Reversing brood boxes: when and why

Your colony has made it through the winter, and the first warm day of spring is turning the earth green. The bees are packing in pollen and all seems right with the world. Sure enough, it’s time to reverse your brood boxes.

Reversing boxes simply means you take the upper brood box and place it below the other one. Over the course of the winter, a bee cluster moves upward. Honey is usually stored above the brood nest and, as these stores are used, the entire cluster migrates in that direction. Reversing puts the bulk of the cluster in the bottom of the hive again, thus providing room above to store honey. Since the bees now have a place for their supplies, reversing tends to delay swarming. In some cases it may prevent swarming.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Choose a warm day in early spring. Temperatures above 60°F (16°C) are good for this.
  • Remove covers and feeders. When you get to the upper brood box, clean the tops of the frames of burr comb. Pry the box loose, and set it on end.
  • Now clean the burr comb from the tops of the frames in the lower brood box. Pry loose, and set it on end as well.
  • Now is your opportunity to clean your slatted rack,Varroa screens, bottom boards or whatever you have down at the bottom of the hive.
  • Now go back and scrape the burr comb from the bottoms of the frames in both brood boxes. This is easy with the boxes set on end. Removing the burr comb is important so you don’t smash bees when you reassemble.
  • Now reassemble the hive, putting the brood boxes in opposite positions.

Some additional considerations:

  • If you imagine the cluster as a sphere spanning both boxes, you will see that reversing causes the cluster to be broken into two parts. One part (the largest part, we hope) ends up in the lower portion of the lower box. The other (smaller) part ends up in the upper part of the upper box. If you reverse too early in the year, there won’t be enough bees to keep both parts warm. This is where good judgment—and good luck—comes into play.
  • If you wait too late in the spring, swarm preparations may already be underway, and you lose the benefits of reversing.
  • If you find your winter cluster is very small and easily fits in one box, you may want to remove the empty box until the hive regains strength and numbers. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to maintain that box, re-paint it, clean frames, replace frames or do whatever needs to be done.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Gene
Reply

The Bee Suite is an amazing site. I recommend it to anyone interested in bees (or environmental issues in general)! There is always something new and interesting posted on this site.

clyde mosley
Reply

is it safe to store brood frames with brood in them? i had a hive to disapear with a few cells of brood left.

Rusty
Reply

I would say it’s okay if there are not too many cells. The brood will rot and then dry up in storage. The next time you use the frame the bees will clean it out with no problem. But if there is a lot of brood, it will smell really bad after a while.

If there is a small number of cells, just store it and see what happens. You can always throw it away later.

Phillip
Reply

Did you reverse your brood boxes, this year, Rusty? I know you talked about not bothering with it.

I reversed my boxes during the first inspection in May, only because local beekeepers told me to. But it’s still a topic that I keep hearing contradictory opinions about.

The first group of beekeepers say it prevents swarming by freeing up space for honey stores above the brood nest.

The second group says honey bees naturally build comb from top to bottom and fill comb from top to bottom and will therefore naturally head down into the bottom box in the spring. The queen doesn’t signal the colony to swarm because she has plenty of space to lay in the empty bottom box and would naturally go down instead of up anyway.

Did you reverse your boxes this year? If not, how did it work out for you?

Rusty
Reply

Phillip,

In the past I reversed religiously, but now I don’t. This year I reversed two hives only because I had them torn apart anyway (to replace some frames, etc.) and when I put them back together I just reversed them.

I did have a lot of swarming this year but I think that was due to the fact that I overwintered well (with good ventilation) and started building up early (with pollen-laden sugar cakes) and by the time swarm season arrived my hives were huge. One of the ones I reversed swarmed, and one didn’t.

In a hollow tree bees build down and, left alone, they will build down in a man-made hive as well. I hate to reverse a healthy hive in spring because you can kill the queen. I know this from experience.

My first beekeeping years (when I was following the conventional wisdom and beekeeper hearsay) were shaky, with low overwintering success and low honey yield. Once I decided not to do anything unless I could understand the science and/or logic behind it, my success skyrocketed. Now I always approach a problem by first looking at my climate, my local conditions, and my vegetation. The only other thing you need is a basic understanding of honey bee biology and behavior. Given those things you can make an educated guess about how to handle any problem and do very well. Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. But those mistakes often illuminate the very problem I’ve been trying to solve, and that is how I improve.

You’ve read my site long enough to know that I don’t believe anything anyone tells me unless they can explain the why of it or they can provide statistical evidence from controlled experimentation. That someone did something for 80 years and never lost a hive means nothing to me. Climates differ, food sources differ, hives differ, bees differ, and beekeepers differ. Predators, pathogens, parasites, and environmental conditions have changed over time. There is no one way to keep bees, no formulas that always work. If it were that easy it wouldn’t be half so much fun.

Linda Charlick
Reply

I recently lost a hive with lots of bees and I’m not sure why. There were several long (1 inch approx.) white worms in the very bottom brood box. Their bodies had segmented markings. I assumed these to be wax worms, but I’m not sure and I don’t know if they arrived after the bees died or not. I had left an extra box of honey on above the brood boxes yet some were head first in the brood box. What is your guess?

Rusty
Reply

Linda,

It’s hard to guess what happened. Were there lots of dead bees in the hive or were the bees gone? Did you find a queen? Did you see evidence of robbing? The wax worms may have come before or after the colony died. A strong colony can keep the numbers down, but a weak colony cannot. Bees often starve with honey in the hive because they can’t find it or they are too cold to get to it. I can’t really say what happened, but it is not uncommon to lose a colony that was robust not too long ago. It is possible the colony went queenless and was unable to replace her at this time of year.

Nancy
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Hope you pick up this question, realizing this is an old post. It’s the first time I have had to consider reversing.
Had another hive die out (that’s 2 of 7) and was going to parcel out the honey to help the survivors. Found my first little split from last year absolutely teeming with bees and (after all my cold-spell worries) also teeming with honey. Who knew?

Here’s the question. The top box, a medium, has lots of honey. The bottom box, a deep, has lots of honey and some brood. So it seems they have already built down. Is this a situation to NOT reverse and just leave them to it?

Also, I thought of adding another medium since they are storing so much, and I guess it should go between the deep and the top medium? Or is this spreading them out too much? What about checkerboarding empty frames & honey frames in the two mediums? Thanks!
Nan

PS. There wasn’t a LOT of brood – maybe a couple dozen sealed cells on each side of 4 frames. But lots of bees. Does egg-laying and brood hatching go in waves? Didn’t see a queen but didn’t keep them open long.

Rusty
Reply

Nan,

1. Agreed, you don’t have to reverse because the brood is already low in the hive.

2. I like the checkerboarding idea better than putting an empty box in between the full one and the brood. You are less likely to have the bees go up, get the honey, and move it closer to the brood.

3. I don’t think that brood rearing goes in waves, but it may have dropped off if you had a cold snap after a warm period. Check back in a few days to make sure there are eggs, especially since you didn’t find the queen.

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