English for beekeepers writing and blogging

English for beekeepers: basic terminology

With that title, I can hear my ratings tumble like rocks from a precipice. Certain words invoke sheer boredom in beekeepers; “English” is one, “physics” is another. Although my “Physics for beekeepers” series is my personal favorite, it certainly is not yours. I don’t expect “English for beekeepers” to fare much better.

My complaint is that many beekeepers—by no means all—use words that mean different things to different people. That in itself is fine, except it is impossible to communicate when there is no agreement on meaning. As a writer, it is my job to communicate. Readers expect writers to convey information or stories in a way they can understand.

Flexible definitions lead to mushy, unclear thinking, and unclear thinking leads to miscommunication. For example, the terms median and mean have very specific definitions to scientists and mathematicians. If I say “mean” when I meant “median,” the information I’ve communicated is wrong, even if the two values are identical. Huh?

Beginners are brutalized by imprecise words

Never mind, here’s an example closer to home. I once met a beekeeper who had just put her two honey supers under her two brood boxes. When I asked her why, she said her mentor told her to reverse her supers. Now in a world where all bee boxes are inexplicably called supers, I suppose this made sense. She understood the word “super” incorrectly because her mentor used it incorrectly—and that lead to miscommunication and the wrong outcome. Poor bees.

Similarly, about three years later a beekeeper I knew “reversed” his brood boxes by rotating them 180 degrees. Can you blame him? The word “reverse” all by itself doesn’t mean much unless someone explains, and we beekeepers are notoriously bad at explaining.

A short list of confusing terms

A few months ago I wrote about the words “colony” and “hive.” You can compare them to “family” and “house.” A colony lives in a hive just as a family lives in a house. Hives do not abscond. Hives do not swarm.They cannot possibly starve or die. Instead, hives are inanimate objects that don’t do much of anything except rot. We accept this sloppy wording after a while because we know what we mean. But for someone who is just learning, this type of language is incomprehensible.

Lots of confusing terms come to mind:

    • People say nuc when they mean a small brood box, but a nuc is a small colony (a nucleus colony). It is a nuc regardless of the size of the box it’s in. Conversely, if a small brood box is empty, it’s not a nuc, it’s just a small box. Such an empty box can be called a “nuc box,” but not a “nuc.”
    • A cluster is not a swarm. “During the winter, the swarm moved to the top of the hive.” Wrong. That bunch of bees is a cluster or colony.
    • Caste does not mean sex. Honey bees have two sexes, male and female, and the female sex is divided into two castes, workers and queens. This yields three types of bees (three adult phenotypes) but not three castes.
    • Ill-tempered does not mean Africanized. Ill-tempered bees could be Africanized, but most are not.
    • Swarm cells and supersedure cells are built for different purposes; they are not equivalent. When someone says “queen cell,” which one do they mean?
    • People talk about the honey flow, but the thing that’s flowing from flowers is nectar. The term “honey flow” gives the impression that honey is flowing, fully formed, from the blossoms when, in fact, it doesn’t become honey until it’s been processed by honey bees. “Nectar flow” is a more accurate term.
    • Queen is not capitalized in the middle of a sentence. Queen is a relationship like mother, father, sister, and brother. Or you can think of it as a job description: lawyer, mayor, painter, worker, queen. It is not a title, unless you happen to name her. Then, I suppose, you could call her Queen Melissa or some such. But if you name her, you have different problems.
    • Eggs hatch. Adult bees emerge. Maybe it doesn’t sound logical to you, but we need ways to distinguish these things. This is the terminology the good bee journals use and the one I use here.

The worst of the worst

Of course, the all-time most irritating word in all of beedom is super. Super is short for superstructure. You can’t have a superstructure (which means “above the structure”) unless you first have a structure. All boxes cannot go above something that’s not there. You have brood boxes and supers. Brood boxes are the basic structure of the hive and contain the brood; supers go above the brood boxes and hold the honey. Simple and drop-dead logical. Why is that so confusing?

If anyone is still awake, I have one more complaint. Recently I saw the abbreviation SBB used to mean “screened bottom board.” Two months later in the same publication SBB was used to mean “solid bottom board.” Just think about it; to help control Varroa mites you should use an SBB instead of an SBB. But everyone knows that, right?



  • Love it! Just taught a class and remembered your blog about colony vs. hive so I was extra careful there. Thanks for adding more terms. “Super” for every box has been a personal pet peeve of mine also. One beekeeper told me they were taught that all boxes were called supers. They were told to put “deep supers” on the bottom and “shallow supers” on the top. Go figure.

  • As a relatively new beek, thank you, thank you for calling this out. The hardest part of getting into beekeeping was deciphering the “bee-speak”. Trying to learn, while reading things about “supers” and abbreviations like “SBB” drove me nuts!

    And to make it even worse, I am guilty of perpetuating the problem on my own blog. Maybe I should go back and edit my work 😉

  • I’m guilty of this – especially “his hive died,” and super. All my boxes are mediums so some of my mediums (or supers) are USED as brood boxes while others are actually used as supers… Even tho they are all the size of a super. Dandy. That’s just super. :). I do love this tho, Rusty. Local vernacular adds that certain something…

  • Rusty –
    Brava! 😉
    Imprecision leads to mistakes! (Omitting 18 examples from non-chemical weed management.) Keep up this theme, and I will cite it the next time someone accuses me of nitpicking.
    (Nuc box! Nuc box! Nuc box!)

  • I have a dilemma. I overwintered my hives in 2 deeps and added a super of honey for good measure. Our WI winters are hard. I checked them last week and they were at the top of the super. I had 2 honey supers in the garage that I had kept for just such an emergency. We had a sunny 45-degree day last week so I put them on.

    My dilemma is how do I get them back into the brood boxes? I really don’t want to go into egg laying by putting the two honey supers on the bottom. Can I use a fume board? If I shake them out I could injure the queen. What is your recommendation? Thanks.

    • Janet,

      If you don’t want the queen to lay eggs in the honey supers, you can put a queen excluder between the brood boxes and the honey supers. The workers will go up to get food and bring it down, but the queen and cluster will stay below. If the bees want to move some of the honey stores down closer to the cluster, they will.

      If the queen is already up in the supers, just find her and move her down below the queen excluder. Everyone else will follow her down. Alternatively, you may be able to smoke them all down or use a fume board, and then put the excluder on.

  • Rusty:

    I was probably a little less than tactful here. Going over to help out with 2 hives at a Nature Academy in the next county, we were met by the director/instructor, who explained one of the colonies had died – “Wax worms got’em.”

    How would YOU explain tactfully to someone who teaches science, including bee science, to school groups, that they aren’t worms, they’re larvae, and that they didn’t “get” the hive, they just took advantage of a weakness?

    BTW it was something serious, probably queenlessness. The wax moths were quite a small infestation: maybe 10% of two frames in one medium out of two. The dead cluster were the size of a grapefruit, and were all in top frames 8-9. No sign of brood and no honey anywhere. Does that sound as if they lost their queen and just died out? Thanks!

    • Nan,

      Without being able to take a look, it sounds to me like the queen failed, so I agree.

      As for the rest, that is exactly what I mean my muddled thinking. Does the person know the difference between a worm and a larva? Does he care? Does he really want to know what killed the colony, or is he trying to flaunt his vast knowledge (which obviously failed).

      It sounds like he was trying to make an impression on young minds rather than teach them anything. Or maybe he thinks they are so young he doesn’t need to bother with the truth. Big mistake.

      What did you say to him?

    • This is interesting!

      I see lots of (mainly American) references to waxworms and assume that they mean the larvae of wax moths (it wriggles, its a worm!) Sad. However, “Worm” doesn’t only cover earth worms, but also nematodes, snakes and dragons, and the Elizabethans had “worms of the face”…. blackheads!, so maybe we shouldn’t be too pedantic).

      However there IS such a thing as a waxworm, they are the larvae of a Mealworm beetle, we feed them to our leopard gecko. They don’t eat wax (bran etc.) are much bigger than wax moth larvae and don’t spin silk! No idea why they are called that, one would think that mealworms would be better?

      What led to the demise of the colony should have been fairly obvious upon inspection.
      Wax moth can over-run a weak colony, destroying and fouling the comb at a higher rate than the bees can tackle. They are not the cause, but the result of failing. Destroying a weak colony in this way is, in the scheme of things, beneficial!

      The interesting thing to take from this is the presence of the moth. They are a natural part of the honey bee life cycle and may be present even in very strong colonies (check out boat shaped depressions in the timber). Understanding their role is important to the storage of frames and boxes.

      In the wild, when a colony dies, the wax moth larvae consume the wax, and so clean out the void, leaving it clear of possible contaminants for the next prospective swarm to take up residence. The wax moth are interested in the old cocoons (protein?), which in a feral or wild nest are present in all cells from the top to the bottom of the comb.

      Thus they have no interest in our super clean supers! I therefore pack my supers in cardboard boxes or if lazy, leave them in stacks of supers, knowing that they will be wax free. But used brood frames and boxes should be stored in light airy conditions that the moths do not like.

      • This is an excellent summary of wax moth. Thanks!

        Also, I never understood why we call larvae “worms.” Too strange.

  • Rusty,

    Oh, glad you think so too (about the queen loss).

    Well, I said flat out, “I’m sorry – this is a science facility, so I have to point out, these are NOT worms. Worms are a separate phylum – like earthworms? – and are worms in their adult form. These are larvae, the young of a moth.”

    Luckily my neighbor who is starting beekeeping was along too, so she and I had a discussion, in his hearing, of what really killed the colony. I just said that wasn’t much moth, that a strong ahem, colony could protect itself, and they probably came in because the ahem, colony, was weak. Helpfully, the director did mention that they had swarmed earlier in the season. So we could speculate that the stay-behind queen had not gotten fertilized, had been killed on her mating flight or the workers had rejected her.

    I think the previous volunteer may have been less diligent. I’ve already offered to come when there’s a school group and do the beehive part.

    In my old age I find that offering to help is better than arguing to get correct information into circulation. I’m doing the minutes for our club, and so I appreciate your reminders about terms and will do my best to work them in wherever possible.

    And you’re right, I didn’t have enough hobbies!
    Take care!

    PS: Have you read Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mother Hive”? That is where I learned about wax moth, 30 years before ever getting bees.

  • Rusty,

    What do I call the boxes I just made in my shop? Just deep boxes, medium boxes, etc? I really would like to keep the terminology proper as we (some friends and I) are just starting up our hives. Reducing confusion is always a plus.

    • Robert,

      In that case you have deep boxes, medium boxes, and ekes. If they are meant to house brood, then they are brood boxes, either deep brood boxes or medium brood boxes. If they are meant to hold honey that you will harvest, they are supers: they could be deep supers (unlikely but possible) or medium supers. An eke is meant to “eke out” some extra space in the hive. They can hold anything that goes above the hive. You can use them as feeders, quilts, ventilators, or just spacers for mite treatments, etc. Does that answer your question?

  • Rusty,

    This was a great read with my morning coffee! I taught English for 20 years and I began beekeeping April 2013. Being able to relate to the frustrations with both issues, I roared with laughter as I read. (It doesn’t take much to amuse me.) What a relief to know I’m not the only one that is so particular about the use and application of terminology.

    My day begins before sunrise with a cup of coffee and Honey Bee Suite. Thank you for making this possible!

  • Catching up on a few posts I missed, may I add “telescoping cover.” It took me forever to figure out that was the flat lid, roof, or whatever else one could call the cover on the hive. To me, telescoping meant something that could be expanded and contracted like a telescope. I guess these flat lids are telescoping because the rim extends out over the walls of the hive boxes, and that still only makes “sort of” sense to me. Besides I like the gabled roofs with a screened hole in the gable–better ventilation, I think, but technically they are telescoping as well…more confusion?

    • Debbe,

      Excellent addition! I used to think a telescoping cover was some secret device that I wasn’t privy to. Like you, I thought it must collapse into itself somehow. So while everyone else was using this marvelous invention, I had just a plain old lid with a rim.

    • Debbe, having not seen the original post, I would think that a “telescoping cover” was actually a secondary “lift” (as this is about terminology) that insulates the hive like the WBC hive. They telescope onto each other. Nice ones are tapered, cheap ones are vertical and have a lip that is susceptible to rot and damage. You can do this on any hive design, but you need an appropriate floor. Good for the bees, a pain in a big apiary for the beekeeper (double work). BTW, if you close the hive at the top, you NEED the cone ventilator, since bees can easily get between the hive and the lifts.

      Pent hive roof designs are very pretty – WBC design again, but there is no reason why you cannot have a screened ventilator in your flat roof – all of mine do, but they are internal rather than cones. Most pent roof designs tend to leak sooner than later unless they have a one-piece metal cover. They are heavy and tend not to be mechanically stable. Incidentally, I add polystyrene between the metal and the roof to insulate against extreme temperatures.

      And, much more important. The roof is a tool….
      Take it off, turn upside down on the ground and place your supers on it at 45deg to keep them off the ground and prevent crushing bees during inspections. A pent roof rocks, and not in a good way 🙂

  • @ Robert
    “Some are 9 5/8″ deep and some are 6 5/8″ deep. I also made a couple of 3″ spacers.”

    An old post but…
    Your 3″ eke (spacer) is really useful, and a huge cost saver. Note that 6 5/8 + 3 = 9 5/8! (adjust eke size to match your hive design)

    ekes can be any size, depending upon the use.

    The point here being that you can ‘convert’ a super into a brood box (remove any castellated spacers).
    Why would you want to so this? In an emergency, you may have no spare brood boxes, or more usually during swarm control when we split the colony we are short of temporary brood boxes.

    I prefer to use Snelgrove boards for swarm control, they really are very simple to use, but Mr Snelgrove’s books are a bit confusing to read. And many sites expound this confusion.

    Swarm control happens earlier in the season, when we have spare supers. And so, if you use an eke and Snelgrove board, the only additional kit you need are brood frames! Traditionally (non-Snelgrove) you need a complete hive. e.g. additional floor, crown-board, roof in addition to brood box and frames, and the space beside the original hive (depending upon technique and aims).

    Tip: If converting a super to a brood box I usually use a couple of plywood tabs and some screws to hold the two parts together when lifting.

    Snelgrove boards are pretty easy to make, but ensure that the ventilated section is at least 200mm (8″) sq. In my opinion many are too small, it’s important to have a good air flow to mix pheromones. (you are looking to maintain the unity of the two colonies for easy reuniting.
    There are many techniques, but I’d recommend removing ALL queen cells when starting the process, this allows you to ‘reset the clock’ on queen emergence (assuming you want one) and so door management is simple.

    If that was as clear as mud, read up on Snelgroving, It will revolutionise your swarm control, queen rearing and save you money! 😉

    This is quite a good description of use http://barnsleybeekeepers.org.uk/snelgrove.html

    How to make one https://www.scottishbeekeepers.org.uk/images/education/techdatasheets/TDS%20number%2013%20snelgrove%20board.pdf

    Note the small ventilators
    Assuming you are raising a queen, It is VERY important not to move the doors between queen emergence and finding brood, otherwise your new queen may end up in the lower hive!

    For novices especially, I’d not try pre-emptive swarm control, since this can happen too early in the season, causing swarming later when you can least afford the loss of bees, and the hive is very active. Wait until you see charged queen cells (not cups), and be ready to go! Obviously this needs regular inspection.
    If you have urban bees, then you have a duty to prevent swarms since you want to promote, rather than demote bees & bee keeping.

    Did you know that you can run a hive with two queens using a Snelgrove board! Be warned, this creates a tall hive as you will need to keep adding supers under the Snelgrove to account for the huge number of bees!

    Search this site for Snelgrove

    • He He! Someone after my own heart! ?7 years on and as a semi newbie, completely agree. Correct wording is important in so many things in life.
      Thanks for the clarifications
      Maybe you can extend it to general grammar, like the Aussies like to use myself instead of me! Send it to myself!?? Myself and Ian went there..
      Please keep up the great knowledge sharing.
      Thanks again.

  • Rusty

    Great article as always. Thank you!

    Sounds like a great case for better education for all. But in a society that pays millions to sports athletes & so little to teachers in K through 12 grades. What can one expect? That anyone beyond the rich gets an education is amazing to me. And with Deranged Donald in the White House things don’t look to promising. Hurry up 2020 & dump the deranged moron in the nearest prison.

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