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Checkerboarding: the X-files of beekeeping

A discussion of checkerboarding gets men all riled up. And I don’t mean “men” as a pronoun for all genders, I mean male humans. Come on, you’ve never seen a group of women all vexed and loquacious over checkerboarding. It doesn’t happen.

Furthermore, checkerboarding induces these self-same men to deceive, inveigle, and obfuscate. They make up new vocabulary, talk in cryptic terms about bloom dates and nectar flows, and schedule manipulations based on the number of weeks before other things might happen. They write in long dense paragraphs about what the bees are thinking—“colony awareness”—and how the bees “perceive” the changes you’ve made to their colony. Worse, they maintain bees can be “fooled.” I seriously doubt it.

All of Walt Wright’s original papers about checkerboarding—also known as nectar management—can be found online. Also, the various bee forums have endless discussions (I’ve heard these called wrestling matches) about checkerboarding. For anyone so inclined, I urge you to read these.

But if you want it simple, the theory of checkerboarding goes like this:

Every colony has two objectives. The secondary objective is survival of the species, otherwise known as reproduction. The primary objective is survival of the individual colony.

This is no different than any other living thing and is especially apparent when you think of a bee colony as a superorganism. Animals, plants, protists, or whatever all need to survive themselves in order that they may reproduce. It is the way of nature. It is not rocket science.

So, first and foremost, your colony takes care of itself. If it becomes strong enough and large enough, it will then swarm and produce another colony. But the final decision on whether or not to swarm is based on conditions in the hive. One of those conditions is the amount of food that is stored above the brood nest.

Checkerboarding changes the configuration of the “pantry” above the brood nest, which causes the bees to postpone swarming. Since reproduction is secondary to self-preservation, this really works. The bees delay swarm prep in order to clean up the mess in the pantry. Done properly, checkerboarding can greatly increase honey production and defer or prevent swarming altogether.

Most authors say that checkerboarding “fools” the bees into thinking that not enough food has been stored, so they keep storing more. But I don’t believe bees are fools. Thing is, you have gone into their hive and changed their storage system into a configuration they don’t like. They won’t leave until it’s fixed so they keep storing more honey in an effort to restore the configuration. That’s not being fooled, that’s being stubborn. They won’t swarm till the job’s done right.

By taking advantage of this stubbornness, you can harvest extra-large quantities of honey and keep those bees working for you instead of winging over to your neighbor’s swarm trap. In addition, you get to head into winter with a large and robust colony.

Many misconceptions surround checkerboarding. The most common one is that it interferes with the brood nest. It does not. Checkerboarding is performed in the honey storage areas above the brood nest, not in the brood rearing areas, so it is an excellent and non-invasive swarm management technique.

Next time I will review some of the more obscure checkerboarding vocabulary—important to beekeepers if not to bees—and take a look at how checkerboarding is done.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

X-Files Season IV Episode 3 "Home"

Comments

Joel
Reply

REALLY looking forward to this! I won’t be able to use it this year because I have so few drawn out frames to spare. But next year….

I have learned more from you on this website than I have in a year of beekeeper meetings and from the 7 beekeeping books I have worn out.

I am now a firm believer in quilts for Langstroths, and in the drone trapping frames I built.

Many thanks, Rusty!

Joel

Rusty
Reply

Thank you for the compliment, Joel. It’s nice to know someone is reading!

Jim Withers
Reply

Joel, you can do checker boarding with new frames of foundation. I have and it works just dandy. I believe another thing checker boarding does is relieve some of the congestion which is also a trigger to swarming. What I’ve often seen with this is not the bees refilling the combs you put above with honey, but the queen going up and laying into these frames. You can get quite an explosion in the bees’ population doing this.

Deborah
Reply

My colony is boiling with bees! I need this right now!! 🙂

Rusty
Reply

I do believe you found it, Alex. Explains it perfectly.

Herb
Reply

RUSTY… The winter of 2011…time spent reading and looking for useful info on how to manage Honeybees. Somewhere along the way I discovered The Honey Bee Suite…Finally I Discovered a real person who gives really useful info … Rusty … I try to read and think about how I can apply your wonderful knowledge of Bee Management to my little Group of Girls. April 23, 2011, started with (2) Hives of Russian Bees…Everything new… Trying to do what I thought was adequate proper care. Bees seem to do great for a first year. Had (6) swarms between July 7 and October 5th. The 3 swarms that occurred July 7, 15, 29th survived the winter… Numbers still high…those that to place in September and October died. This winter I have tried figure out how to better manage my girls! Built each group Bee Blankets by your design…Placed 25 lbs of hard candy on each hive…used slatted bottoms with screen boots boards. Now we are having April weather in February… A few days of winter weather could happen in March…next few days… Will take candy boards off and add 1:1 sugar to each hive with Honey B Healthy and Fumagilin-B. Thought I might feed Terramycin PRE- Mix. Bees have been bringing pollen in just about all winter. Elm trees beginning to bloom now. Hive Beetles are a problem here, so I have stayed away from pollen patties… Using vegetable oil traps. Have spent the winter building additional bee furniture. Hope to increase hive numbers to 15 hives. Sowed Alsike and Crimson clover in 12 acres of pasture. I want to try the checker board method this year. Trying to figure it all out…when to add broad boxes and honey supers…what signals what actions to take place. Rusty you are my main source of knowledge. I just need to put the action steps in place at the right time. Thanks for all your posts… Will follow you advice and try to apply to my areas conditions. Thanks!

Castor
Reply

Hi Rusty, lovely site – very well done. 🙂

Just why is it that some subjects send otherwise quite sensible people into paroxysm of extreme disagreement – all because someone has suggested doing something different…..

I’m planning on chequerboarding – “nectar managing” – this year in the UK, but wow, you would not believe how angry some are getting here because I am “brood spreading” DESPITE having been told that there is no messing with the brood. They just won’t listen.

Rusty
Reply

I don’t know why, but I certainly know it’s true. I get some nasty mail from those types, but I try to ignore them.

Kerry Biamonti
Reply

Hi Caster, I’m from the UK too and am a 3rd year beekeeper. Although I’ve joined the Bee Base, registered with Defra, who came and inspected me this year due to problems in my area, my local beekeeping association, also online fb and a selling site on fb, I despair at times of the amazingly critical nature of some of the posts that other beekeepers reply with.

I’ve found Rusty to be the most open and honest beekeeping blog/amazing info sharing beekeeper I’ve found.
Although the American weather is obviously different, I’ve found excellent advise.

For instance I’ve done the Taranov split several times this year for swarm control, with success! I wouldn’t have even thought about trying it if I hadn’t seen photos and replies to the posts first. They really gave me the confidence to try!

As for the chequerboarding, when the Defra bee inspector came, spending ALL day with me, I was anxious about it before SHE arrived, guess what she did? Checkerboarded several of my brood boxes! She told me that sometimes you needed to tell the girls what they needed to be doing. She was soo helpful and confidence boosting.

So if a Defra inspector is doing it with all that experience then just give it a go. I’m going to sort my supers like this when I return from my holiday. Most of my swarms have been starving from this year and I’ve been feeding them for the last 3 weeks due to the advise from the Bee inspector.

Good Luck and let us know how it goes ?

Castor
Reply

Hi Kerry,
Yes – I think some beekeepers see the net as a competitive playground, but I don’t. I see the net as a source of insight & wisdom, but be careful who you let into your world!

There is an important point that needs making – the chequerboarding that I am talking about – “Nectar Management” is another term, is quite, quite different from the brood manipulation that you speak of.

1: – The DEFRA inspector was making space for brood expansion.
2: – Nectar Management by chequerboarding the nectar store “ceiling” over the brood’s head tells the bees that they don’t yet have enough stores to swarm. No manipulation of the brood nest at all.

The two are often confused and result in some unnecessarily abrupt interchanges between beekeepers! So when discussing it we need to be sure whether we are talking about Brood Manipulation OR Nectar Management, because some know-it-all will *insist* that they are the same thing, and they are not!

And….

The Taranov split is a wondrous thing to watch, isn’t it?
Like Nectar Management, very easy to do once you get the idea…. 🙂

David
Reply

I’m a second year beekeeper and I love all of your articles about beekeeping. The best website to learn from. So Thank You. My question is regarding checker boarding. I thought when the brood nest is too crowded with no place for the queen to lay, they will swarm. With checker boarding, you add honey supers on. Won’t the queen go up there and lay eggs and use that as a brood nest? With my current hives, the queen has already gone up to the honey super above the brood nest and laid eggs in. So how does that all tie in together. Don’t you want to keep the queen in the deeps and use the honey supers only for honey?

Rusty
Reply

David,

There is nothing to stop you from using a queen excluder when you checkerboard. Remember, checkerboarding is done above the brood nest, not in it, so add an excluder and checkerboard above it.

The last thing the bees do before swarming is reduce the size of the brood nest. That is why backfilling the broodnest with honey is the best indicator of an impending swarm. If you want to increase the amount of space for the queen to lay, you can do that by opening the brood nest. Simply take out the end frames, slide everything over, and give her some new frames. You can do that and checkerboard at the same time if you want.

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