Beekeeping 101: Super sizes
If you have been beekeeping for a while, you’ll have developed your own opinions on common issues – where to place your hives, whether to feed sugar syrup in winter, how to split a hive. But if you’re just starting, you won’t have the experience to know what works for you.
One decision that seems minor, but can have long-term consequences, is which size super – or bee box – to use in your hives. These wooden boxes make up the body of the hive and come in a range of different sizes and variations. Although there’s no wrong answer, the size you choose can make your life easier or more difficult in different ways.
Here’s how to pick the super size that works for you:
Your guide to super sizes
Langstroth hives, the most commonly used in Australia, are made up of a vertical stack of wooden boxes called supers. These come in three standard depths: deep, medium, and shallow. Sometimes, you’ll see them listed as full-depth, ¾ depth, and half depth.
Each super holds a set of wooden or plastic frames, which hang down inside the box. To make things even more confusing, you have a choice here as well – although ten-frame supers are standard, some beekeepers choose the eight-frame version.
Arranging your hive
The most common hive structure used to involve two full-depth supers on the bottom of the hive to act as brood boxes, with several medium or shallow supers on top for honey storage. The belief was that bees needed more space for egg-laying, while honey supers needed to be smaller to make for easy adding and removal.
However, that arrangement is no longer as common as it once was. While the majority of beekeepers start that way, many find that their own variations work better for them. Some choose to use a single brood box at the bottom – particularly in winter when bees need less space. Others use only medium or shallow boxes and no deeps at all.
The good news is: bees don’t care what size box you use. To them, two or three shallow boxes stacked on top of each other is pretty much the same as a deeper box – it might just involve a bit more movement. As long as you don’t restrict the queen to a single small box, you’re probably fine. So picking supers is about what works for your hive management, more than how the bees will react.
Full-depth pros and cons
Full-depth supers have a couple of clear benefits. They give your bees more room to move, lay eggs, and store honey. This means you don’t need to add them on so frequently or buy so many, as they’ll take longer to fill. Because they’re a standard size, they’re also easy to buy and replace.
On the other hand, full-depth supers are much heavier, especially when they’re full of honey. A deep frame full of honey weighs around 35-40kg, which can be difficult to manage if you’re smaller or have health issues.
Medium and half-size supers
Smaller supers – whether medium or half size – are far easier to lift and move around, making them more appealing to some hobby beekeepers. Shallow supers weigh around 18kg when full, while medium supers weigh roughly 23kg. They’re also more flexible – you can choose to add a smaller box if you don’t think bees will be able to fill a deep one.
The downside? Using smaller supers usually means more time spent on hive management, as you’ll need to add and remove them more frequently. During a nectar flow, bees can fill a half-size super in a matter of days, so you’ll need to be well-stocked with smaller boxes and keep a close eye on your hive activity. If you choose to use smaller supers, you may find yourself spending more money on hive ware as well, as half-size boxes are not half the price of their full-size counterparts, and you will need to have more on hand.
Eight frames or ten?
The eight versus ten-frame argument is similar to the depth debate. Ten frames are standard, but some prefer the lighter eight-frame boxes. Like shallow supers, eight-frame supers fill up faster, so you will need to replace them more frequently.
Some beekeepers believe that eight-frame supers make bees more productive, as they can keep the smaller box at the correct temperature for water evaporation and honey production more easily. This, however, is debatable, and the weight argument is more persuasive for most new beekeepers.
Starting your beekeeping journey
Beekeeping is all about experience. Although the deep vs shallow, eight-frame vs ten-frame debate might sound meaningless right now, once you’ve been beekeeping for a few years, you’ll have strong super opinions of your own.