Half work – working with supers only

It happens to all of us: frames partially filled with honey. The solution is to use low frames in supers. Easier to carry, if nothing else. But then we’re stuck with two frame sizes in our apiary. Many beekeepers dislike that. No worry: we can also use the low frames for rearing brood: working with supers only as brood chambers.

These days, many beekeepers want to work with one single undivided brood chamber. They believe this is closer to ‘natural beekeeping’. Still, it may be worthwhile to reason ‘the other way around’. What would happen if we use supers for housing brood? In the past researchers have experimented with this approach. It leads to a totally different way of beekeeping, which is characterised by manipulating entire boxes rather than individual frames. With low boxes this is obviously easier than with standard-height brood chambers, given their lower weight.

The key to this beekeeping method is vertical mobility. We know that a laying queen is irresistibly attracted to moving upward in the hive. The brood nest follows the honey stores. If there are few stores the brood moves upward. If the stores grow the brood nest is pushed downward.

Beekeeping using supers for brood chambers has been described for the first time by C.L. Farrar in the nineteen thirties. He was a well-respected bee researcher in the USA, who, to give just an example, also published about two-queen beekeeping methods. At the beginning of the nineties of the 20th century Josef Bretschko from Austria described the method in his great publication Naturgemaesse Bienenzucht (Beekeeping the Natural Way). It is in my opinion still one of the best books on beekeeping. Recently, the method has been advocated once again by Heinz Lorenz, a great champion of the Langstroth hive, in his book ‘Naturnahes Imkern im Flachzargen-Magazin’ (Beekeeping the Natural Way in Low Brood Chambers).

How does the method work?

Key point in all these descriptions is the periodical -say, once per 3 weeks- reversal of the order of the brood chambers during the breeding season of the colony. This reversal occurs (in case we use 3 supers as brood chambers, which is the normal situation) around the box in the middle. Purpose is to give enough space in the middle and upper boxes in order to maintain the upward trend of the queen.

During winter, the cluster slowly moves upward, following the food stock. Since the queen is not inclined to move downward the first eggs of the year will be laid somewhere in the upper boxes. This may lead to lack of space for laying, and hence to swarm fever, even while there is space enough in the lower box. Maybe the low frames somewhat hamper the brood production initially, but the rotation of the boxes more than compensates for this.

We have always been taught that reversing the order of brood chambers in spring entails risks, since the shape of the brood nest can be easily violated. The particularity of working with low frames for brood is that they are so low that reversing the order is easily compensated by the bees which are always striving towards a circular brood nest: the queen traverses the empty space between the frames without any problem. A short walk and there she is in the next box.

The rotation

The crux of the method resides in choosing the proper moment and the frequency of the chamber reversals. As is often the case in beekeeping, various authors have different opinions about this. According to Bretschko, the first reversal (or rotation) should take place at the end of the first development phase, right after the willow bloom, and before the cherries start flowering. Lorenz performs the first rotation 2-6 weeks after the willow bloom. This first rotation is decisive for the whole season in order to guarantee a stress-free development of the colony. If we are too late swarm fever may occur. A useful rule of thumb is to carry out the rotation when there are 6-7 brood frames in the upper chamber, which are well covered with bees. While carrying out the rotation we can, at the same time, replace old frames with foundation and, if so desired, an empty construction frame. All in all, 3-4 rotations at most will be necessary during one season.

As a result of this first rotation we will now have a brood nest that consists of two half circles which lie on top of each other in reversed position. The bees will try to remediate this situation as soon as possible. As we are working with low frames, this situation is not as bad as it would be if we would be working with standard-size frames. This reorganisation of the brood nest incidentally has a stimulative effect on the colony.

How much space does the queen actually have in this method? To give a rough estimate: working with Dutch Simplex-sized low frames, three 10-frame supers have a total surface of 244.8 dm2. Alternatively, one 12-frame Dadant brood chamber holds 263.0 dm2. Consequently, the three Simplex supers provide slightly less space, but still quite sufficient, especially considering the fact that many Dadant beekeepers nowadays work with partitions in order to limit the brood space.

If the rotation is carried out properly the original frames holding stores gradually move downward, where they will eventually be removed from the hive. Constructing comb foundation mainly takes place in the honey supers and on the sides of the brood chambers. The rotations work best if the middle brood chamber contains most of the brood. If there is too much brood in the lower brood chamber the upward trend is jeopardised and swarm fever may ensue.

Example of colony development (numbers indicate the (low) brood chambers).

Pros and cons

Why would we want to experiment with such a method, apart from weight considerations? One of the advantages is producing monofloral honeys. After all, a low frame is more easily filled than a standard-size one. In addition, the two horizontal divisions of the brood nest (if the colony hibernates in three supers) offers to the bees the opportunity to move freely around the hive, if needs be. This way there is little risk of starvation.
There are disadvantages as well, obviously. First of all, more material is required. More frames per colony implies more work: installing comb foundation, extracting honey. It is vital to respect the bee space between the various boxes, otherwise we would waste much time separating the boxes from each other and removing excess wax between the boxes.