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The Theory Behind it All

By: James Elam

Theory- a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based.

The theory of reversing brood boxes comes from the belief that a colony of honey bees, when necessary, moves upward as winter honey stores are depleted. Honey is usually stored above the brood nest and as these reserves are used, the entire cluster tends to migrate in that direction. As a result of this upward movement, most of the winter colony can primarily inhabit the top box.

The arrival of spring will naturally cause colony expansion and storage limitations. If the queen fails to move downward to access open brood frames for egg laying, overcrowding becomes a major issue leading to potential swarm preparations. The goal in reversing brood boxes is to switch the position of the boxes so that you move the brood nest to the lowest point in the hive. Since the bees now have a place for storage and expansion, reversing the boxes tends to delay and/or prevent swarming.

The rights and wrongs of reversing

A colony brood nest that encompasses both boxes will be split into two parts if you reverse. Without enough nurse bees to go around, you risk losing one or both halves in cold weather. In short, reversing too early can be deadly for your colony.

But if you wait too long, swarm preparations may already have begun.

Reversing brood boxes:  is it really necessary?

Once a colony is in expansion mode, the decision of whether to reverse brood boxes needs to be made.

Opinions regarding the validity of box reversals and the positive versus negative implications of the action vary greatly from beekeeper to beekeeper.

“I get the feeling that reversing is one of those things we do because we always did it before, not because it has any clear and compelling benefit. In fact, I think it may do more harm than good”.

Rusty - Honey Bee Suite

In February 2011, Bee Culture by Larry Connor, he writes, “Experience has shown me that most colonies will reverse themselves as the season progresses, moving into the top of the lower box and growing downward.” He goes on to say that you can reverse the hive bodies as long as the entire brood nest is in one box. This way, you don’t end up splitting the nest in pieces.

The actions of a honey bee colony are directed by its primary survival instinct. These reactions are simply adjustments to the original action as to sustain the primary instinct of survival. The decision to move up or down can accordingly be both an action and a reaction.

The upward or downward movements of honey bees in Spring within an overwintered colony are a direct reaction to the internal living conditions within the hive. These conditions may have been influenced by the availability of seasonal resources, cavity size, location, and beekeeper actions. Specific actions or reactions are based upon current queen location and her reasonable access to open cells for egg laying, available storage space in appropriate locations for incoming resources and current adult populations.

Consider the following conditions and questions then speculate potential actions and reactions of both the bees and beekeeper.

  • They are brooding in the top.
  • They are brooding in the bottom.
  • They are brooding in the top and bottom.
  • Where is the greatest portion of the brood nest?
  • If they are in the top and you add supers, where will the queen expand to?
  • If they are not all the way to the top, and that top box still has a honey dome above them, what will they do?
  • If no honey is present in top box, what will they do?

What will YOU do?

Is reversing Really necessary? Yes and No. There are times when you have to disrupt the nest, but there many times when you don't have to.

Reversing is more than a just a matter of Spring colony management. Reversing is also a matter of decision making and understanding the potential results of actions or inactions. Learning the pros and cons of reversing or not reversing, is one of the most important aspects of Spring beekeeping management.

“Education is the is the foundation of successful beekeeping”!

By: James Elam

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