Why won’t my bees fill my Flow frames?

Flow frames

“Why aren’t my bees filling the Flow frames ?” is one of the most frequently asked questions seen on Flow hive related beekeeping Facebook sites and forums.

The ability for bees to produce excess honey comes down to a couple of simple factors:

  • Hive strength and,
  • The availability of nectar for the bees to collect and convert into honey.

Orara Valley Honey has honeycombed the internet to come up with the best tips for you to ensure that your Flow hive is productive and healthy.

Firstly let’s look at how and why bees make and store excess honey.

Flow

How do bees make honey?

The Food Standards Code describes honey as “the natural sweet substance produced by honey bees from the nectar of blossoms or from secretions of living parts of plants or excretions of plant-sucking insects on the living parts of plants, which honey bees collect, transform and combine with specific substances of their own, store and leave in the honeycomb to ripen and mature.”

Honey contains water, fructose, glucose, sucrose, carbohydrates, minerals and proteins (enzymes).

Bees gather nectar from flowers and fill a modified stomach called a nectar sac.  When the bee has visited enough flowers to fill the nectar sac the bee returns to the hive and passes the nectar onto other bees that also ingest the nectar.  This process is repeated many times, and the nectar is mixed with enzymes until the moisture content is reduced from 70% to about 20%.

One of the enzymes, (invertase) converts sucrose in the nectar to glucose and fructose.  Also, the bees deposit the dehydrated nectar solution onto the inside of wax cells where it is further reduced to about 17% moisture.  Once the cell is filled with “ripe” honey, it is capped with a layer of wax.

Ripe honey is shelf stable and can remain edible for many years without any other means of preservation.

Ripe and capped honey in a Flow frame

Ripe and capped honey in a Flow frame

Why do bees store excess honey?

The European honeybee, (Apis mellifera) has adapted to survive long periods when nectar is not available for example a northern hemisphere winter, a prolonged drought or an extended wet season.  The bees eat the excess stored honey and also feed it to developing brood.  The honeybee colony also uses honey to obtain energy to heat the hive when the temperature is cold.  Bees can survive sub-freezing temperatures for many months provided they have energy stored as honey.

How do I encourage my bees to fill the flow frames?

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, two basic requirements need to be in place for bees to produce excess honey and subsequently fill the Flow frames.

  • Hive strength and,
  • The availability of nectar for the bees to collect and convert into honey.

So let’s discuss hive strength.

Regardless of whether you start with a nucleus hive, a swarm or a package it is essential to allow the bees to build up to a level where they want to expand into the Flow super.

Brood should be present in all stages (eggs, larvae & capped brood).  It is essential that you have a young, vigorous, laying queen.

Your hive must be disease free.  Bees won’t expand if they are battling Chalkbrood, European foulbrood or American foulbrood.

A good strong single eight frame hive will have at least the equivalent of four full frames of brood in all stages.  Typically, in an eight frame Flow hive, the brood will be spread over six frames with a frame of pollen and a frame of honey to make up the eight.

The frames should be covered with bees to the point that it is difficult to see the surface of the brood combs and when you let the bees settle they will be plentiful on the top of the frames.

The bees will readily move through a queen excluder into the Flow frames when they are added to a brood box that meets these requirements.

It is acceptable to add your Flow super when the brood box is 80% drawn however the results will not be as good as when the bees are busting out of the brood box.

a strong beehive

A strong hive with plenty of bees is essential

Good nectar flow is critical.

The other essential requirement to get bees to fill your Flow frames is an excellent steady nectar flow.  Bees forage over a huge area. They can fly on average about 3 km’s away from the hive to source nectar and pollen.

The potential honey flora available to your bees depends on a number of conditions e.g.

  • Location,
  • Time of the year,
  • Seasonal conditions, e.g. rainfall,

If there is not enough surplus nectar for bees to store and convert into honey, they won’t have the resources to move into the Flow frames and coat them with wax let alone fill the cells with honey.

Establishing flowering plants in your garden is a good way of attracting bees to your backyard however it is not sufficient to stimulate a honey flow.

The signs of a good nectar flow include:

  • Visible flowers on widespread plantings of trees, e.g. native Eucalypts, or crops of flowering clover.
  • Increased activity, (heavy traffic during the day and fanning during the night)
  • Bees landing at the entrance of the hive will have distended, full abdomens.
  • Wax production (beekeepers call it whitening up),
  • Nectar will shake out of uncapped frames (beekeepers call this shake),
  • On warm nights you can smell the nectar ripening,
  • Hives will increase in weight, (check by lifting the back of the colony “Hefting”)

Beekeepers need to take notice of the seasons and the types of plants flowering in the area.  Join a beekeeping club & speak to other local beekeepers about the honey flora in your locality. In some parts of the world, honey flows are predictable and regular however many Australian native trees can be sporadic and unpredictable when it comes to producing nectar. Local knowledge is crucial, and your experience will grow after a few seasons.

So in summary, if there is no honey in the hive, you probably don’t have the essential combination of a strong hive and a flow of surplus nectar.

willow bottlebrush flowering

Willow Bottlebrush (Melaleuca salicina) flowering heavily.

 

When should I add the Flow frames?

Flow frames can be added whenever you have the most optimal conditions e.g.

  • A strong hive, &
  • A nectar flow.

The best time to add a Flow super and frames is in spring when the bees are expanding, and you can take advantage of increased bee numbers,  warming weather and spring nectar flows.  You can also add more Flow supers during the summer if your bees are going well.

How long does it take to fill a flow hive?

New beekeepers frequently ask “How long does it take for bees to fill a frame?” A healthy hive on a good nectar flow can quickly fill a six-frame Flow super in a couple of weeks.  It depends entirely on conditions.  If nectar availability dries up the bees will remove honey from the frames to survive.  Typically though it would be reasonable to expect a super to fill in a month or two under average conditions.

flow frames full of honey

Flow frames full of honey and ready to harvest

What else can I do to increase activity in the Flow frames?

It takes a lot of effort for your bees to get the flow frames (or any other frames) ready to fill with honey.  They use energy from nectar that they collect to make wax in glands on their body.  This wax is used to line the plastic cells and also to seal the gaps in the Flow hive mechanism.  As described above hive strength and a nectar flow are essential however here are a few extra tips for getting bees to move up into the Flow super.

Supplementary feeding.

Where conditions are poor, it may help to do some supplementary feeding.  Brood rearing and therefore hive strength can be stimulated by feeding 1:1 sugar syrup. The NSW Department of Primary Industries has an excellent fact sheet about feeding sugar syrup.  Never feed honey to bees if you are trying to stimulate them to grow. Honey from unknown sources can spread disease.  You should cease feeding sugar syrup before you add your Flow frames.  Pollen supplements can also help to stimulate brood rearing in spring.

Remove the queen excluder (temporarily)

Bees can at times be reluctant to move through queen excluders for no apparent reason.  A queen excluder is a wire or plastic screen that allows the workers to pass through but not the queen (or drones).  The use of a queen excluder is very much a personal choice however queens have been known to lay drone brood in the flow frames.

Try removing the queen excluder for a week or two so that the bees can move up into the Flow super unhindered.  Once the bees are working the Flow frames, you can replace the queen excluder.  Always make sure that the queen is back under the queen excluder in the brood box when you return it.

Do you want to read more about queen excluders?  Take a look at our blog Queen Excluder Pros & Cons.

Wax the Flow frames.

Plastic foundation in beehives is nothing new.  Beekeepers have used it for decades.  It is generally standard practice to coat plastic foundation with melted beeswax to increase acceptance by the bees.

Some beekeepers report that introducing some beeswax onto the Flow frames may encourage the bees to work them.  This can be done by gently rubbing pure beeswax over the surface of the frames.  Alternatively, you can melt some wax and brush it on the frames while it is still liquid being careful not to put too much on. Mixing a 1:1 sugar syrup solution and spraying it into the frames can also help to draw bees up into the honey super.

I have never experienced problems with bees accepting and working the Flow frames without waxing them.  Waxing frames and spraying sugar syrup keeps beekeepers busy however it is no substitute for a strong hive and a good nectar flow.

Check that the frame cells are aligned.

When you install your Flow frames into the honey super make sure that you put the metal key into the top slot and insert it fully.  Turn it 90 degrees so that the key handle hangs down vertically in line with the frame.  This will set the frame in the correct position for the bees to start filling the frames.

Here’s a great video from Flow hive that describes the process:

Ask for help.

If everything else fails ask for help.  Beekeeping can be a complicated hobby when you are starting.  Mt. Coramba Apiculture recommends that you reach out to a beekeeping club in your area if you are having trouble.  Mt. Coramba Apiculture offers beekeeping courses and workshops for beginners in Northern New South Wales, and we also specialise in Flow hive mentoring.

The Flow website has some great resources.  Take a look at their frequently asked questions page.  The Flow forum is also a great place to lurk or ask questions.

 

a misaligned Flow frame

Bees won’t fill a misaligned Flow frame

About the Author

The owner of Mt. Coramba Apiculture, Glenn Locke, has had the beekeeping urge since the early 1980’s as a 14-year-old teenager.

The Warwick (QLD) high school agriculture department had a few beehives and beekeeping was taught as a subject.  Glenn’s agriculture teacher Jim Caird let him have a nucleus hive, and the addiction started.

The move to the mid-north coast of NSW and particularly the beautiful Orara Valley means that Glenn now has the space to commence beekeeping again. Glenn has managed beehives in the Orara Valley since 2009.

Glenn is now concentrating on building his beekeeping business producing nucleus hives and queen bees for sale.

We also supply high quality local, raw honey.

Do you have questions about Flow hive frames?

Leave a comment below or Contact us. 

old beekeeping smokers

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *