April 2019 Introduction: Checkerboarding is another method of controlling a potentially over-populated hive so the bees don’t swarm. Some argue that the bees make more honey after the hive has been checkerboarded. I don’t know about that. I used to have massive colonies in the spring, some swarming as early as May, because I fed dry sugar, protein patties and then sugar syrup to my bees early in the year no matter what. I thought that’s what beekeepers were supposed to do. But I was wrong. A honey bee colony with plenty of honey and pollen stores doesn’t need any help from me. My general approach to beekeeping of always making sure the queen has room to lay pretty much keeps most swarms at bay these days. I would checkerboard a hive only if there were so many bees covering all the frames that I couldn’t tell what was going on. It can be a shock, for instance, to pull up a thick frame of bees and think, “Great, looking good,” and then clear the bees away to reveal a dozen swarm cells poking out of the brood cells. That’s too many bees.
I checkerboarded a hive for the first time yesterday. It wasn’t planned and I didn’t have my camera with me, but I whipped up a nifty little diagram to illustrate what I did — and I’m not saying what I did is right. But anyhow… I reversed the brood boxes on one of my hives last week and didn’t have time to scrape off the bridge comb / burr comb that had built up on the frames over the winter. Unlike the last brood box reversal, all I did was exchange the positions of the boxes. I didn’t touch the frames. So yesterday during a brief hot spell (17°C), I decided to pull the frames, clean them up and inspect the hive while I was at it. Well, in my 661 days of beekeeping, I’d never witnessed so many bees packed into one hive, and most of the foragers weren’t even home.
The frames in the bottom box were full of brood and pollen and some honey — and drone cells packed into every crevice. The frames in the top box had some brood in the middle, but most of the frames were being backed-filled with nectar on the way to becoming honey — thus reducing space for the queen to lay. So that was it: I decided to checkerboard the hive right then and there. Otherwise the queen could become honeybound and trigger a swarm, and that probably wouldn’t go over well with my neighbours. So here’s what I did:
B = brood frames (and some pollen).
F = foundation (empty).
D = drawn comb (empty).
Note: Imagine the frames in the box below this one packed with brood.
See How to checkerboard a hive from Honey Bee Suite for an explanation of checkerboarding.
The frames marked with * show the arrangement of the frames in the original top box (now the middle box). It was loaded with back-filled honey / nectar, with a patch of brood spread over the three middle frames, plus some pollen mixed in for good measure.
I moved the back-filled frames of honey / nectar (H) from positions 2, 4, 8 and 10 into the new top box. I replaced them with frames of empty foundation (F). Some brood may have been pulled up with the honey, but not too much (I hope). Thus the middle brood box now has brood (B) in the centre, surrounded by empty foundation (F), alternating with frames of honey / nectar (H). Right above the three frames of brood (B), in the new top box, I placed a frame of empty drawn comb (D), a frame of empty foundation (F) and another frame of empty drawn comb (D). The empty drawn comb should immediately give the queen more space to lay. Perhaps I should have placed those frames next to the bit of brood in the middle box, but it’s too late now. The rest of the frames in the new top box are checkerboarded with honey / nectar (H) and foundation (F) — which means beside every top box frame of honey is a frame of empty foundation, and below every frame of honey is a frame of empty foundation, and below every frame of empty foundation is a frame of honey. Could I make something so simple any more confusing? I don’t think so. (Just look at the diagram.) Supposedly it’s better to use drawn comb instead of foundation, but I only had two frames of drawn comb to work with, so I had to make due with foundation.
So what’s the point of this checkerboarding business? Well, to quote from the Honey Bee Suite:
“Checkerboarding breaks up the solid band of honey that rings the top of the brood nest. This band of honey signals the bees that winter preparations are complete and it’s time to swarm. When the band is interrupted, more storage areas are exposed, and the bees defer swarming until the empty spaces are filled. Eventually, optimal swarming conditions pass and the colony may not swarm at all…”
Theoretically, the queen is no longer honeybound and the worker bees have plenty of empty space to fill in. Personally, I’d rather pull out some frames of brood (replacing them with drawn comb or empty foundation) and start up a new hive from a nuc, but I don’t have a nuc. That seems like an easier way to prevent swarming. Checkerboarding can help increase the hive’s population and produce a larger honey crop, but for urban beekeepers like me, I think swarm prevention should be a greater concern than honey production.
It went up to 19°C today and that big booming hive was looking great. All four of my hives, with the possible exception of my foundationless hive, are busting loose in a big way. I wish I had some spare queens to start up some new colonies. I think all my hives will be into three brood boxes by the time June rolls around if the weather holds up. I’m kind of scared.