Supering up for a Honey of a Summer

Supering up for a Honey of a Summer

By Tom Theopold – June brings an end to the procrastination of springtime and the price that goes along with it. The spring months (March, April, and May) are the time when a beekeeper sets the scene for what’s to come. If the essential things that needed to get done weren’t tended to yet, it’s too late now, what’s done is done, or not done as the case may be. By June, spring is behind us and beekeepers are supering up. Procrastination is one of my closest companions and I have to work really hard to keep it from creeping into beekeeping. It’s a problem I share with a lot of other beekeepers.

In the beginning beekeeping classes, I encourage new beekeepers to go into their hives at least every seven to 10 days to see how things are going. While a healthy colony of bees in a healthy environment will follow a generally predictable course, growing in population as spring advances, swarming, building again, then capitalizing on the summer honey flows, there are a lot of variations on this theme and a lot can go awry in a relatively short time. Problems tend to propagate themselves if not dealt with early, a small problem uncorrected becomes a bigger problem, then an even bigger problem, then a disaster. The beekeeper’s role is to keep things on course.

Think of putting a few young children in a room to play. You parents know that you wouldn’t just leave them unattended for hours at a time, you would check on them every so often. Bees are no different. A lot can happen in the course a colony is on in just two or three weeks, so it’s important to keep track of the status of each colony. For newer beekeepers, if you haven’t already done so, spend some time with books and YouTube videos so you understand what the course should be and what you should be looking for at any given time in the season.

While there’s a practical reason for regular inspections, there’s more to it than just that. A colony of bees is a unique, intimate window into the natural world, and even though beekeeping has been a business for me, I’ve still always felt privileged to be allowed in.

For you newcomers and hobbyists, this is part of your learning. I doubt that many of you have plans for a honey business producing tons and tons of honey. Take your time, learn what there is there to see. Pull up a chair or an empty hive body to sit on, position yourself so the sun is over your shoulder, and start by removing an outside frame or two to give yourself some room to work. Put the frames you’ve removed in an empty hive body that’s on a drip board, cover them, then settle in. Pull out one frame at a time, it’s like leafing through the pages of a book.

If it is a warm sunny day and the bees are busy bringing in nectar and pollen, they’ll pay little attention to your gentle intrusions. If resources are in short supply, then the bees may be more defensive, more protective of the hive. In the bee world when times are tough, each colony will start testing the defenses of every other colony, looking for those colonies that are too weak to defend themselves. The result is a general state of alert and a defensiveness that you might not have seen just a day or two before. Reading a colony’s mood is particularly important if you are keeping bees where your neighbors are close by. You have to know when to close a colony up and come back on a better day.

As you work your way in, frame-by-frame, you will come to a frame that has a lot of pollen. This is the pantry. It’s the frame right next to the brood nest and the bees store the pollen where it is close at hand for the nurse bees. With the sun over your shoulder, shining down into the cells, you can easily see eggs and larvae. You should also begin seeing the brood right after the pollen frame. You don’t have to find the queen every time, you just need to see the evidence of her activity; good brood in all stages that may cover several frames. Beekeeping books will give you much more detail on what you should be seeing. Make a few notes every time you go into a hive. Over time, it will help you understand what you are involved in much better.

The bees take care of their larvae.

If you got packages of bees in April or early May, they should be filling out their first story by now and be ready for a second. This will give them room for continued expansion of the brood nest and storage of the summer honey that will carry them through the winter.

Here in Colorado, we would expect that colonies started from packages in the spring would, on average, fill out two hive bodies and make their winter stores by fall. This can vary somewhat depending on the season and the part of the country you are in. Under favorable conditions, a package might produce a super or two of surplus honey the first year, so be prepared, but don’t count on getting a crop the first year.

By early summer, the queen is laying about 2,500 eggs per day, around the clock, and for good overwintered colonies, the population may peaking at 50,000 to 60,000. It is this large summer population that enables a colony of bees to store enough honey to carry them through the six months of the year when there will be no blooming plants, at least in the northern U.S., the part of the country I’m most familiar with. In Colorado, the winter consumption for an average colony in an average winter would be about 75 pounds, and this is what we have to leave for the bees. This is probably representative of most of the northern tier of states, but colonies may need more further north where the winters are longer and more severe.

I remember listening to a talk early in my beekeeping career by Jim Kuehl, a Nebraska beekeeper who was one of the first to winter bees indoors on a commercial scale. Jim moved the colonies into a light-tight, climate-controlled building in October, and kept them in until March. Air exchange was a critical consideration as carbon dioxide can build up quickly and kill the bees.

The other critical ingredient, the temperature, was held at 48 to 49 degrees F. At that temperature, the bees consume the least amount of honey. If it gets colder than that, the bees cluster together and need to consume more honey to generate heat to keep the cluster above survival temperature. If the temperature rises much above 48 to 49 degrees F, the bees are more active and consume more honey because of that.

Jim found that at 48 to 49 degrees he could overwinter a colony on 12 pounds of honey. This meant that he could harvest more honey in the fall and this added honey covered the cost of the indoor facility and then some.

The point here is that how much to leave for the bees is quite variable, but it’s better to err on the plus side rather than short the bees. Leaving 75 pounds or more is a good target. A second story nearly filled with honey plus honey in the outside frames of the first story will meet this requirement.

Langstroth beehive.

One of the real advantages of the Langstroth is the ability to expand or contract the capacity of a hive based on the dictates of the bees and the season. The Reverend L.L. Langstroth is generally regarded as the father of modern beekeeping. In 1851, he struck upon the concept of the “bee space.” From his observations he saw that bees left a fairly uniform spacing between their combs, what he called the bee space (about 3/8 of an inch). He speculated that if he built a hive where all of the free space was 3/8 of an inch and put the comb in wooden frames, the bees would leave that free space open and he would be able to remove the combs and examine the hive without destruction.

He designed such a hive and it worked beautifully. The Langstroth hive and that elegant little concept of the bee space has been the foundation of American beekeeping and much of beekeeping worldwide, for the past 164 years.

The year-round home for a colony would be two hive bodies; deep boxes a little more than nine inches tall with nine or 10 frames of honeycomb in each.

Extracted honey gained in popularity around 1900. Since one hive body full of honey might weigh 100 pounds or more, for ease of handling, beekeepers sensibly opted for shorter boxes to store the year’s crop of honey. There were various sizes available over the years and the popularity of many of these varieties waxed and waned. Collectively these boxes came to be called “supers.” Nobody knows for certain what the origin of this beekeeping term is, but our best guess is that these were boxes that were “superimposed” on a colony, thus “super” for short.

The Langstroth approach is well-suited for honey storage and harvesting. To maintain the proper bee space, a Langstroth box should have 10 frames of comb. We cheat a little in the honey supers and use nine evenly spaced combs. The bees will compensate for this by drawing adjacent combs out a little further, reestablishing the proper bee space. This results in fatter combs.

The bees seal each filled cell with a wax cap, which must be removed in some efficient manner to “extract” the honey at harvest time. With fatter combs, a hot knife can follow the plane of the wooden frame and remove the cappings quickly and efficiently. The now-open combs can then be spun out in a piece of beekeeping equipment called an “extractor,” basically a big centrifuge that spins the honey out of the comb by centrifugal force.

Honeycombs filled with honey. Uncapping the cells of honeycombs by hand using an uncapping knife before extracting the honey.

Nationally, honey production has run about 70 pounds per colony, varying up or down a few pounds depending on the year, but in recent years, the national average has seen a considerable drop. Beekeepers with a small number of colonies can devote more individual attention to their bees and far exceed the averages — given good bees, good management, and a productive season.

In our area, the average over the years has been about 75 pounds, but I practice a form of beekeeping called “Double Queening,” where through a series of manipulations a second queen is established in the colony. My two queen colonies would average about 240 pounds, and my personal record was 320 pounds from a single colony. That added production comes at a cost though — and includes a lot of manipulations of heavy boxes and careful timing — but it was that added production that kept my small honey producing business alive.

Nationally we have seen a dramatic growth in small-scale beekeeping and for most, honey production isn’t paramount. Nevertheless, a healthy, thriving colony under the care of a good beekeeper is going to produce more honey than it needs in most years, and by June, those strong colonies need to be supered up. In a good year, with a good colony, by the end of summer they may be higher than your head. Now what? How do we get all that honey into those neat little jars? Next time.

Originally published in Countryside May/June 2015.

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