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

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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.

Brandon Johnson
Reply

Ok so Im sure you guys are super busy and may not have time to assist me with this, but I have no one else that I know of that I can ask bee questions too. Im a Georgia new beekeeper.

So if you have time this is what I have…..So my bees SEEM to be doing great……I saw my QUEEN bee and she was marked, then a few weeks later I see no queen and they are building both swarm cells and supersedure cells.. So the queen cells built on the bottom of the frames I got rid of and the 2 in the center of the frame I left. well then the next week one queen is hatched and the other queen cell is opened from the side…2 weeks later……I still can’t locate a queen, but my bees SEEM TO BE healthy as can “bee”…haha! They are capping honey in my shallow super in abundance….but like I said I can’t locate the queen and now where at one time there was capped brood they recently hatched out, problem is I don’t see any at all now..no queen, am I over looking her, and is it o.k at any point in time to have absolutely no capped brood in the brood chamber is this normal?? Can you dignose my problem or give me any pointers or advice as to what I should do at this point, given the small amount of information I just give you???

Rusty
Reply

Brandon,

From you supersedure cells one queen hatched and then she went to the other queen cell and killed her. When they’re open on the end in a nice round circle, they have hatched. When they’re open from the side they’ve been killed.

The new queen will take a few days to mature, and then mating may take a few more days (more if the weather is bad), and then a few more days to mature. You would expect to see eggs within 2 to three weeks after she hatches. If you don’t see eggs by then, you should think about getting another queen; she may have gotten eaten on her mating flight.

Nick
Reply

You will be lucky to spot a young queen until a week (give or take) after her mating flight. Once she starts laying she’ll look very queen-like and act very much like … well.. a busy queen.

Until then, if you *do* spot her, you’ll probably notice that she is a LOT lighter on her feet and quite a bit trimmer. Chances are, you won’t see her and since she’s not laying yet, there’s no proof she *is* there.

Really, until she is mated and laying well, you don’t know what you have. However, do the math. If you saw emerged queen cells 2 weeks ago, as Rusty said above, if the weather cooperates (sunny, warm days ~70 degrees a few days either side of a week after emergence) you should start to see eggs in the brood comb. So if the weather has been decent, an inspection later this week should reveal eggs and possibly *very* young larvae.

Then you can exhale. :) The queen is there, even if you don’t see her.

Nick
Kent WA

Mary
Reply

“…she may have gotten eaten on her mating flight.” This might be poetic justice considering what happens to a drone on *his* mating/maiden flight. Karma’s a b*tch, as we used to say. 8 )

Jack
Reply

I use the excluder to prevent queens from absconding; however, feral queens find a way through the excluder. Can anyone help?

Rusty
Reply

Jack,

Make sure your excluder isn’t worn or bent.

John
Reply

Hi again Rusty,

You hear it all the time—but doesn’t make any less true—Great Site!!

I live just north of Sydney, Australia – near the coast and its pretty warm (compared to you guys I think) all year around. We are into our first month of spring and the bees are really hopping to it :-).

Both my hives have 2 brood and one super, no excluder. I keep putting the queen box on the bottom and she very quickly moves up to the middle again (as your opening post suggested she would).

My question: if I put a forth box on without an excluder will she still have a tendency to move
to the box second from the top, or is there some bee mechanic at work that has her wanting to be one box up from the bottom rather than one down from the top?

Cheers
John

Rusty
Reply

Hi John,

Thanks for the compliment!

A colony without an excluder is said to have an “unlimited brood nest.” Many people prefer to run a hive that why, and some of the reasons are stated in the link.

What the queen will do is a little hard to say. Most stay within three boxes, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find your queen heading into the third box if she felt like it. Placing solid frames of honey above the brood nest area will often keep her down in the nest area, but I’ve also seen workers clear a space for her.

I’m not a fan of excluders. Since I’m not a commercial beekeepers who needs to squeeze money out of my hives, I usually let the queen go where she wants. If she lays some brood in the upper boxes, I just work around it, taking honey from places where she didn’t lay and moving frames around later in the season into a smaller configuration.

So will your queen move up? Maybe yes, maybe no. The question you have to answer is how disruptive that would be to you, the beekeeper.

How do you like that for a non-answer?

Jack
Reply

Question:

Will the queen move down is she is in a higher super?

I am having problems with queens not moving in lower supers if they are located in supers above the bottom super – they do not seem to desire to move down but move up – any ideas

Jack

Rusty
Reply

Jack,

I assume you mean brood boxes here, and not honey supers. I find that the queen will move down into lower brood boxes as the summer progresses (and especially once backfilling has begun) and then into higher brood boxes in the winter. On the other hand, not all queens behave the same way. This post on reversing brood boxes has some information on queen movement: “Reversing brood boxes: it it necessary?” and how people deal with it.

I don’t know where you are or what you are trying to do, so it is hard to say more.

John
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Perfect answer :-) And thanks for the links .

And I’m slowly learning bees always don’t play by the rules anyway :)

I put the middle brood box box on the bottom a few weeks ago, and a few undrawn foundation frames in the brood at that time and a couple of undrawn foundation frames in top honey box just to cycle out some plastic frames with wood ones ( I prefer ). My amazing queen
has laid in the two fresh frames in the bottom, laid up into the middle box and then done a perfect laying pattern in one of the fresh frames in the honey super too – brand new eggs today.

It’s a hive of activity – as they say!!

Cheers
John

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