In early May, I wrote a post on the topic Nine frames or ten in the brood box? Since that discussion was confined to brood boxes, I promised a future post on the subject of the ideal number of frames in honey supers. That discussion follows.
In the earlier post, I commented that beekeepers can manage hives with only nine frames, as long as they keep in mind the theory of bee space and the proclivity of honey bees to build burr comb whenever they have extra space available between frames. I ended by saying that, while I had maintained colonies with nine frame brood boxes in the past, I had arrived at the conclusion that using ten is a more productive management style for me, resulting in more bees and higher honey yields. I have a very different perspective when it comes to honey supers. I have used nine frames in my supers for many years, and am currently using eight on most of my hives.
To review a few basics: standard beekeeping equipment is designed for ten frames. The ideal distance between frames, and hence combs, is based on the concept of bee space, the maximum gap (about ¼”) which can be left between frames without the bees’ filling it with burr comb. Violating the bee space rule can result in the bees’ bridging the space between frames with extra comb, which is why burr comb is also sometimes called bridge comb. It sticks the frames together and merges the combs into large irregular clumps which I call a mess. Separating and removing the frames becomes difficult or impossible and endangers the queen if she happens to be inside the mass when we attempt to clean it up. Bees can levy a severe penalty for violation of their bee space directive.
The good news is that the bee space rule is not absolute, and will allow (most of the time) some wiggle room if we increase the spacing just a bit – see the earlier post. It also turns out that there is a lot more leeway in the distance between frames and combs in honey supers than in brood boxes, allowing us to use as few as eight frames in supers designed for ten. When we decrease the spacing between honey super frames, the bees build thicker combs instead of building extra layers of comb as they do in brood areas. Presumably, this is because bees are hard wired to create brood cells of specific dimensions, including a specific depth. On the other hand, comb used primarily for honey storage can be variable in depth.
The thicker combs which bees draw out in honey supers with eight or nine frames can benefit the beekeeper. Not only do the supers require less hardware, but the thicker combs are also more easily de-capped during extraction. Some beekeepers insist that a honey super with eight frames produces more honey, though a recent study at Kentucky State University found yields to be about the same whether eight, nine, or ten were used. My own experience is that using eight frames seems to result in more honey per super. My evidence is my aching back after lifting the supers from the hives. Either way, the honey is obtained with slightly less cost (fewer frames per super), and with less labor (fewer frames to assemble, decap, and extract.)
Switching to nine or eight frames
As with brood boxes, honey supers should not be started with fewer than ten frames if they contain foundation rather than drawn comb – definitely not with eight frames. Some beekeepers do tell me that they successfully start supers with nine frames of foundation, but it’s necessary to keep a close eye on them. The safer course is to begin with ten and remove one or two as the bees draw them out. Maintaining consistent spacing of the frames is important, and there are three ways to accomplish it. The first is to eyeball it, which works fine for me and is the cheapest – zero cost. The second is to purchase or construct a tool to press between the frames to space them perfectly each time. This is the second cheapest, involving a one time purchase. The last option is to buy and install eight frame or nine frame spacers, sold by beekeeping supply companies, in each honey super. The disadvantage of these “in the super” spacers, other than the cost, is that they restrict the beekeeper to a fixed number of frames unless he is prepared to remove and replace them each time he adds or removes frames.
An alternative way of starting honey supers with fewer than ten frames of foundation is to mix them with frames which have already been drawn out. This method was suggested to me by a beekeeping friend and I’ve had good success with it. I place 5 frames of foundation in the middle of a honey super, with slight spaces between them, and add two frames of drawn comb at each end of the box, evenly spaced between the frames with foundation and the ends of the honey super. The spacing can be readjusted as the comb in the center frames is drawn out.
To recap, you can use ten, nine, or eight frames in your honey supers. Just keep in mind the bee space rule and honey bees’ natural inclination to fill up gaps as you are setting up the supers. The choice is yours – the bees don’t mind one way or the other. I’m always willing to try something new and to learn from other beekeepers, so yesterday I placed a honey super on one of the subject hives from my Tale of Two Hives series containing nine frames with only foundation. I hope to see the bees draw it out in the next couple of weeks and make me some honey. I’ll let you know if they make a mess of it instead. Drop me an email or write a comment if you have a question or if you’d like to share your own experiences.