The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
icon of list

The Classroom

The Classroom – November 2021

- November 1, 2021 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

The Classroom - ABJ - Jamie Ellis
Q  Odd Brood Nest

 For several years, I have noticed that my bees in the middle of summer (July and August) in North Florida split the brood nest, leaving the centermost frames brood-free, placing the brood on the two or three outermost frames on each side of the 10-frame box. Of course, the amount of brood is very poor, often only one or two frames total since these months are in the middle of the two-to-three-month dearth. The weather is typically in the high 90s F, with heat indices of 115 or so. The queens and bees are hanging on after wearing themselves out on the spring flow. The hives have screened bottom boards. I figure it is due to the convection currents in the hive making the outer frames the coolest place. What do you think?

Rob Kennedy
Florida, August


This is an interesting observation. I have made similar observations in the past and always generated reasons for seeing this. You know, that little voice in your head that quickly explains something odd you see and then you move on to the next thing waiting for you. Well, I have had those moments when I see what I consider “odd” brood patterns.

First, to think this is abnormal suggests that we believe the queen should be doing something else and/or that the brood pattern should be different than what we are otherwise seeing. For the benefit of the reader, I am going to over-generalize a bit about how the brood nest typically is arranged. Normally, the frames in the center of the brood nest contain more brood than do frames that are on the edges of the brood nest. I often teach, and have before in this column, that the brood area in a hive is similar in shape to a basketball, or any other sphere that you prefer to consider. The ball is larger in the middle and gets smaller as you move to the sides, both left-to-right and front-to-back. Queens usually lay more eggs in the centermost frames and fewer as she marches to the edges of the brood nest.

You are describing a situation in which there is no brood in the middle of the nest at all and are wondering why this might be the case. I suggest that there is more than one potential reason for what you are seeing. Let us take what you suggest first: that air flow through the nest, made possible by the nest entrance and screened bottom board, creates a situation in which the queen prefers not to lay in the middle frames, or the bees refuse to rear brood there. I suppose this is possible, but I have never seen research on this topic. I, also, use screened bottom boards and have not made this observation consistently during the time of year you note. Nevertheless, air flow, heat, and the timing coinciding with summer can lead to microenvironments that could affect bees in ways we possibly have never considered.

Another option is the cardinal alignment of the physical hive. When I had hives in my yard, they were oriented east/west, with the entrances facing west (not ideal, but that is the option I had). That means the sides of the hives were oriented north/south. In this configuration, queens in my hives tended to lay eggs on the frames on the northern half of the hive in summer and the southern half during early spring and fall. I always assumed that it was hot on the southern half in summer, pushing the queen to the frames on the northern side of the hive. Then, it was warm in early spring and fall, causing the queen to favor that side when nights and days were cooler. In summer, the heat extreme could be greater, causing her to lay in the south side at night and the north side during the day, leading to no brood being produced in the middle.

A third option is that frame manipulation can lead to this odd brood pattern. I will use myself as an example. When I work a hive, I tend to stand on the side of a hive and remove the second frame from me. I set it outside the hive. Then, I inspect the frame against the wall next to me and return it to its original location against the wall. Next, I remove frame three, inspect it, and return it to the second frame position. I continue to do this until frames 3-9 end up in spots 2-8 respectively, with frame 2 (the one I removed first), now going into location 9. I do this every time I work a hive. This creates a shifting nest and can create artificial “dead spots” (which are not really dead, but rather simply void of brood) in the brood chamber as I move frames within the nest.

A fourth option is that brood on adjacent frames tends to be of the same age (an over-generalization here, but generally true nevertheless). This makes sense as queens do not haphazardly bounce around the nest when laying eggs. They spend time on one frame, fill it, and move to a neighboring frame. Queens lay many eggs in spring, often filling all the space available in the brood nest. When this happens, entire combs can empty of brood in a very short period of time as it all emerges within a tight window. When this happens on adjacent frames, especially ones in the middle of the nest, it can give the appearance that the queen is avoiding that area and the brood nest is divided. This, though, is really just an artifact of the timing of brood emergence.

Fifth, you note that this always occurs during a dearth. A lack of resources can cause bees to cannibalize brood, leading to strange brood patterns depending on the worker bees’ strategy for aborting brood. I will add that mite treatments can lead to odd brood patterns. Products that include essential oils, formic acid, etc. can decrease brood production and lead to odd brood patterns for a while. Furthermore, high Varroa infestations, and other pests/pathogens, can impact brood nests significantly.

I guess the real answer to your question is that I do not know why this is happening. If I had to provide my best guess, I would say that the heat and lack of resources, mixed with Varroa pressure, are leading to brood breaks and odd brood patterns.

Q  Wax Moth Crystals and Comb Use

I am using Para-Moth to protect my drawn comb from wax moths. Some of the comb has some honey and/or pollen stored in it. Will I be able to give this honey and pollen to my bees without poisoning them?

John Towson
North Carolina, August 


My default answer with questions like this is to read the label and see what it says about this issue. Regarding the label, you have to defer to the label that accompanied the package. I note this because I was able to find a label online, but it dated back to 2010. I am not sure if this is the same label used today. We did not have any Para-Moth in storage at the lab during the time I was writing my answer. Thus, I cannot really tell you with confidence what the current label states. Nevertheless, regardless of what I say here, you need to follow the label.

However, I also looked the product up on the website of companies that current sell it. One website said “Do not use in the hive or with cut comb honey or unextracted combs of honey.” Also, the label I found online notes “To be used for empty extracted combs when in storage” and “Stored combs that have been treated must be thoroughly aired first, otherwise bees will be killed.” If this remains the same today (again, I have to defer to the label that came with the package you are using — the label is the law), then I would not give these combs back to the bees given they contain honey and pollen. Instead, I would wash out the honey/pollen with a water hose and then leave the combs outside to dry and “be thoroughly aired first.” The bummer about labels is sometimes they are ambiguous. How long does it have to dry before it is “thoroughly aired”? There really is no easy answer for label ambiguity. I always like to air my supers at least two weeks. I do this by turning the supers on their end under a covered, but open, shelter (like a pole barn). That way, light and air can penetrate the supers, airing them out, and limiting wax moth infestation during this time. The “covered shelter” part keeps them from getting rained on during storage. If I can smell Para-Moth after this, I put the supers back out to air for more time.

Q  Strange bee deaths

 One of my six hives has many dead bees in front of it, 1-3 feet away. Other nearby colonies seem fine. The mite count was zero. No visible deformed wing virus. This colony was purchased in May as a nuc with a VSH (Varroa sensitive hygiene) queen. It had been doing great until a couple weeks ago. At first, I assumed they had gotten into some kind of pesticide and the effect would pass, but the death continues. I am guessing about 200 bees died in the last 24 hours. Inside the hive looks ok, but it could use some more bees. There is plenty of honey, and some young larvae. My question right now is what to do with comb. Can I freeze it and give it to another colony without knowing the cause? Would I be better off to just burn the whole hive?

John Towson
North Carolina, August


Your question, and ones like it, cause me to think we need bee veterinarians. [For the record, I know that we do have bee veterinarians, but not yet the number we need.] People who have pets and/or manage any type of livestock have veterinarians who can help diagnose the problems seen in the animal in question. I always think about this when I get questions like yours given it is really hard to diagnose the issue without seeing the hive. Even then, it sometimes remains difficult to diagnose the issue. We need specialists who are on call and can visit apiaries to diagnose diseases, pests, and other stressors (nutrition, pesticide exposure, etc.).

You have a clear case of “what’s killing my bees?” Was it pesticide exposure? Possibly. Yet if it was, I would have expected to see other colonies in the same apiary exhibiting the same signs of stress, given the colonies generally are foraging on the same things. Was it Varroa? That is almost always my default answer given these mites are so prevalent, deadly, and hard to control. Yet, you note that the mite count was zero and there were no visible signs of deformed wings (something you often see when Varroa loads are high). Was it nutrition stress? This can always be a culprit, but you say there was plenty of honey. Is it a failing queen? The queen was also present (you note young larvae). So, what was it? My guess is that it is viral in nature, but it is really impossible to know without some sort of … .