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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.

Do colonies move up or down?

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.

For example:

  • 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?

Make a colony-by-colony decision

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Comments

rraymond
Reply

Our feral nest has been going well for at least 4 years. It is in a hollow place low (ground level) on the intersecting trunks of two oak trees. No one alternates hive bodies in this nest. The only reasonable assumption is that the queen lays from top to bottom and then from bottom to top. So, why would I alternate hive bodies?
Our first hive is one year old tomorrow. We have four western “supers” stacked. Last time we looked, the queen had never gotten higher than the second “super” body. We took 6 pints of honey off the third level this year. No brood. Four lovely frames of capped honey in the center of the super. This spring they are building comb in the forth super. So, why stir up the girls?

Rusty
Reply

I agree completely!

Phillip
Reply

I think I killed the queen in one of my hives a few weeks ago when I reversed the brood boxes.

http://mudsongs.org/signs-of-a-queenless-hive/

No worker brood of any kind, plenty of empty frames, a smidgen of drone brood, no sign of the queen, no queen cells of any kind, and oddly calm bees.

I’ve added open brood from a healthy hive to see if the bees start building replacement queen cells. I’m considering a few options if the hive is queenless.

I don’t think I’d bother reversing the boxes if I lived in the country, but in my urban environment, I’m paranoid about neighbours freaking out over swarms, so I do whatever I can to keeps the bees down. I hate that.

Rusty
Reply

I think I killed more queens by reversing than any other way, so I stopped doing it completely. Bees move up in the winter, down in the summer and I don’t think the position of the bees in the hive has much to do with swarming. I understand that feeling of needing to do anything possible to forestall swarming in urban areas. But still, I think it’s more fiction that fact that reversing helps stop swarming. My two cents.

Roger
Reply

I really enjoy your posts. Thanks!

Gona Kikbuty
Reply

Rusty,

I realize this post is several years old but thought I’d pipe in anyway. I’ve been reading your blog most of the day and am a fan!

I am a new beek with one Lang that has expanded from the 3-frame overwintered nuc I brought home 6(?) weeks ago. (I’m in so Cal and the ladies have been flying since day 1).

My plan with this hive is to continue moving the deep body UP. I don’t like that the nuc came with plastic frames, I prefer wood. This is ONE reason for my method. The other reason I am doing this is to go entirely with medium woodenware. Another reason is to have the ladies decide what size cells to build and not have them follow pre-sized foundation. PLUS the wax they build is only contaminated with what they bring into the hive, not what was already in the bought foundation. It may take me most of the year to finally be able to remove the deep box and plastic frames but I CAN be patient. I won’t be using a queen excluder either. Let the queen rule!

WesternWilson
Reply

Hi Rusty, I was ruminating on this question over the weekend, wondering if I should do hive body reversals as spring breaks here. I hate to disturb colonies that have been smart enough to overwinter successfully, and your article decided me…I shall leave things as they are and let the ladies sort out their interior arrangements!

Rusty
Reply

I never went back to reversing after I stopped. I don’t think it helped with anything.

Donna
Reply

I have been contemplating this issue also now that spring has finally arrived. I checked my hive at home yesterday and it appears that most of the bees are in the top super and they are bringing pollen in by the truck-load! I am thinking that since I have some wet frames, I will divide them between the two hives after installing the queen excluder instead of reversing the supers. The weather in CO is always “iffy”. We can have lovely spring weather for days, then a snow storm comes in to kill everything. Timing is everything and I know you can’t help me there, but what do you think of this plan? Love your blog and thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Donna,

I think your plan is fine; it sounds like something I might do. I try to do what is necessary without overly stressing the bees.

Donna #2
Reply

So, one of my hives is going into year three. I do deep and medium for brood. I want to go with all medium. Can I add a medium box to the very bottom with drawn comb? This hive is bursting in the deep and medium. I either need to split or add a brood box.

Rusty
Reply

Donna,

Yes, you can do that. I would rather add it above the medium that you already have. Or even better, open or pyramid the brood frames between the two mediums to reduce the chance of swarming.

Donna #2
Reply

Thanks! That makes more sense and trying to reduce the possibility of swarming is also an objective. Going into my forth year, swarm management is a weak area for me.

Robbin
Reply

https://goo.gl/photos/ZdjvMwyqdznXpD53A

Thanks for your article Rusty. My bee mentor tells me I should switch the boxes, but my common sense tells me I will damage more than help and they will swarm anyway. My mentor says I’ll get more honey by switching the boxes. I’m not really concerned about getting tons of honey. I’m more concerned about the bees. I’m going to split the hives ready to swarm. I’m just praying they wait. Lol! I don’t have boxes till tomorrow and it’s going to be rainy all week. So it may keep them under control. Fingers crossed. Yesterday, I could hear a queen piping, and she was in the bottom box near the entry. The bees were on the front fanning so I popped entrance reducer open. Then they stopped. I don’t have the entrance wide open yet because there are bald-face hornets and red Asian Hornets nearby. I’m trying to wait till farther in the season, so maybe they (hornets) won’t want to eat the larvae. The link if I did it correctly is just to show you the activity.

Rusty
Reply

Robbin,

I think I’d open up the reducers. They are getting congested at the entrance and I think they are populous enough to keep away the hornets.

Glenn
Reply

Hi Rusty
Can I suggest you add a footnote and link to this article in your 2010 post on reversing brood boxes. http://honeybeesuite.com/reversing-brood-boxes-when-and-why/
I made the foolish error of not scrolling through the comments originally and have reversed my brood boxes this year before finding this one which makes sense.

Love your site BTW

Rusty
Reply

Glenn,

Thanks for the good idea. I’ve added the note and link as you suggested.

Annie Myers
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I am a beekeeper on Vashon Island (kinda near you). I have been learning the methods of keeping Warre hives for the past 5 or 6 years. A lesson I learned the hard way is that bees will indeed move downward but during a flow they need space to store nectar and they generally will not put it below the brood nest.

This is particularly important for first year Warre hives where the bees have no drawn comb to work with. They need time to build comb, move through a brood cycle while building more comb and then move down. By the time they do all this, at least here in the PNW the main flow is over and they are too light on stores to make it through the winter. All this applies to Langstroth hives as well I guess but in a deep Lang brood box there is more volume and more room for them to store nectar and pollen around the brood nest plus we super them when the flow starts. Even with overwintered Warre hives you need to pay attention to your bees and the weather.

For instance, with this crummy, cold prolonged Spring we are experiencing at the moment all my bees are up high in their top boxes eating their candy boards and I suspect most of their brood nests are occupying only the upper boxes. (I overwinter my hives Lang’s & Warre’s much the same as you do, thank you for those tips!) I expect when spring comes it will come all at once. (You can just feel everything waiting to jump out!) At this point I will give them all a box of drawn comb or a mix of drawn comb and empty bars on top of the brood nest to work with and feed, feed, feed for a few weeks until they have some reserves and the weather is consistently warm enough for them to fly. I will not split any brood nests that occupy two boxes but for hives that are up in one box I will simply take their bottom box and put it on top so they have space to work. After they are well on their way to filling that new upper box the Warre hives get boxes underneath and the Lang’s get supers on top. I know this kind of goes against the Warre method of beekeeping but I killed a lot of bees sorting this out.

As they say “all beekeeping is local”. I very much appreciate your blog. I use your website as a resource all the time. Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Annie,

This is interesting. I’m thinking of experimenting with Warre hives and this will help. There has been so much talk lately about smaller hive cavities being better for mite control that Warre hives are sounding better and better. I will keep your email handy in case I have questions! By the way, did you make or buy your equipment? And if you bought it, from where?

Annie Myers
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I bought my first Warre hive from Beethinking in Portland but I have made the rest. They are very simple to make which was (part of) the point of the design. http://warre.biobees.com

I am thinking about making some more out of thicker wood, 1 1/2″ or maybe even 2″ thick cedar (more like natural tree cavities). I currently use screened bottom boards but I’m reconsidering that with the thicker walled hives.

The only drawbacks that I find with keeping these hives are: 1) They are difficult but not impossible to inspect (which again was part of the point, leave the bees alone). If I decide I need to get into the hive I use a cheese wire to separate the boxes (go slow) and a long bread knife to cut the combs from the side of the box. Once that is done it’s pretty easy to pull the combs out to look at them. 2) Adding boxes to the bottom can be difficult. I’ve seen all kinds of contraptions made to do this but I just use the cheese wire to “cut” the hive into manageable parts, set the upper boxes aside, add an empty box to the bottom board and re-stack them in order.

I’m not sure about the mite issue, I’m still struggling with that. As much as I would like to be a “treatment free” beekeeper I’m not there yet. I am currently using IPM strategies, OAV, mineral oil fog and thymol plus I am trying to flood my area as best I can with mite resistant genetics. Time will tell….

Thanks again for spending the time to keep this blog. It’s been a great help to me.

Annie M

Rusty
Reply

Thanks for the information, Annie.

Johnny
Reply

Hi Rusty: finally starting to get warmer weather in Southern Ontario. Was going to invert my hives (a newbee 2nd yr). After reading article makes sense not to worry about inverting. One question, I would like to inspect top and bottom box, and replace bottom boards. Is it ok to split boxes and return to original way after I clean up frames and replace bottom board. As I have read you don’t want to break up brood. I will attempt to find queen and put that frame in a nuc box (haven’t secured queen catchers yet). I will be getting 6 queens June 1st for my splits and plan to regularly check for queen cells and and supers on top of a queen excluder? Last yr let them swarm and captured them. My first swarm was May 20th hence my concern on thwarting swarms before June 1st. Love your posts and thanks Johnny

Rusty
Reply

Johnny,

You can certainly split the boxes apart long enough to scrape frames and clean the bottom board. As you suggested, you don’t have to separate the queen. If you find her on a frame, you can just put the frame in a empty box while you work on the others. Just make sure she’s still on it when you replace the frame. Not sure what you mean in the second question: “I will be getting 6 queens June 1st for my splits and plan to regularly check for queen cells and and supers on top of a queen excluder?”

Dimitri
Reply

I have a question regarding the ordering of boxes. I started my hive this year completely foundationless and no wire. The bees quickly filled the brood box after I added a few frames from the nuc that I purchased. I added a medium on top however when I check on them they were building the comb in weird directions as they were building from the top up. To force them to use the wood guides on the top of the frames I placed the medium on the bottom and the brood box on top. It’s been a few months and I have been checking on the new frames and they build it correctly. Today I opened the brood box and found that 7/8 of the frames were solid capped honey and the 8th frame was half honey half larvae. I didn’t open the boxes underneath because this hive has a slight temper. I assume the brood nest got moved down. At this point should I just leave the boxes in the order they are in? When should I remove honey or can I just leave it for them? Also how many boxes should I add to my hive? I keep adding a new medium every time they fill a new box with comb and honey or brood.

Dimitri
Reply

Also, I live in Dallas, TX and it has been hot.

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