My hives have no brood! What should I do?

It is October or perhaps November. You open your hives for a quick inspection only to find there is no brood. None!  Not a single cell, capped or otherwise. You panic, wondering whether you should replace your queens (tricky this time of year), combine your colonies, or just give up. You blame mites, mite treatments, predators, diseases, bad weather, weak queens, and yourself.

So what is wrong with these colonies? My first guess is “absolutely nothing.” Your colonies have little or no brood because it’s that time of year. Here in the northern hemisphere, brood rearing slows dramatically or stops altogether as the weather begins to cool.

The winter brood nest

Beekeeping in Western Canada, a thorough all-purpose beekeeping book published by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, explains it like this (p.6):

As fall progresses, egg-laying by the queen generally ceases, and there is a period of from one to three months during winter when there is little or no brood rearing.

The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (p. 43) tells us that brood rearing begins anew after the winter solstice:

Brood rearing begins in mid-winter (end of December to January in temperate climates), accelerates in late winter and early spring, reaches a peak soon after the first forage becomes available, reduces later in the summer, and ceases entirely in autumn. (emphasis added)

Consider these two statements together and you can see that one to three months before the winter solstice puts you back in October. So basically, you may have no brood in the months of October, November, and December.

Variations due to temperature

The actual beginning of broodlessness will vary with local conditions, as will the length of time. Colonies further south where winter temperatures remain mild, may never be completely broodless. Still, even in the south, the amount of brood is lower in the winter.

My own observation is that the length of time (the one to three months) is not the same every year, but is dependent on local weather conditions. So maybe last year, for example, broodlessness started later. Maybe you didn’t notice it because your hives were already buttoned up for the winter. If broodlessness comes earlier in the year, you are more apt to notice it.

Advantages of a small or missing brood nest

All species evolve in ways that help them survive. A period of broodlessness may have a number of advantages:

  • Some researchers have suggested that a broodless stretch allows the queen a period of rejuvenation. She gets to rest and build her strength before the next onslaught of egg-laying.
  • The broodless period reduces the population of the hive by attrition. As bees die, fewer are left to feed. There is an optimum population level for any colony, one that is large enough to keep the colony warm but small enough that the food supply will last till spring. Colony size in winter varies, but it is highly dependent on sub-species. Carniolans, for example, overwinter with smaller colonies than Italians.
  • A broodless period also conserves energy in another way. When no brood is present, the cluster is maintained at a temperature of around 20°C (68°F) in the center. Conversely, a cluster with brood is maintained at about 34°C (93°F). To sustain this higher temperature, the bees must eat a much greater amount of food. So as you can see, a long broodless period is a significant energy-saving strategy.

The Hive and the Honey Bee (2014, p. 89) sums it all up:

There is little or no brood rearing during the coldest part of the winter and colonies reach their lowest population size as winter progresses. However, in late winter the queen begins to lay and brood rearing commences. This requires that workers elevate the temperature to 34-35 degrees C inside the cluster around the brood.

Colony size is not static

Colony size and the amount of brood rearing is in a constant state of flux—nothing about a honey bee colony is static. I’ve written this many times before, but there is a simple rule of thumb to help you remember what is happening inside your hive. Just divide the year into two parts, the growing part and the shrinking part.

Basically a honey bee colony increases in population from the winter solstice to the summer solstice and decreases from the summer solstice to the winter solstice. Adult populations are highest just before the downturn (late June) and lowest just before the upturn (late December).

This schedule is not intuitive, especially to a new beekeeper, so it takes some thinking. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture states it like this:

The striking thing about this pattern is that it is so different from the pattern of when forage is available.

But when you think about it, a colony must build up before the major honey flow if the bees are to take advantage of it and store it for winter. Likewise, the colony needs to shrink before extreme cold sets in so food supplies are not rapidly consumed.

Think like a bee

When it comes to understanding your colony population dynamics, it helps to think like a bee. And a bee, it seems, is a good planner with the goal of protecting the future of the colony. My advice is to read a good book on bee biology and plot brood expansion and contraction on a calendar. You will then know what to expect before you open your hive.

Honey Bee Suite

A nice long break sounds like a plan. Pixabay photo.

When is it too cold to open a hive?

My ancestors were hardy Pennsylvania Germans. They were diligent, clear thinking, and not predisposed to nonsense. Whenever I said something lacking in common sense—what they called horse sense—I got the withering glare, the one that said, “You’re no kin of mine.”

No trait is more firmly etched on my brain than common sense and I became, for better or worse, especially adept at delivering the withering glare. So when someone asks a question like the one below, I’m always grateful there are two computers, a piece of black tape, and a bunch of miles between us.

“I think my bees are starving to death. A month ago the frames were empty and I was counting on the fall flow to fill them up. But now so many bees are dead and it’s too cold for me to open the hive and feed them. Help! What should I do?”

I hardly know where to begin. Ignoring the fact that she lost a month by relying on a mere possibility, it’s the cold comment that really sends me. How can it possibly be too cold to feed them?

Her choices are obvious. She can choose to not feed because it’s “too cold” and lose the entire colony to starvation. Or she can open the hive, feed the colony, and lose some bees to the cold. Where’s the question?

Furthermore, cold losses are usually associated with chilled brood. A colony that’s starving will have little or no brood, having consumed it to conserve energy and resources. And even if there is brood, how long does it take to feed a colony? Certainly all the brood won’t die in the 10 seconds it takes to slide in a sugar cake.

Simply put, there is almost no temperature at which it is too cold to feed a starving colony. Sure, there are exceptions. If you’re in the prairie provinces and it’s 40 below, it’s probably a wasted effort. But most beekeepers can find a warmish day even in the dead of winter.

What’s warmish? It depends on how bad the situation is. Starvation is bad and deserves prompt attention. So is disease.

“I want to treat my hives by dribbling oxalic acid. I bought all the stuff, but now it’s too cold to treat. My white board gets about 50 mites overnight. What should I do? Just wait till spring?”

The same advice applies here, although it may be too late. His choices: treat and maybe save the colony or don’t treat and lose it to mites. Fall colonies are low on brood anyway, so there isn’t much brood to chill. Furthermore, it doesn’t take much time to dribble a colony. I can do one in 30 or 40 seconds, start to finish. If you can’t do it fast, practice with syrup and an empty box until you can.

Preparation is key

Before I open a hive in winter, I prepare thoroughly. I make sure I have all the equipment I will need at the site, and then I review my movements. The colder it is, the longer I review.

For example, I once combined two hives at 22 degrees F. One colony thoughtfully left it’s dead queen where I could see it on the landing board. Nice touch. Since I couldn’t re-queen in the dead of winter, I decided to combine it with a neighboring hive.

When I reviewed my steps, it became obvious that I could put the sheet of newspaper over the receiving hive the instant I opened it. This would keep the bees in place and prevent most of the heat from escaping. The queenless hive was in two partially-filled boxes, but the temperature wasn’t right for fiddling with frames. So I took off the telescoping cover (to lighten the load) and taped over the hole in the inner cover to conserve heat. Then I broke the propolis seals with my hive tool. When all was ready, the actual combination took less than a minute.

I removed the lid off the receiving hive, laid down the paper, moved the upper box of the queenless hive to one side, set the lower box on the newspaper, added the upper box, pulled the tape off the inner cover and added the lid.

How many bees died? I don’t know but certainly some. More important, however, is that I ended up with a thriving colony in the spring which I later split into two again.

Don’t assume you can’t do it

The point of all this is that you shouldn’t assume it is too cold to do something to your hives. Think about the consequences of not doing vs the benefits of doing. Compare potential losses. And once you’ve made a decision, plan your steps, review your plan, and go for it. It’s almost never too cold to open a hive.

Honey Bee Suite

One of my favorite bee stories comes from A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson. He needed to destroy a colony of bumble bees because they were imported into the country and could not be released. Hoping to kill them in the most humane way possible, he decided to freeze them. He placed the entire colony into a freezer at -30°C (-22°F). When he went to get them the next morning, he was amazed to find the workers tightly surrounding the brood and queen, buzzing loudly. All the bees were perfectly fine.

Is it too cold to open a hive?
It’s not too cold to open a hive that needs attention, even in snow. Pixabay photo.

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Pollen feeders for honey bees

I was recently reminded of pollen feeders when I received a photo from Tammy Sill in Rhode Island. She said of her bees, “They roll in it like dogs on dead fish!!!” I have to agree. A good and plentiful source of autumn pollen will cause to bees to frolic as if they died and went to pollen heaven.

tammy-sill-bees in pollen
Honey bees frolic in a pollen feeder. © Tammy Sill.

Tammy’s photo reminded that another beekeeper, Naomi Price of central Oregon, has been experimenting with pollen feeding for a couple of years. She says that watching honey bees collect pollen from a feeder is an education in itself.

Feeding pollen in Oregon

Naomi and her husband had been worried about the fall supply of pollen because central Oregon’s weather pattern changed over the last few years. “We have had warmer than normal autumns that have little to offer foraging honey bees, hence they use up their valuable stores.”

She opted to purchase two pounds of bee-collected pollen from a highly-recommended local source. They ground the pellets into a powder and fed it back to the bees in an inexpensive homemade container. “It was more important that the bees be given the protein immediately rather than to worry about the human eye appeal of the pollen feeder,” she said of the plastic feeder. But the design worked perfectly and they continue to use it.

The main drawback was the expense of the pollen. “Oh well,” she said of the money. “The education was worth every penny spent for a good cause…Watching the honey bee carrying pollen is every beekeeper’s ah-ha moment.”

It turns out that the bees really packed it away. “My long hives usually store 2½ frames of pollen,” she said. “However, this extra pollen pushed the storage to 4+ frames.”

A simple pollen feeder

The following photos provided by Naomi and Larry, explain their ingenious system.

Bee-collected pollen
I started with two pounds of pollen from a reliable source.
Pollen in coffee grinder
It is best to grind small amounts of pollen pellets to produce dust that honey bees can forage. Here we used a coffee grinder.
2 liter plasic bottle
Select a container with a detachable and secure lid such as this two-liter plastic bottle.
Bottom cut from bottle
Cut out the bottom of the container to be used as the entrance and exit. Blue tape protects the rough-cut edges and presents a flower bull’s eye to the honey bee.
Bottle wrapped in tape.
The container needs to have daylight blocked so the honey bees can find the exit.
Drilling hole in tree truck
Larry used a screw to secure the container’s cap to a Juniper, upwind of the hive. Remember, honey bees usually fly into the wind because a slight breeze brings them fragrant forage information.
Installing feeder
The container can then be screwed into the lid. This container gives the pollen protection against wind and unexpected rain.
Filling the feeder
The container is loaded with a GENEROUS amount of dust. Remember, pollen is of no value to the honey bees if it is sitting on your refrigerator’s shelf.
Bees enjoying the pollen
We removed the feeder at night and brought it into the house to prevent moisture absorption by the pollen. We re-ground any dust left in the feeder and added it back the next morning. Our bees consumed 1# in three days. Most hives were bringing in three colors of pollen plus the offered pollen dust.
The second year we used the same type of container because they are easy to put up and take down. However, we added color to the outside instead of tape. We found the most important thing was to install the feeders upwind of the hives.

My own experiment was a “cat”astrophe

After reading these accounts from Naomi and Tammy, I was eager to set up my own experiment. So last week I placed three containers on the picnic table. One contained only pollen substitute, one contained a mixture of trapped pollen and pollen substitute, and the third contained only trapped pollen.

Once I was satisfied with my mixtures, I went to look for some tools. When I returned about five minutes later, the bowl of plain pollen substitute was empty. “What the?” I said aloud. Then I saw my cat doing this thing with her tongue. She was sticking it way out and scraping it against her teeth. Tongue, whiskers, and nose were dusted yellow and I thought she was going to choke to death. Who knew pollen substitute was such a yummy treat?

Honey Bee Suite

A gentle warning about upper entrances

Don’t get me wrong. I love upper entrances and use them a lot. EAS master beekeeper George Imirie was passionate about upper entrances and frequently wrote of their importance. He believed they solved two primary problems: they shortened the distance returning foragers had to travel through the hive and they provided hive ventilation, especially in winter.

Imirie was the eponymous designer of the Imirie shim, a 3/4-inch rectangular frame with the same footprint as a Langstroth box. In the center of one end, a 3/4-inch by 3/8-inch entrance is notched into the wood. Imirie used this frame between honey supers in the summer and above the brood boxes in winter. According to his writings, he designed the shim because he didn’t like drilling holes in his boxes.

Entrances drilled directly into boxes

If you don’t mind drilling holes in your boxes, a drilled hole eliminates the problem of burr comb between boxes. Imirie thought the burr comb was a small price to pay for the increased efficiency of the foragers, and he didn’t mind scraping it away.

Other beekeepers, like Tony Bees in New York, swear by holes drilled directly into the honey supers. He gets huge quantities of honey by using these upper entrances combined with little landing pads for the foragers’ convenience. I converted to this method and drilled one-inch holes in my honey supers which I then placed over a double-queen hive.

Top entrances for pollen collection

In addition, I use a 3-inch shim (also known as an eke) with three one-inch holes drilled in the front on those hives where I plan to collect pollen. I like the Sundance II top-mounted trap, but it requires that the bees first be accustomed to an upper entrance. I use the 3-inch eke with the three holes to “train” the bees. When they are comfortable with the new entrance, I simply exchange the eke with the pollen trap.

When I’m ready to remove the trap, I switch the two again and the bees go right back to using the three holes. Seamless, as they say.

Alternatives for upper ventilation

Personally, I don’t rely on a single upper entrance for ventilation. For a very large and populous colony, it doesn’t seem like enough.

In my mind ventilation and entrances are separate issues, and I prefer to use a screened inner cover for summer ventilation and a quilt box with screened ports for winter ventilation. Of course, the amount of ventilation required will vary dramatically with your climate and the size of your colony. Under some circumstances, a single small hole will be enough.

And now the warning

I see a lot of beekeepers using two small blocks of wood inserted under the lid or under the inner cover to create a huge upper entrance. In fact, I was taught to do this, and at one time I had a box of these little wooden blocks ready to go.

The problem is little blocks make ginormous upper entrances. Even if your block is only 3/8-inch high, the entrance extends the entire width of the hive and partway back on both sides.

This configuration is no problem for a large and populous hive. But if robbing begins, a small colony can quickly be overrun by invaders coming through this large entrance. And remember, the colony must guard the bottom entrance at the same time. Of course, if the top entrance is your only entrance, the situation is not as bad. Still, size is an issue.

Robbing happens fast

It is easy to forget that robbing happens fast. You can go to work one morning only to find all your honey stores gone by evening. It’s not just other honey bees, but yellowjackets, wasps, and hornets as well.

In fact, if you feed during a dearth, many sources recommend that you move the feed as far as possible from the entrance. This is so the scent of the feed is not strongest right where the opening is. So, for example, if the feed is at the top of the hive, the entrance should be at the bottom. This is another good reason to close up the top during a dearth.

The lesson is simple, if you elect to use a big gaping hole as an upper entrance, you’ve got to close it before robbing season begins. You can’t forget and you can’t be late. Trouble is, because it is often blistery hot during robbing season, and because the entrance doubles as a ventilation port, the tendency is to wait too long. This is exactly why I like to treat entrances and ventilation as separate problems.

Avoiding the big-entrance problem

If you’ve drilled upper entrances in your honey supers, you don’t have this problem because your honey supers have normally been removed by robbing season. And some beekeepers, like Tony Bees, add hinged covers that can be closed.

If you use an Imirie shim for an upper entrance, it is probably defensible by all but the weakest colonies. Or if you use multiple holes in a 3-inch rim, you can easily plug the holes with wooden or plastic buttons or a piece of duct tape.

In any case, a small entrance, whether it is round or rectangular, is easier for the bees to defend than a long, continuous one. If you read Thomas Seeley’s book Honeybee Democracy you will see that swarms are very particular about the size of the entrance opening. Although honey bees will sometimes select a long and narrow opening in a tree, it is usually quite slender and there is normally just one. Although we can only assume their motivations, colony defense seems a likely factor in their decision-making.

Other considerations

Large top entrances, especially on small colonies, also invite other problems such as wax moths and ants. If the colony is not guarding the top entrance, pests have easy access to your combs. If you use a screened inner cover, or screened ventilation ports, you can exclude some pests, especially wax moths.

On the flip side, upper entrances are especially nice in winter because the bees can come and go without having to dig through a pile of dead bodies. And predators, especially the furry mammalian type, have a harder time catching bees as they come and go from a top entrance.


To sum it all up, I like upper entrances and think they provide many advantages. But those of us using multiple entrances, especially ones at both the top and the bottom of the hive, need to be aware of the disadvantages as well.

Honey Bee Suite

This three-inch eke with holes is used for “training” the bees. Some holes can be closed, depending on colony strength. © Rusty Burlew.

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How often do you smoke your bees?

Are you a smoker? Beekeepers, like other kinds of smokers, seem to fall into two distinct camps: always or never. But like so many aspects of beekeeping, the decision to smoke your bees is not that simple.

Most traditional beekeepers keep their smokers close by, routinely lighting up no matter the circumstance. In my recent master beekeeping course the message was basically, “If you don’t use smoke, you’re not really a beekeeper.”

Many hobbyists on the other hand never use smoke. Some use nothing, and some use alternatives such as sugar water spray or mixtures containing emulsified essential oils. Although I have never tried the alternatives, it seems to me that honey bees are genetically predisposed to react to smoke but not necessarily to sugar in a sprayer.

Is it really all or nothing?

As usual, I reside somewhere in the middle of the smoker argument. Since I try to base my management decisions on facts not rules, I always ask myself if the present situation requires smoke. Furthermore, I ask if a particular colony requires smoke.

The mood of a colony can change drastically throughout the year, and it can even change during the day. With a few exceptions, I don’t see many downsides to using a smoker all the time, if that’s what you want to do. But if you would rather not use a smoker, there are times when it isn’t necessary but other times when it is foolish to go without.

My personal aversion to the smoker stems from the way it affects me. Sometimes I sneeze uncontrollably, to the point where I have to quit for the day, so if I can work without smoke, I generally do. But at other times, it is best for me to carefully assess the wind direction and position myself out of the cloud and proceed with caution.

Arguments in favor

A few puffs of smoke does wonders for a colony’s disposition. The bees disappear between the frames where they are out of harm’s way and out of your way. You can easily move frames, stack and re-stack boxes, inspect the brood nest, and scrape propolis without the fear of harming your bees. It is better for the bees because you are less likely to harm them. It also means you can get your work done more quickly, which is a plus for them as well as for you.

But just because something is good some of the time, doesn’t mean it is good all of the time. Many times I don’t use smoke or anything else, and I can go from colony to colony with easy efficiency.

When do I not use smoke?

    • During winter, honey bees are not eager to break cluster. I can tip up the quilt box, slide extra sugar patties into the feeder, and close the hive in a matter of about 10 seconds. Usually not a single bee emerges, so there is no reason to get everyone riled up with smoke.
    • Similarly, during a honey flow I often look under the cover to see if I need to add more honey supers. Honey bees are single-minded during a nectar flow, so I can take a quick peek and see their status without disturbing the colony. If they need a super, I can add one with no smoky disruption to their work.
    • In early spring when the weather starts to warm but drones are not yet evident, the colonies are especially docile. During these times, I can do quick inspections without smoke and the bees don’t even leave their frames.

When do I prefer smoke?

    • I use smoke during major disruptions such as complete hive inspections or colony splits. Smoke not only calms the bees, but they are more likely to stay on their frames, so moving frames from box to box is much easier.
    • Smoking can be helpful during queen introduction because the odor of smoke masks the pheromones of the new queen. As the smoke dissipates, her odor becomes more apparent to the bees, but the shift in odors is gradual instead of abrupt.
    • Smoke can be helpful when you are combining two or more colonies. I still use newspaper, but a little smoke keeps the bees calm during the process.
    • During a nectar dearth, a smoker can mask hive odors that draw robbers. Honey bee robbers and other predators such as wasps and yellowjackets are not drawn to the smell of smoke, so you are less likely to start a robbing frenzy.
    • Smoke can also be used during honey harvest when you remove your extracting frames from the hive.
    • It also makes good sense to assess your neighborhood. Nothing will interfere with your hobby faster than a neighbor who is intimidated by your bees. Smoking your colonies can keep them calm and close to home, behaviors that are especially important in an urban environment.

The exception for comb honey

Although convenience would dictate otherwise, I do not use smoke around full or soon-to-be-full comb honey supers. Consumers of comb honey eat the wax, and I have heard a number of consumer complaints about comb honey tasting or smelling unpleasantly of smoke. The smoke flavor can become incorporated into the wax and, if smoke was used during the capping stages, ash flakes can sometimes be seen on the surface.

The other downside to using smoke around comb honey is that the bees may decide to gorge on the delicate honey combs.  Even a few leaking cells can ruin the value of section honey, so it is best to keep the smoker well away from the completed rounds or squares.

The common sense imperative

More important than any of the situations listed above is common sense. But among those that extol the use of the smoker under any and all circumstances, I never see an exception for common sense.

The best example I can give is extreme fire danger. If you are living in an area with an elevated fire risk, if cigarette butts and campfires are starting wildfires that burn millions of acres, destroy homes, and kill both people and wildlife, perhaps you should forego the use of the smoker for a while. I can understand not wanting to harm a few bees, but how many creatures can you kill with a wildfire? Use good judgment and don’t compete for the Darwin award.

More is not better

Remember the saying “if some is good, more is better”? It applies to ice cream but not to smoke. Smoke should be applied in judicious puffs. Once the hives are open, small puffs can be used to “steer” the bees one way or the other. But do not over do it. Use too much and it loses its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the saying “moderation in all things” applies to both ice cream and smoke.

Honey Bee Suite

Smoker alight and ready. Pixabay photo.
Smoker alight and ready. Pixabay photo.