THE FOLLOWING HAS BEEN UPDATED SINCE ORIGINALLY POSTED.

File this one under: “Stuff We’ve Thought About Doing But Aren’t Sure We’ll Do Because We Don’t Really Know What We’re Doing Yet.”

If all goes well, we might be able to harvest some honey from two of our Langstroth hives this year. Our plan has always been to cut the honey comb out of foundationless frames and keep it as comb honey, or crush and strain the honey out of the comb and bottle it from there.

But should we use 9 frames in the honey supers or 10? Here’s one of our honey supers with a 9-frame spacing:


Metal guards keep the 9 frames spaced evenly, or the spaces for the frames can be traced onto the super itself, which makes it easier to slide the frames when need be, or a beekeeper can use a 9-frame spacing tool. The 10-frame spacing looks like this:

Pretty exciting, isn’t it?

The standard 10-frame spacing maintains a more even bee space so the bees are more likely to build straight even comb. But with the 9-frame spacing, they tend to build out further until they’ve filled in more space, resulting in thicker comb with more honey. (None of what I’m saying is based on experience. I’ve been reading about it on various forums, websites and reference books.) The speculative benefits of 9-frame spacing:

• queens are less likely to be rolled between frames and injured during inspections;
• less propolis around the frames;
• manipulation of the frames is faster and easier;
• there’s more space for the winter cluster to stay warm (in the brood chamber);
• more honey is produced on less frames because the comb is thicker;
• uncapping honey before extraction is easier because the comb is drawn out past the frame;
• 9-frame spacing acts as a natural queen excluder because queens prefer 10-frame spacing.

Some beekeepers argue that 9 frames in the brood chamber is a bad idea because the bees will build uneven comb with the extra space, which actually increases the chances of rolling the queen, and the extra space for the winter cluster decreases the bees’ ability to warm the brood.

Foundationless frames make things more complicated. First-year foundationless frames in the honey super should be spaced as close as possible (the 10-frame spacing). Otherwise, the bees are more likely to make a mess of the comb given the extra space. However, once the foundationless frames are drawn out and they’re even and straight, then it’s okay to switch to 9-frame spacing.

Foundationless frames in the brood chamber will produce more drones because with 9-frame spacing the increased space between the frames is more in line with drone comb. Apparently the best way to have 9-frame spacing in the brood chamber with foundationless frames is to put all 9 frames close together in the middle, leaving extra space between the outside frames and the sides of the super. The bees will build drone comb in the extra space on the two outer frames and everything else will become worker-sized cells.

Anybody lost yet? I don’t know if any of this is true. Much of what I read on beekeeping forums is not based on scientific experimentation. And for anyone who doesn’t know, “bee space” is defined as:

    A space 1/4- to 5/16-inch (about 1 centimetre) big enough to permit free passage for a bee but too small to encourage comb building. Leaving bee space between parallel beeswax combs and between the outer comb and the hive walls is the basic principle of hive construction.

I’m sure there are more pros and cons to 9-frame spacing, but to keep things simple, we’ll probably stick with the 10-frame spacing until we have a better idea of what we’re doing.

UPDATE (March 08/11): We have a better idea now. Rusty over at Honey Bee Suite has written a follow-up post to all this, and I’m glad, because what I’ve written is entirely speculative and what she’s written is well informed. The difference is like night and day. Now go and read what she’s written and then come back…

Did you see how many of my speculations were completely wrong? I like that. Now…

Rusty says she uses 9 frames in the centre of the brood box (in the centre as opposed to evenly spaced out across the whole box) because 9 frames are less likely to get jammed and the extra space at the ends provides room for follower boards (a.k.a. dummy boards). “These can lessen the chances of swarming,” she says, “by providing the bees a place to ‘hang out’ without keeping the brood nest too warm in summer. In the winter, they provide insulation against the outside walls.”

Jenny (the other half of the Mud Songs beekeeping operation) read Rusty’s post and told me, “I like her idea of putting nine frames in the brood box. I also find it difficult to do inspections with ten frames. It’s hard pulling out the frames.” I agree. We can easily remove one of the mostly-drone foundationless frames from each of our brood boxes and use them to help out the new hives we’re starting this year. We can also insert follower boards like Rusty mentions, though I’m not sure what they look like. We’ll probably have to build our own. We’re going to talk about all this with the one experienced local beekeeper we know before we make any decisions, but it all sounds like a good idea to me.

UPDATE (Mar. 22/11): The main reason we’ve considered 9 frames in the brood chamber is to prevent swarming. We don’t live in the country. If our colonies ever swarm onto any of our neighbours’ property, that could spell the end of beekeeping for us. It’s imperative that we do everything possible to prevent swarming, even if it means reducing honey production. That’s why we’re considering the 9-frame brood chamber arrangement with follower boards. However, we’ve been in contact with other beekeepers in the Atlantic Canada region who contend with weather similar to what we have in Newfoundland, and at least for the time being, it seems that the most straightforward method of preventing swarming is to install empty foundationless frames into the brood nest as soon as the colonies begin to build up in the spring. 9-frame brood boxes, on the other hand, would reduce the amount of space available for the queen to lay and could subsequently increase the chances of swarming.

So there you go. Two completely contradictory methods of swarm prevention. I don’t know which one we’ll follow. Though at the moment I’m leaning more towards simply installing empty frames in the brood nest to prevent swarming, mainly because that advice comes from experienced beekeepers in a similar climate to our own. We’ll see how it works out.

6 Responses to “9 or 10 Frame Honey Super (and Brood Box)?”

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  1. Rusty says:

    Phillip,

    At the request of a beekeeper in Pennsylvania, I’ve written a post about how I make follower boards. I’m still fiddling with pictures, but I plan to post it tomorrow.

  2. Jeff says:

    Phil,

    What is the point of the follower boards other than for nuc transition to standard hive? Or am I missing something.

  3. Phillip says:

    To quote Rusty:

    “Although follower boards (also known as dummy boards) are often used in top-bar hives, they are less often seen in Langstroth-style equipment. But many who use them are firm believers in their ability to lessen swarming in the summer and insulate the hive in winter.”

    And again:

    “The theory here is that the bees can collect on the follower boards without sitting on the brood. In hot weather, the bees have a hard time keeping the brood cool enough, and sitting on it makes it worse. So both follower boards and slatted racks give the bees a place to ‘hang out.’ This also reduces the feeling of congestion in the hive and congestion is a major factor in swarming.”

    I’m not 100% sold of them, but I’m 95% sold. I won’t know until I try it out this year.

  4. Phillip says:

    Hey Jeff, I took a second look at your question. You said, “What is the point of the follower boards other than for nuc transition to standard hive?”

    I don’t think they have anything to do with nucs.

    We might have a different idea of what a follower board is. They’re also knows as dummy boards, or what might make more sense: a dummy frame. This is how they’re built, by the way.

    It’s a top bar cut down the middle. Then a piece of Masonite the same dimensions as a regular frame is attached. Then little pieces of wood are added at the top for spacing (for the bee space).

    So basically what you have is a frame with Masonite instead of foundation (and no actual frame around it, just a top bar), and because it’s half the width of a normal frame, 2 of them can fit in a 9-frame brood box (in positions 1 and 11 — with the regular 9 frames between them). It looks like this.

    This configuration doesn’t change the spacing between the regular frames, but now there’s twice as much “bee space” on the sides. This relieves congestion in the hive, reducing the probability of swarming, and provides dead air insulation in the winter.

    Or so the story goes. I’ll guess I’ll find out for myself this summer.

  5. Dave Haynes says:

    I have a thick mess with 9 frames in a 10 frame super. Rather than fight this thing, I am tempted to remove the oversized frame and replace it with a new frame. Sacrificing whatever is on the frame. Its early June and they should recover.

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