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Rotate brood combs for a healthier nursery

After repeated use, old brood combs become very dark—nearly black. The inside diameter of each cell also becomes smaller because the cocoons of each succeeding generation are glued to the cell walls. Even though the cells are polished by nurse bees before new eggs are laid, some of this cocoon material remains.

Pesticides and disease organisms can reside in both the wax cells and the cocoon layers. The darker the cells get, the higher the probability of contamination. For this reason, it is recommended that very dark combs be cut away and discarded. This was not always the case. In the past beekeepers could keep combs in use ten or twelve years and it was a point of pride to do so. However, with the universal use of pesticides and the ever-widening array of honey bee diseases, that philosophy has changed.

One of the easiest ways to rotate old comb out of your supply is to decide on an annual schedule of replacement. For example, if you replace the worst 20% of your combs every year, you will rotate your entire stock once every five years. Some beekeepers prefer to replace 25% every year for a four-year rotation.

If I’m doing a hive inspection and notice a particularly bad comb, I mark the top bar with a felt-tip pen so I can find it again later. Then, before spring build-up when both stores and brood nests are small, I go through the hives and pull out the 20% I’m going to discard. Since the brood nests are small, it is easy to equalize the boxes so that each box has eight frames remaining.

The empty slots can be replaced in several different ways. You can use new frames or you can cut out the old comb and reuse the frames if they are not too bad. You can use foundation—or not—just as you normally do. I prefer to have all new frames made in advance and then just drop one in wherever I pull an old one out.

The system is not perfect. You will always find a hive where all the brood for the entire colony is on the one worst comb. Don’t worry about it—just leave that one there and remove the worst frames that don’t contain any brood. Even with those few exceptions, you will still be providing a healthier environment for your baby bees.

Rusty

Comments

Marley
Reply

The queen must be surrounded by fully employed hard working fulfilled bees in a calm industrious stress-free balanced environment.

Provide options for the queen to lay worker and drone brood as she may require.

Insert new frames and a harmony frame – 2 weekly interventions.

Remember to keep the queen’s quarters clean at all times.

A new honey flow can recommence at short notice.

Two weekly interventions ensures the brood box is always ready to go into fast track mode.

Rotate most of (but not all) sealed and unsealed worker brood from the brood box up into the exact same position in the super above the queen excluder. As the larvae mature and hatch the cells are filled with honey.

Rotate most (but not all) sealed honey frames away for extraction.

Rotate uncapped/capped honey frames from the brood box up into a honey super.

Result happy bees, no swarming, just as Langstroth devised 158 years ago.

Rotate dark used frames up and out of the brood box into a honey super to be filled with honey.

Rotate dark extracted frames to the shed for cut out and foundation replacement.

Rotation is a continual ongoing process.

Rusty
Reply

That is certainly a different take on it. What is a harmony frame?

Marley
Reply

Just as Langstroth said on page 15 of The Hive and the Honey Bee, the bees do not swarm in a movable comb hive. The rotation of frames every two weeks as previously emailed: it is here during the peak honey producing spring and summer periods that correct regular predictable rotations allows a tangible connection between beekeepers and the bees and bees work as fulfilled balanced creatures. Collecting pollen, nectar, water, propolis and working to air condition the hive is only part of the work cycle. They have to continually build comb as and when required. On my hives that is most of the year.

A Randy Oliver-type drone frame placed into position two in the brood box and then shifted to position one after the frame has been drawn will then be rotated to the top honey super and away for extraction. Cleaned up and again rotated down into the brood box position two for drones once again continues the harmony process of rotation. In the 21st Century when I hear modern beekeepers telling me their bees are swarming, well I say to them “Bah Humbug!” That is bee losing not bee keeping.

Marley

Paul Guernsey Player
Reply

I would like to read more on this topic. Marley’s statement seems sound to me:

“The queen must be surrounded by fully employed hard working fulfilled bees in a calm industrious stress-free balanced environment.”

And it seems that I need to read Langstroth.

Your response to Marley seemed a bit dismissive. I am sure this is one of those things beekeepers have different ideas about, but sometimes many hundreds of my bees hang out on the front porch and I wonder if I am keeping them busy enough. I have only 10 deep frames and 10 more medium frames in a super. I cannot rotate frames between boxes. I am wondering if I need different equipment. Or do I just need to buy some more deep and medium frames and swap them in when “appropriate”? I do not think I have enough information yet to judge.

Rusty
Reply

Sorry if I sounded dismissive. I truly don’t know what he means by “harmony frame” and I was hoping for a clarification so I could comment.

That said, two other things run counter to my beekeeping philosophy. First, I believe in as little beekeeper interference as possible. The bees know what is best for them so, for the most part, I like them to run their own household. Marley’s way seems overly intrusive in my personal opinion.

Secondly, I believe happy, healthy bees want to swarm. That is nature’s way of reproducing the hive. Bees should want to swarm, they need to swarm, it is the biological imperative. Sort of like sex. I believe that colonies that are not inclined to swarm are not healthy or are under some kind of stress (like too much beekeeper interference?)

When I see raucous, ambitious, lively hives, chomping at the bit to swarm, I believe the beekeeper is doing a good–no, a great job. Beekeepers need to do what is good for the bees, not what is convenient for the beekeeper.

And, Paul, you are right: keep reading. There is so much information out there. One thing you will find is that bees spend a lot of their time sleeping (or resting). Sometimes they don’t want something else to do, sometimes they just want a catnap.

Paul Guernsey Player
Reply

Thank you, Rusty. You make complete sense that bees should want to swarm. This idea is somehow calming to me. My focus can be more on assisting the bees and less on controlling them, which I can only partially do anyway.

The concept of bees resting is new to me. I had observed up till now that the hive was always busy. Perhaps not all the bees are always needed to be busy. Hm. I wish I knew more.

I will, of course, continue to read. Bee reading is nearly as enjoyable was bee watching and tends to increase the effectiveness of the observation.

Rusty
Reply

Paul,

If you don’t mind, these are my personal recommendations for you based on your comments & questions:

The Buzz about Bees by Jurgen Tautz. I know it sounds like a kids’ book, but it’s not. The sub-title is “Biology of a Superorganism.” It’s about how all the bees in the hive act as one organism, always for the good of the hive, not for the good of the individual. It tells a lot about how the bees communicate with each other, and about their sight, navigation, etc. Just the pictures are worth the price of the book.

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley is about swarming. It tells about all the group decisions regarding when to swarm and where to live. All you ever wanted to know about swarming and then a whole lot more. This is not an easy read, but if you carefully follow the graphs and diagrams, you can pick up a wealth of information and insight.

Paul Guernsey Player
Reply

Thanks, Rusty.

I was disappointed by the selection of beekeeping books at Barnes and Noble when I went to look for these. My local B&N had zero beekeeping books. Zero. I told them they would have more soon. I predict an increase in demand.

Then, I lost my paper list and I’ve been scouring this blog site for the above comment. I read a bunch of interesting stuff I was not looking for, but eventually I found my way back here. Now I have the list again and am leaving Father’s Day hints for my wife with good solid Amazon.com links.

My wish list now includes:
The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism – Jürgen Tautz
Honeybee Democracy – Thomas D. Seeley
Beeing: Life, Motherhood, and 180,000 Honey Bees – Rosanne Daryl Thomas
The Queen Must Die: And Other Affairs of Bees and Men – William Longgood
Langstroth’s Hive and the Honey-Bee: The Classic Beekeeper’s Manual – L. L. Langstroth

Rusty
Reply

I’m almost jealous: you still have those great books in front of you! I have been intending to add more to the “Bookshelf” section, but I have a hard time getting around to it. I probably have twenty-some to add. But you have a great selection on your list. I buy them all through Amazon. Brick and mortar bookstores are sadly lacking in books. Odd, that.

Marley
Reply

Temple Grandin (the cow whisperer) suggests, “ . . . all animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain. Everyone who is responsible for animals needs a set of simple reliable guidelines for creating good mental welfare. Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic; do satisfy the play and seeking aspects of behaviour”.

LANGSTROTH says in ‘The Hive and the Honey bee’:
“ . . . I could dispense entirely with natural swarming, and yet multiply colonies with greater rapidity and certainty. All feeble colonies could be strengthened, and those which had lost their queen furnished with the means of obtaining another. If I suspected anything was wrong with a hive, I could quickly ascertain its true condition and apply the proper remedy . . .”

Every two weeks get close to the queen bee in your life. The workers only live for 45 days. The queen bee is a reflection of the energy and temperament of the hive provided her beekeeper has communicated every two weeks. Regularity, repetition, rotation, cleanliness. Young bees MUST work. Older bees LOVE to work. Have the brood box in a state of readiness with fresh frames and a drone harmony frame, rotate the sealed and unsealed worker brood to the exact same position above the queen excluder.

My bees do not swarm. My queens work WITH me. They always have plenty of OPTIONS in their brood box.
Your beekeeping experience just went up several notches. Get with the program guys!
I keep bees in Western Australia where we deliver the world’s finest honey to our friends and family. Ha!

Marley
Reply

Hello again. This year has been a difficult year with huge numbers of bee hives swarming all through the springtime (Sept Oct Nov in the southern hemisphere.)

Got to view some bad tempered queen bees doing their thing and after a few adjustments to their brood frames as per the Harmony Frame Rotation method and a couple of extracted sticky frames dipped in water, that queen was saying hello baby every 4 days and laying eggs right there in front of me and soon after she was transferred into a bigger brood box and going like the clappers and her bees so focused and the hive so evenly balanced why would anyone not want to try the HFRM and have nice bees . . . all the time.

Animal behaviour, that is an area of study also applies to bees. Once the queen bee gets with the program, recognizes the bee keeper as positive calm dominant energy, she goes to work. In a 10 fr hive recently the queen had laid eggs in 8 frames and the twice monthly intervention spotted this, moved the frames, made room for the queen to lay yet again and the flow of honey was as it should be. Very quickly that is within 2 hours the bees have re-organised, taken fresh instructions from the queen bee and are doing what they do best…work. I’d rather bee beekeeping than anything else when it is always so fulfilling for me and my queen bees. Gotta love them!

Marley
Reply

Marley here… It’s January 2013 and our southern hemisphere in Australia (on the West Coast) has see a altogether PERFECT SPRING! So much honey in all suburban locations and country areas as well. We have had bathtubs full of it! Now we have run out of bathtubs.

More on the Harmony Frame Rotation Method…been away to visit OP hives (other people’s) with cranky old QBs in residence and glued-up hives with barely room for the bees to operate correctly. Once switched to a 2 weekly intervention routine and rotating frames and taking off surplus honey in a timely manner and ensuring the brood box has new foundation and fresh combs to be built = work for the bees, all is calm and as it should be. The hives weeks later were simply delightful to work on and guess what? No smoke was required. Why pump in smoke to frighten a QB when all is calm already. Have a great New year B people….Marley

Jane Tolassi
Reply

Hi–may I use your information about brood comb rotation in our website? We are a small bee business located in LaFayette, Georgia, USA. It was very interesting and informative and I think the small apiaries in this area will benefit from the information. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Jane,

Sure. Please just link back to my site. Thanks.

Marley
Reply

Its Marley…just came back for a looksee on Honey Bee Suite. Jane Tolassi asks if she can use the HFRM in her Georgia hives. All through spring and summer (excepting extreme hot days) we open our hives every two weeks to keep in touch with the Queen Bees and they with us. When too hot the Queen Bees quit egg cycles as they are weather sensitive. QB’s will recommence egg cycles as they see fit. The two weekly inspection of the brood nest reveals these changes to us. Lifting the sealed Worker Brood Frames (shake off the bees into the brood box) and place these sealed W/B frames into the same position in the super ABOVE the queen excluder. Into the brood nest place extracted or new foundation frames (usually 4-6 frames) The clean open spaces in the brood nest are highly valued by the nursery and the QB loves to lay her eggs here. (Clean sheets on the bed). The sealed brood above the Q/Excl. will hatch and join the group below. The field bees will bring more honey to be stored in the new opened cells above the Q/E. Next two weekly intervention, we rotate the unripened honey from the super above the Q/E to the supers above and these are left to ripen and get sealed as completed honey frames. I am using full depth 8 or 10 Fr hives – FOUR DECKS HIGH. The harder the bees work, the quieter they are. If the nectar source becomes scarce, feed the girls at once to maintain the harmony in the hive. We have mild winters where I live here in Western Australia. Cold long winter BK techniques are unfamiliar for me. However, I do reduce the 4 deck hive from 4 down to 3 or 2 depending on the visible strength. Hope this can help. We got 150 KGS per hive this past year and our bees did not swarm in their domesticated environment, but were really happy going to work every day. Cheers, Marley

Rusty
Reply

Marley,

Good to hear from you again.

Marley
Reply

Hello once again, Rusty. As you have observed this BK lark is a complex topic. A craft no less. C R A F T (can’t remember a flippin’ thing…)People over here using a rotation method have returned to me many times over to report excellent results for both interactions with the bees and the quality of results when honey flows are engaged by the bees.

If I would introduce topics such as checker boarding, Demeree, swarm catching etc., in respect of bees leaving the hives due to overcrowding then for them it would be confusing. They, like me do not see QB cells when the rotation method is faithfully followed. Yes, of course; where a QB suddenly perishes then a supersedure QB cell or 3 is clearly an indicator of a serious fault. In this case, the BK leaves the bees to nurture the best of these and adopt the best QB for their colony. But, spotting QB cells all over the place only happens in overcrowded hives where inconsistent slack BK’s are evident.

Sadly like people in your part of the world we have irregular inconsistent badly advised BK’s doing it wrong quite frequently. They call up for help and finally make changes which make their new experiences so much happier. In a strong healthy happy colony, quietly removing frames of day old eggs and supporting frames to make a 5 FR Nuc hive and seeing a calm QB emerge and go forward to connect well with a BK and produce copious amounts of honey brings balance and fulfilment to all concerned.

I do enjoy reading all the short stories and articles on your site. Fascinating. Keep up the good work. I would be interested to know if you have tried the HFRM method and found your spring and summer and fall experiences are similar to us down here. Cheers! Marley

Bianca
Reply

Hi Marley, I am wondering how you would go about this method if you had a deep and a medium as your brood boxes. I can’t switch between them. It sounds interesting. I’d like to learn more.

Thanks,
Bianca in Miami, FL zone 10b

marley
Reply

Hi Rusty and hello Bianca. I am just back to look at this web page after being very busy in our springtime weather down under. All supers have to be the same for the rotation method to work effectively. The harmony frame rotation method (HFRM) is continuing as a most effective and long lasting BK process. If Rusty would allow, privately; ask for my email address and send me an email. I shall be glad to explain how effective it works. The honey we get is overwhelming and we do NOT see swarming or emergency QB cells owing to the regularity of the 2 weekly intervention and rotations. Out from the top super with the honey. Up with the unsealed honey from the middle or rotation super. Up with sealed (4/5 or 6) frames of sealed worker brood from the brood box into the middle super. IN with new foundation frames and sticky extracted frames into the brood box. Any honey frames in the brood box are also taken up to the middle box and new frames added into position No 1. Of course shake the bees off gently so the QB stays put. In 2 weeks we return and do it all over again. The bees go right away into full working mode and remain clean stress free and fulfilled as a working colony. Good Luck. Marley.

marley
Reply

Hello once again…oops, I should have said Brood Box + QE + Rotation Chamber above + Honey super on top. When a honey flow gets lively, we add another super to gather extra honey. Cheers. Marley

Jeffrey
Reply

Marley,
This system sound like something I want to try this year, now that I seam to have my hives in order. I’m going to do the final winter prep on the hives this coming week as the weather takes a turn for the better. I have a feeling that this will be one of the last times for me to open the hives except to take a quick look and do any winter feeding. Then its just hoping I helped them enough to make it until spring. I need to replace some rather repulsive looking old frames that the queen likes to keep laying in. I don’t want to lose the brood in them, so moving them to the box above the queen excluder will do the trick. Now all I need is a queen excluder. Hahahahaha ! Only once they hatch out I will be discarding the frames. I may try to boil off the wax to use as starter beads on new frames, but they may be even beyond that use, They are old frame from the starter Nuc purchased last summer, and I have no idea how old these frames are, all I know is that they are even beyond repair. I would trash them now but my queen laid her winter brood in them and I can’t afford to lose any bees this time of the year. I plan on trying to get my bees to replace at least one brood deep on each hive with new comb this summer. I hope I’m not setting their goals to high as they also have to make all new honey comb in the supers, or draw out the sheets of surplus thin starter wax I plan to alternate between foundationless frames. Maybe I’m setting my goals for them to high. I guess we will see. I would be very happy with one medium super of honey from each of the two hives this coming year, and they get the rest. Any more than that and I would be amazed. Thanks for the info and I’m going to give the FHRM method a try.

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