When to use a queen excluder
What should you do with the queen excluder that came with your beginner hive kit? It’s a good question, and a number of new beekeepers have written this week asking how exactly they should use a queen excluder. For example:
- Does the queen excluder go above the brood box or below it?
- I put the queen excluder above the inner cover and then added the lid. Is that right?
- My kit came with one queen excluder, but don’t I need two?
- Should I put the queen excluder on before I release the queen?
- Can I use a queen excluder to prevent swarming?
In order to answer these questions, you need to think about what a queen excluder does. Simply put, it’s like the bars on a jail cell: large things cannot fit through the openings, but small things can. In a jail cell, people cannot pass between the bars, but small things like mice and rats can easily pass. Okay, bad example.
In your bee hive, a queen excluder prevents queens and drones from passing through, but it allows the workers to pass through. I consider a queen excluder to be a more-or-less advanced piece of equipment because, unless you think about what you are doing, you can make a mistake. If you accidentally exclude your queen from a place she needs to be, you can doom your colony.
The usual purpose
If you are are getting bees for the first time, you can leave your queen excluder in the shipping box, at least for now. The usual purpose of a queen excluder is to keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey supers. Until your bees draw out most of the frames in the brood boxes, you have no use for honey supers and, therefore, no use for a queen excluder. If you are new, I recommend keeping the excluder with the honey supers until you need them.
In addition, you should never put a queen excluder on a hive unless you know exactly where your queen is. It can be a mistake to assume her location because queens have minds of their own and they don’t always play by the rules.
And before using any excluder, make sure it is properly made and not bent or warped. If any of the openings are too large the queen may be able to get through, or if they are too small the workers may be shut out. So before using an excluder, always make sure it is in good shape.
Answering the questions
Let’s look at some of the questions I listed above:
“Does the queen excluder go above the brood box or below it?” In nearly all circumstances, the queen excluder goes above the brood boxes. Sometimes a beekeeper may place a queen excluder below the brood box for a few days, especially when hiving a swarm or a package of bees in a brand new hive. The reason for this is that sometimes a colony is uncomfortable in a new box and will abscond. If you can hold the bees there for a few days until some comb is built and the queen starts to lay, the colony will usually stay put.
However, the excluder must be removed after a few days because the drones cannot come and go. I consider this type of use to be questionable for someone who has never kept bees and doesn’t know what to look for. Otherwise, it’s a great tool and something for your beekeeper’s bag of tricks.
“I put the queen excluder above the inner cover and then added the lid. Is that right?” A queen excluder between the inner cover and the lid isn’t doing anything except keeping the queen out of the lid. Yes, I have found queens exploring the lid, but that is unusual and, in any case, she’s doing no harm. As I said earlier, if you don’t have honey supers in place, you can take off the excluder.
“My kit came with one queen excluder, but don’t I need two?” I’m not sure what the beekeeper is thinking here, but perhaps he wants to keep the queen in the brood box by using an excluder above and below the brood chamber. This won’t work because the drones need to be able to come and go. Also, if the queen dies or is superseded, the new queen needs to be able to mate.
I suppose you could keep excluders on the top and bottom if your bees had an alternative entrance, say a hole drilled in the brood box. But an arrangement like that would result in unnecessary congestion, especially during a nectar flow. In any case, if you have an alternate entrance, the queen won’t be stopped if she wants to leave, so the excluders serve no purpose.
“Should I put the queen excluder on before I release the queen?” There is no point in excluding the queen if she’s still in a cage. And if the colony is new, the bees won’t be storing surplus honey very soon. For your own convenience, keep the excluder off the hive until you need it.
“Can I use the queen excluder to prevent swarming?” For the reasons listed above, a queen excluder cannot be used as a long-term solution to swarming. You may be able to forestall swarming for a few days, but if the colony is determined to swarm, it will. If the queen can’t leave the hive, the swarm may leave with a small virgin that can fit through the excluder, or with an intercaste queen. In any case, you still have the problem with drones.
Love ‘em or leave ‘em
Like many issues in beekeeping, people tend to have strong feelings about queen excluders, either loving them or hating them. For many years I always used an excluder. Then I went for a long period when I never used one. Now I use them selectively, if and when they will help solve a problem.
I have used them for some of the reasons mentioned above, including holding a swarm in a new box for a few days. I also use them for the base of my no-cook candy boards, not to exclude the queen but to support the candy and still allow the workers to get it. I’ve used them to support baggie feeders for the same reason. And right now, I’m using them in my double-queen hive to keep the queens separate from each other while the workers mingle in the honey supers.
On the other hand, I often do not use excluders above the brood box when I’m using section honey supers because I find that queens are reluctant to lay in square or round sections. Bear in mind, I said reluctant, not completely opposed. I’ve had some sections ruined by brood, so it’s a gamble.
Many people feel that queen excluders should be renamed “honey excluders” because the bees often seem reluctant to pass through them. I used to believe that too, but not any more. I find that if the bees don’t work the supers it’s because they are simply not ready or the nectar flow isn’t strong enough. When things are right, the excluders won’t stop the bees. The key to honey production is raising large and healthy colonies that peak in time for the major nectar flow. All the rest is noise.