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Are you rotating brood boxes? Why?

Rotating brood boxes, also called reversing, is a time-honored rite of spring. Beekeepers parade into their apiaries on the first warmish day and switch the position of their two brood boxes. They pry the boxes apart with a sharp crack and put the upper one where the lower one used to be, then place the other on top. Done deal.

It is important for new beekeepers to understand that rotating brood boxes refers to switching the relative position of the two boxes. Instead of #2 over #1, you have #1 over #2. It does not mean twisting them 180 degrees so the front is in the back and vice versa. What is obvious to experienced beekeepers can be incomprehensible to the uninitiated and, in many cases, the words don’t help.

The purpose of rotating brood boxes

The purpose of rotating brood boxes is to reduce the chance of swarming. Because it is quick and easy, it is a favorite maneuver of commercial beekeepers or those with many colonies to handle. In that case, it is probably somewhat effective at reducing the swarm impulse, at least for a while.

But for the backyard beekeeper with just a few hives to manage, it is more often than not an unnecessary disruption that can weaken a colony. And although it is quick and easy, other methods of swarm control are more effective.

Humans in control

As I see it, the worst problem with rotating brood boxes is that new beekeepers are taught it must be performed every spring. If you don’t tear apart your hive and move everything somewhere else, your colony is doomed to fail. After all, humans must intervene to keep their rightful place as center of the universe.

I admit that many years ago, I fell victim to this advice. The first thing I did in early spring was reverse all my brood boxes regardless of colony strength or the possibility of swarming. In other words, I was beekeeping by recipe instead of by logic, something that now riles me no end. If beekeepers would only stop thinking, no bees would die. Right?

These days, I see reversal as a tool—one of many at your disposal—to be used in certain circumstances depending on colony strength and need. After a beekeeper assesses a colony’s likelihood of swarming, he may choose to reverse the brood boxes or not. Instead of reversing, he may select a different method of swarm control or none at all. But he should not reverse brood boxes just because the calendar or a bee forum said so.

Which way do they go?

The mindless form of reversing brood boxes grew out of the misconception that bees only move in one direction inside a hive. All winter long we see the bee cluster moving up, not down. We begin to believe that they will only travel in one direction. No so.

Bees move up in a winter hive because that is where the heat is. Air that has been warmed by the bees’ bodies floats up, so the area above the cluster is the warmest place inside a hive or tree trunk or cave. Bees evolved to store their honey overhead and, most likely, this came about because those bees that stored honey in the warmest places were most likely to survive and pass their genes on to succeeding generations. Now it looks “standard” to us: bees store honey above the cluster.

By spring, the cluster is often as high as it can go, having eaten its way through the warmest food and often leaving colder patches of honey behind. We begin to think that bees only move up. But remember: that was winter.

Spring bees move down

It turns out that the natural direction for a colony to build new comb is down or out to the sides. Think about a feral colony. When a wild colony begins building, it starts at the top. It must. The first comb has to be attached to something overhead, so that is where it begins. Once that attachment is made, comb building proceeds down or out to the side.

In an open-air colony, the combs are often placed side-by-side along a tree limb. If the colony is in a narrow tree trunk or between the studs in a wall, the succeeding layers of comb are hung below the first ones. Down, down, down.

The bees in these colonies store their honey overhead for the most part, so that during the winter when they need to keep warm, the bees move up to where there is food and warmth. What a system.

If swarming is the problem

After a normal winter in the bee yard, your colonies have moved up through the food supply such that most of your remaining bees are in the top box. Due to increased brood production, the top box begins to get congested. Congestion inspires swarming. So voila! You just rotate brood boxes and your problem is solved. Or is it?

Remember: Foundation looks no different than empty space to a bee. If you want good results, provide drawn comb to reduce swarming.

After you reverse your boxes, the queen may move up to the top box and begin nesting there. On the other hand, she may not. Instead of a congested box above an empty box, you simply have an empty box above a congested box. Rather than moving up, your bees may decide to swarm regardless of the extra space.

If you are worried about swarming, I find it best to spread the frames vertically rather than simply reversing brood boxes. A vertical spread, often called pyramiding, means you take the brood frames and put them in the center of two brood boxes, one atop the other. With drawn comb on either side of the brood, the queen has plenty of space to lay eggs. This is more work than simply reversing, but the results are usually better.

No signs of swarming

If swarming does not seem imminent, you can simply leave the brood boxes in place and add honey supers at the appropriate time. As the season progresses, the bees will store honey overhead and the queen will gradually expand the nest down into the empty bottom box. They would do this in a tree and they will do it in your brood box. If later you begin to see signs of swarming, such as backfilling the brood nest, then you can take other measures to control it.

Reversal problems

If you decide to proactively reverse brood boxes, remember that a colony spanning both boxes will be split into two parts when you reverse. Without enough nurse bees to go around, you risk losing one or both halves in a cold snap. In short, reversing too early can be deadly for your colony.

But if you wait too long, swarm preparations may already have begun. If that happens, they will most likely swarm anyway, making the reversal pointless.

Case by case

In summary, I believe it is important to handle rotating brood boxes on a case-by-case basis. Understand why you are doing it and what you are trying to achieve. Remember that rotating is a choice to be made, not a mindless exercise to be performed just because it’s spring.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Unless you have hundreds of hives, I recommend rotating brood boxes on a case-by-case basis.
Unless you have hundreds of hives, I recommend reversing on a case-by-case basis. Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Comments

Michaqel Skeels
Reply

Just a little over a week ago I was contemplating reversing the boxes. It had not become warm enough to do a complete inspection but I knew from my thermal images of the hive that the cluster was still in the bottom box making flipping them pointless and damaging. I was finally able to do a complete inspection last Friday and sure enough there were 4 frames of brood in the first box and 4 frames of brood directly above in the second box. It is an eight frame box and both boxes have 3 full frames of honey to the left side. Do you think it would be good to remove the 2 inner frames of honey and replace with drawn comb or foundation? I’ve sent a picture through email. Michael Skeels

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

It wouldn’t hurt to give them some more brood space. I myself would probably leave the honey in place, but I’m more laissez-faire than most beekeepers. Either way will work.

margrete geurts-lakin
Reply

Hello Rusty,

Thank you for your common sense attitude and oracle advice.

We have only one colony. We put last year’s honey frames back as a spring feed and for them to clean out. The frames have been in the freezer over the winter.

Some are spun, but not spun dry, some are nearly full and partially capped. We live in southern Norway and have the last few years had hot Aprils and cold and rainy Mays.

margrete

Is this ok or not a good idea?

Rusty
Reply

Margrete,

It sounds like a perfect idea to me.

Trish Stretton
Reply

Thank you,

I love reading your posts.
I have a long hive, so some of what you write about doesnt work for me, but even those that dont, still give food for thought and make me think about how I would tweak this or that to fit with the set up I am working with.

Ray
Reply

Good advice Rusty. I personally have never used reversal as a tool, preferring other less disruptive interventions but it brings to mind similarities in the debate over deep ploughing of arable farm land. The so called ‘no-till’ revolution addresses the issue of turning the natural world of the soil upside down every spring. The millions of creatures living in the soil have created their world in the order they need it, so it’s not dissimilar to the beekeeping parallel.

Rusty
Reply

Ray,

What an excellent analogy. We humans do too much tampering and not enough thinking.

Kevin Baughen
Reply

Interesting to note that switching brood boxes is an ingrained (perhaps unwisely as it turns out) part of training in the USA. Here in France, the most popular hives used are 10 or 12-frame Dadant boxes which you seldom see as more than one brood box over winter, as the space inside two boxes would be impossible for a winter cluster to keep warm.

Smaller Warré hives will over-winter with multiple boxes but we wouldn’t switch them as the ideology behind this hive system see the bees pretty much moving downwards all the time and changing the box-order would disrupt that natural cycle, I expect. Thanks for the interesting content, as ever.

Donald Britt
Reply

At what point will the old queen leave (swarm)? I go in and find queen cells, look for the old queen to take her out but can’t find her.

Rusty
Reply

Donald,

Weather permitting, they usually swarm just about the time the swarm cells are capped.

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Thanks, Rusty!

So very often the “WHY” is critical to understanding the “HOW” – or to getting the “WHETHER” right!
My very first two colonies had survived winter, and I was thinking of reversing – the principle I’d been given was “That’s how you get’em to move up!” I happened to run into one of our club’s occasional members and when I mentioned reversing, he introduced me to the concept of “the brood nest” as an integral structure.

This may be the most neglected feature of beekeeper education! My own mentor, when I asked “WHY” the good brood pattern image he showed me was a half-circle, had no idea. (As a third-year beekeeper, he no longer quite knew it all, I guess 😉 ) At the club, when reversing was explained, no one had piped up to say, “But check to make sure they aren’t already IN the bottom box!” Nowadays, that’ll be me saying it.

There may be reasons, and seasons, that it’s OK to divide the brood nest: checkerboarding, for one. But just like with hive inspection, we need to be sure we know the WHY. When a new beekeeper last week asks how often to inspect, after all the “ten days to two weeks” guesstimates, I say “When you have a reason to.”

Thanks again! The black locust is blooming here and we have three clear days before “widespread showers and a cold front.”

Nan
Corinth, KY

“There are no un-sacred spaces on Earth, only sacred spaces and desecrated spaces.”
– Wendell Berry

Alistair
Reply

Hi Rusty, Interesting article, as ever! What I learned this year, is that if by ‘reversing’ the boxes, you split the brood, then the half of the brood and bees without the queen laying may feel queenless and start raising queens – even though there is no excluder stopping the queen visiting both brood areas. I think I noticed the issue in time and was a bit frustrated that it should have been obvious to me. I hadn’t expected the brood to extend into both boxes and carried on when it did – contrary to my main rule: when you find something unexpected, go and have a cup of tea and think; acting on the spot can easily lead to a failure to see things from the bees perspective!

Rusty
Reply

Alistair,

You bring up a really good point. I often go into a hive just “to look.” Then I think about what I found before doing anything else. As you say, you often find something unexpected and need time to process.

Patrick
Reply

Hi Rusty,

This blog post was particularly well timed for me.

I’ve been keeping bees for about 5 years, and every year something else clicks in my brain that makes me better than the year before. This year was the first year that I got all of my hives through the winter, and they are already rapidly growing. I don’t have a lot of experience with a hive that is growing rapidly in the spring, so my biggest knowledge gap right now is in how to prevent the bees from swarming. I did an inspection about 10 days ago, and the rapid expansion of the population made me think I should rotate the boxes (which I did). I started to second guess whether or not I should have done it, but after reading your post I feel a little bit better. I think the population was large enough to sustain it (many bees and many capped brood). I also read about pyramiding after I swapped them too, so maybe this is the approach I’ll take next year. Like I said… I learn something important every year.

People don’t realize how complicated beekeeping can be. I didn’t realize it when I started, and as a result I almost quit the hobby from frustration three separate years. Each year the disappointment of the previous summer faded, and I came back to try again. Five years in, and I feel like I’m finally turning a corner. In general, all of your blog posts have been so helpful, and I cannot begin to tell you how grateful I am.

Thanks,
Patrick

Diane Griffin
Reply

Such good advice. Thank you. Never really understood why we reverse as it doesn’t occur naturally. A possible tool yes, but much to consider first.

Mikey N.C.
Reply

Rusty,

Nadiring is down correct? Supering is up?

So all bees that swarm into a house wall or tree cavity nadir rite? Is that the purpose of warre hive? But the problem with that set up means you have to pull brood box eventually (before Q moves down) where Q is and set it down, risking the loss of Q, as you inspect?

I think after 4yrs. and lots of trying swarm prevention. That weather has so much to do with it. Last yr. they started building swarm cells in June, this yr. In April palm Sunday only because weather was swinging. In my opinion checkerboarding or reversing brood chambers is a option when weather is the same yr. after yr. We are supposed to be in a great flow now (when I’ve made most of my honey) in yrs. past , but not this yr. Timing is very crucial for that type of manipulation.

Rusty
Reply

Mikey,

Yes, nadiring in under, supering is over.

But bees in a wall or tree cavity are not doing either. They just start at the top and build down. They are not adding space above or below their brood nest. The term is applied to human intervention.

No, I don’t think nadiring is the purpose of a warre hive. The warre was designed with a specific beekeeping philosophy in mind, but nadiring is only a small part of it.

I disagree that you have to “pull off a brood box eventually.” Why? My argument about reversing is that you don’t have to do it all all because bees move up and down with the season. The same would apply to bees in a warre or a lang.

I do however agree that temperature is a big consideration in beekeeping, whether you are reversing boxes or not.

Mikey N.C.
Reply

And that also brings in the question top entrance or bottom entrance?

Rusty
Reply

Mikey,

You can rotate the brood boxes without affecting the location of the entrance.

Joe Caracausa
Reply

I have a different question, in the same vein as this topic. I have had hives for several years and we see a lot of empty lower boxes, not just in the spring but in the fall during honey harvest. The bottom boxes usually have very dark (ugly!!) comb, the cells look very narrow, probably from layer after layer of built up cocoons(?), and it seems like the bees just refuse to use it anymore. I have thought of trying to mark the frames, like with a ‘born on’ date to try to change them out after 3 or 4 years, but have not figured out a good way to do it. When I remove the frames and try to render the wax, there is almost no wax that comes out, like it is all paper. When I have opened walls to remove bees, they have similar dark ugly comb in long established colonies, and it seems that they are not in use. No scientific data there, but just observations over time.

Should these ugly frames be removed? I feel bad about leaving them, but I also feel bad about removing them for all the effort the bees put in to make and build the wax. I try to save some for use in bait hives for swarms, but then I wonder that if the resident bees won’t use them, why would a swarm looking for a new house want them either? My gut feeling is that the ‘homey’ smells are an attractant to house hunters, but the ugly comb would be a turn off. Any thoughts? probably a topic for a full column!

Rusty
Reply

Joe,

There are at least two issues here, maybe three. First of all, dark ugly comb is a human value judgement. Bees inside a hive where they never see the light of day, don’t know what color they are. So dismiss color. I use old combs for attracting swarms, and also for holding a split in place so it doesn’t abscond. They love the odor in both cases.

However, you are correct the the cells eventually get narrow due to cocoon build-up. But the real problem is that after a number of years, you can get build up of both pathogenic organisms and pesticides from the environment. That means at some point you should rotate them out of the hive. People have different ideas about how long is too long. Some folks like to change them after 3 years, 4 years, 5 years. Who knows? Whatever makes you happy, I think.

I’ve tried to date them with a marker, but that didn’t work for me because the ones toward the outside are often not used much, and they can look nearly new after a number of years. So now if a frame goes empty of bees for some reason, I just decide to keep it or toss it.

I melt down old blackened combs and dip shop rags into the goo. The rags can be tied to a rope and hung from trees. New swarms will often settle on these while the scouts go out looking for a new home. You can then lower the rope and put the bees in a box.

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