Beekeeping Supers

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Keeping honey bees is a favorite pastime for so many people. Along with learning how to take care of the bees, you also have to understand the names and functions of many pieces of beekeeping equipment. The most popular type of beehive is made up of boxes that stack on top of one another.  Often called beekeeping supers, they come in a variety of sizes. Let’s try to clear up some of the confusion.

Many different sizes of honey bee boxes stacked together for beehives.

What is a Super on a Beehive?

When any one begins the practice of keeping bees, there are many beekeeping terms that must be understood. Some of them are a bit confusing.

One term is the use of the word “super” – to describe a box component of a beehive. Why super? “Super” is short for superstructure.

Originally, the smaller boxes (shallows, mediums) used for honey storage were called honey supers. The word has origins in Latin and generally means “above”.

Boxes for honey were stored above or on top of the hive stack. Today, you will hear it used to describe hive boxes of any size.

Vertical Langstroth Hive

The most common beehive in use in the United States is the Langstroth hive. It was developed in the mid 1800’s by a Methodist minister – Rev Lorenzo Langstroth.  

This hive design features removable frames-a newish idea for the time. This makes inspecting the hive possible without destroying all the comb.

Another important feature of a “Lang” hive is the component structure. In addition to basic parts of a beehive (a bottom board, top and inner cover), -it is made up of a number of beehive supers. As the colony grows, more boxes are added on top.

Green hive box with frames.

10 Frames vs 8 Frames

Until recent years, Langstroth hives were designed for the use of 10 frames. These wooden frames hold beeswax foundation (or plastic foundations).

Beekeepers have to replace foundation periodically. Foundation gives the bees a guide to encourage them to build comb inside the wooden frame.

Today, some beekeepers choose to use a smaller beehive. These 8-frame hives are a bit narrower than the standard hive. This is due to using 2 fewer frames in each one. Otherwise, the length remains the same.

When buying beekeeping equipment for your bees, you must know if you need 10 frame or 8 frame boxes.

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Small apiary with hives using different sized boxes.

Sizes of Beekeeping Supers

In the active world of beekeeping a variety of boxes are used for colony management. There is no “written in stone” rule that defines the use of each box size. 

Still, beekeepers tend to favor special sizes for certain uses. All of these are considered “supers” so don’t let the terminology throw you.

  • Deep or Hive Body
  • Medium
  • Shallow

Deep Hive Body

A deep box is often used for the brood chamber of the colony. It measures 9 5/8” in height. You will hear this called: a deep, deep super, brood nest or hive body.  

Some beekeepers use 2 deep supers to give the bees room to raise young and store food for Winter. Others use 1 deep and a smaller box for the colony. This is mostly beekeeper choice.

Deep beekeeping supers are not normally used for the beekeeper’s honey harvest. They become very heavy when filled with honey. The weight is more than most beekeepers want to bother with. 

Medium Supers

Mediums are the same width and length as the other boxes but their height is only 6 5/8”. They are sometimes used as a second food storage box for the hive (in climates where the bees need more food).

This is a good option if the beekeeper does not want to use 2 deeps as their standard hive configuration. (A deep and a medium or two would get hives through the Winter in most locations.)

These medium supers can hold 8 or 10 frames depending on the preference of the beekeeper. Make sure you order the right size: medium boxes = medium frames – shallow supers = shallow frames.

In fact, some apiarists choose to use medium supers for all the boxes of the hive. In this case, 3 are used together to make up a hive.

Using mediums for brood, bee honey and your honey crop has its advantages. All of the equipment fits together and you need less beekeeping equipment storage over Winter. But, each hive configuration has pros and cons.

Shallow Super Boxes

The shallow super measures 5 7/8” tall. This is the favorite size to use for honey collection. Their smaller size and weight makes them easier to handle and move. 

These two come in 10 frame and 8 frame. But, sometimes beekeepers add special “frame spacers” that allow the frames to be spaced a bit farther apart evenly. This allows the comb to be built our farther and makes honey extraction easier.

Stack of shallow bee boxes.

Number of Super Boxes Needed for Each Hive

Any beekeeper wants to have enough boxes on hand. But, hey – those things are not cheap and they take up a lot of room too. So, how many supers do you need for your hives?

We must talk in generalities here because each hive, location and beekeeper is different. The population of the colony determines the number of boxes that should be in use at any time. 

Giving the bees too much space is a bad idea. If they can not patrol and depend the hive interior, pests such as wax moths or Small Hive Beetles can take over.

A new bee package begins with 1 box – usually a deep (unless you plan to use only mediums). When the bees have filled most of this brood box, it is time to add a second box

So your hive may have: 2 deeps, 1 deep and 1 medium, 1 deep and 1 shallow or 2 mediums. It is up to the beekeeper to decide. Beginner beekeepers should not rush adding too many boxes to the colony.

Unless you live in a very warm area, your colony needs at least 2 boxes for their own needs. One box is not enough to raise their brood and store food for the cold months.

Not giving your bees enough space increases their chance of starvation and ups the odds that they may swarm.

In general, plan on having 2 boxes for each colony to make a home. Then, at least 2 shallow (or medium) supers should be kept available for the honey flow season.

Be sure to have the frames and foundation necessary to complete your hive. Leave no empty spaces inside the boxes.

Extra beekeeping supers (of any size) are nice to have on hand because they can be used temporarily to give hives added ventilation. They also function well to help enclose some types of internal bee jar feeders.

Variations in Dimensions

It is important to remember that there are “slight” variations in measurements of beehive parts. Each manufacturer can vary the width, length or height slightly. 

The truth is that most beekeeping equipment is not cut to precise measurement – though I sure wish it was! If the “bee space” is off, you may have problems with the bees building excess burr comb.

When possible, try to beekeeping supers and frames from the same source or manufacturer. The gives you the best chance for a good fit.

However, don’t fret too much if this doesn’t work out. At least in theory, you should be able to order beekeeping supplies from any manufacturer and have them fit well enough for use.

After you have some experience under your belt, you may decide to try another type of beehive. Top Bar Hives and Warre hives are favored by some beekeepers. They generally do not have boxes to add to the structure.

But, each hive style has a slightly different management technique. Be sure to educate yourself on colony management for any type of hive you choose for your apiary.

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