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Hive Bodies and Supers:  So who is confused the most, the bees or the keeper?

Those of you who are just starting out for the first time face a complexing array of sizes and names of the boxes that we put our bees into. Some ask, “What’s the difference between a medium super and a medium brood box or hive body?” Next is, “When someone says ‘hive body’ are they talking about a deep or a medium?” and that leads to, “Which works better for the bees?” How is one supposed to decide what to purchase?

So let’s attempt to answer what is best for the bees first.  I am going to defer to Thomas Seeley in his book Honeybee Democracy for part of this answer. According to Dr.Seeley, bees looking for a new home prefer a nesting cavity that is approximately 40 liters. This is very close to the volume of a deep hive body. (Seeley also says that bees prefer an entrance that is 15 cm2 or about 1.5 in2. In other words, a square hole of 1.5 inches on a side or a circular hole with a diameter of 1 3/4 inches). Does this mean we should only use deep boxes?  No.  He says they will accept anything from 20 to 100 liters. The takeaway from this seems to tell us that to the bees, it really does not make a lot of difference how we supply their space. As long as it is not too cramped or big for them to control the HVAC; the entrance is not too large for them to guard from predators; it is dry and not drafty; the bees will adapt. Moreover, if they run out of room, they just swarm, but that is another topic. They seem to prefer the larger, unbroken surface of a deep comb, but will use what they are handed pretty much without issue.

The Langstroth beehive design is the de facto standard in beekeeping. Based on his discovery of the 3/8” bee space, the removable frames of honeycomb allow easier management and harvesting of honey all without destroying the colony’s structure. In the U.S., two sizes of boxes became standards: the deep and the shallow. The deep acquired the names of “hive body” and “brood box” because that is, generally, where the bees build their combs for the primary purpose of raising new bees (brood). The shallow box is also called a super. By definition, “super” means, “added to” or “on top of”, such as a superscript, or superintendent. We put a shallow box(es) on top of the brood box for the bees to put their honey stores (we say, ”super the hive with honey supers”).

We beekeepers are adept at creating new ways to use words. “Super” by itself is an adjective or adverb and only becomes a noun when used as a prefix, but we have managed to make it a noun and a verb. Must be all the bee stings. Back to the subject

Just because we add supers on top for honey stores does not mean that the bees won’t use one or two of them to raise brood. They will, which is why queen excluders were invented. Another subject.

That’s another thing beekeepers are very good at – going off on tangents whenever they talk about bees.

There is a bit of irony that you will see shortly about the fact that no matter what the bees put in a shallow super, we still call it a super.

Some decades ago, the Dadant company in western Illinois began producing a box size in between the deep and the shallow. They called it a “medium” but because of its source, it quickly became known under several different names, some of which you might still see used: Dadant super, Western Illinois super and Illinois supper, with the latter probably the most prevalent. Medium super is the most common name you will see and hear today. The idea was that it reduced the equipment investment without creating a honey super that was too heavy to manage. Two mediums full of honey contains and weighs almost the same as three shallow supers, but you only have to purchase two boxes and 20 frames versus three boxes and 30 frames. Nowadays commercial honey producers almost exclusively use mediums for honey supers.

Somewhere along the line, it became apparent that the bees utilized the mediums almost, if not just as well as deeps for brood. More and more hobbyist beekeepers, who disliked or just could not handle the weight of deeps, started using all mediums for everything. Thus, mediums are named based on how they are being used by the bees: medium brood box (or hive body), or medium super, but yet (the irony previously mentioned) if the queen moves up into a shallow super and lays eggs, it is almost unheard of calling it a shallow brood box. The advantage of using all mediums is all the frames are interchangeable making management significantly more convenient. Disadvantages are that it takes three mediums to equal two deeps for brood boxes so again, more investment in extra box and 10 frames and foundation. The other somewhat disadvantage is that deep nucs are much more common than mediums although as the popularity is increasing, that issue is improving. Just remember to ask before ordering a nuc!

When it comes to the difference between 8-frame and 10-frame boxes, it all boils down to weight. If weight is an issue for you no matter which of the 3 size boxes you use, consider 8-frame equipment.  It can be as much as 20% lighter. Because of the narrower base, a hive should not be stacked as high as a 10-frame hive without some support. High winds may blow the 8-frame over easier.

Clear as crystalized honey in a large bottle?