Queen Excluder – Should You Use One?

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Well, one piece of beekeeping equipment that is the subject of much controversy among beekeepers is the queen excluder. Should you use a queen excluder on your beehive? Like many things in beekeeping, you will receive many different opinions. Some beekeepers swear by them and others swear at them.

Used queen excluder on a honey bee hive image.

As with most things in beekeeping – there is not definitive right or wrong. Your style of beehive management and beekeeping goals play a role in the decision too.

What is a Queen Excluder?

Before we can decide if it is a good idea to use one – let’s explore what a queen excluder is! A queen excluder is a barrier that restricts the queen bee from entering a part of the hive.

The role of the queen is to lay eggs – but that does not mean we want to her to lay them everywhere.

In most cases, the queen can not fit through the open spaces open spaces of the excluder to access boxes higher on the hive stack. But, the smaller worker bees are able to move through.

We don’t know the identity of the first beekeeper to come up with the idea of using one. But, a metal queen excluder was made in France sometime in the mid 1800’s. Reportedly some advanced straw skep beekeepers used a type of excluder.

Plastic vs Metal

Queen excluders are available in different materials. They are commonly made of metal or plastic.

Metal queen excluders are the industry standard and have been in use for a long time. Quality made wire queen excluders last for years.

Some will have a wooden frame that surrounds the wire surface. This may help keep the excluder from bending and losing shape. It is a nice touch but not absolutely necessary.

However, plastic ones are inexpensive and a good option if you have a lot of hives or want to have some extras on hand.

You do have to be more careful when removing plastic ones from the hive or they will break. Your bees will stick the excluder down with burr comb and maybe some bee propolis.

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On the other hand, metal ones will bend too – so be sure to loosen each corner before lifting them off the hive box.

Beekeeper holding wooden bound queen excluder with bits of wax on it image.

Gap Size of Excluders

How far apart are the wires in a queen excluder? The gap size of excluders varies a bit from one manufacturer to another.

In recent years, the large influx of companies wanting to cash in on the beekeeping boom have added more variety to gap size.

But on average, queen excluder gap size averages between 0.166 inches (4.22mm) and 0.172 inches(4.38mm).

They should be examined at the start of each season to be sure that none of the wires are broken or out of shape.

How Does a Queen Excluder Work?

This piece of equipment works on the basis of size. Queen bees are larger in size than workers. The large plump abdomen of a queen bees is easily noticeable.

But the thorax (mid-section part of bee anatomy) of a mature queen bee is also slightly larger than that of workers.

This difference in thorax size prevents the queen from moving through the queen excluder.

Is a queen excluder 100% foolproof? No. We have to remember that nature loves genetic diversity. Undersized queens or unmated ones will sometimes be able to squeeze through the wires.

Also, over time the equipment can become bent or warped reducing the effectiveness. On most occasions though, the queen excluder will keep the queen down below.

Worker brood in honey super on hive without excluder image.

Pros – Advantages

Though not every beekeeper will agree. Using a queen excluder on your hive has some benefits.

  • easier for beekeeper to find the queen
  • helps prevent brood in honey supers-more room for honey
  • harvest time is easier – less chance of starting a robbing frenzy
  • drawn comb less attractive to pests
  • helps control population of hive -less brood nest area

There is no doubt that queen excluders make some beekeeping tasks easier. Containing brood in one section of the hive makes it much easier to find the queen bee when needed.

Though she can be anyway, she is most likely to be in one of the hive boxes with brood.

No brood in your honey supers, means the colony has more room to store honey. And, harvest time is much easier when the beekeeper doesn’t have to worry about frames of baby bees.

Nurse bees are reluctant to leave supers containing brood. This causes the beekeeper to have the hive to be open for a longer time with exposed comb that may cause robbing behavior in late Summer.

Stored honey supers with drawn comb is less likely to be a target for Wax Moths if it has not been used for brood rearing.

If you have a reason to keep the colony population down, restricting the brood nest area may slow down brood rearing. But, this may be a disadvantage too as the bees may swarm.

Disadvantages

Okay, this may get a bit tricky but I will deal with the known disadvantages of using queen excluders first.

  • another piece of equipment to buy and maintain
  • queen excluders don’t always work
  • drone bees are larger than queens and they get stuck!
  • some beekeepers feel they reduce the honey harvest
  • bee wings may be damaged from crawling through the excluder

There is always a downside of doing something. Using queen excluders is no exception because now you have another piece of equipment to purchase and maintain.

Over time the metal will rust and the plastic excluders will break – you also have to find a place to store them when not in use.

They don’t always work – young queens may still be able to squeeze through an excluder. And the chubby male bees, drones are likely to get stuck in the wire gaps.

I always use a top entrance when excluders are on my hive, this gives the guys an easy way to access the top or bottom of the hive.

Some beekeepers call them “Honey Excluders”. They feel that use of an excluder greatly reduces honey production. I have not found this to be an issue.

We must be remember that there are many factors involved in how much honey a colony produces.

Where to Put the Queen Excluder?

The queen excluder should go under the first one of  YOUR honey collection boxes.

If your standard hive configuration is a deep and a shallow (both boxes intended for the bees to use), the excluder goes on top of the shallow. 

If your hive is 2 deep boxes for brood – place the excluder on top of the top box just under your inner cover.

The queen excluder goes directly below the honey supers you intend to harvest.

Diagram showing where to put an excluder on a stack of hive boxes image.

Which Side of the Queen Excluder Goes Down?

Metal queen excluders are most commonly used. There will be a support wire underneath the main section of wires. The support wire side should face down towards the brood nest area.

Do You Remove a Queen Excluder in Winter?

YES ! When you harvest your supers of honey, take off the excluder. Do not leave the excluder on the hive over winter. Take it off and keep it in a safe place where your other beekeeping equipment is stored.

Perhaps you decide that rather than taking the extra honey you will just leave it for the bees. That’s okay but take that excluder OFF!

During Winter, bees will move up in the hive to stay in contact with food. If the cluster moves up through the excluder to the top honey super, the queen bee is left to die. No excluders on the Winter beehive.

Wire queen excluder installed on bee hive image.

Expert Tips

While this piece of equipment can be very useful to beekeepers, you may not have enough excluders for every hive so these tips may help.

Create a Honey Barrier

If you don’t have or don’t want to use an excluder, there is another method you can use to minimize brood in the supers.

Before adding a super box to your hive, make sure that every frame on the current top box has a “honey crown” or “honey barrier”.

If you have at least 2” of capped honey on every frame. The queen will not “usually” cross that barrier.

If Bees Are Slow to Pass the Excluder

I have had 2 colonies over all the years that seemed to consider that excluder as an electric fence. They were just not having it.

(Chances of this happening increases when you are using frames of new foundation in your collection box instead of drawn comb.)

If this happens to you, switch out 1 empty or foundation frame (from the new box) with one frame of honey from the box below. This should encourage the bees to come on up and get to work. A few weeks later, you can switch back. 

It can be difficult to get bees excited about working on a box of newly installed wax foundation.  When using an excluder and new boxes of foundation, its best to let the bees start to draw comb. 

Then make sure the queen is below and add your excluder. Once new comb is present, the bees will be more eager to go through the excluder.

Using an Upper Hive Entrance

Our modern Langstroth hives have a front entrance at the bottom. One method I have found very useful is to use a top entrance for my hives.

I have a special homemade Ventilated Inner Cover that includes a small upper entrance. You can also accomplish this with a small 2″ shim (rectangle of wood) with a 1″ hole drilled in one side.

This upper entrance is above the queen excluder and I leave the bottom hive entrance as well.  In this way, workers or drones can enter and exit the hive from either entrance.

My bees seem to really like this entrance. It gives them a way in and out of the honey supers without going through the brood nest. Once the warm season is over I can plug it closed for Winter.

FAQs

Why do beekeeper use queen excluders on their hives?

The main purpose of the queen excluder is to prevent the queen bee from laying eggs in the honey supers.

Do you really need a queen excluder?

No, it is not necessary to use a queen excluder on your hive. It is an optional piece of beekeeper equipment.

Do commercial beekeepers use queen excluders?

In general, no – commercial beekeepers do not use queen excluders as it represents an outlay of money to buy and maintain them.

Which is best metal or plastic excluders?

The best type of excluder for your hive depends on your point of view. Metal excluders last longer but cost more – plastic models are less expensive.

A Final Word

A queen excluder is an optional piece of beekeeping equipment. In general, you do not receive one in a beginners beekeeping kit.

I suggest you consider their use and perhaps try a few hives with and without so you can decide for yourself if they fit your beekeeping style.

For many beekeepers, the value of keeping brood out of honey harvest supers outweighs the possible downsides.

After evaluating the pros and cons of using queen excluders, you can decide if you want to include them in your backyard apiary.