spring management

Reversing brood boxes: is it necessary?

In the last couple years I have been re-thinking my position on the spring reversal of brood boxes. If you are not familiar with this maneuver, it means switching the position of the brood boxes such that you move the brood nest to the lowest point in the hive. Several reasons are often given for reversing, but most often you will hear that it prevents swarming by giving the bees a place above the brood nest to store their honey.

Over the years I have become more and more successful with my bees. I attribute much of this success to one thing: I disturb the brood nest as little as possible. Now—before I take any action that will disturb the nest—I ask myself, “Is it really necessary?” Yes, there are times when you must disrupt the nest, but there are many times when you can make the choice not to.

Do colonies move up or down?

The theory of reversing comes from the idea that a colony of honey bees will only move upward, it will not move downward. But if you look beyond the circle of Langstroth beekeepers, you will find many who don’t buy into this idea.

For example:

  • Bees in a hollow tree build brood comb downward. The comb is attached at the top of the hollow and successive layers of comb are built beneath that.
  • Warré beekeepers, imitating the natural propensity of bees, put their new brood boxes under the colony, and the bees fill them up.
  • Top-bar beekeepers don’t add brood boxes to the top or the bottom, but the bees do just fine by moving sideways into new areas.

I felt really vindicated yesterday when I read an article in the February 2011 Bee Culture by Larry Connor. He writes, “Experience has shown me that most colonies will reverse themselves as the season progresses, moving into the top of the lower box and growing downward.” You see, I knew it!

The misunderstanding comes because all winter long we watch the bees move upward toward the warmest part of the hive, so we start thinking bees always move upward. But they don’t. In the spring and summer as the nest is expanding and the weather warms, the bees will move down, just as Warré beekeepers have always known.

In his article, Larry Connor goes on to say that you can reverse the hive bodies as long as the entire brood nest is in one box. This way, you don’t end up splitting the nest in pieces. I agree with that, but the problem is that the nest almost always straddles more than one box. So why bother?

Make a colony-by-colony decision

In the past, I always reversed my boxes. I have killed queens doing it, totally riled up my colonies doing it, starved portions of the nest doing it, and even dropped a whole box doing it. Last year, I only reversed three before I decided it was a needless incursion into the brood nest. All the colonies eventually moved into the lower boxes by themselves. This year I won’t reverse any.

Based on my experience last year, the colonies that were not reversed expanded into the lower box as soon as the weather warmed. When the nectar flow began, I added honey supers. These colonies showed no more propensity to swarm than any of my colonies in previous years.

I get the feeling that reversing is one of those things we do because we always did it before, not because it has any clear and compelling benefit. In fact, I think it may do more harm than good.

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  • Our feral nest has been going well for at least 4 years. It is in a hollow place low (ground level) on the intersecting trunks of two oak trees. No one alternates hive bodies in this nest. The only reasonable assumption is that the queen lays from top to bottom and then from bottom to top. So, why would I alternate hive bodies?
    Our first hive is one year old tomorrow. We have four western “supers” stacked. Last time we looked, the queen had never gotten higher than the second “super” body. We took 6 pints of honey off the third level this year. No brood. Four lovely frames of capped honey in the center of the super. This spring they are building comb in the forth super. So, why stir up the girls?

  • I think I killed the queen in one of my hives a few weeks ago when I reversed the brood boxes.


    No worker brood of any kind, plenty of empty frames, a smidgen of drone brood, no sign of the queen, no queen cells of any kind, and oddly calm bees.

    I’ve added open brood from a healthy hive to see if the bees start building replacement queen cells. I’m considering a few options if the hive is queenless.

    I don’t think I’d bother reversing the boxes if I lived in the country, but in my urban environment, I’m paranoid about neighbours freaking out over swarms, so I do whatever I can to keeps the bees down. I hate that.

    • I think I killed more queens by reversing than any other way, so I stopped doing it completely. Bees move up in the winter, down in the summer and I don’t think the position of the bees in the hive has much to do with swarming. I understand that feeling of needing to do anything possible to forestall swarming in urban areas. But still, I think it’s more fiction that fact that reversing helps stop swarming. My two cents.

  • Rusty,

    I realize this post is several years old but thought I’d pipe in anyway. I’ve been reading your blog most of the day and am a fan!

    I am a new beek with one Lang that has expanded from the 3-frame overwintered nuc I brought home 6(?) weeks ago. (I’m in so Cal and the ladies have been flying since day 1).

    My plan with this hive is to continue moving the deep body UP. I don’t like that the nuc came with plastic frames, I prefer wood. This is ONE reason for my method. The other reason I am doing this is to go entirely with medium woodenware. Another reason is to have the ladies decide what size cells to build and not have them follow pre-sized foundation. PLUS the wax they build is only contaminated with what they bring into the hive, not what was already in the bought foundation. It may take me most of the year to finally be able to remove the deep box and plastic frames but I CAN be patient. I won’t be using a queen excluder either. Let the queen rule!

  • Hi Rusty, I was ruminating on this question over the weekend, wondering if I should do hive body reversals as spring breaks here. I hate to disturb colonies that have been smart enough to overwinter successfully, and your article decided me…I shall leave things as they are and let the ladies sort out their interior arrangements!

  • I have been contemplating this issue also now that spring has finally arrived. I checked my hive at home yesterday and it appears that most of the bees are in the top super and they are bringing pollen in by the truck-load! I am thinking that since I have some wet frames, I will divide them between the two hives after installing the queen excluder instead of reversing the supers. The weather in CO is always “iffy”. We can have lovely spring weather for days, then a snow storm comes in to kill everything. Timing is everything and I know you can’t help me there, but what do you think of this plan? Love your blog and thank you!

    • Donna,

      I think your plan is fine; it sounds like something I might do. I try to do what is necessary without overly stressing the bees.

  • So, one of my hives is going into year three. I do deep and medium for brood. I want to go with all medium. Can I add a medium box to the very bottom with drawn comb? This hive is bursting in the deep and medium. I either need to split or add a brood box.

    • Donna,

      Yes, you can do that. I would rather add it above the medium that you already have. Or even better, open or pyramid the brood frames between the two mediums to reduce the chance of swarming.

      • Thanks! That makes more sense and trying to reduce the possibility of swarming is also an objective. Going into my forth year, swarm management is a weak area for me.

  • https://goo.gl/photos/ZdjvMwyqdznXpD53A

    Thanks for your article Rusty. My bee mentor tells me I should switch the boxes, but my common sense tells me I will damage more than help and they will swarm anyway. My mentor says I’ll get more honey by switching the boxes. I’m not really concerned about getting tons of honey. I’m more concerned about the bees. I’m going to split the hives ready to swarm. I’m just praying they wait. Lol! I don’t have boxes till tomorrow and it’s going to be rainy all week. So it may keep them under control. Fingers crossed. Yesterday, I could hear a queen piping, and she was in the bottom box near the entry. The bees were on the front fanning so I popped entrance reducer open. Then they stopped. I don’t have the entrance wide open yet because there are bald-face hornets and red Asian Hornets nearby. I’m trying to wait till farther in the season, so maybe they (hornets) won’t want to eat the larvae. The link if I did it correctly is just to show you the activity.

    • Robbin,

      I think I’d open up the reducers. They are getting congested at the entrance and I think they are populous enough to keep away the hornets.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I am a beekeeper on Vashon Island (kinda near you). I have been learning the methods of keeping Warre hives for the past 5 or 6 years. A lesson I learned the hard way is that bees will indeed move downward but during a flow they need space to store nectar and they generally will not put it below the brood nest.

    This is particularly important for first year Warre hives where the bees have no drawn comb to work with. They need time to build comb, move through a brood cycle while building more comb and then move down. By the time they do all this, at least here in the PNW the main flow is over and they are too light on stores to make it through the winter. All this applies to Langstroth hives as well I guess but in a deep Lang brood box there is more volume and more room for them to store nectar and pollen around the brood nest plus we super them when the flow starts. Even with overwintered Warre hives you need to pay attention to your bees and the weather.

    For instance, with this crummy, cold prolonged Spring we are experiencing at the moment all my bees are up high in their top boxes eating their candy boards and I suspect most of their brood nests are occupying only the upper boxes. (I overwinter my hives Lang’s & Warre’s much the same as you do, thank you for those tips!) I expect when spring comes it will come all at once. (You can just feel everything waiting to jump out!) At this point I will give them all a box of drawn comb or a mix of drawn comb and empty bars on top of the brood nest to work with and feed, feed, feed for a few weeks until they have some reserves and the weather is consistently warm enough for them to fly. I will not split any brood nests that occupy two boxes but for hives that are up in one box I will simply take their bottom box and put it on top so they have space to work. After they are well on their way to filling that new upper box the Warre hives get boxes underneath and the Lang’s get supers on top. I know this kind of goes against the Warre method of beekeeping but I killed a lot of bees sorting this out.

    As they say “all beekeeping is local”. I very much appreciate your blog. I use your website as a resource all the time. Thanks!

    • Annie,

      This is interesting. I’m thinking of experimenting with Warre hives and this will help. There has been so much talk lately about smaller hive cavities being better for mite control that Warre hives are sounding better and better. I will keep your email handy in case I have questions! By the way, did you make or buy your equipment? And if you bought it, from where?

      • Hi Rusty,

        I bought my first Warre hive from Beethinking in Portland but I have made the rest. They are very simple to make which was (part of) the point of the design. http://warre.biobees.com

        I am thinking about making some more out of thicker wood, 1 1/2″ or maybe even 2″ thick cedar (more like natural tree cavities). I currently use screened bottom boards but I’m reconsidering that with the thicker walled hives.

        The only drawbacks that I find with keeping these hives are: 1) They are difficult but not impossible to inspect (which again was part of the point, leave the bees alone). If I decide I need to get into the hive I use a cheese wire to separate the boxes (go slow) and a long bread knife to cut the combs from the side of the box. Once that is done it’s pretty easy to pull the combs out to look at them. 2) Adding boxes to the bottom can be difficult. I’ve seen all kinds of contraptions made to do this but I just use the cheese wire to “cut” the hive into manageable parts, set the upper boxes aside, add an empty box to the bottom board and re-stack them in order.

        I’m not sure about the mite issue, I’m still struggling with that. As much as I would like to be a “treatment free” beekeeper I’m not there yet. I am currently using IPM strategies, OAV, mineral oil fog and thymol plus I am trying to flood my area as best I can with mite resistant genetics. Time will tell….

        Thanks again for spending the time to keep this blog. It’s been a great help to me.

        Annie M

  • Hi Rusty: finally starting to get warmer weather in Southern Ontario. Was going to invert my hives (a newbee 2nd yr). After reading article makes sense not to worry about inverting. One question, I would like to inspect top and bottom box, and replace bottom boards. Is it ok to split boxes and return to original way after I clean up frames and replace bottom board. As I have read you don’t want to break up brood. I will attempt to find queen and put that frame in a nuc box (haven’t secured queen catchers yet). I will be getting 6 queens June 1st for my splits and plan to regularly check for queen cells and and supers on top of a queen excluder? Last yr let them swarm and captured them. My first swarm was May 20th hence my concern on thwarting swarms before June 1st. Love your posts and thanks Johnny

    • Johnny,

      You can certainly split the boxes apart long enough to scrape frames and clean the bottom board. As you suggested, you don’t have to separate the queen. If you find her on a frame, you can just put the frame in a empty box while you work on the others. Just make sure she’s still on it when you replace the frame. Not sure what you mean in the second question: “I will be getting 6 queens June 1st for my splits and plan to regularly check for queen cells and and supers on top of a queen excluder?”

  • I have a question regarding the ordering of boxes. I started my hive this year completely foundationless and no wire. The bees quickly filled the brood box after I added a few frames from the nuc that I purchased. I added a medium on top however when I check on them they were building the comb in weird directions as they were building from the top up. To force them to use the wood guides on the top of the frames I placed the medium on the bottom and the brood box on top. It’s been a few months and I have been checking on the new frames and they build it correctly. Today I opened the brood box and found that 7/8 of the frames were solid capped honey and the 8th frame was half honey half larvae. I didn’t open the boxes underneath because this hive has a slight temper. I assume the brood nest got moved down. At this point should I just leave the boxes in the order they are in? When should I remove honey or can I just leave it for them? Also how many boxes should I add to my hive? I keep adding a new medium every time they fill a new box with comb and honey or brood.

  • Hello Rusty,

    I am confused about the checkerboarding and not reversing the brood boxes. In the article about checkerboarding it say to take the middle box (brood) and place it on the bottom and then checkerboard with the other two. However in the reversing brood boxes it says it isn’t necessary to do it. So does this mean not to pull the second and third deep apart, but the bottom one is okay? I usually only run two deeps also. I really want to try checkerboarding, but am not sure what to do. Please help! Thanks, Nick.

    • Nick,

      Checkerboarding has nothing to do with the brood boxes. Checkerboarding is done above the brood boxes in the honey supers. Reversing brood boxes has nothing to do with checkerboarding either. So whether you reverse your two brood boxes or not, you go into your honey supers and checkerboard there.

  • I see this post has been quiet for a while. This is a good topic, I would agree on the “do not split the brood nest” theory, especially during the 1st half of the summer when it can be cool and the nest not yet large. I only reverse when the hive is somewhat honey bound. For example, let’s say you find the top deep of a 2 deep colony almost full of honey, right before the flow starts, June-ish for me in Michigan. This causes the brood nest to be compacted and tight, perhaps leading to swarming. You can do either of the following 2 options : 1)Reverse the boxes and place a super of combs on the top, or maybe 2 supers as a brood box is larger than a super and there is flow coming in as well. The bees will remove the honey from the bottom box and move it to the supers, as they do not like honey in the bottom. Done with good timing I have seen the brood area open up and the honey is moved to the top , now a super area. This is also used for comb production in some places. or 2) simply Nader, place an empty brood box on the bottom board, place the 2 original ones back the way in the order they were, the bees will draw the comb and move down a little more into the lower box as time moves forward. The top brood box will back fill as the queen finds space below and can be “extracted” to get a brood box of empty comb. The end result is somewhat the same, depends on 2 things, do you have access to an extractor, and do you want to have another brood box of comb drawn out? So by reversing you are using the bees to empty the bottom box. By adding an empty under the colony you are using your extractor. Bees will start at the top of the hive, you can shake a package into the bottom and give them 2 boxes and they go to the top every time. Also mentioned was a colony starting on the roof when there was space below, made that mistake several times , leaving an empty super on top for feeding, coming back and finding it full of new comb. in a tree hollow they go to the top or a significant cross brace and build down. I think the cocoons make the comb stronger, so they use it for brood then work down back filling it. I do not swap top to bottom any more either, It is one of those things you can experiment with. It has been a practice for a long time, maybe at a time there was a reason, not sure what it was. If I find a colony tight and honey bound I either Nader it or split it as they have a head start on stores so the time it takes to make a new queen will be less of an issue. Also Rusty, I find the 8 frame hives have less of a chimney problem, than the 10. the cluster is more football shaped as apposed to basket ball shaped. However on hives with a good queen the height then becomes the problem. So I either convert them to 10 frame or extract 3 or 4 of the supers and give the wets back for the second 1/2 of the flow. Almost every choice you make has other associated results.


  • Hi Rusty,

    I have a couple of hives with brood in the super above 2 deeps (the bottom-most deep has no brood), and it got me thinking that this may not be such a bad situation to be in early in the spring before the main flow starts. This is based on the idea that the bees prefer to store their honey above the brood nest. So, as the main flow starts, the brood nest will get pushed lower and lower down the hive, while they put the honey above. The more room below the brood nest, the more stores they can put above before you get too much backfilling of the brood nest, overcrowding, swarm initiation, etc. This makes me think that it could be an advantage to have the brood nest up as high as possible (even in the supers) before the main flow. As the brood starts to hatch and they backfill the supers with nectar/honey, then you could start checkerboarding.

    I guess this idea is based on several assumptions, but I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on it. Thanks for always sharing your invaluable knowledge and experience!


    • Alex,

      If there is no room to store honey above, the colony may simply swarm early. Backfilling is an attempt to stop the queen from laying so that the colony can prepare to swarm. You don’t want to encourage backfilling, you want to prevent it.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I have been looking to see if there was any research that tested reversing the boxes and have found nothing to date. I have reversed most of my boxes this year but did not feel comfortable about it. I have found that the bees normally pack the bottom medium with new pollen, and I’m pretty sure they know what they are doing. Perhaps it’s in anticipation of the queen moving down. I however just messed them up by putting this box on top. I kept box 1 and 2 together so as not to split the brood. I have one more yard to visit and will try just cleaning off the bottom board and not reversing. Thanks


  • Hello,

    First year beekeeper, with two hives (both 2 deep brood boxes).

    At one point I read in a book that when installing the upper brood box, move 4 frames from the lower into the upper. I did that several weeks ago and now have about 60% brood in the upper box and less than 20% brood in the lower box (the remaining frames are foundation). What should I do, if anything, to get the bees to use the lower brood box?

    Thanks in advance,


    • Matt,

      You can put all the frames in the lower box and remove the top box. Don’t add a second box until the first one is about 80% full.

  • Thoughts

    I watched videos on single brood chamber. And I am hooked. Based on numbers of cells per comb, there is not a chance of the queen filling the entire brood box. Now on an extensive, one year test, 😉 I have had good results.

    I do have a second deep with metal queen excluder below. The bees have filled the deep and working on supers. One has 3 supers and a deep filled. That was a second year hive which was split in the spring.

    But I have been thinking, as I approach the goldenrod bloom, I am considering harvesting the deeps honey, then placing it under the queen excluder (or taking the excluder out). The idea is to have the queen laying in as big of area by mothers day to split the hives.

    Other ideas, and help me if I am in error. Place the “close to full honey chambers on top of the stack with the empties closest to the queen. Idea, giving the least travel for the bees to where to deposit their goods. And to have the max air flow during the hot days.

    My goal is to expand the colony numbers, Honey is secondary at this point. At present it appears that we will get about 3 full deeps and 7 supers. Last year we left some extra honey in frames and placed the frames on the hives in the early spring.

    We started the year with 2 and now have 9. 1 was a swarm collected from distant lands and the rest splits.
    2 requeened naturally. 5 purchased queens. One queen did not make it, so the hive had to requeen on its own. Never having done that it was interesting.

    We have had no hives swarm………………….. yet. 😉

  • I have a question. I am a fairly new beekeeper and am quite naive. Last year we had a ton of wasps. They took over some empty bee hives we had stored in a shed. There were hundreds of them… so my husband took it upon himself to spray them with wasp spray. It has been a year, I want to use some of those boxes but I’m afraid to. I am afraid that my honey bees will die if I put them in those boxes. It has been a year does that poison disappear after a while? Could I take them down to a car wash and scrub them down and air dry them in the sun? What can I do to make them useable this year? I am really upset about this. Please help with some suggestions.

    Thank you,

    • Sharon,

      This is a tough question. To begin, bees and wasps are extremely closely related, so whatever kills a wasp will kill a bee. Second, without knowing what the insecticide was, I can’t say how long it will last or how to get rid of it. Most of those chemicals disappear over time, which is why if you used it last year, say in your garage, you would have to use it again this year. But some last a long time. One thing you could do is put a small frame of bees in one box for a few hours and see if they make it. Short of experimenting, I don’t have an answer.

  • Hello Rusty, I’m a second-year beekeeper, love it! Fascinating! This summer I lost two of my four hives to varroa (heartbreaking and humbly). I guess some guys have to learn the hard way. Your teachings are invaluable though and thank you very much!

    One thing I would like to point out that I have learned and I might be wrong ( I was wrong once before…that’s the time I thought I was wrong but I was really right). With Langstroth, Warre, horizontal and flow hives…various configurations…well it doesn’t really seem to matter so greatly to the bees. They will find hive homes in the oddest places, wall cavities, ceilings, logs, trees, chimneys, whatever they can find that they sense will afford them room, protection, dryness and I think they like it dark. Folks have made up these various hives to make it easier to house, handle, harvest honey and husband hives hopefully helping our bees.

    So my point is this: I agree with your decision to rethink reversing hive boxes because the bees in their natural state on their own don’t really do anything like that, do they? Or maybe we are trying to micro-manage their life too much? Of course, this comes from the wisdom of a second-year beekeeper who lost half of his hives! I’m just saying. Thank you for your hard work and dedication to this agricultural discipline.

  • Hey Rusty,

    I have to say I was a bit concerned last year when all my bees in both my hives were at the top going into winter after a late feeding during a cold fall in a top feeder drawing them up. I was worried about them not moving down over the winter, but it was no issue at all. They moved around the hive with no issue finding their stores and that is during a Canadian winter. I have screened bottom boards so I can follow their movement throughout the winter. Surprisingly they started at the top again this winter even without me feeding them.

  • Hi Rusty,

    To switch or not to switch boxes? 1st-year hive, 1 deep bottom box, 3 mediums. The second medium box from the bottom is not packed, with some honey. The top 2 boxes are almost full of honey and brood and late summer nectar flow happening. What to do?

    • Maria,

      Your bees will move upwards all winter because that is where it is warmest. In preparation, I would put the boxes containing brood on the bottom and the honey on top. If the bottom deep is empty, you can remove it.