Honey bee colonies ramp up their population growth in spring to prepare for the coming honeyflow, a period of abundant nectar. As a result, brood boxes fill up with new bees and food stores.
When honeyflow arrives, the bees work to store as much surplus honey as possible, so it is available in leaner times (like winter). As a result, they will need additional space. That space is the honey super.
Begin to add honey supers when a beehive’s upper box is about 75% full of drawn comb with brood or food. If it is early in the season, bees can use the new box for brood. If honeyflow has begun (or is imminent), using a queen excluder keeps brood out of the added honey super, reserving it for ripening nectar.
Providing additional space on a timely basis prevents a hive from becoming “honey bound.” If the colony does not have enough room, it may swarm or abscond.
Continuing to add honey supers while nectar is abundant helps assure that you will be able to harvest some honey while leaving enough for the colony to survive nectar dearth and winter.
This article discusses when to add honey supers to your beehives and how to add them.
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What Is A Honey Super? (What’s In A Name?)
A honey super (or just a “super”) is any beehive box intended to hold only honey, not brood. Medium depth Langstroth boxes are the most common ones used as honey supers. A deep box is usually a brood chamber.
However, if you placed a deep box above the brood and a queen excluder (more on that below), that deep box would be a honey super. Also, beekeepers often use shallow boxes as supers, mainly to produce comb honey.
If you’re considering deep supers, keep in mind that a 10-frame deep full of honey can weigh up to 90 lbs. (40.8 kg). By contrast, a full medium super will be closer to 45 lbs. (20.4 kg).
After several years of beekeeping, we changed most of our hive configurations to all medium boxes. Thus, our medium boxes can be either brood boxes or honey supers.
When To Add Honey Supers
Deciding when to add honey supers depends on the conditions in the hive and your area.
Generally, you should add more space (for brood or honey) when the top box of a Langstroth hive is about 75% full of drawn comb and bees, brood, and food. That’s about 7 – 8 full frames in a 10-frame box.
Early in the year, a colony’s population expands as it prepares for the coming season. Therefore, you might add an additional brood box during this spring buildup.
However, as you approach honey flows, it is time for additional hive boxes intended to store surplus honey in a time of heavy nectar flow.
In our area, we usually add supers by late spring. It may be sooner in warmer climates.
What Happens If You Add Supers Too Late? | What Is Honey Bound?
If you add a super too late, the colony may become “honey bound.”
The brood nest usually has brood frames in the center. Honey is kept in the box’s outer frames.
However, bees seeking to take advantage of the honeyflow may start storing honey in brood cells if there is no other space. As a result, the queen will have no place to lay eggs. Thus, the hive is honey bound.
A bee colony needing additional space may swarm, with the queen taking half the bees to a new location. Swarming is a way for honey bees to expand a colony. However, for a beekeeper, swarming is a significant blow to productivity. Queen cells at the bottom of frames in the brood nest area signify that your colony is preparing to swarm.
Learn more! Read our article What Is Honeyflow? (Abundant Nectar Flow) for more information on how to recognize nectar flow in your area. If you”re a newbie, an experienced beekeeper can guide you on when to anticipate the availability of nectar in your area.
What Happens If You Add Supers Too Early?
If you add a super too late, you will be giving the colony too much space to control.
Bees expend energy controlling the temperature of the hive. Early in the season, when nights are still cool, the bees do not need to heat extra space while keeping the brood warm.
Bees also monitor their space to control pests like the wax moth and small hive beetle. Too much extra space may give unwanted visitors a foothold in the beehive.
The time for adding additional boxes is a judgment call. If you follow our 75% guideline above, it should be just about the right time.
Having lost swarms over the years from being too late, I tend to err on being a tad early now.
General Guidelines For Adding Honey Supers
Have Supers Ready In Advance
Have your hive bodies fully assembled and painted well before you need them. In highly productive seasons, you may need quite a few (you should be so lucky!).
If you don’t have supers ready when needed, you may be late adding them. Therefore, it pays to have extra honey supers on hand.
Remember, you need assembled frames of foundation to fill your boxes.
If this is your first time assembling boxes, check out our article How To Assemble A Hive Body (Assembling A Langstroth Beehive) for detailed information, including options on what tools and equipment to use.
Keeping The Queen Out Of Supers
Honey supers are for honey, not brood. Extracting honey with larvae and pupae is unsanitary.1
A queen excluder placed above the brood nest and below the first super will keep the queen in the lower boxes. A queen excluder is a plastic or metal grate with slots big enough for worker bees to penetrate but too small for the queen.
While an excluder is the best to ensure that brood does not get mixed in with your honey, some beekeepers (us among them) do not use them.
Learn more about queen excluders, including the pros and cons, so you can make your own decision as to using one.
Do Not Feed Colonies With Honey Supers
Bees do not make honey from sugar syrup. Honey requires plant nectar.
The sugar syrup will get mixed into the honey cells if you place feeders on a hive during the honey flow.
Follow Guidelines For Hive Treatments
If you treat your colonies for Varroa mites (or any other pests), follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for any chemical applications.
For example, some miticides should be used at least two weeks before adding supers and not at all when they are on the hive.
Medications for diseases should never be used during honeyflow. “It is illegal, and you can contaminate the honey. Honey collected by diseased colonies that required medication must not be used for human consumption.”
Limit Inspections During Honeyflow
Let the bees do their thing when nectar is abundant. Hive inspections are easier while so many bees are foraging. But don’t interrupt their work unless necessary.
Barring an obvious problem, checking if a new super is needed should be enough.
Only Add Supers As Needed
As mentioned earlier, too much extra space can be a problem. Add a new super when the previous one is about 75% complete.
How To Super A Bee Hive
Honey supers go above the brood nest.
Note: Adding supers is often called “supering.”
We recommend that beginning beekeepers use a queen excluder. Then, as you gain experience, make your judgment call about the need for one.
Place the excluder on top of the upper brood chamber and below the first super.
Some beekeepers don’t use a full complement of frames in the supers. Putting 9 frames in a 10-frame box lets the bees build thicker combs of honey. Also, with the extra space, frames are easier to remove.
Supers stay on the beehive until you are ready to harvest. With very productive colonies, the stack of boxes can get pretty high. Be careful, particularly if stacking above your head.
The video below shows how I had to stand on cinder blocks to manage the upper boxes.
There are two main ways of adding additional boxes: top supering and bottom supering.
Each new box is placed on top of the previous one in top supering. Top supering requires the least manipulation of the hive bodies.
When top supering, consider removing the queen excluder after the first box is full.
A super full of honey has no cells for a queen to lay eggs. Also, the queen is unlikely to cross the “honey barrier” and move into a high super.
The new box is placed immediately above the brood in the bottom supering, underneath other supers.
With an empty box just above the brood, the queen excluder should stay in place.
This method requires more work and manipulation of the boxes, so we don’t do it. Instead, top supering is much easier.
How Long Does It Take Bees To Fill A Honey Super?
The time it takes bees to fill a honey super varies depending on the size of the population, the foundation provided, the proximity of nectar sources, the strength of the nectar flow, and weather conditions.
A larger population means more foragers bringing back nectar, more bees to receive the nectar, and more bees to ripen the nectar to honey. Weaker colonies take longer.
New beekeepers do not have frames of previously drawn comb for supers. Building comb is hard work and time-consuming. Drawn comb shortens the time to make honey.
The farther bees travel for nectar, the longer it takes to fill a super. Greater travel distances impact the number of trips a bee can make each day. Strong nectar flow also makes a bee’s life easier.
Bees will not forage on rainy days. Thus, the weather will affect the time it takes to fill a super.
With so many factors in play, filling each super can take different lengths of time.
Since you cannot predict how long it will take, monitor your beehives to add supers on a timely basis.
When To Remove Honey Supers
Sometime after nectar flow and before preparing hives for winter, you can remove supers for the honey harvest.
While you could wait until fall, it may be best to remove supers after honeyflow, especially if you plan to treat for Varroa mites. As mentioned earlier, some miticides should not be used with honey supers in place. Some miticides also have temperature restrictions to consider.
When removing boxes of honey, remember to leave some for the bees. They need honey to get through summer nectar dearth (that often follows honeyflow) and winter.
Remove only frames that are at least 80% capped honey. Nectar in uncapped cells is not honey yet.
Mixing too much nectar with honey increases the moisture content making it susceptible to fermentation and spoiling.
Also, only remove supers and harvest honey when you plan to extract. The beehive is the best place to store the honey until then.
Other Tips For Supering Beehives
Get Bees Out Of Supers Before Removing Them
Removing a super full of honey AND bees is not a good idea. Getting the bees out of the supers is the first step.
There are several methods for getting bees out of the supers and back into the brood chamber:
- Bee escapes
- Shaking or brushing
- Fume boards.
Learn more! See our article about how to get bees out of honey supers for more information on these various methods.
Honey season can be very hot. Consider adding some ventilation to help the bees.
A screened bottom board like this one available at Galena Farms can enhance airflow.
We drill small entrances in some supers that give the bees direct access to the box and provide ventilation. Adding inexpensive entrance gates like these from Amazon lets you close up the openings to prevent robbing.
Harvesting a honey crop is one of the prime reasons for beekeeping.
There are no hard and fast rules or calendars that will tell you exactly when to add or remove honey supers. Instead, learn the ebb and flow of your local seasons and keep an eye on your colonies.
Try not to add supers too early or too late, but if you are uncertain, then do it sooner.
Also, remember to only harvest surplus honey and leave enough for your bees to make it through the year.
Harvest Time Means Removing Honey From Hives by Ross Conrad in Bee Culture magazine – July 19, 2018