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A beekeeper in Missouri writes:
I am a second year beekeeper, and it appears that I have successfully overwintered BOTH of my hives. I made no honey last year, but hope to make some this year. My question is when do I put honey supers on my hive, and how many should I put on?

Phil replies:
Congratulations! You have passed more than one milestone towards becoming a successful beekeeper. Harvesting honey this year will mark another.
A while back, I responded in this column to a question about how to make a successful honey crop. In my answer, I talked about the factors which contribute to a good harvest, including a brief discussion on supering hives. (Bee Culture readers: That was in my September 2014 column. To request a copy, drop me a note or an email.) If I could give you a month and date to mark on your calendar to indicate when you should begin placing supers, this answer would be brief indeed. Of course, itís not that simple. Several factors, internal and external, determine the best time to start supering, but the evidence for all of them is found inside your hives.

Newly drawn comb.

Newly drawn comb. (photo by Mark K. Parnell)


The first signal is a brood area teeming with bees. When I was State Apiarist in Kentucky, Spring always brought a few calls from beekeepers complaining that their lazy bees refused to draw out comb in honey supers. Invariably, the reason was right under their noses: too much room and not enough bees. Follow-up visits would occasionally reveal a problem, such as a queenless hive or failure to control mites, which delayed the Spring build up. Most often, though, there had just not been sufficient time for the colonyís population to expand and fill the brood boxes. Full boxes are important for two reasons. First, it takes a LOT of bees to draw out comb while also foraging, raising brood, and doing all the other tasks that busy bees perform. (See the other question in this column about how much honey is required to produce a pound of wax.) Second, bees tend to ignore supers until they have filled most of the cells in the brood chamber. They have no incentive to create new storage space in the attic as long as there is plenty of room downstairs. When you lift the inner cover of your hive and bees come boiling out, and when inspection reveals most of the frames in the brood area filled with eggs, brood, pollen, and honey, you will have met one criterion for placing honey supers.

The other is external to the hive: the strength and duration of the honey flow, which in turn depends on geographic location, climate, and weather. Experience helps in determining when nectar flows begin and end in your region, as does a familiarity with local plants and their nectar properties. Failing that, you can learn a lot by talking to other beekeepers in your area. But there are also clues inside your hives. The strength of the nectar flow can be judged by the rate at which cells are being drawn and filled. Here in Kentucky, our nectar flow normally starts in early spring and begins to slow around the first of July as we enter the mid-summer drought: in Missouri, both the onset and ending might happen a little earlier. However, the flow varies by year as well as by location. Most years, I have strong colonies and add supers in early April. As I write this on the 9th of March, my bees are flying, and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), a small, wild herb that is an important early season nectar and pollen source here, is starting to bloom. We call this a buildup plant, meaning that it is more important as an immediate source of food for young brood and workers than as a source of raw material for stored honey. As a result of the recent nice weather, and the resulting explosion of Spring blooms, I anticipate supering on schedule this year. However, on the same date last year we were in the midst of a snow storm and my supers didnít go on until late April, though I still made a good honey crop. When the bloom and nectar flow did come, it was intense. By contrast, the Spring of 2012 arrived early. I supered in early March and, by early April when I would normally be placing my first empty honey supers, I was collecting my first full ones.


These variations depend on temperature, and even more on rainfall. I rely on a combination of daily weather, weather forecasts, and observation of the bloom (white clover especially in Kentucky), but most of all I pay attention to what is going on inside my hives. Before placing supers, I monitor the strength of the colony by observing how many full or nearly full frames the brood area contains. When full brood boxes coincide with a nectar flow, itís time to add supers. Also, if I have been doing supplemental feeding for new hives or to stimulate buildup in established ones, I always remove the feeders BEFORE placing supers. Afterwards, I check frequently to see if the bees are still drawing comb and bringing in nectar, and add supers as needed. When the nectar flow stops, itís harvest time.

In your case, your honey supers will contain frames with new foundation. Next year, with a little luck, they will hold empty comb which the colony will have drawn out this Spring and which you will have carefully stored during the Winter. I suggest placing two boxes on each hive. By staying a little ahead of the bees you wonít miss out on any of your honey crop. Itís surprising how quickly foundation can be drawn and filled with nectar during a strong nectar flow. My rule of thumb is to always have at least one empty super above the box currently being worked by the bees. As they draw out most of the frames in the lower super and begin working on the one above, add another and then another as long as the nectar flow lasts. Since most of my supers contain comb drawn in previous years, I begin with three on each hive. Not having to draw comb, bees can fill supers quite rapidly. When I see nectar being placed in the middle of the three supers (they will fill the bottom one first), I will add a fourth, and so on. Your sophomore colonies may not have you rushing out to buy extra supers this year, but you never know.

I hope that you have ample sunny days, sufficient rainfall, and good nectar flows. And that you make lots of honey!

A beekeeper in New York writes:
I love your monthly column in Bee Culture. I was wondering if you know of any studies that provide a ratio of how much nectar is takes to produce one pound of wax?

I see numbers all the time like eight pounds of nectar to make one pound of wax but there is never anything to substantiate the numbers. On the surface it seems logical that wax requires more energy to produce than honey but is there any science to back this up?

Phil replies:
Thanks to the internet, my much dog-eared copy of Mark L. Winstonís The Biology of the Honey Bee, and the staff of this magazine, I was able to find a study which addresses your question. It examines the amount of honey, rather than nectar, required to produce a given quantity of wax. This makes sense because the nutritional content of nectar varies tremendously with moisture content, which can be as high as 80%. Honey, at 18% or a little less, introduces fewer experimental variables and yields more consistent results. Winston cites Dr. Warren Whitcomb, Jr. as stating that 8.4 kg of honey are required to produce one kg of beeswax, or (for the mathematically and metrically challenged) 8.4 pounds of honey for one pound of wax. An internet search produced references to an article by Dr. Whitcomb in the April 1946 issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture (as Bee Culture was formerly known) with details of research undertaken in 1942 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in cooperation with Louisiana State University. I thank Kim Flottum and Amanda at Bee Culture magazine for digging deep into their archives to find the original article for me. (Readers: if you would like a copy, drop me a note or an email.)

The description of the study is long and somewhat technical but, like you, I am interested in the scientific basis for statistics that are commonly repeated in beekeeping circles. For those who are similarly curious but donít want to take the time to read the full article, I will summarize. The experiment was set up in July of 1942 during a Summer dearth. It was intentionally conducted during a time when little or no nectar was being brought into the hives so that researchers could control and measure the amount of food which each colony received. Four queen-right colonies, approximately equal in population and comprising two deep hive bodies apiece, were selected for the experiment. Two additional boxes of frames with foundation were placed over each, along with feeders containing honey. The boxes over two of the hives held ten frames with foundation; one received boxes with eight frames, and the other six. The number of frames was varied to determine whether the amount of foundation offered at one time affected the colony’s efficiency in drawing it out. All frames and foundation were weighed prior to being placed in the hives. Frames were removed and replaced with new foundation as the comb was drawn. During the course of the experiment, some honey was deposited in the fresh comb. This was extracted after the frames were removed and weighed, and its weight, along with the initial weight of the frames and foundation, was subtracted to yield the weight of new wax. The amount of extracted honey was also subtracted from the quantity provided in the feeders in order to calculate the weight of honey actually consumed. As a control, researchers weighed other hives in the apiary at the beginning and end of the study, which lasted from mid-July late September. Weight gain in those hives was negligible, confirming that outside nectar sources did not affect comb production in the experiment. Results of the project yielded ratios of between 6.66 and 8.8 pounds of honey consumed per pound of comb produced. The average was 8.4 pounds.

Implicit to the procedure in the study, and discussed in the report, is a particular behavior of honey bees. That is their tendency to build comb in order to fill it, either with honey – which will always be the case if it is above a queen excluder – or with eggs and brood. Novice beekeepers should keep in mind that as long as there is ample space in the brood chamber, the colony is not likely to show interest in foundation placed above the brood area. Similarly, bees will not draw foundation unless a nectar flow is on or unless they are receiving supplemental food. In other words, they build extra space only as they need it. As a nectar flow ebbs, so does a colony’s comb building activity. For a fuller discussion, see the answer to the other question in this column.

Mary K. Parnell photo

Mary K. Parnell photo

Dr. Whitcomb’s report contained some additional observations on beeswax production. Variables introduced by the researchers included, not only the number of frames of foundation offered to each hive, but also the types of feeders used and the concentration of the honey provided in them. Some hives were fed slightly diluted honey (one part water to five parts honey) to determine whether food of a consistency more comparable to nectar would stimulate more comb production. At the end of the experiment “no evidence was found that the type of the feeder, the quality of feed, or the frames being given per period influenced the amount of wax produced.”

On the other hand, in a follow-up experiment conducted in 1943, researchers found that the use of starter strips did have an effect on comb production. In that study, some frames contained foundation starter strips of one 1/2″ to 1″ in height. On those, comb was drawn out more slowly and was of poorer quality than on frames containing full sheets of foundation. This result provides an interesting footnote to a question in my March column regarding the use of foundationless frames or starter strips. My answer, based on my own experience and observation, addressed the difficulty of producing well drawn comb without a complete foundation. The results of Whitcombís experiment reinforces my decision to use full sheets except, of course, in frames used for comb honey production.

The study also emphasizes the value of drawn comb on our hives. There is a tremendous difference in the fill rate for empty drawn comb placed on hives in the Spring versus frames with new foundation. Not only is honey production delayed by the time it takes to draw out new comb (a few days), but the process also requires a significant amount of nectar which ends up being consumed instead of stored to ripen into a sweet, golden harvest. It behooves beekeepers to take great care to protect the comb in extracted honey frames. There are a number of methods available to prevent damage to wax from wax moth and small hive beetle larvae. Paramoth crystals (paradichlorobenzene) are effective, as are cold rooms or freezers to maintain a low temperature. I have a friend who stores honey supers in his garage, stacked crisscross to admit light, and keeps a low watt bulb on above them day and night throughout the Winter. Wax moths do not like the light, and this technique works well for him. Whatever method you choose, take care of your comb. It may not be worth its weight in gold, but it is worth much more than its weight in honey.