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.

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?

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

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.

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