Beekeeping Basics

Is It Time to Super

- June 1, 2021 - Dewey Caron - (excerpt)

adding super to beehive

If you look up the word “supering” in a dictionary it gives definitions that definitely do not fit beekeeper supering. Beekeepers define a super as “any upper-story hive box placed over the brood chamber for purpose of storing surplus honey.” When you look up “honey super,” Wikipedia informs us, “A honey super is a part of a commercial or other managed (such as by a hobbyist) beehive that is used to collect honey.” So, the verb “supering” then would be “adding boxes on top of the brood area of a colony.” When we super we might top super or bottom super, or alternately we might bait the super. It is suggested that we over-super early in the nectar flow and under-super late. We might put two colonies together and tower super.

So, what are we talking about when we ask, likely to ourselves since much of the family probably has long stopped listening to our bee talk, “Is it time to super?”

By June in most localities, many colonies have grown big and swarmed; swarmed colonies have likely rebuilt and hived swarms have most likely developed into decent colonies, unless their growth has been interrupted with queen replacement. So, logically, our spring colony management emphasis has shifted to Spring Part 3 — adding supers (Part 1 being spring buildup and Part 2 control of swarming). Part 3 is for beekeepers who have designs on harvesting honey and for whom the nectar flow is still to happen this season.

Let’s explore the why, what, where, when and how of supering.

Why do we super? Adding supers to bee colonies is the primary management for honey collection. Honey supers provide the space required for the ripening and storage of honey. Incoming nectar contains mostly water, 50 to 80%, but when processed into honey contains a mere 18%. A warm environment and drawn honeycomb cells are needed for processing bee-collected nectar into honey.

A super provides room and we put our supers superimposed on (placed above) the brood area of a strong expanded colony. It is the perfect site to capture and ripen nectar into honey. Given enough bees and good foraging weather, bees will store some amount of honey over and above what they will need for colony growth during the season and as their energy source for what will eventually be their overwintering clustering period.

A super is not the only means of capturing surplus honey. You can harvest honey from the edges of the brood nest as we might do with Africanized bees. With top bar and Warré hives you do not super. In top bar hives, additional top bars are added to the side(s). With the original Warré hive, space is added below the brood, a process termed nadiring. Once the bees move downward you can harvest from the topmost box.

Individuals who might not be interested in keeping bees for their honey also might not super. And as for the Wikipedia definition, we know that overwhelming numbers of commercial beekeepers manage bees these days for their pollination fees, with honey now a secondary stream of income.

We might also super as a means of relieving congestion in the brood area of a hive, thus reducing the tendency of the bees to swarm. If bees are backfilling nectar in cells that the queen needs to use in spring expansion, the brood area may become congested. Congestion can interfere with distribution of queen substance — one of the triggers of bees preparing to swarm.

What is a super? A super is frequently the name for a box shallower than a standard (or deep) box. When filled with honey, frames get heavy, so the shallower size frames/boxes are easier to handle. But standard boxes such as from a spring deadout can be used to super. So a super then is where we position a box or frames to capture honey, not just a shallower box.

Drawn comb from storage can be used to super. Lacking drawn comb, we can use foundation frames or simply a frame with a starter strip of foundation. Some prefer just the frame itself: Sandwiched between two drawn combs it can produce an easily removable natural comb within the frame structure. For top bar hives just the top bar is added at the edge of drawn combs, or, to obtain a removable comb, sandwiched between the two outermost frames.

Where do we super? So the big debate is, should you super over a queen excluder? Like much of beekeeping the answer depends. A queen excluder will ensure the queen stays below in the brood area. But some beekeepers also label the queen excluder a “honey excluder.” Under some circumstances bees do appear reluctant to go through a queen excluder, at least initially.

The aim when adding a super is to quickly draw bees from the brood area into a super. If only foundation is available, the bees will have less incentive to pass through a queen excluder. This can be remedied by initially adding a super of foundation without a queen excluder. The queen excluder can be added once the bees have started to draw the foundation. This will also work if drawn comb is added. When adding a queen excluder, you should check to be sure the queen is not in the super, which will be relatively easy at the beginning since the super will not initially be heavily populated. Once the bees actually store honey in a super, continued use of the excluder may not be needed. Alternately, there is no harm leaving it in place.

When do we super? The proactive beekeeper, the beekeeper who is anticipating rather than merely reacting — i.e., the beekeeper who is ahead of instead of behind time — puts supers on all but the weakest hives during spring colony population expansion. Early supering may help prevent swarm preparations by permitting bees to put the incoming nectar in cells outside of the brood area. Merely adding a super, by itself, will not necessarily serve to halt colony swarm preparations, but it can help relieve the congestion so bees do not begin rearing replacement queens, one of the many in-hive behaviors of swarming.

Most areas have a single main nectar flow (called by some a honey flow). In some years there might be a significant early nectar flow, if weather is good and flowers are available. Some seasons call for adding supers to challenge our bees as early as redbud tree or dandelion bloom, and they may capture honey from big-leaf maple or fruit blossoms, both premium honeys. Or at very least, start thinking of supering. Early supering might avoid our bees surprising us. It can counter the old beekeeper saying, “Bees can’t fill supers left in storage.”

You might read that you need to super when you see whiting. This sign from the bees can be used but it really should be followed after the initial super(s) are on your colony. It can be used to help guide your decision of when to add additional supers. White waxing is the latest stage, not the first indication, that you should add supers. Ideally the supers need to be placed on the hive before the beginning of a nectar flow unless you are seeking to produce honey in the comb; adding supers at the beginning of the flow and removing them as soon as they are filled is a better management for comb honey.

How do we super? The first super is added over the top of the brood area. Additional supers are usually added on top of the previous super. We term this top supering (because, of course, we put the supers on top). This is the easiest way to super as    ….