Managing bees for cut-comb or chunk honey is relatively simple, but coaxing them into other containers is more difficult. Unless a colony is prepared for sections or jars, you will often see a dozen bees examine the supers, indifferent and bored. This can go on all season: you think your colony is not thriving, but your colony thinks you’ve lost your mind.
In spite of the naysayers, standard Langstroth and top-bar hives make sense to bees. They understand the possibilities. They build parallel combs in the hive that mimic those they would build in nature. In a frame, they will conveniently attach the comb to the bottom and sides. In a top-bar hive, they often inconveniently do the same.
Managing bees for section honey is tricky
But install little compartments above the brood box, and the bees become vexed. Tiny storage vaults—whether round, square, rectangular, or cylindrical—do not comport with the bees’ sense of order. They walk around with a glazed expression like employees offered a cubicle instead of an office.
The question, then, is how to get bees to do something you want and they don’t. While our brains are bigger, theirs are definitely more stubborn.
Since section honey is popular and demands a high price, beekeepers have been fighting the section honey battle for many years. Ideas have been tried and failed, and new techniques have been developed, but some principles remain the same. Managing bees for section honey is a challenge, but it’s also fun.
Your overwintered colony must be populous and healthy
This is basic. If a colony is not robust, it will not put wax combs in little containers. You will be lucky to get any honey at all. If a colony is mediocre in strength, skip it and try another.
To complete fully-capped honey sections, a colony must be large, edgy, and boiling over with bees that are bouncing off the walls and fighting for space. Remember, managing bees for section honey is not for the faint of heart. Although you can easily identify the perfect colony for comb honey, you won’t want to go near it without a suit of armor.
Your colony needs a vibrant young queen
A new first-year queen is necessary for a vigorous build-up of early spring bees. Colonies with new queens are also less likely to swarm than those headed by older queens. While a new spring queen is best, it is sometimes possible to use a colony headed by a queen installed the previous fall.
The bees need a major nectar flow
Comb building always requires a good supply of nectar, so timing is important. You want your colony to be robust with an actively laying queen by the beginning of the first major nectar flow. If you don’t know when to expect it, ask a local beekeeper or call your county extension agent.
Keep your colonies on the verge of swarming
So far, these requirements are not much different than those for any honey production, but here the similarity ends because the key to superb section honey is maintaining colonies on the verge of swarming.
I have written many posts on various ways to keep your bees from swarming, but most of those techniques will not give you great section honey. Instead, you need to crowd your bees so they have no room to store nectar unless they go up in those funny-shaped containers and build comb. You need to leave them no alternative.
Be prepared for an errant swarm
Here is a good place for a word of caution. If you are an urban beekeeper, or if you have neighbors who would not be happy to have a swarm decorating their swing set, you should probably avoid section honey and stick to cut comb instead. Keeping bees on the verge of swarming without actually swarming is tricky business. Every now and again you will lose a swarm. It’s like walking on a tight rope—the day will come when you fall. Like any gamble, the payoff can be great but the stakes may be high.
I like to prepare for an errant swarm by setting up bait hives or swarm traps on the edge of the apiary. Traps don’t always work, but when they do, you can dump those bees back into the original hive.
You can’t manage bees for section honey without crowding the colonies
The first step to crowding your bees is to consolidate all brood frames into as few brood boxes as possible. For example, with triple deeps, I put all the brood in two boxes and remove the third. If my bees are in double deeps, I put all the brood into one box and remove the second. If I have an odd number of frames, say eleven, I put that final frame in another hive.
I know other beekeepers who reduce all brood to a deep and a medium, or sometimes three mediums. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you put all your brood in the smallest space possible. Any extra workers can be shaken into the consolidated hive, or they can be put into a weaker hive that needs a boost.
Now place your consolidated hive on a bottom board, add a slatted rack, and then a section super on top of that. Although the slatted rack is not absolutely necessary, it relieves some of the congestion, which reduces overheating in the brood nest.
Excluding the queen
Personally, I do not use a queen excluder under the section super. It is difficult enough to get the workers to build comb in the containers, so I see no point in making it even harder. Secondly, I have rarely seen a queen lay in a section super. One year I had a queen that laid one row of eggs in each of two different sections, but to me, that amount of intrusion isn’t worth the negative effects of a queen excluder.
I simply cover the section super with a screened inner cover with no upper entrance. The screen gives better ventilation and faster curing while the lack of an upper entrance reduces travel stain. Most of the debris from the bee’s feet is left on the brood comb as they make their way into the honey supers from the bottom.
Feeding your bees
After the section hive is set up, many beekeepers like to feed 1:1 sugar syrup until the nectar flow begins. This can give the bees on jump-start on producing the white wax comb that will hold the honey. This is fine as long as you remember to remove the syrup as soon as the flow begins—don’t give them a chance to store any syrup in the comb.
Replacing the old queen
Now that you are all set up, nothing remains but the hard part. After four to five days, go into the hive and destroy all queen cells that you find. They are hard to find under so many bees, but you need to get them all.
Three days later, go into the hive again and destroy (or remove) the old queen and all of the brand new swarm cells except three. Make sure the three remaining are uncapped; if they are capped, they are older than three days and should have been destroyed the first time around. According to Eugene Killion in Honey in the Comb, the delay caused by destroying the early swarm cells makes the bees all the more eager to swarm, and this eagerness produces higher-quality queen cells.
Now you can let your bees raise a queen. Some beekeepers destroy two of the three remaining cells after seven more days. Other beekeepers let the bees do the culling. There are risks with either method, but according to master beekeeper Ray Nicholson of Minnesota, queens raised by the colony seem to suppress swarming better than introduced queens, so this is the preferred method.
If you would rather introduce a queen, go back into the hive five days after removing the old queen, destroy any queen cells, and add your caged queen. Be sure she gets released in a few days.
At this point, you have done your job until the nectar flow begins.
Honey Bee Suite
Next time: how to manage section supers