How To Read Brood Frames With A Short Quiz

Excerpted from: Cells, Cells and Cells

Honey Bees On Brood Frame 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 a routine brood chamber inspection you seek to determine if your colony has normal egg laying. Their normal positioning tells you if a queen was in this colony within the last 3 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.

Reading a brood frame 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 3 days.

1. The Basics

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.

2. Brood Cells

Capped worker and drone cells 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.

3. Queen Cells

Honey Bee Queen Cell 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 to it.

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 and then build a supersedure cell around her. Supersedure cells are found hanging vertically in the middle of the frame.

  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 On Brood Frame Honey Bees On Brood Frame

4. Pollen Cells

Pollen Cells 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.

5. What To Check

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.

6. Quick Quiz

Which is the best answer to each of the questions?

1. What does it mean if there are no eggs present on this frame?

2. What does it mean if there is no pollen evident on this frame?

3. What does it mean if there is no drone brood or queen cells on a frame?

Further Information:

 Wisconsin Bee Identification Guide
 Spring Wild Bees of Wisconsin
 Bumble Bees of Wisconsin
 Wild Native Bee Nest Boxes

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