honey bee management how to

Reversing brood boxes: when and why

Your colony has made it through the winter, and the first warm day of spring is turning the earth green. The bees are packing in pollen and all seems right with the world. Sure enough, it’s time to reverse your brood boxes.

Reversing boxes simply means you take the upper brood box and place it below the other one. Over the course of the winter, a bee cluster moves upward. Honey is usually stored above the brood nest and, as these stores are used, the entire cluster migrates in that direction. Reversing puts the bulk of the cluster in the bottom of the hive again, thus providing room above to store honey. Since the bees now have a place for their supplies, reversing tends to delay swarming. In some cases it may prevent swarming.

Here are some guidelines:

  • Choose a warm day in early spring. Temperatures above 60°F (16°C) are good for this.
  • Remove covers and feeders. When you get to the upper brood box, clean the tops of the frames of burr comb. Pry the box loose, and set it on end.
  • Now clean the burr comb from the tops of the frames in the lower brood box. Pry loose, and set it on end as well.
  • Now is your opportunity to clean your slatted rack,Varroa screens, bottom boards or whatever you have down at the bottom of the hive.
  • Now go back and scrape the burr comb from the bottoms of the frames in both brood boxes. This is easy with the boxes set on end. Removing the burr comb is important so you don’t smash bees when you reassemble.
  • Now reassemble the hive, putting the brood boxes in opposite positions.

Some additional considerations:

  • If you imagine the cluster as a sphere spanning both boxes, you will see that reversing causes the cluster to be broken into two parts. One part (the largest part, we hope) ends up in the lower portion of the lower box. The other (smaller) part ends up in the upper part of the upper box. If you reverse too early in the year, there won’t be enough bees to keep both parts warm. This is where good judgment—and good luck—comes into play.
  • If you wait too late in the spring, swarm preparations may already be underway, and you lose the benefits of reversing.
  • If you find your winter cluster is very small and easily fits in one box, you may want to remove the empty box until the hive regains strength and numbers. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to maintain that box, re-paint it, clean frames, replace frames or do whatever needs to be done.
Note: A revised post on reversing can be found here: “Reversing brood boxes: it is necessary?

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  • The Bee Suite is an amazing site. I recommend it to anyone interested in bees (or environmental issues in general)! There is always something new and interesting posted on this site.

  • is it safe to store brood frames with brood in them? i had a hive to disapear with a few cells of brood left.

    • I would say it’s okay if there are not too many cells. The brood will rot and then dry up in storage. The next time you use the frame the bees will clean it out with no problem. But if there is a lot of brood, it will smell really bad after a while.

      If there is a small number of cells, just store it and see what happens. You can always throw it away later.

  • Did you reverse your brood boxes, this year, Rusty? I know you talked about not bothering with it.

    I reversed my boxes during the first inspection in May, only because local beekeepers told me to. But it’s still a topic that I keep hearing contradictory opinions about.

    The first group of beekeepers say it prevents swarming by freeing up space for honey stores above the brood nest.

    The second group says honey bees naturally build comb from top to bottom and fill comb from top to bottom and will therefore naturally head down into the bottom box in the spring. The queen doesn’t signal the colony to swarm because she has plenty of space to lay in the empty bottom box and would naturally go down instead of up anyway.

    Did you reverse your boxes this year? If not, how did it work out for you?

    • Phillip,

      In the past I reversed religiously, but now I don’t. This year I reversed two hives only because I had them torn apart anyway (to replace some frames, etc.) and when I put them back together I just reversed them.

      I did have a lot of swarming this year but I think that was due to the fact that I overwintered well (with good ventilation) and started building up early (with pollen-laden sugar cakes) and by the time swarm season arrived my hives were huge. One of the ones I reversed swarmed, and one didn’t.

      In a hollow tree bees build down and, left alone, they will build down in a man-made hive as well. I hate to reverse a healthy hive in spring because you can kill the queen. I know this from experience.

      My first beekeeping years (when I was following the conventional wisdom and beekeeper hearsay) were shaky, with low overwintering success and low honey yield. Once I decided not to do anything unless I could understand the science and/or logic behind it, my success skyrocketed. Now I always approach a problem by first looking at my climate, my local conditions, and my vegetation. The only other thing you need is a basic understanding of honey bee biology and behavior. Given those things you can make an educated guess about how to handle any problem and do very well. Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. But those mistakes often illuminate the very problem I’ve been trying to solve, and that is how I improve.

      You’ve read my site long enough to know that I don’t believe anything anyone tells me unless they can explain the why of it or they can provide statistical evidence from controlled experimentation. That someone did something for 80 years and never lost a hive means nothing to me. Climates differ, food sources differ, hives differ, bees differ, and beekeepers differ. Predators, pathogens, parasites, and environmental conditions have changed over time. There is no one way to keep bees, no formulas that always work. If it were that easy it wouldn’t be half so much fun.

  • I recently lost a hive with lots of bees and I’m not sure why. There were several long (1 inch approx.) white worms in the very bottom brood box. Their bodies had segmented markings. I assumed these to be wax worms, but I’m not sure and I don’t know if they arrived after the bees died or not. I had left an extra box of honey on above the brood boxes yet some were head first in the brood box. What is your guess?

    • Linda,

      It’s hard to guess what happened. Were there lots of dead bees in the hive or were the bees gone? Did you find a queen? Did you see evidence of robbing? The wax worms may have come before or after the colony died. A strong colony can keep the numbers down, but a weak colony cannot. Bees often starve with honey in the hive because they can’t find it or they are too cold to get to it. I can’t really say what happened, but it is not uncommon to lose a colony that was robust not too long ago. It is possible the colony went queenless and was unable to replace her at this time of year.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Hope you pick up this question, realizing this is an old post. It’s the first time I have had to consider reversing.
    Had another hive die out (that’s 2 of 7) and was going to parcel out the honey to help the survivors. Found my first little split from last year absolutely teeming with bees and (after all my cold-spell worries) also teeming with honey. Who knew?

    Here’s the question. The top box, a medium, has lots of honey. The bottom box, a deep, has lots of honey and some brood. So it seems they have already built down. Is this a situation to NOT reverse and just leave them to it?

    Also, I thought of adding another medium since they are storing so much, and I guess it should go between the deep and the top medium? Or is this spreading them out too much? What about checkerboarding empty frames & honey frames in the two mediums? Thanks!

    PS. There wasn’t a LOT of brood – maybe a couple dozen sealed cells on each side of 4 frames. But lots of bees. Does egg-laying and brood hatching go in waves? Didn’t see a queen but didn’t keep them open long.

    • Nan,

      1. Agreed, you don’t have to reverse because the brood is already low in the hive.

      2. I like the checkerboarding idea better than putting an empty box in between the full one and the brood. You are less likely to have the bees go up, get the honey, and move it closer to the brood.

      3. I don’t think that brood rearing goes in waves, but it may have dropped off if you had a cold snap after a warm period. Check back in a few days to make sure there are eggs, especially since you didn’t find the queen.

  • Question: This is August and I checked a hive that a few months ago swarmed into an empty hive I had in a covered carport. I moved all the boxes they were in up on a hill near the carport. I recently found brood and a lot of honey in the brood box. Is this normal to have that much honey in a brood box with brood in it? Do I leave it be, or what?

    • Bonnie,

      I’m confused by your question. A brood frame usually has brood in the center, then an arc of pollen, and the rest is honey. The outermost frames in the box may be all honey. You must leave it there. That’s what they eat during the winter.

  • I am doing foundationless and I am adding an empty brood box…is it best to add the empty brood box on the bottom of the full brood box or the top?

  • Rusty,

    This is our first year beekeeping. What do you mean when you say to “pry the box loose and set it on end?”


    • Brody,

      I’m just explaining how I do it; you can do it any way you like. “Pry the box loose” means get it unstuck from the one below it with a hive tool. I say “set it on end” because if you set it directly on the ground you will squish the bees underneath. If you set it on the long side, the frames will collapse against themselves and you will kill bees. If you set it on the short side (the ends) you have the least chance of doing damage to bees.

  • Rusty,

    I am wondering if I should reverse the bottom and middle box before winter in the less strong hive Lizzy and if I should just feed (2:1) syrup or balance honey frames between hives. I plan on taking the supers off this weekend but not off Vicky because she is so full of bees and honey.

    I am in IL and have 2 new hives both have 3 deep brood boxes 10 frames with a lot of Italian bees with 2 med supers above the queen excluder, they were started with a mix of deep drawn comb and foundation, the med supers were drawn comb

    Lizzy has 5 deep sealed honey, 7 not drawn or very little, 18 drawn comb honey or brood, The 2 med supers have little honey, mainly bees, The main brood is in the middle box with a little on the bottom.

    Vicky has about 16 frames of deep sealed honey (third deep is 10 across sealed honey no obvious pollen), 14 drawn comb honey or brood, 7 capped honey in the 2 med supers, the brood is in bottom and middle.

    Thank You,

    • Dan,

      Here are some basics. Don’t micromanage your hives. Basically, the bees put things where they want them. However, if you feel they’ve screwed it up, put your frames of honey directly above and immediately to the sides of the cluster. You can “balance” the frames as long as you remember that a large colony will require more food than a smaller one. If boxes are completely empty, they should be removed for winter. Don’t remove honey and replace it with sugar syrup. Bees should eat honey, if it is available. Sugar syrup is for emergencies only.

  • Rusty,
    I have 3 deeps, screened bottom , robber screen on both hives. With screened bottom board do I still have to reduce entrance for winter after I remove robber screen?

    • Will,

      Here’s the problem with winter bee hives: they are warm, protected, comfortable, and full of delicious food. They attract all kinds of living things, including mice and voles, that are ecstatic with the living conditions. If you don’t use an entrance reducer on it’s smallest setting, at least use a mouse guard or something similar.

      Last year I had a small hole in the screened bottom of one of my hives. Before I knew it, the hive was full of mice. After mending the hole I removed a huge mouse nest and set traps above the top bars. I removed six adults in two weeks. Do you know how much honey and pollen a whole community can eat? And the hole was tiny. I managed to save the colony, but it could have gone the other way.

      • I always install mouse guards, but question was more about reducing entrance if I have open screened bottom.

        • Will,

          Sorry for being dense, but I still don’t understand the question. I use entrance reducers or robbing screens or mouse guards depending on the season, but I don’t believe they have anything to do with the screened bottom. The screened bottom provides lots of good ventilation, but entrance reducers, mouse guards, and robbing screens impede ventilation, so I don’t depend on them for that. No matter what I’m using at the entrance, I use a screened bottom board, and I leave it open even in winter. But since all beekeeping is local, that is a decision you have to make based on your climate.

  • So I gather that screened bottom has nothing to do with entrance. Mouse guards in place w/ reducer.

  • Boxes switched. I’m told we don’t use 3 deeps in CT. How can I get down to 2 deeps?

    • Will,

      “I’m told we don’t use 3 deeps in CT.”

      That’s ridiculous. Lots of people use three deeps in Connecticut. You use three deeps if your colony is large enough to require the space. If not, go down to two. If you must, take out empty frames or partially empty ones and put all the bees in the two boxes. But if that leaves no room for honey, you’re going to have to put the third box back on.

      • The apiary I get bees/supplies from recommends you reduce in winter to 2 boxes in zone 5 as winters can have sustained below freezing spells, some below zero days. I used my escape board to get down to 2 boxes, thanks.

  • What one monkey does, all the monkeys have to do. Rusty is a great ape… she thinks for herself and she’s usually right on the money! Screened bottom has absolutely nothing to do w/reducing entrances. Three deeps have everything to do with the individual colony. Nothing in beekeeping is set in stone. I have hives with four deeps going into winter as they are enormous. Each situation is different. Huge colonies need lots of room to expand and to overwinter whereas small colonies can overwinter in one deep and a super. One needs to keep their thinking caps on when beekeeping. Follow whom you may, but one can lose a lot of colonies and make lots of mistakes following these monkeys.

    • Debbie,

      I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but “great ape” was never among them…until now. LOL.

  • Rusty,

    I’m a first-year beekeeper and I live in Muskegon, Michigan. I started with 3# of bees in early May and it now has exploded. I have one 10-frame brood box that is completely full and one medium full of honey 50% capped and QX. On 7/14/20 I added a second brood box on top of the first. I took four full brood frames and put them in the new brood box and put four new foundation frames in the first brood box and checker-boarded both boxes. Will the bees take the honey from the medium and put it in the second brood box? Is this what keepers call backfilling? I hope to extract the honey from the medium when it`s ready. Should I have put one more medium honey super on to give them more space and not the second brood box? I was thinking the brood box was so full that the queen needed more space. We still have a good two-month of warm weather here to fill the second box with brood. I was also thinking of trying to make a split but I can`t find anyone with a queen. Just one more thing. The bees seem to be more aggressive, I got my first sting today, what`s up with that? I hope to get some honey this year. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks Eric

    • Eric,

      1. First of all, you didn’t checkerboard. Checkerboarding is done in honey supers, not in the brood boxes. What you did is a called opening the brood nest. Both of these techniques are used for swarm control, but swarm season is basically over.

      2. Backfilling is one way the workers signal the queen that it’s time to swarm. They do it by filling the brood nest with honey so the queen has no place to lay.

      3. You need to check your calendar. The summer solstice is past, and from now until winter your colony will contract, not expand. Remember, from January to June colonies expand, from July through December they contract.

      4. You are likely entering a summer nectar dearth in Michigan, which is why your bees are getting testy. It’s perfectly normal and predictable.

      5. I’m of the opinion that bees don’t move honey. Instead, they use it from the area they want to be cleared, then store new honey in the place where they want it. Others disagree, but I’ve never seen food-colored honey get moved.

      6. I believe you should push those brood frames back together. At this time of year, you may have a paucity of bees that are of wax-secreting age, so the colony may have trouble with those empty frames.

  • I’m a new beekeeper, and my nuc expanded to fill the medium box fairly quickly. Lots of brood (I think in that box and honey near the outside). I added a super without an excluder thinking they’d fill that one the same way and then I could put the super on the bottom and the medium above, and add an excluder to get some honey. In looking at it after about 2 weeks, the super was like 50 lbs and seems to be all honey. There are still TONS of bees, way more than before, any idea why the queen hasn’t expanded brood into the new box? It wasn’t what I was expecting to see.

    • James,

      I’ve read this three times and don’t understand the question. All I can say is this is August, and I wouldn’t expect bees to be expanding into a new box at this time of year.

  • I work with all mediums. This is my second year. Should I reverse the boxes this spring? How would that reversal work with mediums? Would the top box go on the bottom then the middle and the bottom on top?

    • Hi Sue,

      First off, I wouldn’t reverse them at all because I don’t think it’s necessary. However, it’s a management decision that can be made either way.

      The thing to understand is there is no right order for moving the boxes. The object of reversing is to get the brood nest low in the hive. So what you need to do is look to see where most of the brood nest is and put that in the lowest position. The next fullest box would go in the middle, and the most empty goes on top.

      The problem with doing that is you don’t want to split the brood nest into pieces. You want to keep it all together; otherwise, the cluster may not be able to keep the entire thing adequately warm. One way to do this is to move individual frames instead of whole boxes, but that is also disruptive. Your best bet is to look, see where the brood is, and then decide if you are helping are harming by moving things around.

  • I am a new beekeeper and hope I have not made a mistake 🙁

    For my hive box, I put a deep box on the bottom and a medium box on top. I put the queen cage in the middle of the top medium box and poured the 3# package of bees in from the top. So far, the bees are drawing comb, collecting pollen and nectar, and the queen is laying eggs (I can see larvae), but only in the top medium box. The deep lower box frames are empty. Nectar is flowing and I am feeding with sugar water + Honey-B-Healthy from a top Miller feeder. Entrance is very busy. It has only been a little over two weeks since I started my hive. Is this normal? Should I have put the queen in the bottom deep box, along with the bees? Should I have waited a month before putting on the top medium box? Should I transfer the busy frames down to the bottom deep box? Thank you!

    • Mitzi,

      Yes, I would have put everything in the bottom deep and waited to add the honey super until they needed it. Nevertheless, they will be fine and eventually move down into the bottom box. It’s a reminder for the future, but it’s okay this time.