honey bee management

A gentle warning about upper entrances

Upper-entrances-in-shim

Don’t get me wrong. I love upper entrances and use them a lot. EAS master beekeeper George Imirie was passionate about upper entrances and frequently wrote of their importance. He believed they solved two primary problems: they shortened the distance returning foragers had to travel through the hive and they provided hive ventilation, especially in winter.

Imirie was the eponymous designer of the Imirie shim, a 3/4-inch rectangular frame with the same footprint as a Langstroth box. In the center of one end, a 3/4-inch by 3/8-inch entrance is notched into the wood. Imirie used this frame between honey supers in the summer and above the brood boxes in winter. According to his writings, he designed the shim because he didn’t like drilling holes in his boxes.

Entrances drilled directly into boxes

If you don’t mind drilling holes in your boxes, a drilled hole eliminates the problem of burr comb between boxes. Imirie thought the burr comb was a small price to pay for the increased efficiency of the foragers, and he didn’t mind scraping it away.

Other beekeepers, like Tony Bees in New York, swear by holes drilled directly into the honey supers. He gets huge quantities of honey by using these upper entrances combined with little landing pads for the foragers’ convenience. I converted to this method and drilled one-inch holes in my honey supers which I then placed over a double-queen hive.

Top entrances for pollen collection

In addition, I use a 3-inch shim (also known as an eke) with three one-inch holes drilled in the front on those hives where I plan to collect pollen. I like the Sundance II top-mounted trap, but it requires that the bees first be accustomed to an upper entrance. I use the 3-inch eke with the three holes to “train” the bees. When they are comfortable with the new entrance, I simply exchange the eke with the pollen trap.

When I’m ready to remove the trap, I switch the two again and the bees go right back to using the three holes. Seamless, as they say.

Alternatives for upper ventilation

Personally, I don’t rely on a single upper entrance for ventilation. For a very large and populous colony, it doesn’t seem like enough.

In my mind ventilation and entrances are separate issues, and I prefer to use a screened inner cover for summer ventilation and a quilt box with screened ports for winter ventilation. Of course, the amount of ventilation required will vary dramatically with your climate and the size of your colony. Under some circumstances, a single small hole will be enough.

And now the warning

I see a lot of beekeepers using two small blocks of wood inserted under the lid or under the inner cover to create a huge upper entrance. In fact, I was taught to do this, and at one time I had a box of these little wooden blocks ready to go.

The problem is little blocks make ginormous upper entrances. Even if your block is only 3/8-inch high, the entrance extends the entire width of the hive and partway back on both sides.

This configuration is no problem for a large and populous hive. But if robbing begins, a small colony can quickly be overrun by invaders coming through this large entrance. And remember, the colony must guard the bottom entrance at the same time. Of course, if the top entrance is your only entrance, the situation is not as bad. Still, size is an issue.

Robbing happens fast

It is easy to forget that robbing happens fast. You can go to work one morning only to find all your honey stores gone by evening. It’s not just other honey bees, but yellowjackets, wasps, and hornets as well.

In fact, if you feed during a dearth, many sources recommend that you move the feed as far as possible from the entrance. This is so the scent of the feed is not strongest right where the opening is. So, for example, if the feed is at the top of the hive, the entrance should be at the bottom. This is another good reason to close up the top during a dearth.

The lesson is simple, if you elect to use a big gaping hole as an upper entrance, you’ve got to close it before robbing season begins. You can’t forget and you can’t be late. Trouble is, because it is often blistery hot during robbing season, and because the entrance doubles as a ventilation port, the tendency is to wait too long. This is exactly why I like to treat entrances and ventilation as separate problems.

Avoiding the big-entrance problem

If you’ve drilled upper entrances in your honey supers, you don’t have this problem because your honey supers have normally been removed by robbing season. And some beekeepers, like Tony Bees, add hinged covers that can be closed.

If you use an Imirie shim for an upper entrance, it is probably defensible by all but the weakest colonies. Or if you use multiple holes in a 3-inch rim, you can easily plug the holes with wooden or plastic buttons or a piece of duct tape.

In any case, a small entrance, whether it is round or rectangular, is easier for the bees to defend than a long, continuous one. If you read Thomas Seeley’s book Honeybee Democracy you will see that swarms are very particular about the size of the entrance opening. Although honey bees will sometimes select a long and narrow opening in a tree, it is usually quite slender and there is normally just one. Although we can only assume their motivations, colony defense seems a likely factor in their decision-making.

Other considerations

Large top entrances, especially on small colonies, also invite other problems such as wax moths and ants. If the colony is not guarding the top entrance, pests have easy access to your combs. If you use a screened inner cover, or screened ventilation ports, you can exclude some pests, especially wax moths.

On the flip side, upper entrances are especially nice in winter because the bees can come and go without having to dig through a pile of dead bodies. And predators, especially the furry mammalian type, have a harder time catching bees as they come and go from a top entrance.

Summary

To sum it all up, I like upper entrances and think they provide many advantages. But those of us using multiple entrances, especially ones at both the top and the bottom of the hive, need to be aware of the disadvantages as well.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Upper-entrances-in-shim

This three-inch eke with holes is used for “training” the bees. Some holes can be closed, depending on colony strength. © Rusty Burlew.

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53 Comments

  • I have wide open entrances in the bottom Rusty and when I read about adding a 3/4 inch hole with a landing pad in the honey super I went ahead and did it hoping to increase my honey supply. Not sure why but the bees never used it.

    • David,

      This was my first year with holes in the honey supers, too. Some of my colonies loved them, and were in and out constantly. Others paid no attention at all. I could see them in there working, but they didn’t use the hole. I’m going to stick with it, however, and see what they do next year. Perhaps an “exit” sign over the door would help. I painted an exit sign inside my chicken coop, and it worked well 🙂

  • I am in the process of harvesting honey. What is the best way to filter the honey to remove pieces of comb, dirt, dead bees, etc. so that it is ready to jar and put on the table?

    • Lou,

      You can buy sieves through the beekeeping catalogs. However, I just use a paint strainer like the kind you can buy at Home Depot. I just put it in a bucket or bowl (they come in one-gallon or 5-gallon sizes) and pour the honey in. When I’m done, I scrape out the crap and throw the strainer in the washing machine.

  • With all the upper entrances, what size and shape do you have at the bottom? Or do you have a bottom entrance at all? And I assume you have a screened bottom board to assist in ventilation.

    On my inner covers I have increased the size of the top entrance (about 3/8. X 2 inches). About triple the size from when I bought it. I have the entrance on the bottom side of the inner cover. Also use an imirie shim on top of the inner cover with a the same size notch on the bottom of the shim. For my bottom entrance I use an entrance reducer with the opening being 3/8ths by 7 inches. Like you I have felt the 14 1/4 X 3/4 was rather big to guard.

    I’ve had good luck, the bees seem to guard the entrances well without a traffic jam at the entrance. This is all over a screened bottom.

    I had tried popsicle sticks under my inner covers, but the girls just filled the crack with propolis. When I tried larger upper entrances than I am now using, the bees reduced them with propolis. So somewhere in my madness, I think I have somewhere close to what the bees will allow….

    Boyd

    • Boyd,

      See, I really like that type of experimenting to find the sweet spot for your bees. If we always use what the manufacturers provide, it will never be quite right because of local conditions and local bees.

      To answer your questions, I use an entrance reducer on the bottom, usually the largest size they come with, although on small colonies I use a 1/2- by 2-inch opening. I use a screened bottom board and a screened inner cover in summer, and I have 1-inch entrance holes in my honey supers.

      In winter, I reduce the lower entrances to about 3/8- by 3/4-inch holes, and I use an Imirie shim under a quilt box. In the winter, the bees favor the upper entrance and use it almost exclusively. My theory is that since heat rises, it is warmer up there. I often see the bees sitting at the entrance looking out. It seems to me that my colonies have been bigger and healthier since I began using the upper entrances in winter. Just an observation, no data.

  • Great article. I like the eke and will have to try that (next summer). I try to reduce the extra entrances going into the fall slow down for the robbing reason you mention.

    I typically use an Imirie shim and have found a solution to the burr comb. I use an Imirie shim below a shallow super but use medium frames.

    Works great!

    Dave

  • 08/30/16 I read your article and don’t understand a eke or ventilation holes.

    I used the stick under the top cover for ventilation and I drill a 5/8 inch hole in the front of my bigger hive boxes. I have some ants which I use cinnamon, they hate cinnamon. But everything seems ok.

    I had trouble with raccoons years ago, on top when I did not use weight. My problem was raccoons on the bottom. They would steal the sugar water jars on the outside of the front of the hive. Now I put a 3rd hive box on top and put the jars on the inner cover. I use rolled chicken wire at the front entrance. Skunks and raccoons seem to hate getting theirs paws caught in chicken wire. I live in the northeast and I had a hive freeze in the winter so I was told to cut a square of i inch insulation that they use under vinyl siding and tape it under the top cover and it worked for me.

    My biggest problem with my bees is I lose almost all my hives in the winter. My honey frames are full and they huddle in the upper corner and freeze. I use tar paper on three sides, but I think it is varroa mites reducing the bee count for survival. Sorry to have a long story.

    Larry

    • Larry,

      For pictures of an eke with ventilation holes, see “How to make a moisture quilt for a Langstroth hive.”

      That’s interesting about the raccoons. I’ve never heard of them stealing the feeder jars, but it makes sense.

      A colony that has lots of honey but a very small remaining cluster that freezes does indeed sound like it has varroa mites. Do you treat for the mites?

  • When you add your 3″ eke, is there a top inner cover over it? I have some
    ‘mini’ boxes, from when I cut some deeps to convert to westerns, I could use for eke’s. I like the idea about using for pollen collection too as we have a pollen trap waiting to be used next spring.

  • I want to do a mite check but I’m afraid to open the hive at this time of year. I opened it up to look at my top honey super a few days ago and the number of hornets that appeared when I did that had me close the hive up much quicker than I wanted too. The hornets are plentiful with the bees fighting them off pretty much all day. I did close off my outer cover by removing the stick I had in there keeping it open slightly for ventilation because of the hornets. I find myself standing by my hive trying to kill the hornets myself but the bees get tired of me being there too.

      • With regard to hornets, last year a local beekeeper built a 2 inch tall box, think 2-inch Imirie shim. He put screen on the top and bottom. In the back and on the sides near the back he drilled a hole. In the holes he placed a 3 inch piece of 1/2 tubing in such a way that it was flush on the outside and protruded on the inside of the box. He placed this under his screened bottom board. The wasp and hornets when trying to get in the hive could smell the honey and thinking they had found an unguarded entrance, enter the box and can’t find the way out. At the end of the year he had about 1/3 inch of dead wasps in the bottom. In the mix there were 15 to 20 bees. He thought they may have been robber bees that never reported home where they found a free lunch. During and for a day after working in the hive he plugged the openings to keep any disoriented bees from getting trapped. Also he has a door built in to empty the box.

        Hope this helps,

        Boyd

  • Rusty, I don’t use a robbing screen but I’ll look into one. Thank you for the suggestion. I wonder if I placed those hornet traps near the hive it would draw more hornets to the area or if it would be appealing enough to make them go to the trap instead of the hive?

  • Hi Rusty,

    Why do you not recommend upper entrances only?

    My first thought is that you won’t get air flow, however with a screen bottom board (which here in Australia I use year round) you still would.

    Thanks

    • Aaron,

      Did I say that? I think you could use upper entrances only, but I do think it is more work for the bees to keep the hive clean as they have to carry dead bees, bad brood, and anything else they don’t want up and out. In other words, gravity is working against them. I also think it is more difficult to separate the feed from the opening in a dearth. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say you shouldn’t do it, just that I wouldn’t do it.

  • Hornet trap …. liter pop bottle, put small holes in side where bottle flares out, add vinegar, sugar, apples or bananas, fruit to ferment, water, hang about fifty feet or so from hive, hornets will be attracted to bottle, go in and drown. Caught l00’s this year already using this method. Find hornet nest and get rid of it if possible. Hornets are nice, eat lots of flies, but eat bees and torment them all day as well.

    Also, if you have chickens, take chicken poop, put in bottle, will attract flies, hornets love flies, will go into chicken poop bottle for flies and die there. This all worked for me this year as my two hives were bombarded w/hornets this year. I also use these traps for the chicken areas and it keeps the flies down. Seems like weaker hives attract more hornets. My one hive went queenless last week and it tended to have the most hornets, which drew my attention to the problem in the hive. I thought there were way too many hornets than usual and here, when I checked hive, there was no queen. They sure torture the bees all day, tho, I see where the bees kill quite a few of them. Can’t get to the hornet nests where I live as the trees are 100 feet tall or more and they put them up pretty high. Traps work well. I put several all over the property during the problem times of the year.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I reread my question and your answer and no, you did not say you do not recommend upper entrances only, just that you do not use them but Michael Bush recommends it.

    Thanks

  • Rusty,

    If honey bees prefer their honey to be farthest from the entrance, in a Langstroth hive that only has a top entrance will they keep the stores at the bottom and the brood at the top? I know it’s convenient for the beekeeper to have the honey on top. Is the big bottom entrance to encourage the workers to store the honey at the top, away from the entrance or do honey bees in the wild always store honey above brood?

    • Li,

      I’ve never heard that honey bees store honey away from the entrance, so I can’t answer to that. Generally, honey bees store the food above and to the sides of the brood nest. In long hives, it goes to the side only. In Langs it goes mostly on top and some to the sides. In wild hives, it can be either way, but the brood is generally toward the bottom. My hives have both small top entrances and large bottom entrances, and my bees use the top ones almost exclusively. I don’t know why.

  • I read that somewhere and it seemed to make sense from a guarding stores pov but I guess it’s not a thing. The author was arguing that having two entrances was confusing for the bees because of wanting to keep stores away from the entrance but that’s clearly not really an issue. Thanks

    • Jack,

      Well, technically, none of your supers should have pollen or brood. The brood and pollen should be in the brood boxes. On top of them is the queen excluder, and then on top of that are the supers, which should contain only honey.

      • I think maybe you don’t understand the question. With the lower entrance the lowest box is mostly pollen. Yes the two outer frames in every box are usually honey and obviously there is some pollen and honey in the second box but mostly brood. Does the brood go lower and pollen higher if you have only a top entrance? Or doesn’t all stay the same?

        • Jack,

          More like I don’t understand the assumption that, “with the lower entrance the lowest box is mostly pollen.” I’ve never seen that. Usually my lowest box is filled with brood with only an arc of pollen around the top portion. When I have two brood boxes, the nest often spans the two, and the pollen arcs over the whole thing. I’ve seen pollen packed in lower boxes in failing hives, but not as an everyday occurrence.

  • Hey Rusty, this is my first year beekeeping. I have two brood boxes and a flow super. There is no room to drill an upper entrance in the flowhive super. Can I drill an upper entrance into the brood box?

  • Rusty,

    I guess I’m in the “imirie shim camp.”
    I don’t want to drill holes in my boxes either.
    So could I just leave my imirie shim above the brood boxes and just add my honey supers above? I realize it will cause a little more time for my the girls. But they’re closer to the supers than a bottom entrance.
    I’m gonna keep my bottom entrance but I’ll keep it reduced with a robber screen on.

  • I just found out one of my colonies has built its own side entrance. This colony tends to hang around their entrances – chilling out on the landing board, clumping around the inner cover’s top entrance, and when I had it on, also around the Imrie shim entrance. All summer I’ve been scratching my head about why they also tended to have a big party on one side, where the deep and the medium boxes meet, near the front of the hive. Sometimes I’ve thought maybe I spilled some honey there, and/or didn’t perfectly line up the boxes when I put the hive back together. Well, that may have started it, but today I discovered that there is a slit about 2 inches long, and bees were merrily crawling in and out. They’ve apparently chewed out their own side door.

    If winter ever truly sets in (and we ARE getting light snow right now), I’m worried about this. See, it’s on the side/corner facing the prevailing winds. Should I put some duct tape over it for the winter?

    • Why can’t you turn the two boxes 180 degrees so the opening is no longer on the windward side? You could also tack a patch of sheet metal on each box to block the hole.

      Contrary to popular belief, honey bees love to carve wood. I’ve seen them open up entrances under lids, add slits between boxes, widen entrance reducers, and chisel bottom boards. Last year, two of my colonies put holes right through the corners of their quilt boxes, yet I have no idea why. They just have different ideas than we do. Patch the boxes and they will be fine.

      • I went ahead and put duct tape partially over the side entrance. Had to remove it the other day when we went in with an oxalic dribble treatment, and they were not in the mood to let me replace it. Turns out the slit is a near match, sizewise, to my new Broodminder temp sensor, I hardly had to crack the boxes at all to slip it in. They weren’t very happy about that either and I received my first sting of 2021 🙂

        • They do love their side entrance, they hardly use the bottom entrance at all. I had a broken top cover lying around the apiary (“Oh, I’ll clean up and throw that away someday. . .”) and I propped it up to shield the side entrance from the wind yet still leave them access. Today it’s windy and rainy, and about 20 bees are huddled together on the outside of the slit entrance. I’m assuming they didn’t sneak outside for a smoke.

  • Thanks for all you do. I sent you a donation through PayPal. I have a question. I live in Oklahoma we have extreme heat. I tried the screened inner covers over my supers. But it seemed to trigger robbing. The honey smell would come through the roof top. I would always see bees trying to enter through hive tops. Also had bees building propolis and a lot of it around the screen like they were trying to fill in the screen. So I grew frustrated with the screened inner covers.

    • Hi Hank,

      I’ve never had screened inner covers attract robbers, but I certainly see how they could, especially in times of nectar dearth. As for propolis, mine get propolized onto the top bars sometimes. I just clean them off with a heat gun and put them back on.

      I appreciate your donation, especially during these times when income is sketchy for so many people. Thank you, thank you!

  • I heard in a recent Zoom presentation (I don’t remember who it was that said this) that drilling holes in your supers or providing upper entrances for returning foragers doesn’t help get nectar into the super quicker. The forager passes the nectar on to a bee inside the hive who then brings it up to the super. I look forward to seeing spirited conversation about this.

  • A few years back Rusty, you mentioned an author of how upper entrances would increase honey production since the bees wouldn’t have to go from the bottom entrance to the top to deposit nectar. I tried it but had a problem where some of my hives superseded the queen and when she when out and got mated, flew back into the upper entrance and started laying in the honey super. The excluder prevented her from going down into the brood box. With that experience, I went back to the bottom entrance.

    • David,

      Well sure, that can happen. I have plugs that I use when I want to block off the upper entrances, and I only leave the upper ones open during peak nectar flows. I keep an eye on the supers to make sure no egg laying is going on. If a hive swarms, then I plug the holes until the queen is mated and laying again. It’s a management thing. You can get good honey production but you have to manage the colony at the same time.

  • Rusty:

    I liked your idea of having upper entrances so, I built a couple of shims whereby the front of the hive has an entrance and a 2″ landing platform. I have also built different reducers to control the open space across the front.

    I put the entrances on two hives, and the bees seem to love them. The bees seem to use each entrance at about the same rate.

    That being said, I noticed something yesterday when the weather started to change and it clouded up and started to drizzle. They have basically barricaded the top opening. They are lined up solid across the opening virtually plugging it off. I took some pictures, this morning in a light rain and will email them to you for you to look at. There aren’t near as many this morning, but you will still get the idea.

    I was wondering why they would be doing this? Could they be trying to reduce a draft in the hive? (I have a screened bottom board on both hives.) I have made different sizes of reducers, so I can reduce and even close off the opening if required. I built the the reducers incase I ran into a problem with robbing.

    One of the hives has the entrance above a queen excluder, the other doesn’t have an excluder.

    I was wondering if you have any thoughts on this.

    Thanks
    Randy

    • Randy,

      Do they look like this? https://www.honeybeesuite.com/an-upper-entrance-in-winter/

      I think they like that area because it might be the warmest spot in the hive, other than the brood nest. Remember that warm air rises, so cold air comes in the bottom, gets heated by the cluster, and exits through the upper entrance. Cold air doesn’t go into the upper entrance because it’s basically an exhaust port for warm air. You can see this by sticking a baking thermometer in the entrance. It’s usually quite warm. See the photo here: https://www.honeybeesuite.com/instant-read-hive-thermometer-winter-colonies/

      Basically, I don’t worry about it and leave upper entrances in all year here in western Washington.

      • Rusty:

        Yes, that is very close to what they looked like. My opening is about 4 inches and it was plugged solid just like the picture you attached in the link.

        Thanks for taking the time to get back to me.

        Randy

      • Rusty:

        I’m not sure if my original reply worked or not, as it hasn’t shown up. Thanks for the response.

        Yes, the picture you posted is very similar to what I was seeing. My entrance is larger, (about 4 inches), and it was plugged solid with bees.

        I never thought about it being a warm spot to sit, but that makes total sense.

        Thanks again.
        Randy

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