In a beehive, size matters. One of the decisions a beekeeper must make is when to add more space to the hive and when to take space away. It can be tricky to know exactly when you should take action, but if you don’t your colony could suffer. Read on to get a better understanding of the philosophy behind this part of hive management and some helpful tips.
Spring Build Up
If you’re starting out with a nuc or a package this spring, you might be wondering what the proper set up is for your bees. One mistake I see new beekeepers make, is giving their new bees way too much room. I think the beekeeper has bought, assembled and painted all of their new equipment and they may as well use it all! Right? Well, bees like to stay a warm and cozy 95F inside their cluster. The atmosphere in the hive is very carefully controlled not only for temperature, but for carbon dioxide and humidity. When you give them more space than necessary they have to work much harder to maintain these conditions and remember, heat rises! As with any job in the hive, temperature control (and we must assume also CO2 and humidity) is fueled by honey consumption. Giving your bees too much space will not only result in stressed out bees, but you may see honey stores depleted quickly and that can lead to starvation. Think of the beehive as house that must be heated and honey as the money they use to pay the bill. If you give your bees a very large house with a ton of empty space, they will have a correspondingly large bill to pay. However, as your colony grows they will need the extra space and they should now be able to afford it. The trick is to give your bees enough room to grow, but not so much that they cannot maintain it well. Therefore, you should give your new nuc or package a single Langstroth or Warre box to begin with or the equivalent of 7-10 bars in a Top Bar hive (use follower boards to block off the rest of your TBH). If the bees are actively growing, you should add another box once they have filled 70% of their space. You can continue to stack supers and add bars in this way throughout the typical growth period for your climate (spring & summer). If you are using a TBH, you have the nice advantage of adding just a handful of bars at a time instead of an entire super. In this way you can accommodate your colonies’ specific growth rate. Possibly checking on their progress more often through an observation window and then adding 3-5 bars at a time as needed.
If you notice that your new colony is not growing in size, you need to do some troubleshooting. It is important that you do so quickly because a new bee colony only has a certain window of time during the year when they have the resources necessary to expand. In some climates, this window can be very short. The window is directly tied to what is called a ‘nectar flow’. Continuing with our ‘honey is money’ analogy, when flowers are in heavy bloom, a healthy beehive has the chance for growth and they can even pad their savings account. Taking advantage of this opportunity is crucial to the colonies’ survival. Small colonies rarely survive winter because they don’t have the necessary workforce to maintain their core temperature and they often have not saved enough honey to spend on heating the hive anyway. This means that if you notice your colony is not growing, you need to be proactive and figure out what might be holding them back. Often, new colonies that are stalled in this way need to be fed sugar water to get them on their feet (your bees need a startup loan). Sometimes, you simply have a poor laying queen who cannot bolster the necessary workforce (fire her). Other times I find that the bees are hindered by their dislike of foundation (stop micromanaging your bees).
A colony of bees is not static in nature. The bees have a cycle that matches the seasons. They grow large in the spring and summer, swelling with honeycomb and a corresponding work force, but then constrict in the fall and winter when the days grow shorter and colder. The bees will stop building new comb and may even abandon some combs, leaving them empty and unused. Perhaps you extracted a super of honey in late summer and placed the empty combs back on the hive only to find that the combs are not being refilled. When you see this, it is important to pull off the unused supers and reduce the size of the hive cavity. It can be difficult to determine when exactly to scale down, but if you pay attention to your bees and what’s blooming rather than sticking to a date on the calendar you will be better off. The timing may be different each year and some climates allow for a longer bee season. Honeybees can make honey almost year round here in Southern California if we get enough rain so, I often leave my supers on well into the fall. If your supers are full of honey stores, I will harvest all but one super which I leave on for the bees.
I think there is some confusion about removing honey from your hives in favor of reducing the hive cavity for temperature control. If the supers are empty combs, you should remove them, but if the supers have combs full of honey, you should leave whatever is necessary for your bees to survive the kind of winter you have. Honey is an insulator and it will actually help keep your bees warm, not to mention they need to consume honey to have the energy to stay warm. Bees will cluster in the brood nest for warmth, with the bees on the outside of the cluster frequently changing places with bees on the inside when they get too cold. The 95F temperature will not be found throughout the entire hive cavity, just inside this cluster, but the warmer the entire cavity is, the less energy it will take for the cluster to maintain their core temperature. This is why beekeepers in cold climates often insulate their hives from the outside.
It is normal to see your colony condense itself as the season transitions from summer to fall, but make sure you still have a populous brood nest and sufficient honey stores for your bees to survive winter. If the population drops dramatically your bees may be suffering from a mite infestation or some other affliction and you should take action immediately. If you do not have enough stores, you need to find a way to feed your bees.