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Help! My honey supers are still empty! Many beekeepers are dismayed to find their supers are empty at the end of the honey season. They want to know what they did wrong and how to encourage the bees to get to work. In the past I’ve shared ideas that I’ve heard about or tried myself. Now I’m going to tell you want I really think.
The bees are not ready
I think your bees haven’t moved into your new super because they are not ready. When they are ready—if ever—then they will work on them. In the meantime, they have their own agenda.
Honey bees are genetically programmed to store more honey than they need. It is one of the characteristics that make them so alluring and so useful to humans. We can harvest their surplus honey and the bees will (usually) still have enough food to get them through the winter.
A low population means a small workforce
Sometimes a colony can appear healthy but have a smaller than normal workforce for collecting nectar. A small number of foragers can result from a lack of pollen for raising young bees or a colony run-in with environmental hazards such as storms or pesticides. It can even occur because of excessive predation by birds or other insects.
It takes a large number of bees and a seemingly endless number of foraging trips to store excess honey. The key to large honey crops is keeping your colony as populous as possible without too much swarming or bee loss.
Bees store the food where it’s needed
If your kitchen and dining room are on the first floor, you probably do not store food on the second or third floor. You want it easy to reach and quick to retrieve. Bees are no different. Why would they store food three floors up if they still have room around the brood nest?
So until all the convenient nooks and crannies are full, they continue to store honey just outside the brood nest. After the summer solstice, the brood nest is shrinking, giving them more and more room in and around the brood nest for storage.
Forcing the issue by manipulating frames can backfire
Although you can sometimes coax bees into building comb in the supers by baiting them, this really doesn’t help you in the long run. You can end up with a sort of chimney effect where the bees are building up and not out. For example, frames 1 and 10—or even 1, 2, 9 and 10—in the brood nest may not be totally filled because the bees were baited into the honey supers.
Later, you harvest that honey thinking it’s surplus. But then, about January or February, you discover that the bees don’t have enough food to make it till spring. Instead of you tricking them, they tricked you: they stored honey in the supers but didn’t finish the job they should have done first. If you are lucky enough to catch the error, you end up feeding and feeding and feeding. No fun at all.
Be patient with your bees: they know how to survive
So be patient. When the brood boxes are full the bees will start building in the supers. If the whole summer goes by and they never put anything in the supers, it’s because there wasn’t enough surplus nectar or not enough bees to do the work. The amount of honey they store has everything to do with how much nectar is collected, and very little to do with how you arrange their honey supers.
And remember this: Never harvest honey from the upper boxes until you’ve checked the lower ones. You need to leave plenty of honey for the bees, and you can’t assume the lower boxes are full just because some honey got stored in the supers.
Honey Bee Suite