallow Supers are 5 ¾ inches tall and weigh about 40 pounds when full of honey.
When should I add a Brood Box Super to my beehive?
Most beekeepers start the season with one Brood Box Super.
When all but the two end frames in the first brood box are “built out” by the bees, a second brood box should be added.
Adding a third brood box depends on
The reason most beekeepers start out the season with just one brood box super is that, during the winter, the bees have steadily eaten their way through the honey reserves in the second story brood box to get them through the winter, and now the bottom brood box super is empty. Or maybe the bottom two brood box supers, if the beekeeper is using a three brood box protocol.
Over-wintering honey bees start out in the bottom brood box super and steadily move upward as they consume the honey reserves above them.
In any regard, the beekeeper’s first task of the season is to place the occupied brood box super at the bottom of the vertical hive and use the old unoccupied bottom brood box super on top of the new first story of the hive. This is referred to as the “Spring Swap”.
In the new brood box super, place new frames with foundation.
Using frames with new foundation tends to cause the honey bee workers to draw honeycomb in a more organized fashion making it easier when the beekeeper pulls the brood box frames later for hive inspection.
Putting drawn comb frames in a new brood box super results in the bees tending to lay down burr comb that can connect the brood frames with a wax “weld”.
Save the old brood frames with drawn comb to place in a swarm bait box.
Or purify the brood honeycomb for the beeswax content and use that beeswax for various other things, such as making
Important Consideration Of Doing The “Spring Swap”
If every frame in the brood box super that is transferred to the ground floor in the Spring Swap has capped honey-filled cells all the way across the top of ALL the brood box super’s frames, the Queen will never enter the second-floor brood box super and start laying eggs.
The Queen bee will NEVER cross a honey capped area in search of empty cells to lay her eggs. She must have a clear path to cross open honeycomb cells before she will enter the new second story brood box super.
This is called a “honey-bound Queen”.
Beekeepers with a honey-bound Queen will use a technique called “checkerboarding” to solve the honey-bound Queen problem.
Learn more about “Checkerboarding”…
Feed the bees when a new brood super is added to the hive.
When a new brood box super is added to the hive the bees will be very busy building out the new comb and storing honey for winter reserves. They can use all the help they can get during this growth phase. Supplying sugar water feed can eliminate the need for the worker bees to gather nectar in the field and allows for a much quicker bee build out of the new brood box.
Honey stores made from sugar water are a fine source of energy and reserve for bees, but horrible for making honey for human consumption.
Once the bees start to build out the last two frames in the new brood box, the two end plate frames in the top brood box, it is time to add a super and STOP FEEDING THE BEES!
Many beekeepers make the mistake of thinking that if the bees are drinking the sugar water that is being feed, they still need to be fed. This assumption is wrong! Honeybees will always drink as much sugar water as the beekeeper feeds regardless if the need it or not.
Once the brood boxes are built out and ready to add a honey super, the beekeeper must stop feeding the bees or they will incorporate that sugar water in with the nectar they gather to convert to honey, and that honey will be degraded. Most beekeepers consider honey made from sugar water as adulterated and not real honey.
Honeybees swarm because they become overcrowded and the Queen is running out of laying room, so a honey-bound Queen is likely to swarm with half the hive and a lot of honey is this situation is not remedied quickly.
Two Brood Box Supers
Bees overwintering in milder climates, like southern California, only need about 40 pounds of reserve honey to survive the winter. Two brood box supers are adequate. In some very mild climates, one brood box may be enough.
Three Brood Box Supers
Beekeepers living in a very cold climate, or keeping bees without a Queen excluder, often choose to use the three brood box supers technique of beekeeping.
The cold climate rational for a third brood box super is to make sure there is enough honey reserves for the hive to make it through the winter.
Bees over-wintering in colder climates will consume much more honey just to keep the Queen warm at about 92 degrees Fahrenheit all winter long, day and night. A third brood box super can help the cold weather bees successfully overwinter. The downside is the amount of “empty” space in the brood boxes below making it harder to keep the Queen warm.
Beekeepers that do not use Queen excluders do so for various reasons, but they all have one problem in common. How do they stop the Queen from laying eggs in the honey supers added to harvest honey?
The solution is to use a three brood box super philosophy of beekeeping.
This philosophy is based in mathematics.
Assuming a Queen bee laying in up to 2,000 eggs a day in the height of the two nectar flows annually, and laying eggs at a lower frequency during the Dearths, it becomes mathematically impossible for the Queen to lay enough eggs to completely fill a third brood box super. At best, maybe half of the third brood box.
Because of this math, the Queen would never cross over into a fourth super, she has all the room she needs with three brood boxes.
And the beekeeper does not have to worry about having bee eggs and larvae in the supers added with the intent of harvesting the honey.
Of course, the higher the vertical beehive is built the harder it is to remove those heavy honey supers to harvest.
And the more unsteady the hive becomes, making it more vulnerable to toppling in high winds or large animals that might be inclined to push the hive. Time to think about getting out those cargo straps!
When should I add a Honey Super to my beehive?
Add a “Honey Super” once all frames, except the two end frames of the top brood box, are built-out and covered with nurse bees keeping the brood warm.
Brood boxes are never harvested.
A Queen excluder between the Brood box and Honey Super keeps the honey brood-free.
Learn more about Queen excluder…..
Most beekeepers use two Brood Supers and then adds a Honey Super for the bees to fill with honey, which the beekeeper intends to harvest.
The beekeeper needs to be sure the bees have gathered enough resources to over-winter successfully before they think about harvesting honey for themselves. This is usually two deep supers being used as brood boxes and all the frames built out except the two end frames in the top brood box.
A good laying Queen will be able to lay more eggs than can be accommodated in two brood boxes, so the beekeeper will need to use a Queen excluder is they want to harvest unadulterated honey.
By the time the bees have built out the brood boxes, except the two end frames, the Queen is going to start feeling crowded and the possibility of the hive swarming becomes very real.
Learn more about early signs of swarming …..
Placing drawn comb frames in a honey super will be a HUGE advantage to the hive when the bees are ready to start to gather nectar.
For every 9 pounds of honey they bees produce they need to produce 1 pound of wax to build the honeycomb, a very time and energy consuming activity. When frames are added to the honey super that have built out comb, the bees will be totally ready for the spring nectar flow and will start filling the honey super very quickly, surprisingly quickly.
How fast can a beehive fill up a honey super?
A two brood box hive, with a medium super containing frames of drawn honeycomb, placed in an orange orchard if full bloom, can fill the super in one day.
On average it will probably take the bees about 4-7 days.
Bad years may produce very little harvestable honey.
Thats a lot of honey! The beekeeper will be busy just pulling frames of honey from the super.
Of course, it all depends on the weather, the nectar flow strength and duration, and the strength of the hive. Some years the bees will be able to produce only enough honey for them to make it through the winter.
First year hives are the most “iffy”, but a hive that has successfully over-wintered one winter can really take off at the spring nectar flow.
Italian bees are bread to be the most productive of the gentle bees but African bees can certainly outwork Italian bees, but good luck in getting the honey away from them!
When should I add a second (or third) Honey Super to my beehive?
Additional Honey Supers are added to the beehive tower when the top Honey Super’s two end frames show signs of the honeybees starting to draw out honeycomb on these frames.
Honeybees will be much quicker to fill a honey super containing frames already built out with honeycomb, such as the honey frame the beekeeper just harvested. And this is a good thing.
But honeybees can fill a honey super with drawn comb very quickly. It takes considerably more time and energy to build the honeycomb. By placing frames without honeycomb as the end frames of each honey super, it will give the beekeeper enough time to be able to add another honey super before the bees run out of space.
What is a “wet” honey super?
The term “Wet Honey Super” refers to a honey super being added to the hive tower that contains frames of newly harvested honey with fully drawn comb still “wet” with residual honey.
Installing a “wet” honey super will be the quickest route to the next honey harvest.
Adding a “wet” super gives the bees a really big head-start on refilling the super with new honey.
When is it too late to add a super to my beehive?
It is never too late to add a super to a beehive. At worst it will not be productive but it won’t harm the hive.
Some geographical locations have a fall nectar flow.
Sometimes bees can find enough lushly landscaped neighborhoods to produce a late honey harvest.
The worst thing a beekeeper can do is NOT add a super to a beehive in a timely fashion, causing the hive to swarm!
Learn more about swarming…..
Paying It Forward
Should I feed my bees when there is a honey super in place?
A beekeeper should never feed bees of a hive with a honey super.
Bees will always drink all the sugar water.
They will add it to the honey reserves. Honey made with sugar water degrades honey quality to the point of being considered “not real honey”.
How often does honeycomb need to be replaced?
Brood Box honeycomb needs to be replaced after three years of use.
Honey Super honeycomb that has only ever contained honey, can be used over and over indefinitely.
Honeycomb does not “go bad”, it only becomes undesirable when new brood has been reared in it for about 3 years.