The queen excluder controversy: some things never change

No two beekeepers will ever agree on the use of a queen excluder. Some folks think they are essential equipment; others think they just irritate the beekeeper and annoy the bees. So, rather than keep you in suspense, I’ll tell you right up front that I do not like them. That said, I have to admit to using one now and then. As I said in my very first post, it depends.

The idea behind a queen excluder is that the worker bees can easily pass through the wire mesh, and the queens cannot. They also exclude the drones. Beekeepers place excluders above the brood box to keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey supers.

The first problem is the difference between “can easily pass through” and “will easily pass through.” Most worker bees have a real reluctance to go through an excluder if they don’t absolutely have to, and hence the name “honey excluder.”

The theory is that the workers don’t like to go where the queen cannot. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not a bee psychologist and have absolutely no idea what bees think. However, the reluctance of the bees to pass through shows in their behavior. They tend to store honey in the brood chamber until it gets so bound up there are no free cells left for the queen to lay eggs. This overcrowded condition frequently leads to swarming.

If your bees swarm you won’t get a honey crop anyway, so you haven’t really gained anything by keeping them out of the honey supers. So what’s a beekeeper to do?

Here are some things that may help to keep your queen out of the honey supers.

  • Keep rotating your brood boxes to keep the queen in the bottom.

As the queen fills up the cells, she eventually migrates upward. You can keep her down lower by periodically reversing the position of your two brood boxes.

  • Make sure the brood box does not become “honey bound.”

If there is no place left for the queen to lay, remove frames of honey from the brood box and replace with foundation or drawn comb. Save the frames of honey for overwintering—it certainly won’t hurt to have a few of these on hand.

  • If you have a super of frames already filled with honey, place that box directly above the brood chamber and place the empty honey supers above them.

Queens generally won’t pass a “honey barrier,” so once you have a super filled you can just leave it in place and stack new supers on top.

  • Put an upper entrance just below the honey supers.

The theory here is that the queen will stay away from the light and not venture up past the second entrance. I never got this to work, but some people have had success with it.

  • If you are trying to produce comb honey, use square or round sections instead of regular frames.

Queens do not like these little spaces and will hardly ever go in one. I never use an excluder with section boxes and I’ve never had a queen decide to lay in one.

If you absolutely want to use an excluder, you can improve acceptance by putting the queen in the lower brood box, putting the excluder between the two boxes, and making sure there is uncapped brood in the upper box. The nurse bees will go through the excluder in order to care for the brood. However, if you use this method you have to periodically move brood into the upper box and give the queen new places to lay her eggs. If you don’t manage the two boxes, overcrowding in the queen’s box may induce swarming.

So how do I use an excluder? They are great for splitting a super-populous hive. Instead of spending forever finding the queen, you just put the excluder between the two brood boxes and wait four days. At the end of that time you look for eggs. Once you find eggs, take the other box for your split and introduce a new queen into it. You never have to actually find the first queen.

Rusty

Comments

beekeeping
Reply

Interesting post. I have never questioned using a queen excluder – if I am putting on a super, I put on a queen excluder below it. All the beekeepers in my association say the same. But swarming is a serious problem, and often repeated swarming from the same colony – maybe this is why. Food for thought!

Lou
Reply

I’m new to beekeeping. My bee colony hardly grew when I got them last spring and I had to feed them over winter as very little honey in the hive. This spring (I am in Oz) they are going gangbusters. The bottom box was full and they built comb into the lid – this had brood in it.

I put on super 2 without an excluder as the frames were not built out and there was brood and maybe the queen in the lid (a lot of bees in the lid). The bees built out the frames in super 2 in a few weeks. But now I don’t know what to do as I have not been able to find the queen – do I just leave them to their own devices?

If so, will I get frames that just have capped honey at some point? I have actually put the excluder in between the brood box and the top box to see where the eggs are being laid so I can work out where the queen is – now having read your post I am worried this might cause swarming… What do you suggest?!

Rusty
Reply

Lou,

Your bees are highly unlikely to swarm at this time of year with a queen excluder or not. Also, your queen won’t be laying too many eggs this time of year. The brood nest will be kept small, producing just enough bees to overwinter and no extra–not like a brood nest in spring.

Your queen excluder can help you find the queen by limiting the area where she can lay. But she is unlikely to be anywhere except in the brood nest or at the edges of it. If you can’t find the queen, but you are sure you have one, you can just leave them alone.

The best way to assure getting frames of pure honey with no brood is to use a queen excluder, otherwise you risk getting some brood in the center. Depending on what kind of honey you are making, some empty brood cells in the center may not matter. For those producing comb honey it is more important to keep the queen out.

I’m not sure if I answered your question. You can write again if I didn’t.

rraymond
Reply

From Roseburg, Oregon.

Can’t imagine what the controversy about queen excluders is all about.

We have two hives. No. 1 started April 2010. No. 2 started April 2011.

We have queen excluders on both hives. All western supers (or hive bodies if you will).
All plastic frames.

Hive No 1 has three western hive bodies, a queen excluder, and two supers.

Hive No 2 had two western hive bodies, a queen excluder and three supers.

We have taken 4 full frames off hive No 2 and 8 frames off hive No 1 prior to this, so far this year.

Yesterday, I went out to prepare the hives for winter. Started with the new hive (No. 2). Took 4 frames of capped honey off, pulled that super, examined the hive bodies, put the queen excluder on top of hive body 3 which was full of capped honey, left a nearly full hive body number four over the queen excluder.

That makes at least 3 gallons of honey of our new hive this year in seven months and 5 gallons off hive number 1.

Hive No. 1 has been very prolific. We have taken more than 5 gallons of honey off this hive. It now consists of three western hive bodies, a queen excluder, and three western supers. Last I checked, it was wild with bees and filling the top super with honey. Decided to wait a while on getting this one ready for winter.

Working with the new hive, there were zillions of bees, lots of activity, brood, pollen and honey everywhere. The more established hive is likewise full of bees.

The question is, how does a queen excluder hurt? While everything is local, we don’t see any big down side. That said, the plastic queen excluders suck. The metal ones are marginally better. Best, I think, are the wood framed excluders.

Love the girls even when they hurt me. Yellowjackets are from hell.

Chris Boarland
Reply

Hi Rusty

Found your excellent site having done a Google search on queen excluders. I am new to beekeeping and have what appears to be a thriving colony. However, although there has a been a super on for some weeks, the bees are not pulling out the frames and seem reluctant to go above the excluder. As a result they are filling up the deep brood frames with honey, capped and uncapped at present. I think I will move the excluder and see if that encourages them to start using the super frames. I will also remove some of the brood box frames with just honey on and replace with fresh ones. How best to store those moved frames until needed at the end of the season?

Regards – Chris

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

The safest way to store frames of honey for later is to wrap them in plastic, freeze overnight, take them out of the freezer without removing the plastic wrap, and store in a cool, dry place.

Bees will move up when they are ready, but it is not unusual to have a first-year colony that never makes it up there. Not to worry.

Celina
Reply

Great information – thank you!

I’ve never heard of putting a frame of brood up in the honey supers. I suppose you’d have to have all the same size deeps to do that. After the brood hatches do the bees then fill the comb with honey?

Rusty
Reply

I haven’t either. The post suggests putting the queen excluder between the two brood boxes, with the queen in the lower brood box and open brood in the upper brood box. This encourages workers to go through the excluder. The honey supers then go on top of the upper brood box.

David
Reply

Hi Rusty,

For the last 6-8 weeks during hive inspections, I’ve been finding the queens in the honey supers. Almost every time. I suppose the queens are either lounging or inspecting the warehouse, but from your post (and my understanding from other sources) queens don’t usually cross the honey barrier. There are plenty of other places for her to be laying in the boxes below. Any thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

David,

Interesting. Were they laying or just inspecting? I’ve always wondered what queens do in the late summer and early fall after egg production slows down. They quickly go from laying over 2000 eggs per day, which is more than one per minute, 24/7, to laying a few hundred a day. They don’t read or watch Netflix, they don’t go camping or fishing, so maybe they walk around. Seriously, it makes me wonder. I recently went looking for a queen when I was trying to show a guest what a queen looked like. I finally gave up, but when I picked up the lid to put it back on, there she was, just walking around. Call me crazy, but I think they get bored.

Sean
Reply

I use nationals, 14×12 brood boxes with standard brood boxes for supers, but never use a queen excluder. Queen rarely lays past the honey belt. I always leave a super on to overwinter the bees, seems to work well for me.

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

Sounds right. I think queen excluders are over-rated, although I do use one to keep my dog out of the chicken yard. Works great.

DAVID FUNKHOUSER
Reply

WHAT IS A SUPER?
WHAT IS A MEDIUM?

Mary
Reply

A tip I just learned at bee school: first let the workers draw out the comb in the honey super for about a week THEN put the queen excluder between the hive and the super. They won’t be as reluctant to pass through the excluder once they have already invested time and effort making comb up there.

Rusty
Reply

This is true. You can also use a drawn frame from a previous year or a different hive.

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