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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
If there are already one or more supers on the brood chamber, I always put new supers between the existing supers and the brood chamber. A sort of new super sandwich.
That way, the bees draw the comb and fill the box more quickly.
Some say that the bees are more likely to swarm – but I have not found this to be the case.
I concur, when the bees are ready they will fill them. This being my first year I didn’t expect to see any honey but to my surprise they managed to draw and fill a medium super in about 2 weeks. I had to quickly add another to hopefully reap the harvest!
I agree, you are better to let them move at their pace rather than push them along. I have a hive started late from a nuc (end of May) that still has comb to draw in the 2nd brood chamber. In Illinois we are starting to go into our dearth time (till the end of August) and I am more concerned with them building up for themselves rather than taking honey from them. Interestingly in the same yard, I have 2 packages that started about 2 weeks earlier and they have done well and actually have 2 supers on them and continue to bring in honey and pollen.
I’ve given up on trying to encourage the bees in my backyard to build in the honey supers. I’m not attempting any manipulation of the hives for the rest of the season. (I’m learning.)
My first-year foundationless hives loaded up with honey-hungry drones just aren’t ready to go into the honey supers yet. (That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.) I did a partial inspection today and noticed they’re back-filling some of the old drone comb in the brood boxes, but still no interest in the honey supers. I suppose they’ll move into honey supers once they’re done back-filling the old drone comb. We’ll see.
Although I’m not getting much honey from them, they do look like active and healthy hives. I’m happy about that.
I have some old left over brown comb that was once ant infested. I sat it out in the sun and now it’s been cleaned out and looks good to use. Is this a no-no?
Used brown comb is no problem if you know the source. If you are sure it came from a disease-free hive it will be fine. Bees prefer used comb to new comb so having it on hand is especially good for starting up swarms or new packages. Ants, earwigs, spiders or mold are generally not a problem.
I did a hive inspection this weekend on my two newest hives that were small swarms captured in June. A new queen was introduced into one hive. I was disappointed that they haven’t grown very much. The bees seem to be more interested in staying on the comb that was transferred from the swarm trap instead of building comb on the frames w/ foundation. Should I be concerned?
That’s strange. A June swarm, even if small, should be fairly big by now. I have a medium-size June swarm filling a triple deep. Do you see eggs, brood, pollen, or honey? If no eggs or brood, do you see the queens? Are you in a nectar dearth? I can’t remember if you fed these swarms are not. How many combs do the bees cover in each hive? They need an active nectar flow (or sugar syrup) to build combs. At this time of year, comb building usually slows way down, but if they didn’t build any in June or July, it leaves you in a bind. If the hives are really small, you may have to combine to get them through the winter.
I reinspected the smaller hive and found the queen, honey, brood, not a lot of pollen and couldn’t see any eggs, but there was brood, so I’m assuming she is laying.
I noticed the majority of bees are on the two centered frames. They have almost filled in comb on those two frames only.
I also noticed that there are bees walking all over the other foundation(s), but no comb activity. There is a small comb, the size of your fist, but flat, that they built on the wall of the hive when they were first captured but that hasn’t increased in size at all.
I fed them when first captured then stopped after they seemed to be doing fine.
Thank you for your article to address this situation. Do you think lifting the lid and having a peek daily will discourage the use of the super? The brood box seems full and at any given time there are about 12 bees in the super, but no activity as yet.
I think every day is too much. Once a week is probably okay if you do it quickly. Once every two weeks is about the best.
I’m a new beek located in Shine, WA (Oly Pen, east Jefferson County). How does the flow in your neck of the woods look this year?
Thanks for the great site!
Normal, I think. Not so great, not so bad.
Great site, very helpful for those of us just getting started. Yesterday I added a 2nd super after noticing just about all frames on the first were filled with brood and honey. I did notice 2 queen cells. Concerned they are preparing to swarm. I just simply added the super with empty frames on top. Should I go back in and checkerboard the frames? Thanks
Are you saying you added a second brood box? I assume that’s what you mean, since you say the first one has brood in it. Also not clear is whether you saw swarm cells or supersedure cells. In most places in temperate North America the worst of swarm season is over. You will still see swarms in July, of course, but not nearly as frequently as during the spring. The sure sign of swarming is backfilling in the brood nest, so you may want to check for that. But the short answer is yes, you can checkerboard the second brood box. But if they truly are preparing to swarm, checkerboarding at this point probably won’t stop them.
This might help (or maybe not).
Thank you for the info. Yes, I added a 2nd brood box. The queen cups were all towards the edge of the frames. I believe 5 total. So I assume they were swarm cells because I thought I read that supersedure cells were in the middle of the frame. I understand the concept of backfilling but not certain I’m experienced enough to recognize. Thanks again for the help.
Going on about 6 weeks with a new hive and a caught swarm. Three frames of old comb was given to them, they have filled that with brood and have made comb for 3 additional frames which they are busy filling with more brood. Lots and lots of brood, I see my queen each inspection…but no honey. Should I be concerned? I’m not feeding them, nor have I ever.
Since they are building up their population really fast, they are using all the nectar they collect. When some of these new bees matureand there are more adult bees in the hivethey will begin to store honey. It’s just a question of first things first and, right now, building population is job one.
Ok, great. Thank you, Rusty.
Enjoying your informative site.
I’m new to beekeeping and learning every time I read and deal with my hives, I think. lol
I have 2 hives I started this year, 1 from a package and two from nucs. One nuc turned out to be infested and low in numbers when I got it with small hive beetle. Took care of that problem, nursed them, fed them, and they seem to be very active, increased in numbers ,and I did notice this hive is much more aggressive the other two, why is that?
My second question is I have added first honey supers on each one of them in first week of June as both brood boxes where fully drawn and filled with bees, none of my supers where touched by bees, still empty and not drawn out zero. I have foundationless supers checked them today, I guess they know better and we can only guess?
1. Most probably your hives behave differently because they have different genetics. Kids don’t all act alike, neither do dogs, cats, mules, or killer whales. Not all colonies act alike either. Variation in genetics is what keeps species going, especially when problems arise.
2. Colonies will build in the honey supers when (and if) they think they need the space. You can’t force them to do it early because they make the rules. Beekeepers can only make suggestions.
Rusty, thanks for all the help you send out. I really like your common sense approach to beekeeping. This is the third season of beekeeping for me. Started out with two hive splits from a bee club mentor. The second year I expanded to 5 hives via splits and caught swarm. Lost three hives in early spring this year, but am back up to 5 now, through splits. I have always had a deep brood box on the bottom, but none of the bees seem to use that for anything. When I look, the deep is always empty of brood and dry. It’s their hang out place, I guess. They seem to prefer the medium boxes and fill them normally all the time. The comb on the deeps varies in age, too. The original two have very dark comb, while the newer hives have comb a couple of years old to brand new. How do I encourage them to use the deeps for brood? Should I just let them alone to do what they prefer? BTW, I harvested 155 pounds of honey from only two hives and left about that much behind for them, too. Now they have refilled all the frames I harvested. It’s theirs to keep.
With results like that, why change anything? That’s fantastic.
Hi Rusty. Thanks for being spot on!! I have a small swarm that I collected late October (about 2,000 bees) and in mid December added a super. They have ignored it except for one of the frames, which is directly above the main brood frame, where they are adding nectar. It is the chimney effect you correctly identified. Having read this I realise I added a super too soon and this hive is not growing very fast.
Thank you for your advice.
Thank you for your information.
I started a nuc in mid May, and the bees have yet to fill out the first super. There is comb in all but 3 frames. I have seen the queen. I’m wondering if something happened to the first queen and they requeened. There is nectar. Can’t figure out what the problem is. I would have figured that they would have needed another super by now. There seem to be many bees hanging on the sides not doing much. I feel like I have a last hive. I do not see any parasites. Don’t know what to do, maybe nothing?
Mid-May isn’t that long ago, and in many places that is right around the time of the largest nectar flow. A colony just getting started at that time may have easily missed it. That your bees drew out most frames in the super is a good sign. Their progress seems kind of normal for a first year colony, depending on your location, the weather, and other variables. Bees hanging out are often hot and humid bees. I think I wouldn’t worry.
I am a beginner – started 2 hives from nucs late April. We are now in August. One hive seems to be doing great. It has 2 supers and the 2nd one is about 70% full. I have elected not to draw any honey the first year from either hive. Both hives have had a few beetles so I put beetle blasters in and it has seemed to take care of the problem. My second hive- when the 2nd super was 80% full I had a shallow 10 frame super added. I added this super at the end of June. As of today there is no build out. Also the activity at the front of the hive is very minimal. I checked on it about 2 weeks ago and there is larvae. Should I leave this third box on or take it off since we are going into fall/winter. And what do you think about little activity out front?
I don’t know where you live, but some areas have a good fall nectar flow. You many want to leave the super in place until then. Just remember, they may fill or they may not, but it won’t hurt to leave it on for awhile longer.
The reduced activity could be due to a nectar dearth, but I would check to make sure your queen is okay. I would also do a Varroa count because mite populations spike at this time of year.
I live in northern Indiana. This summer I caught several swarms from my own hives and they are doing fine. The question I have is when I caught the swarms I didn’t have deep boxes so I have mediums for the brood boxes so one hive has three medium boxes the other hive has two mediums and one deep. The deep box is on the top. How should I configure these hives for winter? I also have honey supers on them but they are not fully filled or drawn out. What should I do with those supers? Some frames have capped honey some do not. Please advise.
You want to avoid compromising the cluster, especially on cold nights, so I would not reverse boxes at this time of year. If any of the boxes are empty you can remove them. Or you may be able to consolidate two boxes into one. It really depends on how big the cluster is.
If you don’t want to leave the supers on for the bees, you can remove them, turn the frames upside down, and shake out the loose nectar. Then you can wrap the frames in plastic film and freeze the frames for a day or two to kill any eggs and larvae that might be in there. Then store them in a cool place. If you think your honey is going to granulate, you can just leave those frames in the hive for winter feed. You can move them down into the brood boxes if you want, or leave them in a super just above the brood box.
We started 3 new hives this past spring. 2 of the 3 did very well, bees increased very quickly while the third did not look very big. About 1 month ago (late August) we took the top honey super off the two larger hive and got an abundance of honey from both. Now 3 weeks later all thre hives are dead. It appears they had not fully filled their brood boxes as we thought and have starved to death. We were just getting ready to make a start feeding them sugar water along with making fondant patties for them. Does this sound normal? Or do you think there in another source that caused their death?
I’m sorry to hear about losing your bees. One of the things I frequently remind beekeepers is to “look before you take.” You can never assume the lower boxes are full just because the supers are. In an earlier post, I wrote: “A common error that new beekeepers make is harvesting the honey supers without checking the brood boxes for honey. You cannot assume the deeps are full just because the honey supers are full. Often the bees use one or both brood boxes for brood and pollen during most of the season. Not until late in the year do they start moving the honey closer to the brood nest. If you take the supers without checking, you could be leaving your bees with almost nothing for the winter. So above all, remember to look before you take.”
Anyway, it’s something to remember for the future. I cannot tell from here if there were also other reasons for them dying, but if there was no honey in the hives, if there were a lot of dead bees in the hives, and if some died with their heads stuck deep in the empty cells, it was most probably starvation.
Thank you Rusty,
Definitely, think you are right. And boy does that make me feel awful. We will try again next year and be more careful. Our weak hive didn’t make any honey in the super much less the brood chambers so it probably would not have survived.
My husband is not completely new to beekeeping and was fairly successful 30 years ago. But he said he needs to research more prior to starting the hives again.
Anyhow what an experience we had and a lesson learned.
Making mistakes is just part of the process, and there is so incredibly much to learn.
Happy November, Rusty! I just saw a comment I made a year ago, August 2015. Can’t believe a year has gone by. My hives now number 8 and I am scrambling to find more boxes and frames for the spring.
We are having unusually warm weather, with evenings only in the 40-50 range. Tomorrow may be near 80! Today I opened the hives to put on new baggies of sugar water. I wanted to turn the screened bottom boards/stands over and add the solid pull out mite boards. Well, the boxes are loaded with honey and I can’t lift them to get down to the bottom. I can tilt each box up and see the honey in the frames below, or look down between the frames.
Do you think I need to call in super heroes to move these for me, or will the hives be okay without a solid bottom board? They are protected from wind by huge cedar and pine trees, and are oriented to catch early morning and late afternoon sun. Mostly. I use a slatted rack on each hive, too.
They all seem to be heavy with bees and I see a definite cluster in the center of the upper hive body. The middle boxes have bees covering everything. I even saw a couple of drones in one hive. It will eventually be cold and I don’t want them to freeze out.
I am in zone 6b, Shenandoah Valley area, between Luray and Front Royal, Va.
Thanks for all your wisdom,
Nice to hear from you again. I see a number of issues here.
1. I am in a warmer zone than you, 8b, but I never close up my screened bottom boards unless the temperature drops into the 20s for more than three or four days straight. Now, I used to have a boyfriend in Stevens City (can you believe it?) and it seems to me it got pretty cold in that part of the country.
2. However, if your weather will indeed be warm today, I would go down and fix your bottom boards. Just lift off what you can. If a box is too heavy, take out frames of honey until you can lift the box. Sometimes I have to take out 5 or 6.
3. Since you’re going to be down that far into the box, I suggest moving the cluster lower and putting the honey to the sides and above them. Colonies in winter move up, so you don’t want them to move away from that lower honey and never find it.
4. This is the do-t-yourself option, which is what I always use. But if you have help, that is great too.
Okay, I’m on it! We are at 82 right now, sunny, clear blue sky, no wind.
Your suggestion is just how I harvest honey, moving frames into a box in my wagon, replacing them with other frames. I was just concerned about disturbing the clusters. On a day like this, the ladies are probably not home anyway. So here I go…..
Yes, we do have some darn cold days now and then. Below zero days are infrequent, but they do come around. Sometimes just snow showers, sometimes three or four feet. So, I am thankful for the longer mild fall weather.
Thanks for the encouragement!
82 degrees in November!
I am in Texas. I have a hive that is packed with brood, nectar, and honey in two feels. I added a super (with queen excluded) but they haven’t drawn out any comb. We are about to enter our dearth. Should I leave it on? Or remove it? A decent amount of bees are hanging out in there. Just not doing anything.
I don’t want to leave unused space and have issues with pests, but don’t want it to get crowded and swarm. And fall flow will happen eventually.
They are probably just hanging out in there for the extra space. I think I would remove it before the dearth because they won’t fill it then.
This is a wonderful site, and being new to beekeeping, it is a great resource!
I have two nuc colonies from early July, late because I had to get a bear fence and electrics installed. After about three weeks on my first inspection, it looked like they were about to do the last frames on the outside of the brood box, and so I added a medium super to each. I’ve also been feeding them to help them draw out comb, with some HBH added.
After inspections yesterday, I see brood and lots of bees, pollen and lots of honey started, but they are building it up in a chimney, and they ignored those frames in the brood box, 1,8,9 (I took out the tenth on recommendation).
They built comb to connect the frames from upper and lower and put their larvae in that comb space (so I damaged a small number of little larvae unfortunately but was careful not to harm the rest).
Any thoughts on how to get the bees to fill out their brood box? I added the super medium too early I suspect.
Thanks for your thoughts,
Yes, they most likely would have filled out the frames without the medium. On the other hand, does it really matter? Their sense of order is different than yours, and if they’re happy and healthy, why fret over the empty frames?
So this year I got my first hive. The first hive body (10 frame setup) had 7 frames filled with brood and honey so I added the second box. Now every frame in the second box is packed when mostly capped honey. I thought “amazing, I better add a honey super and give them more space”. Then however I dug deeper and seem that they have not finished filling in the lower box with brood or honey. The last three empty frames are still empty even though the ones on top are full. I am hesitant to add the honey super while there is free space down below but at the same time I don’t want them to feel so crowded they want to swarm. Any thoughts ? I live in Michigan so I’m also wondering about those empty frames (if they don’t fill in) and if that will be a issue in the cold .
Swarm season is well passed, so I wouldn’t worry about that. The empties in the lower box are not much of an issue. Just pull them out and switch them with full frames from the second box.
I just started my first hive this last May. I purchased a nuc and box. The box came with 10 foundationless frames, approximately 4 or 5 of which were filled. The bees have since filled up the rest of the box nicely. About a month ago, all but the last frame were full (though it was started) and I added a second brood box on top, also with foundationless frames (but with starter edges and guide wires to keep the comb straight). After a month with the second box, it is still completely empty. The bees haven’t moved up at all. I had someone recommend that I checkerboard the frames from the bottom box with the top. Is this something I should do? Will it cause any problems to pull frames from the bottom brood box and move them into the second one? Or is it normal that they haven’t moved up and I should just be more patient?
The bees haven’t moved up because colonies are in the contraction phase now, not expansion. It is simply too late in the year to expect them to move up. See “Your beekeeping year is about to change.”
I have this happening with two of my hives. Would you recommend removing that second layer then as the days grow shorter/cooler? Or just leave it on there?
If by “layer” you mean super, yes. As they days grow colder the bees won’t use them and they just provide a place for parasites to live.
Yes, I do mean super. Thanks!
I’m having the opposite problem with a third hive. They’ve completely filled the second super with honey in the last few weeks. (One brood box below that.) Though it’s looking full, would you recommend adding a super at this point in the season?
I’m not familiar with nectar flows in your area, but if those bees are still storing nectar, you can try adding another super. Some regions have a late summer nectar flow, and some don’t. However, if they don’t use the super within the next couple of weeks, then I would remove it.
I am a new beekeeper from Grenada and have found your site very informative. Thank you for sharing.
I’m new to beekeeping having purchased two nucs this past spring and installed in the first week of June.
I’m located in Erin, Ontario, Canada, just northwest of Toronto.
My hives are behaving like two separate personalities; one is thriving and exceeding all expectations and the other has been slow from the beginning.
I am concerned about the winter. My plan was to build an insulated box with vents for them to help keep them from extreme cold. They are in a sheltered location with morning sun and afternoon shade.
Since they are about 1 foot apart, should I winterize them separately or together in 1 insulated box?
By the way, I have been leasing my 60 acre farm to a large corporation but next year I will run the farm myself. I want to grow something that will help my bees and yet be able to make some money from it.
Would you recommend anything in particular or should I just start a lavender farm?
I am so grateful for your site.
You say, “My hives are behaving like two separate personalities.” Well, they are. No two kids, dogs, friends, horses, pigs or bee colonies behave the same. There is no reason why they should. The surprise would be if they were the same.
You can insulate them separately or together. If the one is really weak, you can place it above the other with a double-screen board so it gets the heat from the lower one, and then insulate both together.
You should grow what works best in your local climate. Ask around if you are unsure. Flowers in successive seasons would be helpful for the bees and honey production.
I have some of the same concerns about upper and lower brood boxes. After a split in June, one hive will not go up into the upper box. The bottom box is full of bees, brood and some honey and nector. It looks full of bees as when I lift the frames bees just roll off the frames. I’m sort of a experimental type person so I moved 2 frames of brood / honey to the top box to see if this would encourage movement to the top box. Have I made a fatal mistake ? It’s the middle of July here in Missouri. Thanks,
If your bees are not moving up into the next box, it’s because they don’t want to. If they wanted to, they would. You cannot force a bee colony to do things on your schedule. Your mistake isn’t “fatal,” but it probably won’t do much good. Remember, we are in the contraction part of the year, not the expansion part. Colonies will continue to shrink from now until the winter solstice. See “Your beekeeping year is about to change.”
I have been keeping bees on and off for 25 years. As I start new hives again in my new home in Dover, NH, I find I have forgotten so much. Your site keeps coming up in my Google searches for answers. Thank you for that! I was looking over your favorite book list, and thought I would add my favorite. “New observations on the natural history of bees”, Francois Huber. As a scientist, the historical experiments are so much fun to read.
Thanks for the suggestion. It’s been years since I read that, but I’ll have to give it another look.
Rusty, thanks for setting me straight on the contraction time of year. I’m still learning and this is my 3rd year beekeeping.
I know this is not entirely related to the topic.
I have two hives that have one brood box and two honey supers. All my other hives are just one a brood box with a super on top, and I would prefer to keep it that way. We are in swarm season here in SE Queensland, Australia and the bees have filled all three boxes. I know that if I simply take off the top honey super (reducing the bees to two boxes), the bees will – because of lack of space – shoot off swarm cells as a response. What is a way that I can take off the top honey super from the 3 story hives, minimize the number of bees and prevent swarming in the process?
Hi Rusty, I’ve paged through your responses to the queries above and found them to be very helpful – thank you! HOWEVER, I still have concerns. I have had 3 straight good honey seasons, requeening only once. I try very hard not to destroy the drawn-out combs when processing the honey. Once the honey is removed, I place the extracted combs in the freezer and put them in the hive as I need them, the next season. Here in Northern California (East Bay), spring can come early. My bees have seemed to be very active and happy so I leave them pretty much alone. (When I first started keeping bees, I checked them – I think – too frequently and ultimately they left.) The last 3 years of laissez-faire beekeeping have seemed to pay off so I was absolutely shocked to see the supers this afternoon, all built-out and clean of any of last year’s bits but not a drop of honey. I looked into the top deep super and found it busy and pretty full of bees. I removed all but one of the empty honey supers just to give them a little space. Normally I will take the hive down to 2 deeps by November but our weather seems to be changing a little earlier this year. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this situation. I am so sad. And my friends will be, too, as my honey has been their Christmas present over the past few years.
Very hard to say from here, but my guess is the hot and dry weather decreased available forage and your bees resorted to eating their supplies to survive.
I have five hives and my one-year anniversary of beekeeping in California is in August 2021.
Two of my hives are two deep boxes and both are full of bees and honey. Neither hive has had much interest in the honey supers on top.
I removed the queen screens from below each honey super. Both hives are very full and very strong and I don’t want them to swarm. Was that the correct thing to do?
The correct thing to do depends on what you are trying to achieve. Your bees did well to fill up the two deeps their first year. Normally, colonies in their first can’t fill two deeps and honey supers. Don’t rush them. By removing the queen excluder you will likely get larvae in your honey supers and they are still likely to swarm.