How To Read Brood Frames With A Short Quiz
Excerpted from: Cells, Cells and Cells
There are many things that a beekeeper needs to see when checking a frame. This article shows
the different kinds of cells that you find in comb. Knowing the differences between them will help
you be able to “read” the comb and understand what your bees are telling you.
It is important for beekeepers to create as little disturbance as possible when opening and inspecting
hives. Every time we open the colony, we disrupt their normal routine. Such disturbance often
carries over to another day depending upon the weather conditions when we open and how long
we have the colony open. Good bee stewardship should seek to create as little disturbance as
possible while we seek to figure out what the bees are doing.
In our routine brood chamber inspections we seek to determine if our colony has normal egg laying
their normal positioning tell us a queen was in this colony within the last three days.
We get our information by “reading the frame” every time we pull a frame from the brood chamber.
Frame reading takes experience and skill. When in the brood chamber we should determine if the
queen is present (queenright), if the brood is healthy, and assess if the colony is expanding (spring),
stabilized (summer), or contracting (later fall/winter) in brood/adult populations, as appropriate.
A practiced reading means determining what the bees are communicating to us.
Sometimes we can “read” the colony by inspecting two or three frames — some colonies take longer
and we need to inspect additional frames to find our answers. Seldom do we need to look on every
frame in every box. Experience will improve this reading skill. Knowing where and of course what
to look for is the skill we should refine.
In our routine brood chamber inspections we seek to determine if our colony is queenright
— not by spending time looking for the queen but rather by seeing normal egg laying. Eggs
and their “normal” positioning tell us a queen was in this
colony within the last three days.
First you look at some of the signs you will want to check at each inspection and when to
be concerned about possible problems. Let’s first recap the primary ways in which comb
throughout the hive is used.
After her mating flights, the queen will start her long life of egg-laying in earnest. In a typical
Langstroth hive, she will start in the lower box, which lays on top of the bottom board. Workers
will have started constructing comb, either free-standing in foundationless frames or over
artificial cells on regular frames.
The creation and storage of honey is an essential function of the colony. Beyond the obvious
nutritional benefits, honey is the essential lifeline that allows the colony, via the winter cluster,
to make it through the winter.
Pollen is also essential to the colony, providing protein and fats. After collection, pollen is mixed
with nectar and water, to form “bee bread”. This is then stored in comb within the hive. As well
as the nutritional value, this also helps with the structural integrity of the comb.
Pollen is often placed immediately adjacent to the brood nest, since it is used heavily as the
source of protein.
The five states represented by these changes – egg, larva, capped brood, pupa and empty cell –
will each be evident in many cells in the brood nest. As the queen moves around the hive, each
time she lays an egg she kicks off this timeline for one particular cell. Then she moves on to
the next cell and does the same. And on and on. Over the course of a single day she may lay
around 2,000 eggs.
There are two types of brood cells in the hive. Adult bees cap these cells once the brood has
gone through the process of egg and larvae. Once the cell is capped, the larvae spins its own
cocoon while inside the cell and develops into a pupae. When it is fully developed, a worker
chews its way out of its own cell, while a drone needs other adult workers to chew his cell
open for him then pull him out of his cell. Once a bee emerges from its cell, it is classified as
an adult bee.
Capped Worker Cells: Typically found in the center of the frame and are slightly domed,
almost flat. Not translucent like capped honey.
The majority of cells are destined to accept fertilized eggs, one for each cell. In most cases,
the result will be a worker bee. These are by far the most numerous of the cells in the brood
nest, reflecting the importance of a steady stream of new workers as the colony grows.
Capped Drone Cells: Larger in diameter and are domed much higher than worker
cells. Drone cells are usually in groups at the lower edge of the frame and have a round
“bullet shape” appearance.
A certain percentage of cells – perhaps up to 20% – will be dedicated to drones. These cells are
larger in volume and have a darker, rougher cap which bulges out from the cell, somewhat
resembling a bullet.
Drone larvae and pupae do better with slightly lower temperatures than workers. For this
reason, drone cells are often placed at the lower edges of the frame, away from the heat
formed by the cluster.
Two kinds: supersedure cells and swarm cells. It is important to know the difference between
them because depending on what you find, the hive is sending you a different message.
Both kinds of queen cells have the same “peanut shell” appearance, are usually about an inch
long, and hang vertically on the frame. The difference between the two is that they hang at
different locations on the frame, and are made for different reasons.
The process of making a queen cell starts with what is called a “queen cup”. In these cups, the
existing queen will lay a fertile egg, and the workers enlarge the cup, giving it a “peanut” shape
The queen is longer than the workers and drones in the hive, so her cell must be larger than normal
for her to fit.
Supersedure Cells: Bees can sense when they need to replace their queen because she
is sick or old. They make a new queen by feeding a young larva with royal jelly, then build a
supersedure cell around her. Supersedure cells are found hanging vertically in the middle of
Swarm Cells: When the hive is very strong and crowded, the bees build a swarm cell.
The “old” queen will leave the hive with part of the colony population, and the other part of the
colony will stay in the current hive with the new queen that is being raised in the swarm cell.
Swarm cells hang vertically off the bottom of the frame. Sometimes new beekeepers are confused
and think that a drone cell is a swarm cell, but they are totally different. Drone cells are typically in
groups at the lower edge of the frame and are close to the swarm cells, but they have a round
“bullet shape” appearance.
Honey bees gather pollen from flowers as food for the whole colony. Pollen is a vital part of the
bees’ diet, since it is the source of many nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, minerals, and lipids.
When we check our hives, we can find different types of pollen. The main difference is in the color,
since depending on the flower, the color of the pollen will change. The appearance is also different:
we will see glossy pollen, matte pollen, and even pollen mixed with nectar.
As you look at the brood pattern, seek “norms”. Look, for example, for a solid block of brood
being formed in the central frames. You should see areas of eggs, larvae and capped brood.
There may be the occasional empty cell but, for the most part, the brood area should be reasonably
solid across the foundation. Spotty coverage could be a cause for concern, since many diseases
show this as a calling card.
Pollen will often be above the brood area, with the lighter capped cells containing honey above that.
The pattern of brood, pollen and honey is often described as a rainbow, such is the pattern it makes.
The cap on brood cells should be smooth and slightly convex (this is more pronounced with drone
cells). If the caps are sunken, rather than raised, then this could indicate a disease.
Wisconsin Bee Identification Guide
Spring Wild Bees of Wisconsin
Bumble Bees of Wisconsin
Wild Native Bee Nest Boxes