Predrag Cvetkovic


Working with frames and hive boxes

(Trans. by Oliver Mihajlović)


          Working on an apiary beekeepers practice two kinds of techniques: working with individual frames and working with hive boxes.

          Working with individual frames is practiced when a hive is being inspected, when a frame is moved from one place to another, when a frame is added to or removed from a hive, when brood is expanded by adding an empty frame or comb foundation, when honey is being unsealed, when frames are rotated etc.

          Working with hive boxes means changing their places, their turning 180 degrees round, and adding new boxes. It is also done when supers are added or when their positions are changed.

          By these measures bees, which are economical even with their own development, are made to spend more honey and to move it from one part of the hive to another, making by this bigger space for the brood. Adding frames or boxes makes favorable conditions for a bee colony to develop and makes space for pollen and honey and for brood nurturing.

          With AŽ hives and poloska[i] one works with individual frames only. Brood is expanded with frames, not with supers, and during honey flow empty frames or comb foundations are added. However, poloska can have a deep super.

          With Dadant hives working with individual frames predominates. Working with hive boxes is seen through rotating the brood chamber 180 degrees, adding supers and putting supers beneath the brood chamber.

          Working with hive boxes predominates with Langstroth (LR) and Farrar hives. It is more effective with Farrar hives since the supers are shallower than LR supers, so bees can easily move up. However, while colonies are not fully developed, if only a part of the brood chamber is occupied, working with individual frames will be necessary.


      Working with individual frames


          The main type of working with frames is when a hive is being inspected frame by frame in order to determine the condition a colony is in, the quality of comb, the amount of food, the quality of brood, whether or not the queen is present etc.

          When a bee colony is developing and when pollen and nectar are brought in great amounts, a beekeeper must intervene by adding an empty frame and moving or removing a frame if it is blocked with honey or pollen. Beekeepers also work with frames when they make colonies stronger for the main honey flow by adding brood frames with or without bees.


       Working with frames at spring


          In early spring, while the number of bees in a colony is stagnating, one can move the frames with honey and pollen towards the brood or rotate these frames without moving the brood. If weather is warm and a colony is strong enough, frames with honey next to brood can be partially unsealed.


          Picture 1 - By unsealing honey one makes space for brood


          In March colonies usually have 3 frames of brood. Strong colonies have ellipsoid brood which occupies greater part of the frame, while weaker ones have circular brood on a small part of the frame. The goal of every beekeeper should be a strong colony with large surfaces of brood. It is better to have fewer frames of brood, but larger surfaces, than small surfaces of brood on many frames. It is easier to work with frames with large surfaces of brood. Comb foundation added next to such frames are faster occupied by bees and laid by queens.

          If a colony is weak one can help it develop by unsealing honey behind and above the brood. Bees will then move the honey and provide space for the queen to lay eggs (picture 1.). If there is not enough honey, bees should be fed. Only when a colony is stronger and when the surface of brood gets larger one can rotate the middle frame of brood (picture 2.). A beekeeper will do right if s/he does not let the colonies with small circles of brood to develop their brood to other frames but stimulate them to increase the surface of brood. This can be achieved by adding the frames with honey and pollen next to the brood on its both sides. These frames serve both as food and as an obstacle for brood to be expanded on other frames.


          Picture 2 - Rotating the middle frame of the brood makes bee colonies develop faster


          Beekeepers should try to make bees cover the largest part of the frame possible and make the surface of brood large. It is easier to work with such colonies and they expand without much intervening.

          When one finds large surfaces of brood (more than a half of a frame), and when bees are covering the most of the frame, the first thing one should do is rotate the middle frame of the brood and make honey, that was previously behind, come between two neighboring frames of brood. If there are several frames of brood one can rotate every second frame and even unseal some honey both on those frames and on the frames next to the brood. A few days after, new frames can be added to expand the brood.

          If the brood is large and some time has passed you can skip rotating the frames. In that case drawn comb or a comb foundation can be added immediately. If honey flow is good or bees are fed more than they consume, rotating frames and unsealing honey give no results.

          There are different opinions among beekeepers about adding frames with comb or comb foundations in order to stimulate development. One is that you cannot split the brood with empty frames, while another is that this is allowed and even desirable. Both attitudes require monitoring a colony’s growth and applying an appropriate measure according to the degree of development. One can even make a mistake by adding a frame next to brood or not make a mistake by adding it in the middle.

          What happens when an empty frame or a comb foundation is added next to or in the middle of brood? If a colony is weak, occupying hardly 3 or 4 frames, with e.g. 3 frames of small brood (10 to 12 cm in diameter), it is not ready for spreading out. Even if you add a frame with empty comb, bees will fill the comb with nectar and pollen in a small surface parallel to the brood, while the rest of the comb will remain empty.

          With well developed colonies, queens most often lay eggs in comb added next to brood, and bees put nectar and pollen around the eggs. When bees bring great amounts of nectar and pollen it happens very often that added comb gets full so the queen cannot lay eggs. In this case added frames do not expand the brood but on the opposite they narrow it down. That is why a frame with comb can be added in the middle of brood if a colony is developed enough. Bees from frames without brood will move to the added frame and prepare the comb for laying eggs. Afterwards they will feed the brood and keep it warm. However, in some cases even a frame added in the middle can be filled with nectar and divide the brood.

          Weak colonies should never be added frames in the middle of the brood. The strength of a colony is one of the main factors for bees’ capabilities to build comb on added foundations. Bees should occupy added frames well, no matter if they are added next to or in the middle of the brood.

          It is important to estimate whether a colony is developing well, whether it is going weaker, damaged by some disease (nosema, foulbrood, varroa, some virus, etc.), or whether it has a bad queen. In cases like this you should not expand the brood, but apply all the measures to nurse the colony back to health.

          Comb foundations should be added at worm weather when there are a lot of young house bees in the hive and when bees are bringing pollen and nectar in great amounts (if not, bees should be fed). Comb foundations are drawn fast if they are in brood chamber, where the temperature is higher, next to the unsealed brood. If they are next to the sealed brood, they are drawn slower and next to honey and pollen frames, they are drawn very slowly. However, a very strong colony will draw comb even on a brood chamber wall. In spring, when beekeepers want the brood to be as large as possible, such comb will not be very useful. If you estimate that a weak colony could draw a comb foundation, you should add it next to the brood, and rotate it later to make the bees draw comb on the other side evenly. If the queen does not lay eggs in the frame built in such a way you can put it in the middle of the brood, provided that the colony has grown enough to occupy it. Even if there is some brood on it, you should put the frame in the middle of the brood where the brood surface is larger and where the brood is better nurtured.

          All this notions about different techniques of working with frames should not be considered as an invitation to beekeepers to open hives often, do something and disturb the colony and its work. Working with frames is the most significant when you deal with a weak colony. However, the fact is that many beekeepers do not make good judgment when they work with frames, that they make many mistakes and inhibit a colony’s growth and miss good chances to produce honey.

          Speaking of comb, one must not forget that comb well drawn is good for brood as well as for honey and pollen, while bad comb can be used only for honey and pollen or for drone brood. Since bees live exclusively on comb, its quality and its hygiene are of most importance for a colony.


       Other forms of working with frames


          Working with poloska, AŽ, or some other type of hives, it is sometimes necessary to remove or put aside a frame with honey and put an empty frame or a comb foundation.

          A weak colony can be strengthened with a frame of brood from another hive with or without bees. This can be done only if the weak colony can cover the entire brood. If not, you can either not add the frame or strengthen the colony with both brood and bees, but only if you estimate that the colony is promising. A frame with the largest surface of brood should come in the middle. If you add a frame with both brood and bees, and if there are many house bees, you can either add it immediately or you can spray it with some diluted brandy, vinegar or tea. A good way would also be to put a board in front of the hive, shake the bees off the frame onto the board, and then put the frame in the hive. Field bees will fly away, while young ones will peacefully enter the new hive, where they will be well accepted.


      Working with hive boxes


          When working with hive boxes hive inspection consists of watching boxes from above or from beyond. This way a careful and experienced beekeeper can determine the strength of a colony – number of frames occupied, the amount of food (by the weight), whether or not there is food above brood, whether or not a colony is preparing for swarming, the presence of a queen, the quality of work, etc.

          The main form of working with hive boxes at spring is rotating brood chamber 180 degrees, and later switching the place of brood boxes. The goal of this rotation is to stimulate bees to consume honey, which comes closer to the entrance.

          By working with hive boxes one will use queen excluder often. It facilitates and simplifies many procedures in beekeeping.

          To work with hive boxes it is necessary that a colony is strong, and that it occupies one whole box and at least a part of the second box, which depends on weather, honey flow, and other conditions. To make bees move into the upper box sometimes you can lift several frames of brood from lower to the upper box, or take the frames down from the upper to the lower one. Empty comb or comb foundations are then added where the removed frames have been. This is the example of combination of working with frames and boxes.

          If a colony overwinters in two boxes, which is common, and if there is honey in the upper box, it will quickly be filled with bees, brood, honey and pollen. The queen will then go down to the lower box, and this is an ideal chance to simply switch the boxes without dealing with frames. Later, bad frames can be removed, or, even more efficiently, a new box with empty frames and comb foundations can be added. After a while, the lowest box will be with no brood or honey and can be removed.

          Switching the brood boxes cannot be done very often, as some recommend, since one queen cannot lay eggs in a whole brood chamber so quickly. When a colony occupies two or more boxes, a new box with comb foundations can be added, instead of adding frame by frame.

          One form of working with boxes is working with supers (LR and Dadant). Put above brood chamber, they function as storage room for honey, and put under the brood, they represent stimulating feeding during spring or autumn and also function as a deep bottom board.




          In practice, work with frames and work with boxes are mostly combined. Work with individual frames stimulates colonies to develop, and when they reach certain level one works with boxes. However, it is important to emphasize that real work with boxes is possible only when a colony is strong and when it occupies the boxes well. Strong colonies with good comb require not much involvement, and no work with individual frames.

          To work with boxes successfully a beekeeper must first gain knowledge of working with frames. He must examine the effects of his acts and monitor a colony’s growth. That is how he will learn about natural tendencies of bees and not disturb their work.

[i] Dadant and Langstroth hives are the most often types of hives in Serbia. However, a small number of beekeepers use Poloska and AŽ (Alberti - Žnidaršič) hives.