Many people struggle to find the most effective way to set up a hive through the season, many people have different methods and it is hard to tell which is the best way to run a hive, either in a single full depth brood box or a double brood box system. I will share with you my experiences with both systems and give you some pointers on what system I use.
Its the beginning of August, the season is about to start and it is time to start building up my hives ready for the season ahead. I like to overwinter my hives in single brood boxes with a Ceracell Top Feeder. Bees over the winter do not need a lot of space, I find a double brood box is too much room. The bees numbers dramatically decline in the winter and the queen's brood production diminishes down to one to two frames just to keep the hive population stable through the winter, as not to use up their hard earned efforts during the summer and eat through their stores. The more confined space the less room for heat to escape allowing the bees to maintain a tight warm cluster. The top feeder allows for easy feeding without opening the hive in the winter and releasing that hard-earned heat from the winter cluster. The top feeder also adds to heat retention. Sugar syrup is a liquid which holds heat and traps any heat that the cluster is releasing and is held in the syrup above them keeping the cluster warm when feeding is needed.
Early to mid-August, you want to start thinking about activating your queen and getting her to start laying. The way to do that is by feeding the hive sugar syrup. You want to feed the hives in small increments. I will give each hive about 2 liters of syrup once every week for about 4 weeks. The reasoning behind this is you don't want the bees to store the syrup you want them to use it right away. Feeding the bees stimulates the queen to lay as the hive has not had an influx of nectar during the winter, as soon as syrup is fed the queen gets a shock and thinks "wow we have hit a honey flow I need to start increasing the population of the hive to get as much of this flow as possible". The queen will lay instantly and the 2 liters you fed the hive will go straight to feeding the new larvae. Overfeeding early can result in the hive storing the excess syrup and causing the queen to run out of space to lay, at this point, some beekeepers may think wow I should put another box on, the queen has run out of space because the syrup is taking up all the room. This can be a huge error as early in August the weather is still very up and down. You can have very cold nights and a few nice days of sunshine and then a week of straight rain. If you put another box on you can cause the hive to lose a lot of that valuable heat we talked about earlier, this can cause problems down the road. The bees will be working harder to maintain the heat and this can result in the new frames of brood to lose heat and become chilled as the bees will form a tight cluster again instead of moving freely within the hive and keeping the brood warm. I find a high number of bees in a small frame surface area is much better than a large population of bees over a large frame surface area.
Come early to mid-September, the hives are going really well, the hive population is really pumping, by this time I have put in my varroa treatments, the hive may have drones roaming in the hive which is a sign that swarming is about to start. This is when you want to start thinking about putting a second brood box on the hive. The weather is becoming warmer and more consistent. Putting on another box is a great way to reduce the swarming urge within your hive. When bees become too cramped they will start thinking about swarming. So an excess amount of bees on the front of the hive as well as inside the hive you want these bees to be working. One way is placing a second brood box on the hive and feeding the bees again. This gives the bees something else to do instead of building swarm cells. You feed the bees and they will start drawing comb in the second brood box giving the bees a job to do instead of building cells and wanting to swarm. Bess WILL NOT DRAW COMB on plastic or wooden frames unless they are on a flow or you feed them syrup. Just think about it, why would I build another garage if I still have room in my current garage, it doesn't make sense for you, so why would bees waste energy in drawing new comb when they still have space. As your bees are drawing new comb in the second brood box the queen will move up and lay immediately in the new comb. Newly drawn comb for queens is like giving a baby ice cream they can't get enough of it. This is great, it allows the queen to lay more and you now have brood in both boxes and you have reduced the chances of that hive swarming.
Late September early October is when you want to start thinking about splitting and or queen rearing. By this time the drone population in the area has increased to a suitable number that you should see a respectable queen mating. Drones gestation period is 24 days. It takes another 24 to 30 days to become sexually mature. This means that it takes about two months before the drone population in the area has sexually mature drones. I split too early in my first season as a beekeeper and I had a very bad success rate of about 20%, only two weeks later it was 85%, the queens came back mated but they ended up laying infertile eggs, meaning the drones they had mated with were sexually immature and the queens that did mate and lay fertile eggs only lasted half a season and were never very reliable, you will find queen mating increases as the season matures. Generally Autumn mated queens are very reliable as the drone population is at its max at this time. This is a crucial fact beekeepers overlook when making splits and mating queens. To split the hive all I do is remove the top box and place on a floor, new hive mat, new lid and you can let the bees rear their own queen. You don't need to worry where the old queen is as she is either in one or the other. The bees will make a new queen where they need one as you know brood was in both the top and bottom boxes before you split the hive. Because your hive is so strong from subsequent continual feeding earlier in the season the new split will be strong enough to defend itself from robbing and wasps. If you think the hive is being robbed just reduce the entrance down until you are satisfied the hive is able to defend itself. Once you make your splits you need to feed the hive to keep the hive ticking over until the flow hits. Feeding will allow the bees to draw new comb and the newly mated queen once she returns will start laying right away. Newly mated queens really come out of the gate pumping and lay like crazy which is great.
Now my hives are back to a single brood box, the hive now has half the population from the previous split I just did. I have plenty of time for my hives to recover the population for the upcoming flow, usually December or January depending on where you are. For us Aucklanders, the Pohutakawa flow is generally the start for us. A huge reason behind me running my hives during the flow in a single brood box, when doing my checks it is much easier and less time consuming to check ten frames than checking twenty frames in a double brood box. Transporting a single brood box over a double, a single weighs less and is easier to manipulate than a double. A double box takes up more room and you will get fewer hives per load, meaning more trips and more labour per hive as a result. I have artificially swarmed the hive by splitting them which reduces the urge for the hive to swarm later in the season, hives do swarm all season long but it is reduced as you go further into the season. Dropping down into running your hive for collecting honey in a single box will mean a high number of bees in a small frame surface, as long as you do your checks on a consistent basis and consistency is key, you will find the single brood system is the way to go.