Checkerboarding – a talk by John White of Pangbourne beekeepers, on 3rd March 2022.
John started the talk with a question for everyone!
‘Which has the greatest priority for bees? The parent colony or the issuing swarm?’
At this stage the majority of the audience felt the swarm would take priority. You may think differently by the end of the talk.
What is Checkerbcoarding?
- It is a ONCE ONLY intervention.
- It breaks up the solid band of honey above the brood nest, stimulating the bees’ impulse to recreate the band.
- There are three key elements: Timing, Stores, Space.
As the diagrams show, the solid band of honey in the super(s) above the brood nest is broken up by interlacing filled frames of honey with drawn frames of empty comb. The comb should be alternated both vertically and hoizontally.
The originator of the technique was Walter Wright, a NASA engineer, who took up beekeeping in his late 50’s. He closely observed his bees and developed the intervention based on these observations (in America).
This has the effect of dramatically increasing the brood nest area and the total nectar storage. While these changes are being made the colony’s objectives have changed. They are intent on nectar collection and storage rather than swarm preparations, although they can sometimes revert to swarm mode.
Won’t they swarm anyway?
This question is often asked. If the regime is followed carefully 100% swarm-free is achievable.
- Intervention MUST precede the natural swarm preparation period of the colony (The Timing factor)
- There MUST be empty drawn comb and stores above the brood (The Stores factor)
- It is imperative to maintain 2 boxes of empty supers above the partially filled supers (The Space factor)
The Timing factor
The diagram shows the significant events leading to swarming in USA.
Experimentation has shown that to checkerboard in March is too late in the UK. Carrying out the manipulation in December is ideal for our climate.
Each hive will require some preparation based on the beekeepers’ judgement of the colony strength. The minimum requirement is a box with frames of honey and a box with drawn empty frames.
In December, fragment the stores above the brood. This needs to be done early, bearing in mind that you are not going into the brood.
The Stores factor
Some beekeepers may feel it is safer to feed some fondant when making the checkerboard manipulation in December. This can be incorporated into the hive by using an eke between brood and supers. There should be room for the bees to reach the supers.
The spring build-up starts with no QX on the checkerboarded hive, allowing the bees to rapidly expand the brood nest, nectar processing and honey storage areas. Ideally have some drone brood frames near the brood nest. Wait until there is a definite demarcation of brood and nectar before inserting the QX. This may be during May in the UK.
The Space Factor. Summer Nectar Management
Always keep 2 boxes ahead of the nectar flow. If the stacks get too high then reduce these towers by extracting and storing the honey early.
- Fewer inspections
- New queens via supercedure seems to happen as a matter of course
- No swarming
- More honey
- Will need stronger and more stable hive stands
- May need a helper to manage the stacks
- May need more equipment
- What will you do with the extra honey?
Backfilling – indicator of swarm preparation
One of the tips from Walter Wright was to watch out for Backfilling of the brood frames. This is a sure sign of the bees beginning their swarm preparations. As the queen slows down egg laying, so some brood cells will not be laid up with the next cycle of eggs but will instead be filled with nectar. Look for nectar in the middle of brood frames. Queen cells will follow in a couple of weeks!
Our thanks to John for presenting this technique with clear, easy-to-understand diagrams.
Swarm Management with Checkerboarding by John White, Anita Hunt, Gill Bannister
This book aims to simplify Walter Wright’s original texts and offer it to UK beekeepers in an easy-to-follow format showing how Checkerboarding can work for you. Of course we have included our own findings along the way.
John White email: firstname.lastname@example.org