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Honey Supers: What, when, where, and why?

In the Willamette Valley, blackberries go into bloom in early June each year.  This major nectar flow is just around the corner for us, and we are stocking our honey supers in anticipation. Though often seen as the end goal of beekeeping, bees make honey as a way to preserve their food through the winter. They often make excess, which becomes a sweet perk for the beekeeper. Maintaining a proper balance of harvesting is vital for the health of your colony.

The right amount of honey storage for the winter can vary by region, and learning consistent beekeeping practices for your area will go a long way for your beekeeping success. For our region in the Pacific Northwest, two brood chambers that are at least 70% full of honey and brood is typically considered the standard for overwintering. For weaker hives or harsher winters, it is always better to be safe rather than sorry and protect the bees resources before harvesting any honey. A great way to check the fullness of your hive is to lift the back of the box to gauge the weight. Seasoned beekeepers refer to this as hefting, and it gives you a good idea what your bees have built up. Boxes can get heavy, and brood is lighter than honey, so we recommend using western supers as you set up for the honey flow. Another great way to keep the weight of your hive down is to build your hive with eight frame boxes.

Supers on truckThere are two main signs when it is time to put a honey super on your hive. One is that the two brood boxes are about 70% full. Adding a honey super at this time will give them time to grow, as honey stores can build up very quickly. The extra room will also keep them content in their space, and help prevent swarming. Another reason to add a honey super is if you know a significant nectar flow is coming. Even if your bees are not quite full on their brood boxes, once a major nectar flow hits, they will start building their honey stores like crazy and will need the room to expand.

Once you’re ready for the honey super, we recommend differentiating your honey boxes from brood boxes. One way to do this is with a queen excluder. This screen is big enough for worker bees to get through but too small for the queen, which prevents her from laying eggs in boxes you intend to harvest. Not all beekeepers use queen excluders, however, as a natural “honey barrier” is typically created that keeps her laying in lower boxes. Another great way to differentiate your honey supers is to use a different color of frames. If you are using western supers for your brood boxes as well, this will help you keep track of which frames were treated for mites, and which are exclusively for honey.

Once the honey flow begins, there can be a rapid buildup of honey, so we suggest monitoring closely and adding more honey supers before the bees need them. It is better to give your bees more room than less during the honey flow, but you don’t want to overwhelm them with space either. If you maintain the right amount of space, the bees will do the rest of the work!