honey bee management

What’s an unlimited brood nest?

The “unlimited brood nest” is one of those beekeeping concepts that sounds way more complicated than it is. I don’t know if willful obfuscation results from beekeepers trying to confuse each other—or just the rest of the world—but it seems to be a favorite pastime.

So what is it? An unlimited brood nest is one where the queen’s movement is not restricted. Basically, if you use a queen excluder, the queen is confined to an area on one side of it. Since the queen can’t lay where she can’t go, you end up with a limited brood nest. It’s that simple. Conversely, if you lose the excluder, the queen can go anywhere she wants—she has an unlimited brood nest. Elementary, eh?

Some people call a triple deep brood box topped with an excluder “unlimited” but I beg to differ. Either the queen’s movements are restricted or they’re not. In fact, queens rarely extend their nests over more than three deeps—but that’s beside the point. If you’re using an excluder you are not allowing for an unlimited brood nest.

The purpose of an excluder (or a limited nest) is to keep the queen from laying eggs in the extracting supers. But an unlimited nest has many benefits for the bees, including more winter stores and better insulation (see “More on triple deep hives“). So many beekeepers entice the queen to stretch her nest ever higher.

One of the ways to cajole the queen higher is called “pyramiding”—another big word for a small concept. Pyramiding is simply taking a few frames of brood from one box (usually from the outer edges of the nest) and centering them in a box above the main nest. This encourages the queen to lay further up. Since she already has brood there anyway, why not? It changes the nest shape from a wide sphere to a pyramid (more or less).

Pyramiding is similar to checkerboarding except that with pyramiding you are rearranging the brood nest—with checkerboarding you are not. Pyramiding is almost indistinguishable from opening the brood nest except that the purpose of pyramiding is to make the nest taller, whereas the purpose of opening the brood nest is to prevent swarming. Opening the brood nest makes the nest wider and it may make it taller, depending on how many frames of brood you have and where you put them.

All these concepts are closely related and overlapping, so confusion is inevitable. For optimum swarm and brood nest management, it helps to understand the basics of backfilling, checkerboarding, opening the brood nest, unlimited brood nesting, and pyramiding. Trust me, the concepts are easy. It’s just the terminology that’s difficult.



  • IMHO excluders are just a commercial thing. I don’t see the need for them in any other situation; separating honey from brood isn’t brain surgery. A natural brood nest will in most cases look like a ball in 3D through the comb layers, this goes to efficiency like what you were talking about with winter clusters.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’m quite new to beekeeping. I’m from England and living in Ecuador, in the mountains, so there are basically no seasons here, it’s like spring all year round. I wanted to ask you what you would suggest. Here the custom it seems is to have one deep brood box, and then a queen excluder and then the honey super. What I’m wondering is if it would be better to have say two or three deep unlimited broodnest hives, rather than the local system I just mentioned. My first two hives were quite a failure, ants seemed to be the problem, so I’m thinking that if my hives are larger the bees will be better at defending the hive, and it maybe would be like having a bigger factory, one that produces more, rather than having several small ones, if you see what I mean. Anyway, please could you give me some advice…

    Thanks a lot


    • Kenny,

      In the U.S. we tend to keep larger hives. Many areas of the world stick with a single deep, excluder, and supers just as you mentioned. I think the theory is that larger hives produce more honey. One large hive can produce more than two small hives because there isn’t a duplication of services, so to speak. Let’s call it an economy of scale. A large hive has more guards, more nurses, more undertakers, etc, but not twice as many, so more bees are available to forage.

      Still, I don’t know if that would take care of the ants. Read the post called Bad-ant advice and the ascension of bees to get some good ideas about keeping the ants in check. Most of the good suggestions are in the comments section, so read them as well. My opinion is that you can go either way with hive size, but the ants still need special attention.

  • Thanks so much for your advice Rusty.

    I did read the ant article and comments, very interesting. Actually the two hives I have now, don’t seem to have an ant problem. I do like the idea of having bigger hives 🙂 and you have given me more reasons to go that way. One thing I would like to ask also, though you have probably written about this… (sorry) do you suggest using a queen excluder? There seems to be varying ideas from what I have read in books. I was thinking of maybe having the hive this way… two deep brood boxes, a queen excluder, and then a deep on top for honey. PS, both my hives I captured from trees, (not swarms, but rather hives in trees) there seem to be loads of them about here, and they are free 🙂

  • Rusty,

    The Unlimited Brood Nest (ULBN) is how I setup all my hives with the exception my nucs. Here in the NW of Minnesota winters are long and cold, so the unlimited brood nest is also the winter storage of honey and pollen. I only harvest honey if the bees are able to rebuild their winter stores first. So, these brood (deeps) are in place 365 and if Im able to super that takes place between end of June through August. But, again, their winter stores need to be in place first. I don’t do any reversals, I don’t have problems with swarming and I don’t feed sugar syrups.

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