What is a Good Brood Pattern?

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Every beekeeper needs to learn how to evaluate the brood pattern in your hives. Listen in on any conversation among a group of beekeepers and someone is sure to ask – How is your brood pattern? What does this mysterious term mean and why do beekeepers care so much about it? The status of brood rearing is one of the best indicators of colony health. Especially during the warm months, we expect to see developing bees in the comb.

An active brood pattern in a beehive with worker bees image.

A productive honey bee colony requires a constant source of new adults during the warm season. These developing bee brood replace older adults that will soon grow old and die. It is the job of the beekeeper to monitor hive conditions. But, what do you look for?

What is a Brood Pattern?

First lets define exactly what the words mean. The brood pattern in a beehive is the way that the various forms of bee babies are “laid-out” in the honeycomb cells of the hive.

This refers to all stages of developing young bees. Most beekeepers include bee eggs in this general term – so I will too-(eggs, larva, pupa).

Honey bees normally group their developing young close together. This makes it easier for the nurse bees to feed and keep the area with young at the right temperature and humidity.

Imagine trying to do that if they were scattered across all the frames inside the hive with a patch here and there.

Brood Nest

The “brood nest” refers to the area on the combs of several frames that contain young. For example, in a 10 frame box – if you have brood on one or 2 sides of frames in the middle 4 frames of the box – those 4 frames are consider the brood nest.

Beekeepers often refer to the box holding these frames as the bee brood box. While it is often a deep sized hive body – it could be any size! Most colonies store honey beside and over the nest area.

Frame in a beehive with a full brood pattern image.

Evaluating Brood Patterns – Good or Bad?

So many factors affect the performance of a honey bee colony that we must avoid a rush to judgement if things don’t look perfect.

The first step is to evaluate whether or not you have a healthy brood pattern. Then, if not – what are the possible reasons for this condition.

Good Brood Patterns Reflect a Healthy Hive

A good brood pattern shows a uniform bee egg laying pattern by the queen. The pattern usually begins in the center of a frame and moves outward towards the edges of the frame.

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Almost all cells have eggs, developing bee larvae or capped brood. It is fine to have a few empty cells here and there.

However, most cells within the area are occupied by young of the same bee life cycle development stage. Eggs are close to more eggs, larva of the same age close together, etc.

A perfect brood pattern is a beautiful thing to see. It is easy to identify once you understand what to look for on the frame.

However, absence of a perfect frame of brood does not always mean that your hive is in trouble.

Bad Brood Patterns – Shotgun Brood

Seeing a “shotgun” or “pepperbox” brood pattern is not a desirable thing in your hive. This means that you have sections of babies here and there with many empty cells in between.

Perhaps you have single brood cells scattered across the comb or a small circle of brood here and another several inches away. Instead of a uniform egg laying pattern, they are scattered.

In addition to the way brood is placed, the beekeeper should watch for signs of disease. Healthy bee larvae are pearly white and capped cells should all be the same color of tan. Wax caps are raised slightly above the comb surface.

Dead brood with sunken caps can always be a possible sign of disease such as – American Foul Brood.

Bad brood pattern of a colony with scattered cells image.

Checking Brood Patterns In Hive

How do you know if you have a good brood pattern? There are some key factors you can look for that will help you decide if your bees seem to be doing okay.

  • Healthy larvae
  • Good areas of worker brood – not all drones
  • One egg per cell – unless new queen

Healthy Larvae

First of all, everything should look healthy. White larvae, no sunken caps or smelly dead larvae. American Foul Brood gives off a “dead animal” smell while European Foul Brood smells sour.

Don’t panic over a small number of dead larvae if most of it looks good. Some conditions can cause the death of a small amount of brood but the colony recovers with time.

However, these situations should be noted in your beekeeping journal and monitored.

Milk larvae and capped brood on a frame with bees image.

Worker Brood Present

Do you have worker brood? During most of the year – but certainly during the warm season you should always see at least some worker brood in the hive. Capped developing worker brood has wax coverings that just barely raise above the surface of the comb.

Drone cells protrude from the comb like a bullet shape. They are usually located on the edges of the brood nest area.

Drone bees (the males) are an important part of the colony. We want drones – but we do not want all the capped cells to be drones.

If you have all drone brood, laid together in a tight pattern – you may have a drone laying queen. Perhaps she has run out of stored semen and can no longer fertilizer eggs?

It is time to take action to help that colony by combining the hive with another colony or make plans to requeen the hive.

Worker and drone brood in a good pattern arrangement on a hive frame image.

One Egg Per Cell

Normally, the queen lays one egg per cell. Seeing multiple eggs per cell can signal a problem with laying workers. The beekeeper must intervene to help this colony.

However, keep in mind that a young queen will often have a few mishaps in her first days of laying. If you have a newly mated queen, give her a week or so to work things out.

Why Your Brood Pattern is Poor

While it is easy to recognize a great healthy pattern or a really bad one, it is not always easy to evaluate one that is in the mid range. There are many variables involved in the amount of young reared by a colony. Some are a bit under our control while others are not.

  • poor performance by queen
  • shortage of food
  • pests or disease

While the role of the queen bee is to lay eggs – she is affected by things beyond her control. As she ages, expect her laying rate to reduce until eventually the bees kill their queen and replace her.

The amount of food coming in affects the amount of brood rearing taking place in the hive. If food resources are sparse, the colony does not want to create more mouths to feed.

Egg laying is reduced or temporarily stopped during a nectar dearth. If food availability picks back up, brood rearing increases too.

Disease or pest problems also affect the amount of young bees in the colony. High infestations of varroa mites may result in bad brood patterns. The lifespan of diseased adult bees is lessened and some brood does not live to emerge.

Genetics play a role in the size of brood nests too – some types of honey bees or bee breeds naturally keep larger brood nests.

If you keep bees that are being developed for hygienic behavior, you will see more empty cells in the nest area. These bees are selected for their ability to recognize and remove mite infected brood. Routine hive testing for varroa mites is always advised.

Final Thoughts

Most of the time, your hives will not be filled with developing bees. The amount or number of frames of brood in the hive will vary with local conditions and the time of the year.

However, routine hive inspections allow the beekeeper to watch for brood pattern problems. This can mean the difference between a recovering colony or a dead one.

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