How to checkerboard a hive

Before I explain how to do it, I want to repeat that checkerboarding is done above the brood nest. You do not disturb the brood nest in the process. Checkerboarding is often confused with opening the brood nest, pyramiding, or unlimited brood nest management—all of which are different, and all of which I will describe later.

The following applies only to checkerboarding:

When:

Checkerboarding is done in the early spring before the bees begin swarm preparations. Since there is no disturbance to the brood nest, many beekeepers like to do it as early as possible. In any case, it needs to be completed before the expanding brood nest starts to contract due to backfilling.

Where:

Checkerboarding is done in the two supers that are directly above the brood nest. The boxes may be of any size—but they should be the same size.

What:

Alternate frames of honey are removed from one box and replaced with frames of drawn empty comb. For example, in your first super you may remove frames 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 (which are all full of honey) and replace them with frames of empty drawn comb. When you’re done, the even-numbered slots have honey, and the odd-numbered slots are empty.

You take the frames of honey you just took out of the first super and put them in the second super in the same position they had before, that is, in position 1, 3, 5, 7, And 9. This time, the even-numbered spots have frames of empty drawn comb, and the odd-numbered slots are full of honey. When stacked atop one another, the boxes look like this from the side:

Full Empty Full Empty Full Empty Full Empty Full Empty
Empty Full Empty Full Empty Full Empty Full Empty Full

Why:

Checkerboarding breaks up the solid band of honey that rings the top of the brood nest. This band of honey signals the bees that winter preparations are complete and it’s time to swarm. When the band is interrupted, more storage areas are exposed, and the bees defer swarming until the empty spaces are filled. Eventually, optimal swarming conditions pass and the colony may not swarm at all (see Checkerboarding).

How:

In my opinion, checkerboarding is easiest when you overwinter in three brood boxes. By early spring, the brood nest is usually in the middle box, with a box full of honey above and an empty box below. You can just put the brood box on the bottom and use the other two boxes to checkerboard. Your extracting supers can go above the checkerboarded boxes.

You can also checkerboard without three brood boxes, as long as you have a box of honey and a box of drawn comb to use for setting up the checkerboard.

Variations:

The original checkerboarding model used only empty drawn frames between the frames of honey—and the purists still do. Many beekeepers, however, have had good results using frames of undrawn foundation or even foundationless frames.

If a colony does not span the entire box, you can just checkerboard the middle frames, say 3 through 8, and leave the end frames alone.

Results:

Done properly and at the right time, checkerboarding will

  • Prevent swarming
  • Increase hive population
  • Produce a larger crop of honey
  • Eliminate the need for invasive swarm-control manipulations
  • Prepare the hive for winter without supplementary feed

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Joel
Reply

Rusty,

Thanks for this. I have read some of the other websites (BeeSource, etc.) descriptions of checkerboarding, but regardless of which thread I looked through, it very quickly degenerated either into bickering about details, or esoteric concepts of theoretical bee behavior. This is the first time it has been clearly explained in a straightforward manner without extraneous noise derailing the topic.

I am sure I will have questions about details later, but for now I have only one, and it is about the third brood box.

Right now I am running two deeps. I have two hives that have come through the winter with a LOT of stores. I expect some of it to be used up during the build up, so I am only supplementing with MegaBee patties at present, along with spring treatment syrup once.

The other two have essentially used up 75% of their stores, and I am feeding them syrup along with MegaBee patties.

If I want to go to three deeps on these hives, when would be the best time to do it? I have enough empty drawn comb to give each third deep two frames of empty drawn comb and the rest plain foundation. Should I do it now? Would that not set back or interfere with the amount I would be able to extract? Should I wait until after the spring flow is over and put on before the fall flow we have here that most everyone lets the bees keep to build up their winter stores?

I realize that is more than one question, but it’s all about the same thing…when do you add the third box to the hives.

Rusty
Reply

Joel,

When you go from two deeps to three, you will naturally lose some production because you will be leaving another nearly full box of honey on each hive. But over the long haul you will gain from healthier, more productive hives. You are trading a short-term loss for a long-term gain. If you checkerboard (or checkerboard as much as you can) some of the decline in production will be offset by more production per hive.

I would get the third box on there as soon as possible. If you can grow a big population early, they have the entire summer and fall to store nectar.

Phillip
Reply

I’ve read more than a few contradictory and confusing descriptions of checkerboarding. Your concise explanation is clarifying. Thanks.

My hives consist of two deeps each. I may add a third deep and checkerboard them when I reverse the boxes in early spring. If there aren’t any honey frames to checkerboard, I’ll just reverse the boxes and be done with it.

Whatever I do, I’ll reference a few of your posts before I do it. Due to work commitments, Honey Bee Suite is pretty much all the beekeeping reading I have time for these days. The effort you put into your writing is much appreciated on my end.

Herb
Reply

Rusty…I’m excited! I believe you are saying that time must be spent understanding the nature of Honey Bee Reproduction and what species of plant materials in a given region fuel the reproductive process. I’m learning Rusty… Timing is a very important factor. Got to get in tune with nature! Wished I had a better sense of what time factors Mother Nature Had in store. I’ll learn how to adjust to her.

ScoobyDoBee
Reply

I agree with all the comments here – love the very clear picture you painted regarding something I was heretofore uncertain about. Thanks as always.

Gretchen
Reply

I’m trying to get my mind wrapped around what it would look like with my hives’ configurations. They are each overwintering with 2 deeps and a medium. Currently they are clustered at the top of the 2nd deep, with the medium still full of honey (and, I imagine, the 1st deep basically empty). I could checkboard with the existing medium and another, but what does that mean for reversing the deeps? Seems like a more complicated configuration.

Gretchen
Reply

That certainly simplifies it! The reversing post also answered for me the debate I’ve been having with myself about hives being built up, but in nature bees going up, down, and sideways. Plus with checkerboarding that top super, I may be able to sneak out a few frames of maple honey, foraging weather permitting!

sharon
Reply

Rusty,
Thanks do much, have been trying to get my brain around this all week, now I’m feeling confident. Checkerboarding doesn’t seem to have taken off in the UK yet, so I have no local people to check their experiences. Can I ask a possibly stupid question? I’m guessing that you don’t exclude the queen from the checkerboarded super, or do you?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Sharon,

I would not exclude the queen. I consider the checkerboarded supers as “theirs” to do with as they please. My own honey supers would go above the checkerboarded ones.

I’m sure other beekeepers will disagree, but this is how I see it. If the checkerboarding prevents the bees from swarming, you should have a huge colony which will continue to store honey all summer–even in “your” honey supers.

Furthermore, even if the queen does lay a bit in the checkerboards, some of the frames will still be extractable. In my experience a queen that lays way up there generally sticks to the middle two or three frames.

sharon
Reply

Thank you so much. I will be doing this tomorrow — weather permitting. Cheers.

Tony Teolis
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for making this easy to understand. I hope I am not too late to chime in with a question and request for confirmation but here goes. I like others here have overwintered my first hive of Russians in northern Virginia and have been debating reversing, checkerboarding, splitting etc. to manage the bees best. The hive is two deeps with 1 med super of honey on top.

Can you confirm that to checkerboard I could add another super and checkerboard that with the other and not switch the deep bodies? Could any of these frames be empty?

Next, how does the lower deep get filled if it stays empty? Will they build down?

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Rusty
Reply

Tony,

Before you do anything else, read my post on reversing hive bodies: “Reversing brood boxes? Is it necessary?” It explains why it is not necessary to reverse and when you can expect the box to fill up again. As for checkerboarding, yes, you can use a new super along with the one with the honey in it. I think it is ideal to use empty frames of drawn comb, but if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. Lots of beekeepers report success with empty frames or frames with foundation, so you should be fine. If you happen to have a few frames of empty drawn comb, use those toward the center of the box to encourage the bees. Otherwise don’t worry about it.

Tony Teolis
Reply

Rusty,

That’s awesome. Thank you.

Aram
Reply

Rusty,

Great website. Wanted to ask you about CB in Seattle Area. I am in Auburn. I was curious what you think is the latest to checkerboard and when is the swarm cut-off date. I am looking for actual date ranges.

Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Aram,

I can’t actually give you a date for the latest time to checkerboard. If your bees haven’t started to build swarm cells, there is still a chance that checkerboarding will prevent a swarm. If you do have swam cells, you are too late because the swarm impulse is already underway. This impulse will vary with the individual hive, but around here it will usually happen between mid-May and mid-July.

Last year the last swarm I saw was June 28. The latest one I ever saw was July 3. In my opinion, the swarm cut-off date is going to be right around the first week in July for western Washington.

Bruce
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Is it possible to checkerboard with two deeps?
The queen and brood are in the lower deep, the upper deep has just about 10 frames full of honey, I was going to replace 1,3,5,7. & 9 with empty drawn frames. Do you still suggest a third super?

Bruce

Rusty
Reply

Bruce,

Since the brood nest is in the lower deep, you should be fine with just a second deep. If the colony builds up really fast you could always use the frames you saved to add another deep later. But really, most people checkerboard with just two.

David
Reply

Rusty,
Reading Walt Wright’s comments on checkerboarding, he says that the technique encourages queen supersedures. If I wanted to manually requeen instead of allowing the supersedure, when would be the best time to introduce the news queen so the hive doesn’t attempt to supersede her?

Rusty
Reply

David,

Checkerboarding can produce strong, vigorous hives. Sometimes in a very populous hive the queen pheromone becomes diluted because of the sheer volume of bees. Afterall, she produces the same amount of pheromone regardless of whether there are 40,000 bees in her colony or 80,000. Whether a supersedure happens in any colony cannot be predicted with certainty, but a lot will depend on the age of the queen . . . young queens produce more pheromone.

If you want to prevent the supersedure you can re-queen proactively during spring build-up or you can wait to see if supersedure cells appear and do it then. Re-queening can be accomplished in the spring, summer or fall, but my favorite time is in the fall because first year queens are rarely superseded and a fall re-queening doesn’t interfere with spring build-up or major honey flows.

jim purdy
Reply

Never heard of “checkerboarding” before but it makes sense.
I used to just take as much honey as I could get and maybe that helped to lessen swarming…….
Jim

Cem
Reply

Rusty,
I’ve splits on 5 frame nucs. Is it possible for them to checkerboard?

Also, most of my colonies wintered in one single deep (with nothing above). Should I put a checkerboarded deep above them?

Thanks….

Rusty
Reply

Cem,

Sure, you can checkerboard a nuc the same way you would a full-size hive. The purpose is to get them to move up in the spring and expand their nest into the upper box. And yes, in the spring you can checkerboard your singles as well.

Cem
Reply

Thanks for your quick reply. My only concern about the CB is will the bees be able to cover the brood on upstairs? Because sometimes it is 3 or 5 Celsius in my region in March.

Rusty
Reply

Cem,

The bees won’t put brood in the checkerboard until it is warm enough and they have enough bees to cover it. As humans, we can provide the structure, but the bees won’t use it until they are ready. They will make the decision.

Darwin
Reply

Rusty,
I live in Central Minnesota, and was wondering when would be the ideal time to checkerboard my 3 deep hive?

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Darwin,

I’d wait for a warmish day, at least 60 degrees. If you don’t disturb the brood nest you should be fine even if you get some nighttime freezes.

Joel
Reply

Hi Rusty!

Just did my first checkerboarding, and just went through my first winter with three deeps..gotta say, they did extremely well, the hives are booming right now, and I haven’t had to feed anything at all…they made it all the way through just on their stores.

I had to make some adjustments to the brood when I was doing this because they had created an elongated brood area with some in top part of frames in the bottom body, most in the middle body, and some on the bottom frames of the top body.

Essentially I moved I the middle box to the bottom, put the other frames with brood in the center of the middle body, put a full frame of honey on each side of the brood in the middle box, then checkered from there out…in the top body I did the typical checker pattern

The second hive was essentially the same, and I did the same thing, but had fewer full frames of honey to checker with, so in the top box I checkered the 5 frames in the center and just put empty frames on each side of that.

Was wondering if you thought what I did was appropriate/ acceptable…

Thank you so much for this site…

Joel

Rusty
Reply

Joel,

That sounds excellent. My experience with triple deeps is they make that long narrow brood nest. I think they stay warmer that way because they are all tucked in the very center of the hive and are surrounded by lots of honey, pollen, and comb that acts like insulation.

It was good to checkerboard because it sounds as if your hives are going to explode with bees very shortly. I love to hear it. Congratulations.

Biddy
Reply

Dear Rusty,

I am a beekeeper in the west of Ireland and I am fascinated with the simplicity of checkerboarding as a method of swarm prevention. The facts that it is not invasive of the brood nest and avails of natural bee behaviour is most appealing. In the west of Ireland ( my nearest neighbour as I look west is the Untied States of America) the prevailing winds are south westerly and consequently we receive a lot of rainfall throughout the year. Most beekeepers in Ireland use the British National hive. Some use brood and a half (brood chamber and shallow super). The commercial beekeepers have begun to use double brood. I use what is termed a Modified Commercial brood chamber (it is about one and a half times the area of the National) and simply used to add supers as and if required throughout the summer. This year I wintered on brood and a half because we had a mild autumn with ivy flow up to a few days ago. I don’t like disturbing the brood nest or clipping the queen, practices promoted in modern beekeeping education, and hence my appreciation of checkerboarding.

Although I have read articles on the subject on Beesource and understand the logic of the technique I am not sure of its application.
As I understand it (I am open to correction) I must checkerboard the overwintered honey super in the spring which will result in two checkerboarded honey supers over the brood nest. Do I continue to check these two supers (weekly or whatever) so as to maintain the checkerboarding effect above the brood nest? Is it permissible to leave full supers above the latter? I would greatly appreciate your comment.

Biddy

Rusty
Reply

Biddy,

The purpose of checkerboarding is to reduce the chance of swarming. Bees like their honey storage area to be full before they swarm, but checkerboarding makes it appear half empty. In most places, the primary swarm season lasts only six or eight weeks, so after that amount of time, you don’t have to keep re-checkeboarding. Swarming, like everything else in beekeeping, is seasonal. Read “Checkerboarding: the X-files of beekeeping” for more about why it works.

By the way, there’s probably no problem with leaving full supers above the checkerboarded ones.

Roy
Reply

How do you go about accomplishing something like this in a top-bar hive, if that’s even possible? If you’ve already explained this elsewhere, I apologize; if you could just point me in the right direction.

Rusty
Reply

Roy,

You can do this in a top-bar hive if you super it. I’ve never supered a tbh, but I’ve seen it done. The beekeepers usually make a sort of half roof for part of the hive and make a box with top bars in it to go over the other half of the hive.

Do any readers have a photo of this? Or advice for Roy?

Martin
Reply

Roy, In the TBH just simply do the same thing but horizontally. Move each bar of honey over and put in a new empty bar. It basically opens things up. If you run out of space you may need to take some honey to open things up. But just leave one new empty bar between each bar of honey.

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