Checker Boarding

The Idea

A swarm resting on its way to a new home.

Checker boarding is a simple and elegant swarm management tool. It uses the bee’s natural swarm and survival impulses to maximize hive populations and honey production. When checker boarding,  empty comb frames are alternated with feed frames in supers directly above the broodnest. Checker boarding:

  • increases clustering space
  • keeps the brood in direct contact with their food reserves
  • opens up a honey bound broodnest
  • doesn’t chill or disturb brood rearing
  • provides additional empty comb storage for early nectar flows
  • is empty and ready for mid-summer flows

Implementation and timing isn’t critical, when it’s done early enough.

The results:

  • the swarm impulses is abated
  • early season management is greatly reduced
  • undisturbed hive populations expand rapidly
  • the broodnest isn’t honey bound by early nectar flows
  • empty comb directly above the broodnest stimulates summer foraging
  • and that open comb prevents a nectar bound broodnest

Checker boarding compliments the bee’s natural behavior. It’s the only swarm prevention technique that doesn’t confuse, frustrate, inhibit, diminish or disturb a colony.

I’ve only found one problem with checker boarding. It only works on vertical hives with removable comb. So, it’s  not an option for a horizontal tbh.

Walt Wrights Manuscript

Checker boarding isn’t my idea. It originated with Walt Wright. For a decade, Walt published articles in the American bee magazines. He focuses on Langstroth beekeeping. And his observations are essential for any vertical hive beekeeper wanting maximum production, with minimum effort.

The easiest way to get this information is from Walt. Those bee magazine articles compiled, are about 60 pages long. It’s written by a beekeeper, for beekeepers. It’s a great beekeeping deal. You can get a copy by sending Walt $10. He has a pdf version available on the internet for $8.

Walt Wright
Box 10
Elkton, TN 38455-0010
WaltWright_@hotmail.com

Thanks Walt, for sharing your observations.

The Details

Here’s How

The bee’s priorities aren’t the beekeepers. A hive, that throws a reproductive swarm and quickly reaches an optimum state for over wintering, won’t produce much extra surplus honey.

But when basic seasonal broodnest behavior is understood, bees can be easily managed to prevent swarming and produce an exceptional honey surplus.

When outside resources first become available, frames of capped honey, in the supers directly above the broodnest, are alternated with frames of empty comb. A super has a honey frame, empty frame, honey frame, etc.

Additional supers above the first checker boarded box have frames that are alternated in the opposite fashion. That is, an empty frame, honey frame, empty frame, etc.

The objective is:

  • to break up the solid band of capped honey directly above the broodnest
  • leave the broodnest undisturbed
  • keep the cluster in contact with its food supply
  • provide additional hive volume

Timing

Checker boarding is done early in the spring before the bees begin rapid broodnest expansion. And it must be done before they make any swarm preparations. After that, it’s too late to use checker boarding.

Since the broodnest is not disturbed during the process, it can be done earlier and in cooler weather than most other management practices. In fact, the earlier, the better.

Results

Checker boarding allows rapid broodnest expansion:

  • when half the honey is consumed, brood rearing space doubles
  • early surplus nectar is moved above the broodnest into empty comb
  • nectar isn’t packed into the broodnest below a solid honey band
  • more comb is open above the broodnest where it’s warmer
  • broodnest activities and swarming impulses aren’t interrupted
  • broodnest expansion isn’t restricted by a solid wall of capped honey

With checker boarding, the broodnest expands naturally, without disruption, and is large. That extra space prevents congestion. And it takes more nectar to backfill as a hive prepares to swarm. That delays swarming. But the bees surely try to pack it. And they gather much honey in the process.

Later, when the bees switch to survival mode, a checker boarded hive has abundant vertical, empty comb space for storing lots of fresh nectar. At white wax, the bees attempt to fill the large empty area above the broodnest. Much to the beekeepers delight.

Limits

In a northern climate, a small colony/nuc builds up faster in a non-checker boarded hive. I live in a cold climate and confining a small cluster, in a smaller hive volume, could have some environmental advantages. Maybe the hive warms up faster or the colony’s heat is confined in a more useable space.

My Checker Boarding

Checker boarded hives in early spring.

I over winter my hives in three deeps. In late winter/early spring:

  • the broodnest is centered in the middle box
  • the top box is full of capped honey
  • the bottom box consists of empty frames with pollen and a little honey

When I checker board my hives:

  • the middle box with the brood, goes on the bottom board
  • the empty frames from the bottom box are alternated with the full frames from the top box
  • two checker boarded boxes result
  • these two checker boarded boxes are set on top of the brood box

The resulting hive has:

  • a box of brood on the bottom
  • two boxes of checker boarded frames on top of that

At this time, empty supers could be put on top of the checker boarded hive. That hive would be good to go for the season. But, I wait until dandelion bloom, almost two months later, to add a couple more extra supers. That way, I can work them if needed, without handling empty boxes.

Why It Works – Biology

It’s actually harder to understand the bee behavior, upon which checker boarding is based, and write about it, than it is to manage hives using it.

Broodnest Behavior

Two principles control colony behavior:

  • reproductive swarming is the primary focus in early spring
  • eventually, a colony shifts activities from swarming to survival

These two principles aren’t mutually exclusive. In any given cavity, a colony balances food and brood to safely achieve these objectives with minimum risk. A colony won’t risk its survival to swarm.

Broodnest Expansion

In late winter, the bees are directly beneath their food supply. They expand the broodnest by consuming food. That expansion is mostly upward. Food consumption also fuels brood rearing in open comb that is warm enough. Drone comb is eventually exposed. A month after broodnest expansion begins, drones are raised.

Honey Reserves

Somehow the bees monitor honey quantity. And they maintain a reserve amount. Walt found that bees reserve a shallow super’s worth. I run deeps and have determined it’s about 4 deep frames. That’s essentially the same amount and isn’t much of a reserve. A large brood rearing colony can consume a deep frame in a day. So, the reserve is a minimal amount, especially when conditions turn bad.

The reserve honey is an emergency food source. When these reserves are tapped, broodnest expansion stops. If the reserves are further depleted, brood rearing stops. Beyond that, brood cannibalism and hive malnutrition rapidly occur. Once a hive dips into its reserves, the colonies maximum seasonal potential is reduced.

Reproduction – Swarm Preparations

The broodnest is backfilled. They have drones and a queen cell. This hive is preparing to swarm.

As broodnest expansion reaches its limits, the bees prepare to swarm. They begin backfilling the broodnest with uncapped nectar or diluted honey.

When nectar is available before swarm preparations, top bar hive(tbh) bees build storage comb behind the broodnest and store extra reserves there. But once the bees prepare to swarm, little activity occurs behind the broodnest, even when empty comb and nectar resources are available. Their focus shifts from horizontal to vertical.

If enough fresh nectar isn’t available, the bees move resources forward from the honey storage area behind the broodnest. This leaves empty combs toward the hives rear.

Open space and open comb aren’t factors in swarm preparation for a tbh. When both conditions exist at the far end of the hive, the bees swarm when the broodnest meets their vertically determined requirements. A tbh beekeeper, unfamiliar with this behavior, is often surprised when hives, with open comb and empty horizontal space, swarm.

Backfilling:

  • restricts the queens laying
  • provides fuel for the departing swarm
  • and reduces the broodnest volume

The fewer bees remaining after the swarm departs, can easily take care of the reduced amount of brood. And the additional open comb is readily available for the next generation of brood.

As a commercial beekeeper, I saw backfilling when no surplus nectar was available. We called it shake. Some beekeepers got excited about it, thinking the bees were finally making a living. I always wondered where it came from. Hummmm…….

Once backfilling begins, swarm cells are started. If there isn’t enough food reserves, or backfill, or time, the colony terminates swarming. Then, they switch to their survival behavior without negatively impacting the colony’s welfare.

After a certain time, all swarming preparations stop. Walt calls this the ‘Reproductive Swarm Cut-Off Date’. At that time, a colony not on the verge of swarming, abandons swarming regardless of conditions.

Queen cells left after the swarm cut-off date, are supersedure cells. If a beekeeper cuts these cells and doesn’t recognize this behavioral change, a colony that needs a new queen, might not get one.

Colony Survival – Nectar Lull

Bees working distant alfalfa fields.

Once a colony swarms, or abandons swarm preparations, its focus shifts to survival. The next three weeks are geared toward producing a colony with the right demographics. Enough house bees are raised to handle the huge nectar/storage demands required for winter survival. And foraging activities are greatly reduced, even when abundant nectar resource are available. Walt calls this the lull in nectar storage.

In my region, the bees work three alfalfa cuttings. They make a little alfalfa/clover honey during the first cutting.

During the second cutting:

  • colonies are strong
  • hot days and cool nights, necessary factors for abundant nectar production, exist
  • the alfalfa is left to bloom longer than the first cutting, as the farmers are distracted by other crops

But the bees don’t make much honey on the second cutting. I would see these conditions and expect a great second cutting honey crop. But I never saw one. Until I understood the nectar lull, I was clue less as to why the second cutting was so unproductive.

Seeing this lull in my tbhs, I worried they would starve before fall. They consumed most of the surplus honey above their reserves to produce more bees. And they didn’t get much from the second alfalfa cutting.

White Wax

About three weeks after the reproductive swarm cut-off date, a hive has the right demographics for a main flow. Walt calls this the white wax period. At that time, fresh nectar is stored above the broodnest. And storage cell walls are lengthened in areas of larger cell size comb.

In a tbh, the bees enlarged storage cells near the top bar. These enlarged cells often jut into the adjoining combs space making some combs extra fat and others extra thin. To maintain easy comb access, the bulges must be trimmed off with a serrated knife. The bees don’t build these bulging combs when nectar is available earlier. White wax signals a fundamental shift in bee behavior.

Tbh bees switch from a horizontal orientation to a vertical one mirroring swarm preparation behavior. Fresh nectar is stored at the broodnest’s top. And all cells, larger than small cell size, are filled and capped. The remaining small cell comb, at the broodnest’s core, is filled with nectar. But it isn’t capped. If nectar resources fall short, the bees move honey from the tbh’s far end and pack the broodnest with it. That often leaves more empty comb at the hive’s rear.

Once the broodnest is packed, the bees switch to a horizontal focus. They fill the honey storage area until optimum survival conditions exist. After that, hive activity is greatly reduced. Foraging, even though hive space and nectar resources exist, almost ceases. And they won’t take additional feed.

Optimum Survival Condition

Now, the bees are almost ready for winter. Hive activity is at a minimum. And the bees are putting on their winter fat. The cluster size is optimum. There’s enough food and it’s in the right place. The open broodnest comb, where the bees cluster over the winter, is on the small cell comb near the hive entrance. There, broodnest pests are actively removed, leaving the colony in the best possible health.

My Timing

Here are my timing notes using the terminology from Walt Wrights manuscript. Remember I live in Wyoming:

  • I checker board before the end of March
  • swarm preparations start the fourth week of May
  • my swarm reproductive cut off date occurs during the third week of June
  • actual reproductive swarming occurs from the second week in June to the first week in July
  • the storage lull occurs from the third week of June until the second week of July
  • the white wax period begins during the second week of July

Walt has more to say about nectar management. Checker boarding can be fine tuned to local conditions.

If you try checker boarding expect:

  •  much stronger hives, much earlier
  • with few exceptions, swarming is a thing of the past
  • honey production increases
  • an easier work load

At least that’s been my experience over the last decade.

Comparison

Here’s what happened when I stopped checker boarding.

-bwguy

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