It is mid April or early May. Flowers are blooming. The time has come for the honey flow. It can be either a chore or a pleasant exercise. Be prepared - have all of your gear ready well in advance. Adding supers is not only important for honey collection, but also to relieve congestion in the hive, thus reducing the tendency to swarm. Honey supers provide the space required for the ripening and storage on honey. Remember that incoming nectar contains 50 to 80% water, and therefore requires more room while the bees are processing it, than when stored in its processed state as honey with a 18% water content.
Presuming you have done the last major brood chamber manipulation by mid April, by early to mid May the queen should be moving up the hive filling the empty cells with eggs as she goes. But before she reaches the top it is likely the brood there will be all gone and the cells filled with honey. With nectar coming in faster the upper portion of the hive will not be available to the queen, therefore she has to restrict her laying to the bottom box, which is the last place the bees want to store honey.
This is an important factor, remembering that it takes six weeks from the egg being laid, until the worker has progressed through its duties in the hive, to become a field bee. You need to keep in mind that eggs laid from the beginning of the flow will produce foragers. If the flow is practically over by mid July, these foragers will barely bring in enough to support themselves. In a poor season they will eat up honey already in the hive.
The first honey supers need to be placed on the hives before the main honey flow starts, particularly if your area usually has an early significant honey flow. Putting supers on early (early to mid April), also helps to prevent swarming which usually starts about mid April here in Northwest Arkansas. If weather is good, and flowers are available, you may need to begin adding supers for honey. When the Redbud trees in the Ozarks starts blooming you need to start thinking of supering.
The first honey super should contain drawn combs if possible, as foundation does not provide the bees with any more room until the cells have been drawn. High temperature and a good honey flow are required for this, and any combs drawn during an erratic honey flow will not be drawn out properly and are usually not attached to the bottom bar correctly, causing problems later on during extracting. Additional supers should be added before the bees require them. This maintains the momentum of the colony, and the additional space seems to activate the bees to gather more nectar. The old idea was that you added supers only once the bees have started white waxing the top bars. In fact white waxing is the latest stage that you should add supers. Ideally the supers need to be placed on the hive earlier than this in a honey flow, before the white waxing occurs.
Supers are usually added on top of the previous super. This is the easiest way to put on supers as less lifting is required and you can easily check the existing super to see if another is required. Bottom supering involves lifting one or more nearly full supers off and adding the new super directly above the brood nest. It demands a lot more work, which is only warranted if supering has been delayed and combs in the top super have been completely capped over.
It is almost impossible to state how often or how many to super a hive, as honey flows vary from year to year and region to region. A general rule is to add enough supers to last until the next planned visit. This may be one, two, or even more, supers depending on the flow. In a good honey flow, strong hives can fill a super in one to two weeks, or even in a couple of days, though this is rare. Depending on the flow you may need up to four or five supers above the brood chamber. Although, this is very unusual for NWA.
If in doubt about how many supers to put on, be generous, as the bees cannot fill supers still in the storage shed. The hives will not suffer from having too much room during the honey flow. No harm is done if supers are added earlier and all at once, and that total crop yield are likely to be heavier if the bees always have large amounts of space available. Shortage of space on the other hand is an inhibiting factor. All that happens if the honey flow stops before the supers are filled is that you may need to rearrange some frames to get full boxes of honey.
Remember that the general rule is that the bees should never be using all of the comb available to them. As soon as they get to this stage another super must be put on the hive. Keep in mind that the aim is to draw the bees from the brood chamber into the super fairly quickly. If only foundation is available, the bees will often not go through a queen excluder to get to a super of foundation. This is remedied by putting the super on without a queen excluder (simply place the excluder under the inner cover). At the next inspection, the bees should be established in the new super and drawing out the wax into comb. You need to find the queen. If she is in the super, move her back down into the brood chamber. Then you can put the excluder back in place above the brood chamber and beneath the super.
After the first year the beginner should have some drawn comb and be able to mix this with foundation in the supers. The drawn comb should be placed on the outside against the super walls and the foundation in the middle where the heat from the brood chamber is the greatest. This arrangement encourages bees to enter the super and the warmth gives those making the foundation considerable help.
Foundation is drawn out properly only on a good honey flow, so it is inadvisable to use it at other times unless you have no drawn out comb. Unless a honey flow is particularly good, supers of foundation should be baited when they are put on a hive. Before adding the new super without drawn foundation, pull out two partly capped honey frames from the middle of the top super and place them in the middle of the box of foundation, separated by a couple of new frames. Replace the two partly capped honey frames with the frames of new foundation. This stimulates the bees to move up more quickly to start drawing comb. What ever you do make sure that you keep records so you can compare the results over several years.
You have done well. The spring honey flow was strong. The bees have provided you with a nice crop of honey. Your supers are all heavy. Now what?
You will need to leave about 50 pounds of honey on the hive for winter. If you think you will get a good fall honey flow, or if you plan on feeding your bees sugar syrup, you can start processing your honey anytime from June through September. In the Ozarks of NWA you will probably not get much if any fall honey flow. By August the bees will be eating some of that honey to stay alive. So you might want to just leave the honey on the hive until the fall honey flow is over. Then evaluate your situation. If you live in an area that has bitterweed, harvest your honey before it blooms in the fall. Don’t let the bitterweeds ruin your honey. Bloom time is usually late summer to early fall.
Clean and safely store all empty supers away from rodents and wax moths. Bees are happy to clean the supers after the honey has been extracted. Wax moths don’t like light so if possible store the supers such that the drawn frames are in the light. You can also put them in a sealed container or a freezer. Don’t leave the supers on your hive. Next spring the queen may choose to start laying in your honey supers.