Checkerboarding: the X-files of beekeeping
A discussion of checkerboarding gets men all riled up. And I don’t mean “men” as a pronoun for all genders, I mean male humans. Come on, you’ve never seen a group of women all vexed and loquacious over checkerboarding. It doesn’t happen.
Furthermore, checkerboarding induces these self-same men to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate. They make up new vocabulary, talk in cryptic terms about bloom dates and nectar flows, and schedule manipulations based on the number of weeks before other things might happen. They write in long dense paragraphs about what the bees are thinking—“colony awareness”—and how the bees “perceive” the changes you’ve made to their colony. Worse, they maintain bees can be “fooled.” I seriously doubt it.
All of Walt Wright’s original papers about checkerboarding—also known as nectar management—can be found online. Also, the various bee forums have endless discussions (I’ve heard these called wrestling matches) about checkerboarding. For anyone so inclined, I urge you to read these.
But if you want it simple, the theory of checkerboarding goes like this:
Every colony has two objectives. The secondary objective is survival of the species, otherwise known as reproduction. The primary objective is survival of the individual colony.
This is no different than any other living thing and is especially apparent when you think of a bee colony as a superorganism. Animals, plants, protists, or whatever all need to survive themselves in order that they may reproduce. It is the way of nature. It is not rocket science.
So, first and foremost, your colony takes care of itself. If it becomes strong enough and large enough, it will then swarm and produce another colony. But the final decision on whether or not to swarm is based on conditions in the hive. One of those conditions is the amount of food that is stored above the brood nest.
Checkerboarding changes the configuration of the “pantry” above the brood nest, which causes the bees to postpone swarming. Since reproduction is secondary to self-preservation, this really works. The bees delay swarm prep in order to clean up the mess in the pantry. Done properly, checkerboarding can greatly increase honey production and defer or prevent swarming altogether.
Most authors say that checkerboarding “fools” the bees into thinking that not enough food has been stored, so they keep storing more. But I don’t believe bees are fools. Thing is, you have gone into their hive and changed their storage system into a configuration they don’t like. They won’t leave until it’s fixed so they keep storing more honey in an effort to restore the configuration. That’s not being fooled, that’s being stubborn. They won’t swarm till the job’s done right.
By taking advantage of this stubbornness, you can harvest extra-large quantities of honey and keep those bees working for you instead of winging over to your neighbor’s swarm trap. In addition, you get to head into winter with a large and robust colony.
Many misconceptions surround checkerboarding. The most common one is that it interferes with the brood nest. It does not. Checkerboarding is performed in the honey storage areas above the brood nest, not in the brood rearing areas, so it is an excellent and non-invasive swarm management technique.
Next time I will review some of the more obscure checkerboarding vocabulary—important to beekeepers if not to bees—and take a look at how checkerboarding is done.