Beekeeping 101: Adding Another Super

Non-beekeepers might think of a beehive as a static structure with a fixed layout, but it’s actually a complex, miniature building that changes to meet your bees’ needs.

Beehives need space for the queen bee to lay her eggs, nurse bees to care for them and workers to store honey and pollen. Hives need to be big enough for the bees to move around freely without getting overcrowded, but small enough for the colony to defend from attackers.

The size of the hive can change with the seasons – during winter, when worker bees aren’t storing honey and the colony needs to heat the spaces inside, the hive shrinks. In spring and summer, as the colony grows and honey supplies increase, the hive needs to expand to match.

As a beekeeper, your job is to keep a close watch on your bees, so you can tailor the hive to suit their current needs. Often, that means adding a super when bees start to run out of space.

Here’s everything you need to know about hive expansion:

Understanding hive structure

The most commonly used hive, the Langstroth, looks like a stack of wooden boxes with a flat lid. Those boxes are the supers, and they make up the body of the hive.

Supers are usually made of wood, and come in three standard sizes –full-depth,¾ depth, and half-depth. These are sometimes labelled as deep, medium, and shallow. Each super contains vertical wooden frames that hang down from the top of the box, and these are filled with the beautiful hexagonal wax cells that bees use to store honey and raise larvae.

A standard hive is made up of a brood box, which sits at the bottom, and one or two honey supers, which sit on top. Most beekeepers use a device called a queen excluder to keep the queen in the brood box, so she doesn’t lay eggs in the honey frames.

The importance of space

During spring and summer, nectar flows and bees work frantically to collect and store it. The queen goes into egg-laying overdrive, producing more workers to join the army of nectar-seekers.

Naturally, this all leads to honey stores and the hive population expanding rapidly – which means space is at a premium. If the bees don’t have enough room to move around freely, raise brood and store new honey, they can get restless and trigger a swarm. When a swarm occurs, half your bees, along with the queen, leave to form a new colony. This leaves you with a weak, queenless colony – not ideal at the beginning of winter.

That’s why, if bees seem to be running out of space, it’s essential to give them more in the form of an extra super. If your brood box is overrun with bees, you may need a second brood super. More commonly, you’ll need to add extra honey supers as production ramps up.

A delicate balance

Many new beekeepers run into trouble when they decide to start with two or three honey supers and two brood boxes at the beginning of the season. After all, if bees will eventually need more space, why not give it to them straight away?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Bees don’t actually like living in a hive with lots of empty space. For one thing, it’s difficult to heat – bees prefer a consistent temperature of around 35°C in the hive, and a smaller population may find that difficult to maintain in a larger hive.

There’s also the issue of pests. Worker bees spend a lot of time cleaning and inspecting the hive – clearing away debris and chasing out unwanted visitors. If there aren’t enough bees to keep up the patrol, untended space in a hive is vulnerable to invasion by insects and other creatures.

Signs it’s time for a new super

Full honey frames

The clearest sign your bees are ready for a new super is full frames of honey or brood in the existing ones. Don’t wait till your current supers are overflowing, but look at how many frames are full. If seven or eight frames of a ten-frame super are replete with sealed honey or brood, it’s time for a new super.

Swarm behaviour

Pre-swarm behaviour can indicate that your bees are running out of space. Look for queen cells in your brood box – these are larger, misshapen cells created specifically to raise queens. Check the edges of frames first, as queen cells will often be clustered there. Empty queen cells are an early sign that a swarm is possible but full, sealed queen cells indicate an imminent swarm – it may be too late to prevent it.

High population

When you check your hive, are the bees scattered around, or densely packed onto frames? If they seem to hardly have room to move, it’s another sign that you need to add a super.

More supers, more honey

When you decide to add a new super, you also need to decide what box depth to use. If you’re adding a second brood box, always use a deep super. The queen needs plenty of space to move around and lay her eggs.

If you’re adding a honey super, you can choose between deep, medium, or shallow. There’s no wrong answer, but if you choose a shallow super halfway through the nectar flow, it may fill up so quickly that you need to add another in a week or two. Find out more about picking a super size here.

The good news? The more supers you add, the more honey your colony will store, and the better your harvest will be at the end of summer.

Want to know more about adding supers? Talk to the team at Ecrotek now.