While it’s tempting to think that no hive can produce too much of such a good thing, a hive loaded with luscious honey can become bogged down, taking up space the queen bee needs for continuing brood production. A hive that’s crowded by too much honey or pollen is perfectly positioned to swarm because if the a lack of open comb in which to lay eggs encourages the queen to relocate part of the hive. Staying aware of the amount of pollen or honey inside your brood boxes is an important part of preventing honey- or pollen-bound hives and swarms.
Identifying Honey- or Pollen-bound Hives
Looking in the brood boxes of a hive, you can expect to see cells with brood, pollen, nectar, water and honey. A healthy hive will have brood of all ages: eggs, larva, capped brood and emerging bees. Pollen, the protein bees consume to survive, is generally stored near the brood. Nectar, honey with and without caps, and water can be farther from the brood but still available in nearby cells or frames. However, if there is a large percentage of cells filled with just honey or pollen, you need to take a closer look at the situation.
“If there is a nectar flow and there isn’t enough room for a queen, you will see queen cells,” says beekeeper Janet Hart, central regional director of the Illinois Beekeepers Association. Elongated and shaped a bit like a peanut shell, queen cells hang from the comb-side of a frame. “If you see queen cells, you know they are thinking of swarming and it’s time to give the hive more room.”
Hart recommends providing more room by adding more than one honey super to the hive. A hive generally has two brood boxes—the larger boxes in which the bees lives year-round—and honey supers are stacked on top of those boxes during the spring and summer months to give the hive extra room. The bees will move honey “upstairs” to the supers if it’s available. Beekeepers can then harvest honey from only the supers, leaving honey in the brood boxes for the bees to use in winter. Expanding the space in this way also challenges the bees and might help prevent a swarm. However, if queen cells are present, Hart warns it might be too late to slow the momentum for swarming.
You need to become familiar with the cycles of hives in your climate, Hart says. Hives go through natural cycles, and you can learn to anticipate what changes in the hive look like over the course of the year in order to prevent honey-bound hives. For example, in early spring most of the bees, honey and pollen will be in the upper brood chamber, Hart says. This is true of bees in all climates. You can switch brood-box positions, moving the upper box to the bottom to give the queen more room to lay because she’s likely not using the bottom box.
“Switching boxes or frames keeps the bees guessing and gives them something to do,” Hart says. “One caveat is that during the spring, it can still be cold at night. Don’t split the brood area because it weakens the hive.”
Hart suggests new beekeepers connect with local beekeeping associations in order to learn more about the natural processes taking place in their hives. Experienced beekeepers are an excellent source of information and education, and associations often offer classes and training to help new beekeepers learn what to look for.
Removing Honey or Pollen from Bound Hives
If the queen has no place to lay, pollen- or honey-bound frames can be removed and replaced with frames of empty drawn comb, giving the queen new work space, says beekeeper Dave Shenefield, owner of Clover Blossom Honey in Lafontaine, Ind.
Brood-box frames can be pulled off and frozen, he explains. Later, when the bees need food supplementation, the frames can be thawed and fed back to the bees. Across the seasons, the bees will use the resources in their store house. Early in the season, thawing and adding pollen-laden frames will encourage the queen to get busy producing new brood. Late in the fall, honey-laden frames can be thawed and added as winter store before the bees seal the hive shut for the season.
A Silver Lining
Beekeepers who raise queens, like Paul Hill of southern Indiana, like to see pollen-bound frames in their hives.
“You can’t raise good queens without good pollen,” Hill explains. “We take what Mother Nature gives us and put a positive spin on it by freezing the pollen frames and using them to raise queens.”
Hill says that due to a number of factors, such as weather, all beekeepers will eventually have a hive that needs to be strengthened or encouraged with the addition of the honey or pollen frames, so freezing the pollen frames would benefit them, as well.
Mindful beekeepers check hives regularly during the spring, summer and early fall to monitor the volume of stored pollen and honey. Frames can be removed or more honey supers added if the upper brood box is nearly full of honey and the bottom box is filled to 40 percent or higher capacity. Otherwise, the bees are doing their job of creating enough food stores to survive the winter.
About the Author: Deb Buehler is a writer who lives in Indianapolis, Ind., with her husband Craig, their two urban beehives, and their dogs, Tucker and Abby. Growing up on a hobby farm inspired her passion for the environment, wildlife, sustainable living and growing things.