Reversing brood boxes: is it necessary?
In the last couple years I have been re-thinking my position on the spring reversal of brood boxes. If you are not familiar with this maneuver, it means switching the position of the brood boxes such that you move the brood nest to the lowest point in the hive. Several reasons are often given for reversing, but most often you will hear that it prevents swarming by giving the bees a place above the brood nest to store their honey.
Over the years I have become more and more successful with my bees. I attribute much of this success to one thing: I disturb the brood nest as little as possible. Now—before I take any action that will disturb the nest—I ask myself, “Is it really necessary?” Yes, there are times when you must disrupt the nest, but there are many times when you can make the choice not to.
The theory of reversing comes from the idea that a colony of honey bees will only move upward, it will not move downward. But if you look beyond the circle of Langstroth beekeepers, you will find many who don’t buy into this idea.
- Bees in a hollow tree build brood comb downward. The comb is attached at the top of the hollow and successive layers of comb are built beneath that.
- Warré beekeepers, imitating the natural propensity of bees, put their new brood boxes under the colony, and the bees fill them up.
- Top-bar beekeepers don’t add brood boxes to the top or the bottom, but the bees do just fine by moving sideways into new areas.
I felt really vindicated yesterday when I read an article in the February 2011 Bee Culture by Larry Connor. He writes, “Experience has shown me that most colonies will reverse themselves as the season progresses, moving into the top of the lower box and growing downward.” You see, I knew it!
The misunderstanding comes because all winter long we watch the bees move upward towards the honey supply, so we start thinking bees always move upward. But they don’t. In the spring and summer as the nest is expanding the bees will move down, just as Warré beekeepers have always known.
In his article, Larry Connor goes on to say that you can reverse the hive bodies as long as the entire brood nest is in one box. This way, you don’t end up splitting the nest in pieces. I agree with that, but the problem is that the nest almost always straddles more than one box. So why bother?
In the past, I always reversed my boxes. I have killed queens doing it, totally riled up my colonies doing it, starved portions of the nest doing it, and even dropped a whole box doing it. Last year, I only reversed three before I decided it was a needless incursion into the brood nest. All the colonies eventually moved into the lower boxes by themselves. This year I won’t reverse any.
Based on my experience last year, the colonies that were not reversed expanded into the lower box as soon as the weather warmed. When the nectar flow began, I added honey supers. These colonies showed no more propensity to swarm than any of my colonies in previous years.
I get the feeling that reversing is one of those things we do because we always did it before, not because it has any clear and compelling benefit. In fact, I think it may do more harm than good.