how to physics for beekeepers

Shaking larvae from their beds

In third grade my best friend, Kristen, filled the bowl of a soup spoon with mustard. Then, using her finger as a catapult, she fired the mustard into the air. The glistening glob sailed silently above the clattering tables and hit the cafeteria wall just below the ceiling.

Kristen spent the afternoon in the principal’s office. The rest of us were compelled to look at that disgusting splat for the next four years—glossy and yellow at first, devolving to a dull gray-green as the months passed.

As beekeepers, we are frequently urged to “shake the frames free of bees.” For various reasons, we sometimes want to transfer brood from place to place without all the attending bees, and shaking them from the frames is quick and easy.

But shaking—usually a straight up-and-down flick of the wrists—should be a gentle, non-violent sort of motion, just enough to dislodge most of the bees. Shake too hard and you can dislodge your larvae from their little puddles of food. I say this with some authority because I actually tried it.

Some years ago, I watched a beekeeper “shake” his frames by rapping the bottom bars against the edge of the brood box. Bang! Bang! He crashed the frames until not a single bee remained on the wax combs (a guy thing, no doubt). I longed to peek at the larvae after that, but he was impatient and shooed me away.

So the following spring, I tried it myself. I dislodged the bees from a deep frame of brood with a horrific rap on the brood box. Then I looked.

I immediately remembered the mustard. The single impact had flung several dozen larvae onto the walls of their cells—as if their chauffer had driven 30 mph into a brick wall. The victims I could see were small, those not wide enough to fill their cells. The older larvae and eggs were still in place.

Now honey bee larvae don’t wear seat belts or crash pads, and they are not designed to crawl back where they came from. A larva splatted on the cell wall is in serious trouble: separated from its moist pool of food, it begins to desiccate almost immediately. And even if a host of nurse bees could triage the mess, nurses are in short supply—you just shook them off the frames, remember?

So when you shake your frames, do it gently. You don’t have to remove every last bee. In fact, the foragers are the ones you usually want to lose, and they leave easily. Nurse bees hang on a little tighter, but a few nurses transferred to a different hive won’t do any harm.

If you can’t be gentle, you can always use a bee brush. But generally, shaking works fine as long as there is no impact, and as long as you don’t have queen cells on your frames. But please don’t be brutal; don’t launch your larvae into oblivion. Remember, this is beekeeping, not war.


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  • Thank you for this reminder, Rusty. Being a 2-year rookie or maybe age-related forgetfulness I do things like this then brood about my mistake for days.


  • Oh, my goodness, Rusty, your description of their tiny little bodies being bashed against the side of the cell…like scrambling a chicken egg inside the shell, was so poignant. I feel terrible and I haven’t even done anything like that! Poor little bee-lings! As always, thanks for the lesson.

  • When in my first year of learning about bees our teacher said you could give the bottom of a comb a bang on the closed fist of your other hand. We all accepted this. During my 2nd year I changed over to the bio-dynamic more bee-friendly methods of learning. That teacher told us any thumping even ‘controlled’ ones on your own closed fist will always cause larvae to die. I’m glad you brought it up Rusty. People take what you say well and the more thought that goes into bee care the better it is for all concerned.

  • Hi Rusty: I lost both colonies of my bees last winter here in northern Michigan, but am starting over again this spring with two new packages. My question is this: will diesel fuel kill bees like pesticides or can they live with it in the area? Never have heard anything about fuels and bees. Thanks Phil

    • Phil,

      I suppose that would depend on how close it is and how much there is and what it’s on. It may interfere with olfactory sensors, if nothing else. I can’t imagine it would be good for them. I looked up the MSDS for diesel and it didn’t say anything about bees.

  • I thank you too, Rusty.
    I read your e-mails and am enlightened and entertained every time.

  • I’m curious, what was the outcome of that frame that was intentionally shook hard and you saw larva slosh onto the sides of the cells? Did the larva survive and turn into otherwise healthy bees? Did the nurse bees pull the larva from the cells and discard them? I admit, I kind of want to try this myself and see what the survival rate is of dislodged larva.

    • Chris,

      At the time, I was just experimenting and didn’t count cells or take pictures. Now I wish I had. But by the next day those cells were empty, so I assume the larvae were hauled out by the nurse bees. However, more than just the dislodged ones were gone. I think some had become damaged even though they hadn’t moved. I’d say about 50% more were gone.

      If you do it, keep records and take photos. I haven’t found much information on this.

  • Thank you once again Rusty,
    Every time I have a beekeeping question I Google it, and I find the answer on your website. You are a plethora of information and it is greatly appreciated.

  • I’m new, but I do know:

    You are not supposed to brush the queen because you could damage her, got it, no problem.

    You are not supposed to shake a frame that has queen cells on it because you could damage the queen apparent, got it, no problem.

    What about if the queen is on a frame that has queen cells? Like you are doing a split before they swarm. Use smoke?