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How to open the brood nest

Now that I covered checkerboarding as a swarm control strategy, I want to at least mention a practice called “opening the brood nest.” This is a technique where empty frames are placed between frames of brood. Many people confuse checkerboarding with opening the brood nest. The important distinction is that checkerboarding is done above the brood nest and does not disturb it. On the other hand, “opening the brood nest”—sometimes called “spreading the brood”—disrupts the integrity of the nest.

Here are the basic steps:

  1. At the first sign of new white wax on or near the top bars you can begin.
  2. Remove one of the frames near the middle of the brood nest. It should fill with festooning bees within about five minutes. If it doesn’t, it’s too soon to open the nest because there aren’t enough bees to repair it.
  3. Assuming the empty space fills with festooning bees, return the frame to the same position.
  4. Take an outside frame (one with no brood) out of the box, and push the remaining frames to the side, leaving the empty slot near the middle of the brood nest.
  5. Put a new foundationless frame in the empty slot. The bees will now direct their energy to building new comb and filling in the brood nest rather than swarming.

Other considerations:

  • Depending on the strength of the hive, one or maybe two foundationless frames can be added to the brood box. Each empty frame must have filled brood comb on either side of it.
  • If there is already brood on all the frames, the frames of brood you remove may be centered in a second brood box directly above the first.
  • To be successful, you may have to re-open the nest and add frames every week or so throughout swarm season. Far from being a one-time manipulation, it requires constant monitoring.

Timing is everything with this technique. It must be done before the swarm impulse begins or it is completely ineffective. On the other hand, if you do it too soon you can chill the brood. When the nest is split up—and it will be for a period of time—it takes more bees to keep the brood warm. An unexpected cold night soon after spreading the nest could devastate the colony.

Just for the record, I do not like opening the brood nest for swarm control. I believe strongly that the integrity of the nest should be maintained. As I stated earlier, swarm control measures work by weakening the hive in some way. By changing the architecture of the nest, you are interfering with the bees’ judgment about what is best for the colony—and you are doing it repeatedly. So if you decide to try it, do so with caution: read colony strength carefully and pay close attention to the weather.


Pull out a frame of brood to test for festooning. Flickr photo by Justin Leonard.

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  • If there are so many bees, seems like that would be ample to keep the brood warm if you just inserted one frame. Not so? And this seems to me (and my limited experience) to be no more disruptive than pulling out frames? What, if anything, do YOU do for swarm control? I like the idea behind this – it seems minimally invasive to me. Would like your philosophy.

    • Checkerboarding works for me. I also like to take shook swarms and splits. In case that doesn’t work, I keep swarm traps and bait hives set up to catch them on the fly. Sometimes I put them right back where they came from, which works just fine because the swarm urge has been satisfied. I live in the country so an errant swarm that gets away isn’t a big problem.

      Splits and shook swarms may seem more invasive than opening the nest. But, in fact, you take the split and you’re done, whereas you might have re-open the brood nest five or six times.

      I’ve tried expanding the brood nest in three different colonies. Two of them died. In those cases the bees attempted to supersede the queen after the expansion (it must be her fault, right?) but the supersedures didn’t take. I’ll never do it again.

      By the way, volume and surface area increase at different rates. Two small balls of bees lose heat much faster than one large ball of bees.

    • You have two choices. You wait until the frames go empty or nearly empty and then you 1) throw away the whole thing or 2) cut away the comb and reuse the frame. I use old frames and combs for fire starters–they burn great.

      If you rotate older combs to the outside of the brood nest, they usually go empty by early spring and they use can get rid of them.

  • Hey Rusty,

    I am trying to free up a few empty frames to have on hand for various reasons (swarm traps, Demaree, splits, etc). What is the best way to get these empty frames?

    My plan this spring was to pull 2 frames from each box in the 3 and 8 position in May month during the build up and I see the bees drawing comb. That way I am not breaking up the center of the brood nest yet allow the bees to draw out these frames as they build up. Is there any additional risk associated with this?

    If I see the colonies build too fast and there is risk of swarming like last summer I can pull a few frames of bees then and place some empty frames/foundation in. I can then use those brood frames as splits.

    Also I am planning to make a few splits and helping them along as feral colonies. I plan to feed them initially then place them in the woods to do their thing. Hopefully creating a feral population in the years to follow.

    Gonna be a busy year.

    • Hey Jeff,

      Your idea of pulling frames from the 3 and 8 position should work to give yourself some extra drawn frames. As you say, they will build new comb in those positions and you haven’t invaded the brood nest in any way. Should work. I don’t see any risk with it.

      If you pull brood frames to make splits and avoid a swarm, make sure you do it earlier enough. Once they have the impulse to swarm, it is hard to stop them.

  • Rusty – first, thanks for all the great advice & info.
    My starter hive is a shook split from one of the 7 thriving hives that my friends have placed on my farm. It’s a 10 frame deep with wired foundation but I used a frame spacer to make it 9 (easier to lift for short older person).

    It has a laying queen from a swarm cell that came with the split,and what looks like lots of brood,pollen & honey.

    My question: that’s all happening in frames 1 thru 4!! 4 is solid honey. They don’t even seem to be drawing comb in 5 thru 9. I have read that a queen may be reluctant to move beyond a barrier of honey to lay more eggs. Meanwhile they are hanging burr comb all over and building comb into the bee space, sticking the frames together.
    I wondered if spreading the brood nest would work (no issue with swarming now, I guess)to get them working farther over. I thought of moving the solid honey frame to 9, moving the brood frames over and putting some empty frames in between each. Then I saw what you said about keeping the cluster warm – we’ve got some cooler nights (50’s) on the way. What if I just moved the whole nest to the middle and put the empty frames on both sides?
    Second question: next time we make a split (I have equipment for and would like 4 hives eventually) should we put the “borrowed” frame in the middle instead of at the side?

    • Nancy,

      The situation you describe (all the activity on one side) is common. What I do is just as you suggested: I move the whole business into the middle of the hive and put empty frames on the outside of that. It seems to help for some reason. I would also scrape the burr comb and generally clean up the mess. If there are no eggs in that honey frame (#4), you could insert an undrawn frame between the brood nest and that frame. I would just use one for now and see how they do with it. You won’t be splitting the brood nest so the cold nights shouldn’t be an issue.

      And yes, I always start a split in the middle or else you get this problem.

  • Great, thank you! It is so good to hear that others have encountered this situation. Also thanks for your earlier suggestion of having an empty deep on hand as a frame rest. That’s a real back-saver!

  • Hi Rusty,

    I need your advise again. The swarm impulse has been initiated. All the activity is over on one side of the box and I am finding queen cups with eggs in them. I am also using this colony for a starter/finisher. So I am kind of committed. So next weekend I can remove the queen cells from the started/finisher. So I am planning to take the empty drawn comb left in the colony with some empty comb, 2 frames of capped brood and the remainder being empty foundation with the original queen and move close by to the starter colony. Then make some splits from the colony-produced queen cells. Most of the queen cells from the starter/finisher are for friends.

    By removing the queen with some capped brood and empty foundation and then leaving only 2 – 3 queen cells in the original colony should I be able to prevent swarming? Also I plan to move the new splits to a new location as most of my bees have been moved due to the fly-by poop issue.

    Should this work? My goal is to prevent swarming as I am working away form home for 3 days at a time this summer.



    • Jeff,

      If you remove the original queen from the colony you have a good chance of delaying swarming because swarms leave with a queen. But if you still have 2-3 queen cells in there, you have a possibility of getting a swarm after one of those matures. Maybe yes, maybe no. You can even get a swarm with a virgin queen, although it is less likely than with a mated one. I think removing the original queen certainly lessens the possibility of a swarm but it doesn’t eliminate it completely. A lot depends on how populous that hive is, and how crowded.

  • I will do one split with the original queen and make some additional splits with 2 queen cells on it. There after I will squish or remove the remaining queen cells.

    Thanks Rusty.

  • Make the best of it. I have already stolen 4 frames of brood and bees from this colony already this year. It has been a nice spring.

  • Hi Rusty,
    If I’m monitoring the hive for backfilling coming out of winter and the peak of buildup and spot it early enough, is it too late to “open the brood nest” as a swarm deterrent? If so, I’d go to checker boarding instead…

    • John,

      Maybe, maybe not. On the day you open the brood nest, mark the extent of backfilling with tooth picks punched through the comb. Go back in a few days and see if they have continued to backfill or altered their behavior. It’s hard to change their minds once they start preparing for a swarm, but sometimes you can.

  • First, thank you for this informative site. It is so good!

    Question: I hived a swarm and in 2 weeks it filled the entire top 8 frame deep brood box with capped honey. They made 10 queen cups out of emergency cells in the bottom deep. All frames totally drawn out. I had placed 10 empty wooden frames with waxed black plastic foundation. I’m thinking of checkerboarding, but may need to split. This swarm had a virgin queen. It came from my hive that I had removed the queen from exactly 16 days prior (to make a nuc). I started keeping bees last May. I’m in Virginia and am expecting a few more cool nights. I’m wondering about the 3 deep brood box idea to help get this sorted out. Don’t want them to swarm again. Lots of bees. Split?

    • Mary,

      At this time of year, I think the split will serve you better than a triple deep. They often swarm in spite of a triple, and the three boxes are hard to handle. If you want to build into triples for winter, I would do it after swarm season.

  • Hi Rusty,
    It seems that many hive manipulations require the use of a frame of drawn comb. Other than having a dead out or extracting individual frames is there a process for building a store of drawn frames, how many per hive might be adequate?

    • This question from last year is a conundrum for me as well. I know you have posts about the futility of trying to trick bees into building out comb. And yet, as Dave says, there are many techniques that call for drawn comb. Where does it come from?

      When I split my 2-deep hive a month ago, I split the rapidly-filling frames in the medium super between the two hives, and checkerboarded with foundation. Are they drawing out comb on the new foundation? They are not. Instead, they are drawing out the existing open cells into deeper cells. Makes for an interesting pattern, when small blocks of the frame have already been capped at the original height, and the rest of the frame are now substantially deeper and still open. There’s plenty of nectar flow as we are busting with white clover now (E TN), and all those extra deep cells are a beautiful pale wax. But I’m not getting any extra drawn frames out of this. Sigh.

      • Gap,

        This is confusing to me. To begin with, checkerboarding is something that is performed above the broodnest, not with brood frames. See “How to checkerboard a hive.” Also, all of Walt Wright’s original papers about checkerboarding—also known as nectar management—can be found online. He coined the name so he, if anyone, knows what it means.

        It sounds like you have sliced the brood nest with sheets of foundation, something which should always be avoided.

        Then you say they are drawing out deeper cells, do you mean drone cells? I’m not sure I understand what you are saying.

        • No, sorry, the checkerboarding is definitely happening above the brood boxes. I split the two deeps of brood into two separate hives. Then I took the 10 frames from the medium super, which the original hive had been happily filling with nectar, and allocated half of them to medium supers on each of the new hives. I checkerboarded these two medium supers, using medium foundation frames.

          I would have loved to have had drawn out frames to use for my checkerboarding in the first place. In this case, I expected them TO draw out comb on the bare foundation. They are instead drawing out the existing nectar-storing cells deeper, and continuing to fill them with nectar, leaving the bare foundation mostly bare.

          So, like Dave, I’m wondering where DOES drawn comb come from? I’m pretty sure the 3-1/2 conditions are being met: there’s lots of nectar; it’s expansion season (and plenty warm where we are); the brood boxes were pretty full (of everything) and so were the frames in the supers; and new bees have been regularly emerging (I know, I’ve watched ’em several times).

          I know, they’re just being bees 🙂

          • Gap,

            They will draw out foundation when they are ready, and not a second before. They don’t care at all that you are already ready.

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