Uncle Drone answers a question about how to manage ‘wet’ supers and colonies in late summer

Dear Uncle Drone

I’ve just taken the honey crop from a hive and put the supers back afterwards for the bees to clean up. I’m a little concerned, however, that there are so many bees still in the colony (plus more brood to hatch) that if I take the cleaned supers off for winter storage as recommended, then the bees will be more than a bit crowded in being restricted just to the brood box. Should I have left it till later in August to take off the honey? Will the bees feel so crowded they might try raising a new queen and doing a late swarm if they’re restricted back to brood box space only?

Uncle Drone answers:

While the bulk of new beekeepers are ok with things like swarm control, handling, diseases and even extracting honey, there is often some very varying advice on what to do with wet supers.  In principle you want to feed the stores remaining in the comb back to the bees for them to store as winter food.

Firstly, when do you do this?  Well that is going to depend on when you extract.  If it is early due to OSR or similar crops, then the supers can be put back on the hives for refilling.  If it is later, say August/September then there can be a lot of bees in the hive and there is a danger of starting a robbing session (chaos) if not done properly.

Before extracting you must make sure that the honey is ripe, that is, its water content is below 20%.  How can you measure this?  Well for accuracy you need a refractometer but in reality few people will need to purchase one of these as the bees seldom cap honey with a high water content as anything over 20% is likely to ferment so capped honey is ok.  Uncapped honey that will not drip out of a comb when a frame is held horizontal and shaken gently is usually ok, but do not have too much of this in any extraction.

It is good if there are many bees in the hive in August but please remember that there will be a high mortality of those bees that emerged in July when they get to 6 weeks old, the bees emerging in August and September or later will last for many months and there needs to be enough to cover around 6-8 combs to ensure good winter survival.

If you think there is a lot of bees in the hive and pushing them down onto a brood box would be too much then leave a super on but over a queen excluder as space for them to hang, you can always take it off later.  After many, many years of keeping bees, I have seldom found it necessary to leave this on for long.  One big drawback of doing this is that the super will get in the way of rapid feeding the colony in September to make sure they have adequate stores for the winter.  Remember that you should NEVER feed colonies with a super on as the bees can store the syrup in the super and get it mixed up with honey.

The BBKA web site (www.bbka.org.uk/members/hints__tips/honey_handling) advises replacing the wet supers back over the brood and other boxes on the hive they came from, over a queen excluder but above a piece of thick polythene with a finger sized hole in it.

One option that I used because I had so many supers to dry, was to make a double width floor so that the supers could be placed alongside the brood box and were secure from robbing as it was part of an extended hive (the entrance was reduced).  I will publish plans for one of these shortly.