Reversing Hive Bodies

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There are several actions used by beekeepers to help their hives be more productive. As over-wintered colonies head into Spring, beekeepers often employ a technique called “reversing the hive bodies”. The purpose is to promote colony growth while reducing congestion in the brood chambers. Is rotating the boxes of your hive always worth the effort?

Beekeeper separating brood chambers prior to reversing.

While it is a common hive management practice, not every beekeeper reverses their hive boxes. The decision depends on the management style and goals of the beekeeper and the hive configuration being used.

Understanding Reversing Brood Boxes

The common Langstroth hive consists of several stacked boxes. A new colony begins with one box (usually a deep) and more boxes are added as the hive grows in population.

Reversing brood chambers is the practice of moving an empty (not in use by the bees) box from the bottom of the hive stack to the top.

If the bees are not using the bottom box for anything, it is better to have that open comb on the top of the hive.

Diagram explains how to reverse 2 hive bodies on a hive.

How to Reverse Beehive Boxes

Hive manipulation of this kind can be done throughout the warm season. However, you will most often find beekeepers reversing hive bodies in the Spring.

With that in mind, temperatures play a role – try to wait until most of the cold weather is over.

1. Confirm that the complete brood nest is located in the top box. Do not divide the brood nest during cold weather.

2. Set the top box with queen and brood to the side.

3. Remove the empty box from the bottom board. The “empty box” is actually a completed box with frames and drawn comb. There is no brood and little to no food stored in the frames.

4. Carefully set the box with the queen and brood nest on the bottom board. It is now the bottom of your stack.

5. Set the box with drawn comb on top of the box with the queen. Replace the inner cover and top.

Now, the heart of the colony is located in the bottom of the stack and has ample room to expand upwards.

If weather permits, inspect your beehive in a week or so. If the bees are still not using the top box. Exchange 1 frame between them to encourage the bees to expand.

Mediums and Shallows

The process of rotating hive bodies is the same regardless of box size. Empty boxes with dry comb are moved to the top. Boxes with bees and brood go to the bottom of the stack.

Standard hive configurations vary greatly due to beekeeper preference and climate. You may have a hive with all mediums. You can rotate those boxes just like deeps (careful not to split the brood).

For beekeepers that use 1 hive body and only 1 shallow for Winter. Reversing your hive may not be necessary. I’ve never had a problem with the bees moving back down from a shallow into my deeps.

Brood nest of bees in top box of hive.

Benefits of Hive Box Rotation

Why bother to manipulate your beehives in this manner? Often, beekeepers use 2 deep supers (hive bodies) for their basic hive configuration.

With all this internal space, the winter cluster of bees may move completely up into the top box by early Spring. And, they may want to stay there.

They follow the stored honey. (Which is one reason to make sure any queen excluder is removed before Winter – else she may be left behind.)

Make Room for Colony Growth

With all of the bees living in the top, you may have an empty box of dry comb on the bottom-that is not being used.

The queen can move back down into the lower boxes to expand the brood nest. However, queen bees typically prefer moving up more than down.

If the bees are slow to move down, this restricts the number of brood and food cells they have to work with and slows down productivity.

Relieve Congestion in the Brood Nest

This can leave the colony with limited space to expand in the top box. Congestion due to too many bees on the comb or lack of space for the queen to fulfil her role as egg layer can cause problems. 

The colony may start swarming preparations thinking they need more space. And even if that does not happen, population growth is limited for a time.

Worker bees crowded into a hive.

Expert Tips

Every beekeeper, every hive and every location is different. But, here are some important tips to keep in mind.

  • Do not split the brood nest – especially if cold temps
  • Match the number of boxes to colony population
  • good time to rotate old brood frames out of the hive
  • keep food resources near the brood nest

If your hive has three boxes and the brood nest is located in two boxes – do not separate them. It might be okay to stack those two boxes together so the frames stay close together.

But, do not put a dry – empty box in the middle. Until all the cold weather is past, bee brood must be kept together.

Consider how many bees are in your late Winter hive and how many boxes are on the hive. If the colony population has dropped very low, you might consider removing a box -especially one that is not being used.

If the weather is warm enough, this is a good time to check some frames. Old brood frames should be rotated out after several years. Very dark black honeycomb does not promote good colony health.

As you move things around, be sure to leave some frames of honey in contact with the cluster. Be wary of reversing hive boxes too early in the year when cold weather is still likely. Bees without access to honey will die.

FAQs

Should I reverse hive boxes?

The beekeeper can reverse hive boxes as long as all the brood is in one box. Keep seasonality in mind too, you want honey on top for Winter.

When is the best time of year to reverse brood chambers?

Depending on your climate, April – May are the best months to reverse brood chambers on a hive. Wait until most of the cold weather is over.

How to do you flip bee boxes in Spring?

Some beekeepers use Spring as the optimal time to rotate hive boxes. If a colony has two boxes and all of the brood is in the top – switch it with the bottom one.

Can I flip boxes in cold weather?

It is not recommended to reverse hive boxes in cold weather.

A Final Word

As with any apiary task, the beekeeper must decide when and if to act. But, when done properly reversing your hives boxes can be a useful tool to reduce swarming and promote colony growth. However, not everyone will have the hive set up to benefit from this practice.