A Beekeeping Cheat

I wrote this on Facebook, but I might as well copy it here:

Whenever I look at a full frame of capped brood (capped brood on both sides of the frame), I check to see if there are at least two frames worth of space in the hive for those bees when they hatch out. If there isn’t, it’s time to add another box.

Capped brood. (July 31, 2010.)

Capped brood.

Even if 1000 bees die every day during the foraging season1, once those babies hatch out, a hive can get crowded in no time.

This is 90% of beekeeping in the summer: Making sure the queen has room to lay.

Each full frame of capped brood will become approximately three frames of bees once they hatch out. It’s pretty basic math.2

It takes time and sweat to give the bees the attention they need in the summer. When I don’t have the time to pay attention to my bees in the summer, they swarm. That’s exactly how it works out. They usually swarm because I was negligent. I wasn’t a good beekeeper.

Perhaps good beekeeping comes down to simple math and taking the time to pay attention to the bees.

However, I often reach a point (usually about now) where I’m just too tired and I leave the bees alone for longer than I should and hope for the best. The speed of my hive inspections more or less triples around this time too. “Let’s just to do this,” is what I’m usually thinking.

I toss aside the top box because it’s rare that anything problematic is happening there. Then I just crack off each box and tip it, looking at the frames from underneath. It takes maybe 20 seconds the see how crowded the frames are; to check if any queen cups are polished (a sign the bees are preparing to swarm); or to see if there are any eggs in the queen cells. Swarm cells are easy to spot from that angle too.

Tipping a super for a quick read of the frames from underneath.

I don’t look at the brood pattern or do any of the simple math I just talked about. All I ask myself is, “Are these frames full of bees?” If the answer yes to every frame in the box, then I know the bees are probably running out of space and it’s time to add a box.3

If the worker bees run out of space to make honey, then it’s not much longer before the queen runs out of space to lay eggs, and when that happens, it’s goodnight, Irene. Swarm city. Everybody knows this.

So even though making room for the queen to lay is my #1 rule for beekeeping in the summer, giving the bees more space to make honey can indirectly have the same effect. It’s more likely the brood nest where the queen lays her eggs will be left alone then. The queen can lay eggs down there until the cows come home.4 Which means no swarms.

I add boxes in the summer as long as every frame below the top box is full of bees. It’s not the bee whispering magic that we sometimes expect from ourselves as beekeepers, but it gets the job done. It’s a cheat. But yeah, when I’m tired and sweaty and my brain feels like mashed potatoes, I try to simplify what I’m doing or what needs to be done. Quick cheats like this can help.

There you go. My big thoughts for the day.


1. More info at Counting The Dead Bees from Honey Bee Suite.

2. An average deep frame has anywhere between 7000-8400 cells on it, but for me, I go with a conservative number of 5000 or 6000 cells of capped brood per deep frame. An average medium frame has anywhere between 4600-5500 cells on it. It depends on the size of the cells on the frame, which can vary between foundationless frames and frames with plastic foundation. See? You can lose your mind trying to juggle these numbers. All these estimates vary quite a bit, depending on who you talk to or what book you happen to be reading. But I more or less go with the “one frame of capped brood becomes three frames of bees” as a rule of thumb.

3. Check out this video, Counting Frames of Bees by Landi Simone, to see what I’m talking about. She also talks about running a 9-frame brood box instead of 10. I’ve tried that and I like it, but I had issues with bees eventually building too much burr comb on the edge frames. (I talk about that in one of my rambling videos. Use the search function in the right menu to look for that if you’re reading this on a desktop.) Her Reading The Frames presentation is worth a look too.

4. Eventually the cows do come home to the brood nest, so to speak. Whenever I see back-filling before August, I think, okay, possible swarming risk here. But back-filling after August (in my local climate) is normal because the queen lays less and less brood as the days get shorter, so that by the time September rolls around, the brood nest has usually shrunk down to four or five frames in the bottom of the hive and the worker bees, coming on home like the cows they are, will fill the space where she can’t lay with honey. The bees don’t always follow this plan, but I love it when they do.