Un-Checker Boarding

Checker Boarding vs Conventional Methods

The Idea

Un-checker Boarded Hives

Conventional setup.

After a decade of checker boarding, a beeyard was reconfigured and run in a conventional manner.

During the checker boarding phase:

  • hives were in 3 deep brood chambers
  • checker boarded in March
  • required no additional feeding
  • produced more than twice the average honey crop
  • less than 10% of the hives tried to swarm
  • minimal inspections/labor

Conventional setup:

  • hives were in 2 deep brood chambers
  • required feeding
  • required frequent inspections
  • labor intensive
  • extra supers were added when polished cups were seen
  • queen cells were cut
  • 90% tried to swarm
  • 25% actually swarmed
  • most swarm prevented hives were demoralized
  • produced less than an average honey crop

The Details

This season, I ran a bee yard the standard way, without checker boarding. These hives were:

  • moved from 3 deep supers into 2
  • manually hefted to determine spring feed requirements
  • light weight hives were fed honey frames
  • at the first sign of polished swarm cups, a super was added on top of the two brood boxes
  • swarming hives were checked once a week
  • and swarm cells were cut out

Results

Swarming

The conventional run hive’s statistics reversed themselves compared to when those same hives were checker boarded.

With checker boarding:

  • less than 10 percent of my hives wanted to swarm

Without checker boarding:

  • over 90% wanted to swarm
  • broodnests were quickly backfilled
  • brood rearing was greatly reduced before the first cups were polished

Hard Work

After checker boarding for so long, I forgot how much work it takes to prevent swarming.

  • when cutting cells, it’s easy to overlook one
  • some colonies swarm before a virgin hatches
  • some swarm before the queen cells are sealed!
  • 25% of these test hives swarmed regardless of my anti-swarm efforts

I kept the remaining hives from swarming. But I was less than happy with the results:

  • broodnests were backfilled
  • brood rearing was almost completely curtailed
  • only a few hives attempted to use the extra storage space in empty supers above the broodnest

Swarmed versus Swarm Prevented Hives

The comparison between those hives that actually swarmed and those that chose not to swarm was dramatic. The swarmed hives were actively foraging, rearing brood and filling the empty supers above the broodnest with yellow sweet clover honey.

But, with one exception, the swarm prevented hives continued to linger on with backfilled broodnests, marginal brood rearing and only minor foraging activity. The yellow sweet clover flow didn’t benefit these swarm prevented colonies.

Confusion

I suspect the swarm prevented colonies couldn’t come to a consensus between preparing to swarm, or preparing for winter. And so they did nothing. This confused situation wouldn’t exist in nature. They would swarm or not. And then colony activity is vigorously focused in the proper direction. And the frequent inspections probably added to their confusion.

Could increased colony activity associated with swarming actually be a normal behavior for both the parent and the swarm? That’s what I see. While running Russian bees, I let my best colonies swarm. There wasn’t a decrease in honey production with these swarmed hives.

I suspect that most swarm prevention methods are more disruptive than thought. And I suspect that my swarmed hives were in a better situation for the main honey flow, the third week in July, than were swarm prevented hives.

Negative Impacts

It’s interesting to think about the negative impacts conventional beekeeping methods have on colony development. Most hives are run with broodnests that are too small, especially if they are migratory:

  • these hives won’t have much stored pollen
  • the bees, when expanding the broodnest, rapidly reach their honey reserve limits
  • the smaller broodnest easily becomes congested
  • and is quickly backfilled

This results in hives that need:

  • frequent feeding
  • pollen substitutes
  • swarm inspections
  • and volume management

In a northern climate, these activities must often be done when it’s cold. That negatively impacts colony development at a critical time. And sometimes the weather won’t permit any operations. Then a large hive quickly becomes a damaged hive, when the honey reserves are depleted and broodnest expansion stops.

Under such conditions, beekeepers become like busy bees, especially if their hives have returned from pollinating California almonds. The corn syrup pumps must be kept continually running. Or the bees start cannibalizing worker brood.

It’s interesting to compare a typical migratory hive with one that is over wintered and checker boarded. When the migratory hives returns from California almonds, their clusters match the best over wintered hives. But two months later, the over wintered hives are far superior to the migratory ones. They are 50% larger as they have continued brood rearing with almost three uninterrupted brood cycles.

But the migratory hives are struggling on the brink of their honey reserves and pollen resources. This results in highly interrupted brood cycles until natural resources are available at dandelion bloom. A decline in cluster size occurs when older bees die but aren’t replaced by the dandelion stimulated brood.

By the middle of June, a good migratory hive consists of two deeps ready to swarm. An over wintered/checker boarded hive consists of four deeps ready for the flow.

-bW

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2 responses to “Un-Checker Boarding”

  1. jack says:

    First year beek here and following your blog with lot of curiosity. I am confused by this article, specially last section about negative impact. In all, what do you suggest for a northern backyard beekeeper as myself – checkerboard or not ?

  2. -bW says:

    Greetings Jack

    For a northern beekeeper, with a fully developed hive, it’s the single most important, non-bWisruptive management technique that a beekeeper can use.

    And it works great in the backyard as it’s fast and done once. So there’s much less hive intrusion/disruption. And fewer defensive bees and inquisitive/angry neighbors.

    Checker boarding doesn’t work well in areas where bees don’t develop a honey cap, or when a hive is too new, lacks comb, or is too small to initiate a spring population increase. In a cold climate, the extra empty space ,above the broodnest, can set freshly installed package bees back.

    The negative impacts section refers to conventional commercial, and especially migratory beekeeping management. Those guys just don’t have the luxury of trucking larger volume hives down the road and working with the bees natural propensities.

    So, they’ve developed techniques that work. But spring time is a mad rush for them with too many bees, too little feed and pollen, not enough room for honey.

    But, it’s a mad dash to feed, prevent swarming, and super for a flow. Often at times when it’s too cold, beeyards are inaccessible, and there’s not enough time in the day. Working against the bee’s nature is exhausting and produces many negative unanticipated results.

    I’m amazed that beekeepers, who don’t have to wrangle their bees that way, do so thinking it’s the best or only way. And that all that emergency spring work is natural. It isn’t. At least not for a northern beekeeper who working with his bees, checker boards his hives.

    At least that’s been my experience.

    Jack, if you try it. Let me know how it works for you.

    -bW

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