This is one of the most confusing words for beginning beekeepers. It has been used incorrectly by so many beekeepers for so long that the meaning has actually changed. English is like that; once incorrect usage overwhelms correct usage, there is no turning back. Eventually, proper usage is determined by the majority . . . and word freaks like me are toast.
Today the noun “super” often refers to any kind of bee box that fits onto a standard Langstroth-size bottom board. The word is used to refer to anything from a brood box to a feeder as long as it comports with the Langstroth footprint. Beekeepers will say things like, “My hive has five supers: two deeps and three mediums.”
But if you look back in time, super is actually short for “superstructure.” A superstructure is something that fits on top of something else. So the beekeeper word “super” meant a structure (box) that went on top of the main part of the hive—it was something above the hive. Technically, then, your brood boxes are not supers, they are the actual hive. Supers go on top of brood boxes.
Need I say that this annoys me? As in, it puts me over the edge? To me, misuse of the word is a sign of muddled thinking—and it really, really confuses beginners. If you want a generic term for all bee habitat that includes brood boxes, honey supers, feeders, spacer rims or whatever, what is wrong with the word “box?” It is short, easy to spell, and a box is a box no matter what order it’s in.
On a side note, the verb form “to super” means the act of adding boxes to a hive as in, “I supered the hive for comb honey.” Similarly, the Warré beekeepers of the world add bee boxes to the bottom of the pile—under the brood boxes—and they call this “nadiring.” (Well, they could hardly call it “supering” could they?) In case you forgot, the noun “nadir” means “the lowest point”—and that’s where they add their boxes. English is so cool.