Ask Phil! He Knows!

A beekeeper in Texas writes:

I recently watched a video on YouTube that advocates using a nine frame bar spacer, as shown below.
It looks like a great idea but I have never known of anybody else using this method. I like the idea because it seems to me like this creates less crowded conditions inside the hive which would make the frames easier to pull out at inspection/harvest time. 

I found a nine frame spacing tool for sale at Mann Lake and this tells me that nine frame spacers must be somewhat commonly used. My question is, what do you think may be the advantages and/or disadvantages in using a nine frame spacer?

Phil replies:

I don’t know whether the video you saw advocated using spacers in brood boxes, honey supers, or both. My opinion on the merits of eight or nine frame spacers depends on where you want to put them. However, if you’re going to use them at all, I recommend the type in your picture, which I call push-in spacers.

Whether metal or plastic, with or without a handle, they are used just like the rack in a game of pool – placed to get the positioning right, and then removed. Beekeeping suppliers also sell spacers which are nailed into a ten frame box, permanently dividing it into eight or nine frames. I don’t care for that kind in honey supers, because you can’t switch between eight, nine, and ten frames without removing the spacer (not easy to do when it’s nailed in and propolized over.) In brood boxes they’re even worse, because they make it impossible to slide frames over when working hives. When I do inspections, I first remove an end frame and set it aside (on the ground leaning against the hive, or in an empty brood box.) I then scoot the next frame over before pulling it out. That gives me a bigger space to work in, making it easier to remove the frame and less likely that I’ll “roll the bees” (squash them between two frames) or even the queen. With mounted spacers, the frame must be lifted directly up. The permanent, nail-in, spacers are also more expensive because they require two per box, whereas one push-in type can be used in any number of hives.

In my July 2013 column, I discussed the advantages of using eight or nine frames in 10-frame honey supers. (Bee Culture readers who are interested and don’t keep issues that far back can email or write me for a copy.) In brief, I much prefer fewer than ten frames in supers. I think, though I’m not certain, that a super with eight or nine frames may actually hold more honey than one with ten. I know that fewer frames cost less, take less time to put together, and are quicker to extract. They also encourage the bees to draw comb out beyond the edges of the frame, which makes decapping faster and easier. When using foundation only, I start with 10 frames per super and trust myself to space them by eye. As the bees draw out the comb, or when I start with a mixture of foundation and drawn comb, I use nine frames, and eventually change to eight. To distribute them evenly in the super, I use push-in spacers with the appropriate number of divisions. I find that the fewer the frames, the more difficult it is to gauge the spacing visually.

Some beekeepers also prefer to use nine frames in ten frame brood boxes in order, as you said, to make the box less crowded and make frames easier to remove and replace. I would never suggest using eight frames in a brood box. Bees treat brood comb a little differently than comb for storing excess honey. Given extra room in a honey super, they will just draw the cells out slightly deeper, which is why they are easier to decap. However, in brood boxes with fewer than nine frames, they will connect frames together with extra wax (bur comb) or even make a complete extra layer of comb between them (bridge comb), generally just making a mess of the brood box. A similar result can occur with nine frames in a standard brood box if the frames are not evenly distributed. That’s where the spacer comes in.

Early in my beekeeping career, several people recommended to me that I use nine frames instead of ten, and I tried it for a couple of years. It did make getting into my hives easier, as long as I kept the frames correctly spaced. I returned to using ten frames when I realized that I was reducing the area available for brood rearing by 12.5%. Why 12.5% instead of 10%? Bees typically do not rear brood on the outside frames because it is harder for them to maintain ideal temperatures for the brood there. They tend to use those frames for food storage. So, instead of sacrificing one frame out of ten for brood when I changed to nine frames, I was really giving up one out of eight. I switched back to ten frames mostly because I wanted to maximize honey production, and to do so I needed my hives to be as strong as possible. To build the colony’s population, I needed all the brood frames that the hive was designed to hold. That was not the only reason I went back to 10 frames. I found that, despite using a frame spacer, I sometimes got in a hurry and left a little more room between some frames than others. The result was that the combs varied slightly in thickness. I make nucs in five-frame nuc boxes. When I put one of these slightly thicker brood combs into a nuc box, I had difficulty fitting all five frames in, which I found frustrating. After resuming using ten frames in the brood boxes, I found that I could very easily space them evenly by eye and that, as long as I went through my hives every couple of weeks in the spring and summer, I had little difficulty removing frames or putting them back in.

Your question is a good example of different strokes for different beekeepers. I like eight frames in honey supers, but my son prefers nine, so I may have to change – not because he’s right and I’m wrong, but because he now does most of my extracting for me. I went back to ten frame brood boxes, but there is nothing wrong with using nine. You might decide that giving up some brood area is a good tradeoff for the extra room and convenience. You’ll never know until you try, and a frame spacer is a small investment to make. I recall hearing Dr. Tom Webster, apiculture extension specialist and researcher at Kentucky State University, say that we each need to learn what works for us, and develop our own beekeeping style. I think that is very true.

A beekeeper in California writes:

Is there a race of bees with all yellow abdomens? All the ones I have seen suffer from deformed wing virus. I have ordered MAQS [Mite Away Quick Strip] to control the Varroa.

Phil replies:

The yellowest bees are Italians. I’ve read that the color is even more pronounced on Italians in the United States than on those in Italy because Americans tend to prefer more saffron colored bees, and queen breeders have selected for that trait. There is even a line of almost pure yellow Italians called Cordovans, which was first developed as genetic markers for research purposes. These very yellow Italians are sold by some queen producers, including at least one in California. I have long thought about buying one for my observation hive.

Within a hive, coloration can vary because of different genetics. Though all the bees in a given colony may have the same mother, they carry genes from several fathers. Queens generally mate with more than a dozen drones. (The number of matings cited differs from one article or book to another, and all are estimates or averages.) The sperm stored in the queen’s spermatheca after these couplings can be sufficient for her to fertilize eggs for up to several years, creating a genetic diversity among the half-sisters in the hive which is beneficial to the colony as a whole. It reduces susceptibility to disease, and increases resilience because the offspring from one drone may be resistant to a particular disease, whereas another group may possess other traits which give them, and the colony, a survival advantage. We can think of this diversity as being similar to the contributions to a community of a group of citizens possessing distinct, specialized skills. Color is an incidental trait which accompanies more substantive differences.

However, your saying that all the bees with yellow abdomens suffer from deformed wing virus (DWV), makes me suspect that what you are seeing has nothing to do with genetics. I think that they are very young bees (a few days old at most) whose coloration is different from that of the adults because their exoskeletons have not yet hardened. My own bees being of a darker stock, they look grey to me when newly emerged. The virus which deformed your bees’ wings affects the developing pupa prior to emergence. Its victims never live long; the adults will sense that they are defective and remove them from the hive. Thus all your deformed wing bees are young, and all your young bees have yellow abdomens.

You are quite correct in associating the DWV symptoms you are seeing with a Varroa issue. Varroa mites carry DWV along with at least two dozen other viruses. This number keeps going up the longer researchers study Varroa. While some viruses are not accompanied by any observable signs, they can still have serious consequences for the well-being of the colony as well as for the health of individual honey bees.

Deformed wing virus is one which can produce clear characteristics – the deformed wings from which the name derives – but they may only appear on some of the infected bees. The asymptomatic ones still suffer less visible damage from the virus, including lower body weight and shortened life span, which can lead to high winter colony losses.

The same California beekeeper responds to Phil’s emailed reply:

Thank you for the detailed response and I agree with your assessment. By way of background information the queen is an open mated Carny from a central CA beekeeper and breeder. The few drones I have seen are dark and the workers are typically colored Italians. The bees are very calm when inspecting the hive but use a lot of propolis.

I knew the colony was in trouble when in early December I began seeing a lot of dead bees near the hive. The sticky board showed a very heavy mite load. Then the blond bees with deformed wings appeared so I ordered MAQS and treated with two pads a few days after contacting you. The colony now appears to be doing well with the bees foraging on fiddleneck and mustard. We have mild winters in the Central Valley and the bees forage even in winter in this urban environment. I have not opened the hive since treating but with all the recent activity I’m sure the colony is growing and have even seen bees orienting.
The colony was installed in early April 2014 and filled four medium eight-frame supers with honey. We harvested three and left one on for Winter. The honey is dark with a distinct but mild flavor.
The “blond” bees intrigued me since I had not seen anything in the literature about all yellow bees. I agree, they were recently emerged bees, somewhat small in size and loaded with viruses.
Thanks for the information and I greatly enjoy your column.

Phil replies again:

I’m glad that you treated to control the Varroa. The consensus among experts is that controlling mites is the most important action beekeepers can take to improve the health of their colonies. Unfortunately, much of the damage they do is by stealth, like the viruses for which they are vectors, and it is often attributed to other causes.