muddled thinking

To improve the cluster, destroy the nest

Recently, someone asked if I had read the article in Bee Culture (November 2011, Volume 139, Issue 11, p. 63) about removing the center of the brood nest to make room for the cluster and, if so, did I have an opinion. Truth is, I had missed this little gem or I would have written about it sooner. And do I have an opinion? Hmm, let me think . . .

Because I’m rarely so testy—at least in print—let me cut to the “my opinion” part first. I will be subtle: Short of issuing foragers personal bPads at taxpayer expense, this is the most hare-brained scheme I have ever encountered.

The author of the article seems to think that the entire overwintering problem is the fault of the Langstroth hive and its parallel frames. He believes that bees cannot form a proper cluster because all the frames get in the way. So, in his infinite wisdom, he created a big hollow in the center of his brood nest so the bees could make a true and solid cluster. The diagram shown in Bee Culture looks something like the one below.

This cut-away diagram shows the frames removed to provide a cluster space for the bees. From “Overwintering: New Ideas From Old Books,” Bee Culture, November 2011.

In his argument the author ignores that fact that Langstroth hives—and most other hives as well—are modeled after wild hives. He discounts the fact that bees have been making parallel combs that slice through the brood nest since long before mankind crawled out of the ocean with his power tools.

The first question that came to my mind was, “How will the cluster support itself?” Unless it is filled with helium, I don’t see how it can levitate itself into position so it can maintain a “true cluster” in the void.

But the bigger problem is this: the part he cut out is the part where the brood is supposed to be. The bees’ idea was that the brood nest—the nursery, if you will—is supposed to be in the warmest, most protected spot in the entire hive. If you cut the supporting comb away, where will they put the brood? And where will the nurse bees put their little rocking chairs? Brood is not held in its mother’s arms like human babies or carried around in a pouch like a kangaroo. Honey bee brood goes in honey bee combs.

And the timing of this destruction couldn’t be worse. According to The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture (41st edition, p. 831), “the least amount of brood rearing in colonies occurs in the fall months of October and November and normal brood rearing starts in December and increases greatly during the cold months of January through March.”

This method excises the brood nest combs just before the bees start the arduous task of winter brood rearing, and right when it is most difficult for the bees to replace the comb he just took out. How can they rebuild the brood nest when it is too cold for them to leave the cluster? And since they don’t secrete much wax this time of year, they have to tear down other comb and rebuild it in the proper place. Removing the brood nest like this is nothing short of cruel.

According to honey bee researcher Jürgen Tautz in The Buzz About Bees (p. 157), “The comb of the bee nest is in a sense a part of the bees themselves. . . . The nest is not only living space, food store, and nursery, but also an integral part of the superorganism: skeleton, sensory organ, nervous system, memory store, and immune system.” Eviscerating the brood nest is akin to stripping bees of their very “beeness.”

The author himself admits problems: “In some hives . . . the bees had built burr comb down from the shorter frames and had begun raising brood in it . . . In others there was a mish-mash of comb in part of the open space.” Well, of course there was.

I can see why someone could have a hard time visualizing a cluster with planes of parallel comb passing through it. And it’s even harder to imagine the clustered bees smoothly rotating their positions when the combs are blocking their way. But just because he can’t visualize it doesn’t mean he should change it. The system has been working for millennia. The bees are okay with it—so should be this author.


In this foundationless frame, the bees built a passage to the other side. This helps them rotate through the winter cluster. Flickr photo by ejhogbin.


  • Rusty –
    (burr comb in the space)
    >> Well, of course there was!!

    That line had me LOL. But oh, poor bees! Let’s hope not a lot of people follow this advice. And thanks for making clear to the non-expert why it “just kinda sounded like a bad idea.”

    BTW your image rang a little bell. My frames have wired foundation which goes to all four edges. Wherever new comb is being drawn, there are always one or two small, neat holes that were definitely NOT there when I installed the foundation. No sign of moth or damage. Guess those are little bee passages from one side of the frame to the other?

    ABTW – my daughter, when I explained somewhat elaborately why I was LOL, and why comb belongs throughout the cluster, commented, “Well, they’re bees! They’re not penguins!”

    I wouldn’t dream of trying this, but I love the explanation of how the comb is part of the organism!


  • I second your opinion on this, that was the stupidest thing I have every heard, the author is a moron. He should be charged with cruelty to animals if that is possible with bees.

  • I’m gobsmacked by this. I can’t understand how the editor of Bee Culture allowed it to be published, there should be some sort of editorial policy on not running articles with the potential to kill bees. Thanks for pointing out all the flaws in the idea so well!

    Have you considered asking Bee Culture if you can send in a followup article discrediting the idea?

  • I think this article is an old one and is just being reprinted. I have seen this type of arrangement and it is truely a HUGE MISTAKE!!! The bees form a cluster and most go head first into combs to help keep the center of the cluster warm as well as helping to insulate the brood. By removing the center, the beekeeper is sentencing their bees to a serious problem by removing the nursery. The thinking here is for lateral movement to more honey stores, but if the hive was arranged properly and the entrance was centered over the front of the hive, the bees will cluster in the middle of the hive and move vertically onto frames of honey stores. On warmer days, the cluster does move laterally to some degree, but this is why it is critical for keepers to arrange the frames of honey stores to the center of the hive in late summer or feed enough to fill all frames solid. Wild bee colonies do not have any voids in the brood nest such as the one written about here!!!

  • This article demonstrates the need for an intelligently written, edited, and designed bee journal, something we don’t have right now with the two available choices. Rusty?

  • It’s remarkable how many people still think that bees need our ‘help’, when they have been around for at least 100 million years longer than we have. What they need is for us to get out of their way, stop poisoning their food and let them do what they have always done. Meanwhile, we need to learn some stuff from the bees – like how to co-operate instead of fighting and how to look after the planet instead of trashing it.

  • Hello Rusty,
    Would it be considered good practice, or even necessary, to provide bees in a Langstroth hive with frames of drawn comb in the lowest box? The idea being that the empty comb will provide the bees with a place to cluster when the time comes.

    • Carl,

      I’m not sure exactly what you mean. Generally speaking, a hive that is commensurate with the size of the colony seems to work best. An empty box with nothing but comb is more work for the bees to police, and provides a safe area for moths, hive beetles, mice, shrews or whatever wants a protected home. I much prefer a slatted rack for clustering space.

      Still, it might work for you. You can always try it and see.

  • Rusty,
    A club member told me that bees need some empty comb in the center of the lowest box in which to cluster at the beginning of cold weather. If I don’t see any empty comb there I should provide some. This advice was given as one of the things that should be checked when preparing a hive for winter. As a new beekeeper with 2 hives I don’t have frames of drawn comb available. I am using slatted racks. Will they provide the bees with enough space to cluster? Thanks again.

    • Carl,

      I checked every beekeeping book I have (lots) and found no reference to leaving empty comb for clustering. The cluster of bees forms around the brood nest, wherever that happens to be, and the brood nest is usually surrounded by a ring of pollen stores and then honey. Many of the beekeeping textbooks advise putting the brood nest in the center of the lowest box, add a frame of mixed pollen and honey on either side, and fill the rest with honey. Above that goes a box with honey. Bees will often cluster on slatted racks in summer, but in winter they will cluster over the brood nest, no matter how large or small it is. The slatted rack does give you some dead air space between the nest and the opening, but the bees won’t cluster there in winter.

      Remember, the bees cluster to conserve warmth and keep the brood and queen at the proper temperature. They’re not going to cluster over empty cells unless those empty cells are adjacent to the nest.

  • Rusty,
    I apologize for dragging this out. Thanks for your investigation. I checked back with the club member about the necessity for empty comb during winter hive preparation. I was referred to the following site:
    Specifically the advice given for October: “OCTOBER AND THE BEEKEEPER: The goal is to have the bees fill the upper brood chamber during the fall flow, forcing the queen down into the bottom brood chamber. If you do not have enough room, the bees will fill the upper AND lower brood chambers with honey and deprive the colony of space for brood rearing. If this happens, instead of having lots of young bees for the winter, you will have lots of older bees, and the colony will not successfully winter. Always err on the side of too much room, rather than too little.” I assume this is a description of a honey bound hive. It seems to me that sufficient room should be provided for honey storage during the season which would avoid a honey bound hive and eliminate the need to exchange excess frames of honey in the lower box with frames of empty drawn comb. At the time, either the advice was not clear or I misinterpreted what was being said. Hopefully I did not waste too much of your time.

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