Supering at a 1000 hive operation

The techniques used in supering hives in an apiary with 1000 beehives is quite a bit different from those I use in my small 40 hive operation here at Brookfield Farm.  [To super a hive is to add another box on top of a full box of bees, so the bees may expand into this new space.] To experience this whole different world of beekeeping I spent the day going with Bruce Bowen and his assistant Pat Ray to four of the many bee yards set up by Bruce in Skagit County, Washington.

Beekeepers Bowen and Ray with supers ready to put on hives

Bowen (left) and Ray

Skagit is the next county south of my stomping grounds here in Whatcom County, which is the most northwest part of Washington State.  Bruce has bee yards in the flats along the I-5 corridor, on farmlands a bit inland and others along the South Skagit River.  I was particularly interested in these as this is bear country and I need to build a good bear fence in one of my bee yards this fall.

Of the four sites we worked, two are surrounded by electrified fencing.  The other 2 were in pastures near homes where the presence of people and dogs seem to be keeping bears at bay.

In my operation, when I super, I prepare the supers and bring them to the yard.  I then open the hive to be supered, take out the center 2 frames, which have brood in them, and move them into the center of the new box.  I always make sure those 2 frames have brood.  Next, I check to make sure that the frames now exposed also have brood and are not full of honey (bees don’t like to move across honey as they go up).  With this verified, I push all the remaining frames, except the outer two frames, into the center and add foundation in the remaining open spaces of the lower box.  This takes a bit of time, time that is not available if you’re working 1,000 hives.

As Bruce likes to point out, if he takes 5 minutes to look at each of his hives while he’s working them, that’s over 83 hours – without taking into account the time to prepare the supers, load and unload the boxes and forklift, and drive to the locations, check problem hives, and retrieve any swarms that may be hanging around; don’t even think about eating lunch.   So in a 1000-hive operation things must move faster.

The truck is loaded in the evening or early in the morning.  The forklifts is then driven onto its trailer and off go the beekeepers.  On arrival Pat and I headed into the bee yard, which could contain 80-100 hives, and started opening hives to see if they were full off bees. Bruce manned the forklift and drove a pallet stacked with prepared supers into the yard.  Then it was: Open hive.  Lots of bees? Yes, then put super on top. Close hive. Move to next hive.

Beekeeper Ray begins to put honey supers on Some of Bruce Bowen's hives

Pat Ray in bee yard

If a hive was suspect, it would get a check.  That’s where 5 minutes is spent.  There were not many to check.  One or two dead outs in one yard – these are picked up and put back on the truck..  A seemingly queenless hive in another – that one got a frame of eggs popped in.  There was a fabulous swarm in another yard, where the swarm had landed on the outside of another hive (of course my camera died at this point).   Bruce grabbed a super and put it on the ground in front of the bees, which marched straight into the super.  I’d heard this could happen but had never seen it.

We ended the day with the setting sun backlighting the flying bees in a flower-covered space that was surrounded by firs.   Each bee yard was beautiful and productive.  It was a lovely day, if exhausting for this small-scale beekeeper.  Bruce and Pat seemed unfazed at days end, as they stood discussing which yards to see to in the morning.

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