1 brood box + 1 super for a brood nest

Two frame sizes in the apiary: that’s almost as bad as lighting a cigarette in a crowded elevator. But perhaps it is possible to keep bees in a ‘mixed beekeeping’ manner. Here’s how I proceed in a setting with limited honey flows.

What do I mean by ‘mixed beekeeping’?

Beekeeping with two frame sizes is not that exceptional, incidentally. Many beekeepers use low honey supers for honey storage. When producing monofloral honey, low supers are filled more quickly than brood chamber sized supers. In fact, for Dadant beekeepers, it is standard to use low supers.

It so happened that I own many honey supers. And as Job van Praagh, who sadly passed away, once put it so beautifully: ‘Beekeepers are at least thrifty’. Or as I recently heard: ‘Beekeepers have barbed wire around their wallets’. I think: if it can’t be done the way it should be, then it should be done the way it can. This is the challenge in beekeeping for me.

And so I wanted to make the best possible use of those honey supers instead of selling them for next to nothing. That is how I came up with the idea of running a mixed beekeeping operation: brood in both brood chambers and honey supers. Now this means opening wide for a whole lot of criticism. For haven’t we always been taught that this is not good beekeeping practice because of the poor interchangeability of brood chamber and low super frames? Or is it possible after all?

Advantages

When using two brood boxes, in my case, working with the landrace, too much honey is stored in the brood boxes to my taste. By the way, this is no different when using Dadant; that is why most Dadant beekeepers also use a partition to induce the colony to store the honey in the honey super(s).

Colony expansion with one brood box in early spring is often just a bit too much, resulting in a hesitant acceptance of the box by the bees. In addition, there is the risk that too much brood is stored in the upper brood chamber, at the expense of the fruit honey crop. Expansion with a honey super as a brood box is safer: the box is accepted more quickly.

In order to avoid this slow occupation of the brood box, various beekeepers extend the brood box downwards, beneath the existing brood box. The late Simon Hummel produced interesting videos about this on YouTube (see for example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg5Uck0Y52o and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-k9_kcl2PU). But it doesn’t always work out that well: the foundation comb is often not drawn until much later. That in itself is not too bad, but it seems that the bees prefer to follow the upward trend. Often the bees do not want to move downward properly at first and then the box does not contribute to the feeling of space that the bees must experience in order not to get into a swarming mood.

The upward trend is decisive in the development of the colony in spring. And as with all beekeeping methods that use more than one brood box, whether beekeeping with only brood boxes or only honey supers or a combination of these, there is always the possibility of changing the order of the boxes to maintain that trend.

The surface of the Dutch ‘Simplex’ brood frame is about 6.7 dm2, so both sides are 13.4 dm2. One dm2 comb with cells with a diameter of 5.25 mm contains approximately 400 worker cells on one side. A frame completely filled with brood then contains approximately 5360 cells. But not all cells are used for brood, perhaps only about 40–60%. That is still about 2100–3200 cells containing brood per frame. Ten brood chamber frames therefore contain about 21,000-32,000 cells with brood.

A Simplex super frame contains about 1630 cells on one side; hence 3260 on both sides. If 40-60% of the surface is filled with brood, this results in some 1300 to 1950 brood cells per frame. Ten frames of brood therefore contain about 13,000-19,500 brood cells.

One brood chamber and one super together contain between 34,000 and 51,500 brood cells. The development time from egg to adult worker bee takes 21 days. A (purebred) queen lays a maximum of 2000 eggs per day. So a maximum of 42,000 cells are occupied at the same time.

For the landrace with which I work, the number of cells that contain one brood box and one super is sufficient to provide the queen with the laying space she needs. This observation applies even more when using a frame spacing of 35 mm instead of 38, and consequently accommodating 11 frames per box instead of 10.

Central to beekeeping with the divided brood space is the illustrious, but often maligned tipping control, which only checks for queen cells by looking between the two brood boxes. This works in the vast majority of cases, but if one queen cell is overlooked, the swarm leaves. If a queen cell is discovered, all frames must still be shaken off for inspection. Regular checks are required until the swarming period is over. The method works less well with colonies that have a strong tendency towards swarming, as they sometimes remain in a swarming mood for weeks on end.

Cutting drone comb to slow down the build-up of the Varroa population is controversial. Although it has some effect, opponents argue that it violates the harmony in the colony. In the underlying method, it is possible to introduce two super frames into the brood chamber, in stead of one normal frame. In the super frame the bees construct worker cells and the empty space under the frame is used by them to build drone comb. Using only one super frame, the surface of drone brood probably is too small to achieve sufficient effectiveness. After cutting away the lower part of the super frame, the frame itself, often containing worker brood, can then be moved to the super.

Disadvantages

The interchangeability of the frames is obviously the biggest drawback. I sometimes have to put a super frame with brood in a large brood box belonging to another colony. Then the bees of course build comb onto it, which is not such a disaster after all.

A major point of concern is the complicated comb hygiene associated with this beekeeping method. Systematically exchanging old honeycomb, i.e. all frames in a box, is not really possible. An individual approach per frame is required.

But there are, with some creative thinking, solutions to be found. Instead of (or in succession to) the tipping control, a temporary colony split can be made. If you do not opt for increasing the number of colonies, the old brood box can be removed in its entirety at the end of the season. Another method of comb renewal is total brood removal, even though comb renewal is not the original intention of this Varroa control method.

Finally, I could imagine that having to carry out changes in the order of the boxes mentioned below will also be considered a disadvantage.

The Method

For the main steps during the season I refer to the image below. As always in beekeeping, there are of course many variants possible. In winter, the super is positioned above the brood chamber. In the spring I switch the two boxes, at least if there is no brood in the top box yet. This may stimulate the bees somewhat to develop as they try to correct as quickly as possible this unnatural constellation with stores positioned under the brood. The heat development associated with this activity then possibly stimulates the initiation of brood rearing.

After a series of possible tipping checks, a temporary split is sometimes made. This gives the possibility (if expansion of the number of colonies is not desired) to eliminate old comb. If no swarming mood occurs, the temporary split is not necessary. In that case, the colony can be expanded with one super for honey storage. For those beekeepers who travel to the heather, it is recommended to reduce space properly ahead of time and to provide the colonies with old comb for honey storage because of the tedious processing of heather honey and the fragility of recently constructed comb.

Example annual cycle mixed operation.