Backfilling Brood Nest

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Backfilling the brood nest is a phenomenon that occurs in honey bee colonies. It takes place in the brood nest area of the hive-where young bees develop and grow. It is a survival strategy used by honey bees but it can upset the balance of the colony and pose challenges for both the bees and the beekeepers. In this article, I share the fundamental concept of backfilling and its implications for your hives.

Wax cells filled with honey to backfill the area around developing brood in a beehive.

As a Master beekeeper, I am responsible for beehive management. However, I do not control the bees. My actions must be directed towards working with their natural tendencies – rather than forcing them to do things my way.

Understanding Backfilling in Beehives

The honey bee colony has a complex social structure. They are organized and do things in a particular way.

The brood nest area is the center of reproductive life. This is where the life cycle of the honey bee begins – the long journey from egg to adult.

This is also a dynamic space that is constantly changing. The size of the brood nest enlarges and contracts in reaction to the changing needs of the colony.

The thousands of hexagon shaped wax cells may contain, bee brood, honey, bee bread – pollen or be empty-awaiting an egg to be laid by the queen. Bees do not waste space.

Worker bee gathers nectar and house bees put it in cells in the hive.

What is Backfilling?

Backfilling (a common beekeeping term) is the behavior where honey bees fill the cells of the brood nest with nectar or honey.

This is similar to us digging a hole in the yard and putting dirt back in the hole. We are actually refilling the hole with dirt.

In the beehive, backfilling refers to bees storing honey or pollen in a cell that was previously used to rear brood. In the reproductive area of the hive.

Rather than taking the nectar to cells to the normal storage area, bees may deposit it with the cells of the brood nest.

If all the empty cells are full of nectar, the queen bee cannot fulfill her role as egg layer as she would typically.

Contributing Factors

There are several factors involved in brood nest backfilling. They are a combination of environment, seasonal and even colony-specific factors.

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  • Strong honey flow – in times of heavy nectar – bees are much more likely to store nectar in the brood area.
  • Good foraging weather – ideal weather conditions to gather nectar – it has to go somewhere
  • Colony population dynamics – strong colonies are more likely to backfill (they use up their space)
  • Seasonality – backfilling prior to swarm and at end of season is common
Queen honey bee looking into empty cell in brood nest of a hive and cells with bee eggs.


This is a natural behavior used by the bees to respond to changing environmental conditions. But, backfilling has definite consequences for the colony. And, can affect the beekeeper’s goals too.

Queen Suppression & Population Control

Backfilling serves as a way to regulate the worker population of the hive. Fewer eggs laid, means fewer new adults a few weeks down the road.

This suppression of egg-laying activity can be in response to environmental cues, such as a reduction in nectar availability. Or, preparation for another colony event.

Crowding and Swarming

One of the most common behavior changes caused by backfilling is the reaction to increased congestion and crowding. This often results in honey bee swarming.

While swarming is the reproduction goal of the honey bees, beekeepers hoping to harvest honey feel differently. Beekeepers use many techniques in swarm prevention.

Beekeeper manipulating frames of a beehive brood box and a hive with a new box added for more space.

Beekeeper’s Role in Managing Backfilling

While you cannot control everything your colonies do, you can monitor issues such as backfilling in the brood nest. When honey bees do this in the Fall, this is a good thing – a survival technique.

As drone bees are no longer needed, cells are filled with honey for easy access during the cold months. In most cases, the colony does not need or want a large brood nest over-winter. Trust the bees.

Monitoring for Swarming Preparations

For the beekeeper wanting to produce honey, backfilling can be one of the first signs of the hive preparing to swarm. When caught in time – there are some steps you can take to manage the problem – if it is a problem.

This may occur even before you see obvious queen cells being produced. And perhaps you don’t want them to swarm. What is a beekeeper to do?

  • monitor conditions
  • open the brood nest
  • don’t over feed

Hive inspections

Conduct regular beehive inspections to monitor conditions. Look for filled cells in the brood nest and a lack of any open cells. Is the brood nest area shrinking during at a time it should be growing larger?

Frame Management

Maintain an appropriate balance of empty comb and stored resources within the brood nest. This encourages the bees to prioritize brood rearing over backfilling.

This strategy known as “opening the brood nest” is sometimes used to reduce congestion. Empty frames of drawn comb may be placed in a crowded brood box and the full frames of honey moved to the sides.

Pay attention to the distribution of capped brood, bee larva, and stored resources, noting any areas of concern.

Provide More Space

Ensure that hives have sufficient space to accommodate incoming nectar and honey stores. Add a box to the hive when needed.

However, adding super boxes to the top of the hive will not alleviate congestion in the brood chamber once it occurs. However, done early enough it encourages the bees to spread out the honey stores.

Monitor Supplemental Feeding

The importance of feeding bees in need should not be overlooked. However, it can be overdone. Once your bees have enough food – stop feeding sugar water (at least for a while.) Overfeeding is not as common as underfeeding in bee management but it does happen.


Does backfilling the brood nest cause a hive to be “honey bound”?

Yes, nectar being placed and stored in the brood region of the hive can result in a colony that is honey bound with no place for the queen bee to lay eggs.

What is backfilling in a bee hive?

Backfilling occurs when bees store honey (or even pollen) in empty cells in the brood nest area. Cells that were originally used for brood rearing.

Is backfilling a swarm signal in honey bee hives?

Yes, backfilling can be a swarm signal prior to a prime swarm leaving the hive. In this way, only a small brood nest is left behind for the mother colony to tend to.

Final Thoughts

By understanding the reasons behind bees backfilling the brood nest, beekeepers can employ strategies to overcome the challenges. Whether you are manipulating frames, adding more boxes or simply reducing supplemental feeding, you can work with the natural tendencies of your hives. And, sometimes, listen to the bees and let them do what they think is best.

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