honey bee behavior

My bees won’t go through a queen excluder

Why do experienced and commercial beekeepers use queen excluders without hesitation, while newbees insist their bees won’t go through an excluder under any circumstances? Certainly the bees aren’t considering the beekeeper’s experience level, they’re just doing what they need to do on their own schedule.

Beekeeper impatience

The answer, I think, has more to do with beekeeper impatience than anything else, and impatience is a hallmark of many new beekeepers: “I want honey and I want it now.”

Some people ask how they can keep the queen in the lower boxes without using a queen excluder. I don’t have a good answer for that. I know some beekeepers keep rotating the brood boxes, putting the queen in the lower one, but that’s insane. She has legs and knows how to use them. As soon as you do all that heavy lifting, the queen shrugs, wonders what all the fuss is about, and goes wherever she pleases.

On the other hand, several different methods can be used to entice the bees through the excluders, but I don’t see much benefit in doing so. Bees under a queen excluder tend to fill out the lower brood boxes completely before going up. To me, this is a good thing, not a bad one. I love it when the brood boxes are heavy with wintertime stores so I don’t have to feed. It’s better for them and better for me.

When they’re ready, they will go

When the bees need more space to store honey, they will go through the excluders and store it. This is where patience comes in: the bees will do it when they feel the need, not when you feel the need.

While it seems true that bees without a queen excluder tend to go up sooner, there may be a price to pay. Without an excluder, the bees sometimes neglect to fill the outer frames in the brood box, say those in positions 1 and 10, and possibly 2 and 9. Instead they work above the established brood nest, which is generally on the center frames.

Look before you take

I remember a conversation last year with a woman who had extracted everything in her supers and then, late in the season, realized her bees had no honey stores whatsoever in the brood boxes. I will never forget her question: “Why did the bees store honey for me before they stored honey for themselves?”

I had trouble convincing her that the bees stored every last drop of it for themselves and never gave her a second thought. But there’s an important lesson here: don’t ever take all the honey in the supers if the frames below are empty. Look before you take. That’s all you have to remember.

But getting back to the queen excluder, this situation (honey above but none below) is more likely to happen when the beekeeper has encouraged his bees to build in the supers before they are ready. The bees would have been better off if the beekeeper left them alone.

Can you have it all the first year?

The admonition that you can’t get honey from a first year package used to be pretty common. It was an oft-repeated refrain meant to reign in that new-beekeeper impatience. I don’t hear it as much anymore. It seems the philosophy now is, “You can have it all the very first year.”

But if you think about it carefully, you can see why the old advice makes good sense. New packages are usually installed just before or during the spring flows. The first thing the bees need to do is build a brood nest and raise brood. They can do a lot of this in a hurry, because of all the forage available. They may even be able to fill two brood boxes with combs and fill those combs with brood, pollen, and honey.

But by the time that is done, the summer solstice is near and egg laying gradually slows and the populations begin to drop. As the brood nest shrinks the bees backfill much of that with honey to get ready for the winter. This is exactly the time that new beekeepers put on their first honey supers. When it becomes obvious that their bees are not interested in this new space, the beekeeper becomes completely discouraged and blames the queen excluder.

“In general” does not mean always

If at this point I explain that it’s hard to get a crop the first year, I invariably will be told how their friend, relative, neighbor or whatever got 40 pounds off their first-year colony. Well, maybe they did: exceptions are a fact of life. Or maybe they took honey that should have been left for the bees. That’s not the point. The point is that in general it is hard for a first-year package in a brand new hive to make harvestable honey the first year—regardless of the queen excluder.

Meanwhile, experienced beekeepers with established colonies on drawn combs don’t have these issues. Come spring, the bees can start collecting nectar and raising young—they don’t have to do all that building. The brood nest fills up quickly and the bees move right through the excluders and into the honey supers while the heavy flows are still on. Everything happens so fast they don’t have time to sit around and discuss the relative merits of putting honey on the far side of the fence. They just do it.

For all of you impatient beekeepers not interested in heeding this advice, I’m working on a list of ways to convince your bees to cross the fence before their time. Stay tuned.

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  • Hey Rusty,

    Just to follow up on the queen excluder mystery, the hives that I sent you a picture of with the excluders in place are now going into “winter mode”. Total count/harvest from 4 active hives (1 on rebound-no extraction), 540 lbs (9 pails filled to top x 60 lbs), using the Brushy Mountain metal bound excluders. If your readers are using the budget plastic ones, they’re only good as a propolis trap!!!! Opening on plastic off by a hair and if their supers don’t have the upper entrances like were in the pictures, they’re limiting access to them.


    • Tony,

      I will definitely be mentioning your system in my follow-up to this post; it’s been on my mind. I was talking to Gary Fawcett (in Kiwiland) about it just last week. By the way, 540 lbs is a lot of honey. Jeese.

  • I had ONE hive that did that also. They would not go up into the honey supers. They started building comb on the excluder sealing it off and remained on the bottom. That hive was very inactive all summer. Very lazy bees. The other hives on the other hand were exceptionally productive. A tube of bees made comb, filled three supers, and had 7 swarm cells by the middle of August. Those are bad bees. Don’t split them! Add their brood box on top of a very aggressive hive after removing the useless queen.

  • Thanks for the thoughts, Rusty. I had my first hives this year, three of them, and didn’t take any honey. I considered taking some, but I am more interested in getting the bees through the winter so I left them bee.

    So thanks for making me feel better!

  • Great bee information, keep up the good work! Last winter I lost all three of my hives (I think this was due to the mild winter and they up and froze during a later freeze period) and got three nucs to replace them in the spring. The newbies did well but had a lot of comb to work with going in. One of the hives filled a super, one hive put in a little honey in a super and the third hive didn’t touch the super. So, as you said in this report, ya just never know what bees will do. We just have to give them room to work and hopefully they do well. (The garden was great this year!)

  • I use excluders a lot, but only for the benefit of housing two queens in the same hive. I find excluders very dangerous in the spring, since they can get the bees into a swarming state very quickly. Also, it kind of goes against the Checker Boarding manipulation. In the summer, after the swarm cutoff date, I think the excluders can be used pretty safely.

    • Aram,

      Since checkerboarding, by definition, is done completely above the brood nest, excluders don’t interfere with it. I agree that excluders can increase the tendency to swarm, but one of the solutions to that problem is to checkerboard the supers immediately above the brood nest. The other thing that helps is to keep the excluders clean. I like to swap them out with clean ones if they get waxed up.

  • Rusty,

    Thanks for that. I’m a first year beekeeper and have loved watching the girls stuffing the frames full in the brood box. I had a queen excluder and super ready for the possible event that maybe there might not be enough room in the brood box – but it didn’t happen – cold summer and poor nectar flow slowed everything up –
    fed for most of summer and into autumn and am very, very happy to have 10 frames full of the golden stuff ready to get those hard working buzzers through the winter- hope they make it -they all look well and happy!

    Maybe next year there might be some over but much more enjoying the bees than worrying about what I might gain from it – although a tiny teaspoon might be good!!

    Thanks again
    Jooles (in uk)

  • Sometimes they will not go through because the gaps are too small. A number of cheap plastic excluders are either not made correctly, or not finished off properly, to allow for enough space for workers to squeeze through. Experienced and commercial beekeepers know enough to, a) not use cheap equipment in the first place, or b) spot the sub-standard kit and fix or replace it. In my experience wire excluders are more reliably made correctly, plus you can blow torch them to clean. You can bleach solution soak the plastic ones but it takes a fair bit longer than 30 secs with a flame and wire brush.

    Spraying the foundation in a super with weak sugar solution will mean bees will visit the foundation, walk around and make it smell of bees which can help; as can simply shaking some bees into the super to work their way through the super and the excluder.

    Leaving off the excluder until you get a small amount of laying up there will ensure continued interest when you put the excluder in; make sure the queen is down below first though. The brood will grow and hatch and then the cells will be filled with honey as usual. I wouldn’t do it for cut comb, but its fine for spinning out.

    • Nick,

      Interesting observation on sizing the plastic excluders. I’ve used both without a problem (except for the clean-up issue), so the various manufacturers probably have different quality control. Like you, I like to torch them clean: quick and they don’t get bent.

  • As I’ve mentioned earlier, my interest is more about the bees than the honey. I am planning on purchasing a nuc instead of a package next spring (I’ve heard if you purchase local bees they have better odds of making it through to the next year). I was told that I would be able to harvest honey the first year. Would it be OK to leave it, and not harvest the honey? I’d rather them have too much then not enough.


    • Lolly,

      Yes, I have better luck with local bees because they are well-adapted to the area. Nucs are much more likely to produce honey the first year because they are already established on drawn comb, but you never have to take honey. Leave them as much as you want.

  • As still a new beekeeper myself, I remember thinking why the bees didn’t like going through the excluder. In fact, that was this year I had that experience. My first year, I convinced myself to attempt management without an excluder. And during that first year, the queen ruined some very pretty naturally drawn comb I intended to make into cut-comb. So this year, I told myself, I’m going to use an excluder. But after nearly 3 weeks, the bees never showed any interest in going to the frames above the excluder (plastic, undrawn). So I started moving some drawn comb up and that got them interested in the top super. But then I ended up with a bunch of drones up there. And I didn’t want to put an exlcuder in locking the drones in. So again I ran another year without running excluders. And again, the queens decided to wander all throughout the hive laying eggs in places I intended to keep as honey supers.

    Now that I have drawn comb and a bit more patience, I’ll be trying excluders next year. And I’ll retry naturally drawn comb again.

    But yeah, the bees really do resist going into a completely undrawn super. But they eventually will. However I have found that you can coerce them up there by putting empties below and drawn above. What you risk though is them drawing the-already drawn frames thicker and into the space of the undrawn frame which can be annoying. So yeah, be patient and let them go above at their own pace.

  • I know this the wrong blog, but it is the most recent. I collected a swarm off a tree this Saturday. I was wondering will they survive the winter? How can I help them make it through? I live in South Alabama.


    • Michael,

      You will have to feed them like crazy to make sure they have enough to eat. Since it is so late, you will probably need to feed straight through till spring.

  • Rusty,

    Great post! I’m always teaching on my FB Beekeeping Group, that the new keeper needs to be patient and to not expect honey the first year, as all the resources that are stored are for the bees and their long winter ahead. I have shared many of your blog posts in my group to reinforce many of the same concepts, but from another beekeeper. It’s seems the different voice will help solidify ideas and concepts to the new folks.

    I never use the excluder, as my bees and queen roam across a never ending brood chamber, which consists of 3 deeps. Any surplus is above these deeps, but only after the deeps are ready for winter. In a good year that is end of June first of July time frame. A bad year, no surplus.

    As to the 10,9,2 and 1 frames not being used… simply rotate them in right next, never in, the brood frames. This will push frames that are either filled or in the process, out and up. Both of which keep the bees busy building and filling, which by the way cuts down on the swarming issues.

    Keep up the good work here Rusty! You are greatly appreciated!


  • This is my first year. I started two hives. Within the first few weeks, it was apparent that one of my hives took a nose dive.

    I got my hands on a local nuc. Now I have two hives with two different types of bees. They yellow “Orofino” bees are very nice and don’t mind me hanging around. The darker “Spokane” bees are aggressive and will dive bomb me and try to get in my hair after about 30 seconds of nosing around.

    Anyway, both of my brood boxes are full of honey and they both have one totally full super. I left the excluder on, and plan to during the winter. Hopefully that is the correct thing to do. I found that leaving them alone and not sticking my nose in their business every week let them do their thing. I’m now fall feeding with 2:1 syrup and honey bee healthy. I’m hoping that is enough to get through winter. Next fall…I’ll probably take some honey from them.

  • I have a honey flow beehive and am a newbie. I lost a package colony I bought from up north early, due to hive beetles. After sterilizing everything and freezing everything at 10 I reassembled then bought a local nuc. It was in late May here in Houston but we have a very long season. Everything seems OK but they won’t play in the honey flow combs. I assumed that was because not all bees are the same size whereas all excluders are. After reading this I think I found the problem…my impatience. Thanks…now if I could keep the darn hive beetles out I would be a happy camper.

  • Rusty,

    New at beekeeping. Started a nuc and two package of bees last spring. I live in up state NY.
    Bees made it through the winter. Didn’t take any honey from them. My question to you if you don’t use an excluder and the queen lays eggs in the super to raise brood, how can you extract any honey from it.

    • John,

      Queen excluders were invented for that exact reason. That is why you use an excluder—to keep brood out of the honey.

  • A long long time ago I was a believer that a ‘queen excluder was a honey excluder.’ At that time (mid 1980’s) I had a long conversation with my commercial employer and he was pretty frank about the matter and admitted that the primary reason he did not use them was he was a migratory beekeeper and it was just one more bit of equipment that he would have to drag along (essentials from Texas to North Dakota).

    In the current time frame I use a lot of excluders. What changed between now and then was I read a very old ABJ article by Gerald Hayes (now known as Jerry Hayes) titled ‘Is a Queen Excluder a Honey Excluder’ < you can find the article on some virtual bee sites like Beesource. Being somewhat a sceptic I tried the process that he described and had some success in the experiment (12 hives at one location), modified the approach just a tad bit and now use a lot of excluders. I should also add that being a one man show with a lot of hives, the excluder also makes taking off the crop much simpler and I suspect less stressful for the bees. With the process described by Jerry you also need to keep in mind that there is no food resources below the excluder so do be careful and not take everything above the excluder. I also use a lot of excluders for doing queen rearing work and for making up nucs (basically using the Doolittle Method for nuc creation).

    Gene in Central Texas…

    • Thanks, Gene. I’m always interested in how people use excluders. I’ve gone full circle from using, to not using, to using again. I’ve ruined way too much comb honey by not using them, and I won’t make that mistake again.

  • I perhaps should add some detail here Rusty… 1) if I am down to just using foundation then I do a lot of ‘under supering’ and 2) there is a lot of second hand information on the net concerting how a queen excluder works or does not work. For most first year beekeeper I suggest they set that queen excluder aside and only consider using it in year 2 and beyond and those cheap plastic queen excluder should be avoided (they are handy for cutting and making stuff that requires an excluder).

    An often overlooked benefit of an excluder is they can make storing comb in areas with wax moth so much easier. that is to say you can avoid using nasty chemical to store the comb.

    Gene in Central Texas….

    • Gene,

      Could you elaborate on the second paragraph, queen excluder and storing comb? Not sure I get the picture.

  • Rusty…
    The short answer is no brood in honey super equates to no problem from wax moth.

    The options for wax moth… One of the largest and long term problems faced by southern beekeepers is wax moth. In this location it may be more of a problem than varroa. The problem then arises as to how to store comb during the fall and winter months when typically any excess space is removed from the hive. With comb unblemished by brooding there is really no food value there for wax moth so you can store these fairly easily and have no worry about wax moth damage. Other options for comb that does have brood (ie is dark or black) include Bt which is not totally effective but imho is the best of the other options. Wax moth crystals (paradichlorobenzene < sp not quite right) requires multiple application and the benzene ring is defined as a carcinogen and the boxes have to be air out for at least 2 days prior to be placed back on the hive.. The gas in a can (some form of phosgene I think???I am not certain of the trade name but it is used by a good number of commercial beekeeper and can be obtained from many bee supply stores) represent some significant risk to the beekeeper.

    The commercial beekeeper that I mentioned earlier blamed his last bout of cancer on one of these products… Of course there is no evidence to say his belief was right or not.

    I guess you pays your money and takes your chances… or not!

    Gene on the left coast enjoying a short vacation….

    • Gene,

      Dah! Of course, no brood. I don’t know what I was thinking about.

      We don’t have much wax moth up here, but we also don’t have many flowers (at least this year). I guess every location has its issues!

      Thanks for all the ideas. I know lots of people can use them.

    • PHOSGENE ???

      REALLY ???

      PHOSGENE is a VERY toxic substance and was outlawed for trench warfare after WW1.
      I gather it’s a pretty nasty way to go.

      The VA was originally founded to serve soldiers who had chronic problems related to surviving chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas exposures.

      Rarely, electrical fires that hit air conditioning units have been known to kill people.

      I am shocked to learn that it’s possible for ordinary people to get their hands on phosgene!

      Nobody should mess with that stuff.

  • Rusty,

    All beekeeping is local and the problem you face in one location may not be the problems you face 100 miles away. I have kept bees in about half a dozen states and how you keep bees in one spot will not work in the next. Long ago I did a tour of duty in North Dakota with a commercial concern and storing comb was easy… we did this is in a quonset hut warehouse with no provision or thought of controlling for wax moth. Here in the southern US where the moth population may appear 12 months of the year they are a problem you have to always be focused on dealing with.

    Gene temporarily on the left coast…

    • Gene,

      I think that is the key to beekeeping: it is always different from place to place.

  • Hi,

    We are on our second year with our hive; it actually swarmed and split in late spring this year before we realized they were all full. We put out a second hive and added the super and queen excluder to the original hive. Our hive is so packed with honey the bees started chewing through the top of the hive under the lid to get down into the hive instead of going through the bottom. We just opened it up to help clear the opening and harvest the super and it’s empty. They will not go through the excluder despite how full the rest of the hive is. We don’t know what to do to get them to go up there and now I’m guessing we will just have to remove the super for the winter since it’s starting to get colder.

    Any recommendations?

    • Erin,

      You can’t force bees to do anything, you can only provide options. They would go through the excluder if they were out of room below, but obviously, they didn’t agree with your assessment of “full.” Sometimes it helps to drill an upper entrance in the honey super. That way, they can come and go quickly and easily without traveling through the hive or going through the excluder.

  • To Erin’s remarks…

    For most new beekeepers one problem seems to be fairly common 1) they add the excluder with a box full of frames and new foundation (at the same time) and the box below is almost solidly capped (the definition of a honey cap). < at this point, the hive has already made preparations for swarming and there is not much you can do to stop this from happening. A top entry and two or three of comb above the excluder gets bees up there pretty quickly.

  • Hi, We had so much rain for weeks on end (Qld Australia), it is now 3 Jan 22, (summer here) just had an opportunity to get into the hives today, (break in raining), and found our brood frames are very light, not much capped brood and no pollen and no honey storage in brood box. Above queen excluder are a 9-frame deep super with 90% capped honey on all frames and also a 9-frame half super with mostly just nectar and 30% capped honey. But the brood frames in the brood box are light and no honey or pollen stored on frames. Also not a lot of capped brood, roughly 30% on some frames, spotted a few larvae and eggs, but not as expected. There are a lot of bees in hive (brood box and the supers), but I am worried, why no honey or pollen storage on brood frames. Did not spot the queen, but it appears she is there (larvae and eggs) but not well covered brood frames. Have now consider to feed pollen to try and rectify as no pollen storage and assume not enough to feed the larvae. Any advice? Can it be because of all the rain for a couple of months now. (Hot and humid, but very wet and rain daily – every day). We did had an excellent spring and a lot of nectar and pollen, but all of a sudden, early summer, the brood box are in strive by my calculations.

    • If there has been as much rain as you say, the bees probably could not get out to collect pollen. Pollen supplement sounds like a good idea.