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Rethinking the triple-deep hive

In spite of the HopGuard fiasco of this past winter, some of my hives pulled through. With one exception, the colonies that survived were either in triple-deep Langstroths or a top-bar hive.

I get a lot of questions about the wisdom of using triples and my usual answer is that the size of the hive should be commensurate with the size of the colony. It seems logical that a colony should not be crowded into a small hive lest food shortages occur, nor should the colony be overwhelmed by a large hive that cannot be patrolled and kept warm.

One of the interesting things about losses is that you get to see what works and what doesn’t under adverse conditions. All my hives were treated the same way last fall, but it is obvious now that the large-volume hives did better. I don’t know the exact volume of the top-bar hive, but my rough calculations show it to be larger than a double-deep Langstroth, but smaller than a triple-deep.

So what is the difference? Of the hives that died, each had ample supplies of pollen and honey, and no obvious signs of disease other than deformed wing virus (which is transmitted by mites). But since all the hives were treated at the same time with the same (inadequate) regimen for mites, why did the larger-volume hives survive? The truth is, I don’t know.

I don’t think that the number of bees was much different in the doubles and the triples in the fall, but the bees were more spread out. The triple-deep nests were more-or-less in a column rather than a sphere. Hive inspections showed the brood nests spanning all three boxes in the very center.

Here are some theories:

  • A larger brood nest encourages the queen to raise more brood. Even though more brood yields more mites, the vast number of clustering bees is able to overwhelm the phoretic mites.
  • Triple deeps allow the bees more room to move straight up, rather than move laterally, for food. This idea, though, does not account for the top-bar bees which have to move laterally in any case.
  • A fall nectar flow, especially one occurring after the honey supers have been removed, encourages bees to backfill the brood nest with honey. Sugar syrup fed in the fall does the same thing. As a result, the queen has little room to lay, so she slows egg production earlier than she should. The lack of brood forces the colony into winter with an older population of bees that are not robust enough to raise spring brood. By using three deeps, you give the bees more room for storage while allowing the queen more space to lay eggs in the fall.
  • A larger brood nest yields more bees to help keep the colony warm and hygienic. Even though a large colony uses more food, it is available in the three boxes.
  • Triple deeps have better ventilation because a taller hive increases the “chimney effect.” Damp air and mold spores go out the top; fresh air comes in the bottom.

Whatever the reasons, advocates of triple-deep hives report fewer winter losses, less need for spring feeding, earlier build-up of spring populations, and fewer swarms. I was never a believer. But based on my own experience this year, I think I will plan for triples in the coming season.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Valentine Bee

Comments

Paul
Reply

Hi Rusty Have you any pictures of the triple beehive or does it consist of three deep brood boxes? I would like to see some pictures if any available.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

I will have to take some photos but, yeah, it’s just three brood boxes stacked on top of each other. From the ground up I have a hive stand, screened bottom board, slatted rack, brood box #1, brood box #2, brood box #3, feeder rim (eke), moisture quilt, inner cover, outer cover.

Jami
Reply

I wonder if those colonies made it through the winter because they were stronger then the colonies in the double deeps? They must have been to have you leave a third brood box on, right?

Chris
Reply

The Univ of Minnesota (Dr. Spivak) advocates the three deep configuration for “northern” beekeepers. They cite better overwintering success as the primary reason.

New package: Year 1 build to three deep brood boxes with little/no honey harvest. Year 2 do a split, with one deep the start of a new colony (w new queen) and the other two deeps (with the year-old queen) used to produce honey.

Sarah
Reply

Would it be better to add a third brood box under the two existing or on top? Does it matter?

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

I would add it on top, but that’s just me.

Sarah
Reply

You know,when I was writing that comment asking where the new deep should go I thought, “I’m silly enough for wondering if it should go under the two existing–of course it doesn’t go between.” So I was very surprised when such a thing was suggested! I painted my hives so that the two deeps and two supers make a picture of flowers when on top of each other so I was thinking how I could maintain that, and a third deep and cause minimal disturbance (and hopefully minimal stinging) to my bees. Since they have to build the comb before the queen can lay, I wondered how that would affect the bees since there’d suddenly a big empty space in the middle of their home.

Gus
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Hope you see this comment, despite the article post date. First, I want to say – great site!

My question is this: When you have a triple or higher hive – do you find multiple entrances useful? Some beekeepers like Michael Bush even prefer a top entrance to a bottom one. I am adding my third deeps now (in Greece) and was wondering if I should add a second entrance above, as I am worried that the brood chamber must be getting awfully crowded. Do you have any experience with this? Any opinions?

Rusty
Reply

Gus,

I have always used just one entrance even on my triples. However, that doesn’t mean it’s best. I got out of the habit of using upper entrances when I started making comb honey because I don’t like bees with dirty feet walking all over the nice white comb. If they walk up from the bottom, it seems their feet are cleaner by the time they reach the top.

But if this is not an issue, I think two entrances would be a good thing.

Gus
Reply

Thanks Rusty!

I never would have thought about the dirty feet thing. Good point.

Karl
Reply

I just added a 3rd brood box. I just put it on top. Should I go back in and put brood in it or will she move up any way?

Rusty
Reply

Karl,

They will probably move up on their own. If they don’t, you can pyramid.

Mike P
Reply

Chimney effect works on the horizontal too. Offset smokers manipulate the air flow to utilize it. Many modifications designed for them to move air optimally. A top bar has horizontal room for air movement, in the same ways, and likely can be tuned some to optimize it. Vertical hives can also be tuned in similar ways to optimize air flow, and make it flow across between and over frames, like a brisket. Direction and size of entrances, top vents, screened bottoms, slatted racks, etc act as dampers, tuner plates, baffles, and smoke stacks.

First few months of using three deep brood 10 frame langstroth, after several years of two deep brood, the big and small obvious differences are astounding.

Any additional insight into inspecting, manipulating, winterizing, spring rotating or not to, using three deeps vs two, things that differ, or no longer seem to need done or not as often. Do you harvest any deep frame honey from brood chambers, at any point?

So far, the only additional inspection work, is one more gap between hive bodies to remove bridge and burr comb from.

Rusty
Reply

Mike,

No, I never harvest honey from the deeps, I just leave the honey in there—tons of it. Overall, I do fewer inspections because it is a lot of lifting, but they don’t seem to require a lot of inspections either. Like my tbh, the triples persist year after year. I usually catch a swarm or two from each one (or I split to prevent a swarm) and I use them for comb honey production.

Eddie
Reply

I have a three deep hive. Later this month will be the official first year of my beekeeping. Apparently they made it DESPITE me :0)

A thought I had about 3 deep hives. A queen lays at a rate of X number of eggs a day (understanding the value varies). A certain percentage of the eggs laid will be viable and turn into healthy bees. The worker bees that are living die after a certain amount of months. When chambers hatch, the spaces are set up for another egg to be placed in them.

So with the attrition, reproductive rate, etc. I’m wondering if there is a number of deeps that allow the colony just enough space to assure that there is always available space because of the rate of bee replacement against the rate of the bee loss. So *maybe* some special number (like maybe three deeps) gives the hive the ideal number for their numbers to grow and collapse and grow again, so-to-speak?

I’m probably not stating this very clearly. Basically, I’m wondering if there is a number of deeps that is optimum for a hive? I’m thinking that there must be.

Rusty
Reply

Eddie,

I understand your question but I don’t know the answer. I agree that there must be an optimum. You could probably collect a lot of data and figure it out in your spare time!

Karen
Reply

Hi Rusty
Have you heard of folks putting on their 2nd brood box under the 1st? We are newbees to beekeeping and it was recommended to us. Our nucs were installed 2-3 weeks ago. Thanks for your insight.
Karen

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

Yes, I’ve heard of it. Did the person recommending it explain why it is a good idea? I’ve never heard a compelling reason for doing it and it is definitely more work. Unless someone can explain the benefits, I would stick with adding a brood box on top.

Karen
Reply

The reason for doing so was that this person stated that bees build from top down. We have already added the 2nd box under the 1st and in retrospect I’m not sure it was the right thing to do……I’m trying to use common sense as well as tried and true beekeeping practices and also leaning toward fewer bee disturbances.

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

I wouldn’t say bees build from the top down, they build where they find space. If the space is below, they will go there. If it is above, they will go there. And if it is alongside, like in a top-bar or long hive, they will go there. People are always stating “rules” for bee behavior without consulting the bees. Honey bee are nothing if not adaptable and I believe that most of these decisions, such as where to add space, should be according to what makes the beekeeper happy. The bees don’t much care.

Karen
Reply

Thanks Rusty that just restored my faith in why I want to be a beekeeper/supporter! I appreciate the advice and your bee knowledge.
Karen

Chuck
Reply

If I were to add a third brood box, when is a good time to add it? Can I add it now, or should I wait until spring? I live in central Alabama.

Rusty
Reply

Chuck,

I would definitely wait until spring when the brood nest is expanding.

Chuck
Reply

Thanks Rusty!

Hellain
Reply

We are living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Winter has come very early for us and we are uncertain how to best winter our hives. Some are two deeps, some two deeps and a medium. And others are three deeps. We left them with all of their own honey. Two have screened bottom boards.

cathy walls
Reply

We have 4 colonies. 1 is 3 hive bodies tall and the other 3 are on the 1st year. My question/comment is this: I see pictures of colonies with 3 & more collection boxes on top of the hive bodies and wondering if the 3 hive boxes is limiting my honey collection because using 2 collection boxes on top is pretty tall and makes it hard to lift off. There is no way I’m going to be able to get 3 or more boxes on top of 3 hive bodies safely. My comment is the bees seems to do really well in the 3 hive boxes and made it thru winter with no apparent problems. Of course this past winter was pretty mild. My husband is wanting to go back to 2 hive box for easier honey collection. Thanks for any comments. I’m in west central Illinois.

Rusty
Reply

Cathy,

Bees can overwinter almost anywhere in North American in two deeps, if you keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t run out of food. I had excellent results with the triple deeps, but I found them too hard to handle. In fact, this year I’ve scaled back to singles. You should have no problems with doubles and it’s important not to get injured. Bee boxes are heavy.

Karen
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m hoping you can help me with a dilemma! We ended up having to replace 2 hives this spring due to losses. We saved medium honey frames to put into the new deep bee boxes. Right now the 2 lower deeps have 2 honey frames in each. There is now a 3rd deep on top with no frames of honey. We also fed the bees 1:1 sugar syrup. Do we need to replace before fall, those medium frames with large frames w/foundation? I am new to beekeeping so I hope my question makes sense! Thanks so much!

Rusty
Reply

Karen,

You don’t need to. The bees will most probably add enough comb onto the bottom of each medium to make them the same length as the deeps. In the spring, or whenever it’s convenient, you can just scrape off the extensions.

Karen
Reply

That makes sense! Thanks so much for your help.

Don
Reply

Hi,

Thanks for the info on triple deep brood boxes. I am new and started this year. I started with two colonies of Italians. I just pulled the supers and am treating for varroa as we go into the fall. I live in Nebraska. One of my two hives has a queen that is so prolific that the hive is simply overflowing with bees. Even on a cooler day (78) two sides of the hive are completely covered with bearding bees.

Would adding a third brood box help what seems to be a cramped housing arrangement or would building out comb in the third brood box take too much food and resources to get ready for winter?

Thanks much!

Rusty
Reply

Don,

They won’t build in a third box if doing so would interfere with winter preparations. Since colonies contract at this time of year, my guess is they will ignore a third brood box altogether.

Don Rice
Reply

Thanks much.

I’ll expand next season.

Don

WILL Delito
Reply

I went to 3 deeps mid-season shortly after loosing a queen in one. Out of 2 hives, one is jamming, find queen in 3rd box, outside frame last 3 inspections, with plenty eggs, capped brood, larvae. Hive 2 plenty of stores, eggs, larvae, capped but haven’t seen the new queen since installation. Due to good activity should I forget about locating queen?

Rusty
Reply

Will,

If you are seeing eggs and young larvae, there is no point in looking for the queen.

WILL Delito
Reply

I haven’t looked in bottom boxes in a month, however when I did all activity was in 2nd, 3rd box. 1st box comb was honey and empty cells, Should I switch boxes 1 and 3 as queens move up?

Rusty
Reply

Will,

I would. Since the queen moves up, that lower space gets abandoned and can harbor insects, mice, or whatever.

WILL Delito

thanks, next warm day, may frost in CT. tonite.

James
Reply

I’ve heard that folks using 3 deeps often have to add several (5-7) supers to keep them from swarming. More honey sounds like a great idea to me, but I’m concerned about what happens when you take those supers off in late summer and greatly increase the bee density by effectively reducing the hive space by 50% or more. Do you have issues with swarming during this transition period? Or do you pull your supers in stages?

Rusty
Reply

James,

I never add more than two supers at a time, at least not up there. That’s what I need: an eight-foot step ladder on a very steep hill. As soon as one super fills, I take it off and add another. There is no reason to make towers. That’s just showing off.

Your bee population starts dropping soon after the summer solstice, and it soon gets down to a manageable size. One thing I’ve never found in triple deeps is overcrowding. They have lots of space.

That said, if the idea makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it.

Eddie
Reply

Something I’ve always wondered about triple deeps and just adding deeps to hives: There is always the caveat of not adding too soon (like if I wanted to go to a three deep hive from a two deep). Here’s what I don’t ‘get’ – wild bees move into tree hollows inside of trees and the available room is what it is. If it is a relatively deep cavity they still just use the portion of the cavity that they want to – i.e., it isn’t like the tree cavity can be expanded and contracted as the seasons go through their changes. SO, why all the fuss about adding the additional deeps to the hives? I mean, it is not like in nature that the tree enlarges and contracts the internal cavity in order to meet bee activity and needs, right? I’m asking all of this as a question because I really don’t understand the issues – is it related to the artificial nature of our hives (i.e., built in ‘chimney effect ventilation)?

Rusty
Reply

Eddie,

That’s really a decent question. You have to remember that most things that you hear, especially all the “must-dos” and “never-dos” are for the benefit of the beekeeper, not the bees. A good example is sun and shade. You will hear that you “must” put your hive in the sun. But that’s just to make the bees work harder and longer and make more honey. In nature, bees go for tree trunks which are nearly always shaded in the woods.

The reason for withholding boxes is to force the bees to build out to the sides. If you put them in a three-deep hive, they might build a column three-frames wide and three boxes high. This is irritating for the beekeeper, but just fine for the bees. It’s irritating to the keeper because instead of looking in one box, you have to look in three.

So, when deciding what to do, you have to determine for yourself what is important to you. Listening to the old-timers can be really hard because (I think) sometimes they don’t know why they do stuff except that is what they always heard, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

Mark
Reply

I have 10 hives that are all 3 deeps. They all survived the winter weather and are doing fine. There is plenty of stores for them still to this day. My concern is this – they will spend considerable time and effort replenishing the 3rd box with nectar, which will delay the filling of the supers. So, I see that as a negative to the 3 box theory. There are a lot of positives obviously because I use them successfully. But, I have always wondered, if I’m slowing down the filling of supers because of it.

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

Well, yes. You are definitely slowing down filling of the supers, and the bees may never get to them at all. When I collect honey, I go down to a single with honey supers. After the spring flow, I can put the deeps back on and let the bees collect fall honey for wintering on.

Myrna
Reply

Hi Rusty – love your site, thanks for all the great info. I was reading this string and you had used 2 brood boxes, switched to 3 for a bit and then are down to overwintering 1 . . . Which method did you find most useful. I’m in Alberta and LONG winters are an issue. My main concern is bee health with honey being a bonus.

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