As beekeepers, we offer our bees a place to live. Whether they choose to stay there is entirely their choice and, if they decide they don’t like their digs, they swarm or abscond. But many bees live quite happily with the choice the beekeepers has provided for them, often for many years.
However, a colony is an incredibly dynamic organism, constantly growing and changing its objectives. At some points of the year it will be focused on brood, then the honey flow will result in rapid growth in the honey store. As winter approaches brood production will be cut back.
Add to this the highly localized factors of weather, temperature and foraging resources and it’s impossible to define a single timetable everyone can use. The successful beekeeper is a watchful, curious beekeeper.
As this fascinating environment changes over the weeks and months, beekeepers have an obligation to observe and understand these changes. With that understanding, we ensure we offer our bees the appropriate amount of space, by adding (or removing) boxes.
What are the “rules” for when boxes should be added? As with most things in beekeeping, there are no hard-and-fast rules. But we can provide some general guidance.
The brood nest is the foundation allocated to the creation of new bees! This is where eggs are laid, subsequently to transform to larvae, then pupae then to emerge as adult bees.
The boxes at the bottom of a Langstroth are used for the brood nest and are referred to as brood boxes (which is pretty logical!).
For simplicity, we tend to refer to the addition of boxes, as the way to expand a Langstroth or Warre hive (the Top Bar hive is a fixed size, with no option to expand). However, many beekeepers refer to those intended to store honey as “supers” (or “honey supers”). As we will see below, there is also “supering” as a verb, namely to add another box for storage of honey.
The production and storage of honey is an elaborate and quite fascinating process, starting with the collection of nectar from flowers, involving “processing” within the hive and then storage in cells. When the water content of the honey has reached the appropriate level, the cell is “capped”, meaning it is covered in wax. The honey will remain in that state until the bees need it.
The cap on honey is visually quite distinct and is considerably lighter than that used to cap brood. The image below shows capped honey on the right.
The queen excluder is a simple metal or wood grid sitting above the brood boxes and, given the precise size of the holes, allows worker and drone bees through, but not the queen. This is a way to ensure that no eggs are laid in the honey super.
Opinions differ as to whether queen excluders are worthwhile. Given that even workers have to squeeze through a hole, those who oppose the use of queen excluders refer to them as “honey excluders”. Provocative!
Given the PerfectBee recommendation to leave all honey to the bees in the first year, we do not suggest the use of a queen excluder is justified in year one.
You have choices when it comes to box sizes (see our Langstroth Box Buyers Guide for details). Generally, you will deal with medium or deep boxes, although shallows are also available. You make this initial choice when you install your hive. For example, some beekeepers prefer to use a hive with three medium boxes while others prefer a couple of deeps (either work). One factor in your choice will be the weight of fully-laden honey supers, which is obviously a little less with a medium, as compared to a deep.
The other option with the Langstroth is whether to use 8 or 10 frame boxes. Both have been common for a long time and work great. Again, the benefit of the 8 frame box is that it is lighter, at the cost of storing less honey.
Starting with a single box
When you install a package of bees or a nuc you will start with a single box (medium or deep). As the colony develops, you will add more boxes, on top of the initial box which will be used for brood.
Space for the brood nest
If you have frames with foundation (such as the case with SuperFrames), the bees will create comb on the wax-covered foundation.
If you are going foundationless, bees will create comb, hanging down from the top of the frame.
Regardless of whether you use foundation, though, the result in the bottom box is comb destined to be used for brood. This is where all the action will take place – the laying of eggs, the development of larvae which transforms to pupae and then the emergence of adult bees. The myriad roles of the worker bee are enacted here, from attendants to the queen, nurse bees, housekeepers and more.
It all happens in this lower box.
Why add boxes
As the brood nest develops, bees will eventually turn their attention to building reserves of honey. While the brood boxes will themselves contain a pattern of brood, pollen and honey, upper boxes will generally be used exclusively for honey.
The reason to add boxes is rather straightforward, namely to ensure bees have the space they need for brood and honey. But there’s another important consideration, which is the threat of swarming. When bees feel they have too little space they will plan to swarm. If you leave it too late, they will be past the point of no return and you can’t prevent the swarming occurring.
When to add boxes
The key is to keep an eye on how many frames your bees have used in each box. The bees will create drawn comb “out and up” in a Langstroth.
This means they will start in the (only) box, using frames near the center of the box. The queen will then lay in the next frames away from the center and so on until the frames are all used.
However, you should not wait until every frame has drawn comb. Instead, when 6-7 frames have drawn comb, you should consider adding another box. The bees will continue to build out the comb in the lower box but will now have space to work upwards into the new box.
As ever, there will be debate as to how many frames with drawn comb should be evident before a box is added. We’ve seen suggestions as low as 5 frames and as high as 8 (the latter seems too late, to us). Around 6-7 is a nice balance and what many beekeepers will use.
Why not just add them from the start?
A common question from new beekeepers is “Why not just start with all the boxes already installed?”. The reason to avoid this is that too much space can also be a problem for bees. They need to stay warm and, depending on the location, even a summer evening can see temperatures drop significantly.
With an appropriately-sized hive, the bees can keep their living quarters warm and cozy! But with lots of empty space that creates a real – and unnecessary – challenge. So the best approach is to add boxes only when needed.