An Introduction to the Brood Nest

With your first bees safely installed in their new home, it’s time for the beekeeper to be patient. This is an exciting moment for the new beekeeper, but also one where it’s best to relax and have confidence the bees know their next steps.

This is one of the most amazing aspects of beekeeping, seeing a small, disorganized colony create order and structure. The collaborative nature of the colony is one of nature’s small miracles and as you become more experienced in beekeeping you will discover their patterns and behaviors well.

Like all creatures, the primary objective of bees is survival
There is an important distinction to be made between the individual bee and the colony. Bees have a remarkable ability to act for the benefit of the colony, rather than merely for their own.

The collaborative way in which brood is created and tended is a prime example. In this lesson, we look at how the colony creates and develops brood within the hive, all with the overall objective of ensuring long-term survival.

What is Brood?

In the context of honey bees, brood encapsulates the phases of pre-adult life, namely egg, larvae, and pupae. We’ve looked at these phases so will focus now on where and how the colony creates and develops its brood.

The queen is, of course, the start of all things brood-related. The colony does what it can to make things easy for the queen and to lay out a path that best represents its collective needs.

This starts with the creation of comb, to provide cells in which she can lay eggs. As we will see, the size and location of the cells indicate how they will be used for brood/worker, drone, or queen cells. The queen will lay around 2,000 eggs per day, although this will vary considerably with the seasons.

Types of Brood Cell

Workers Cells

Cells destined for worker bees will form the majority of the brood cells in the frame. For the sake of explanation, let’s call these “regular”-sized cells (as compared to drone and queen cells, which we will describe below). The queen will lay an egg in the cell and then move on to the next cell, after which worker bees will start tending to the cell.

After the cell transitions to larvae it will be fed royal jelly for three days
This will then cease and “bee bread” will be fed to the larvae until it is capped. The larvae will then evolve into pupae and eventually emerge as a worker bee.

The capping on worker bee cells is darker than the more white capping used to retain honey. This can be seen in the image above. On the left-hand side worker cells are visible, with a small amount of honey cells at the top right.

Drone Cells

Drones are larger than those of workers and therefore drone cells are larger than worker cells. This allows them to be visually distinguished quite easily. Another clue is that drone cells are almost always located around the edges of the brood area. The reason for this is that drone larvae and pupae do better with a slightly lower temperature, by a degree or two. Placement on the outer edges helps with this.

Drone cells are capped with a larger, dome-shaped cap which is the easiest way to spot them, as compared to worker cells. This is evident in the image above, in the bottom right section.

The percentage of drone cells created varies, based on a number of factors. Feral bees (those living in the wild, with no beekeeper intervention or involvement) may create as many as 30% of cells as drone cells. This is a high figure but one that helps bees from a survival and evolutionary perspective. However, it is not a figure that will please many beekeepers, due to the lack of help drones offer in terms of honey production and pollination!

Beekeepers tend to decrease this percentage by using frames with foundations. This produces a lower number of drone cells, as low as 10-15%. The drawback with this is that the bees will still want to revert to their “genetically programmed” numbers and often address this by creating burr comb with drone cells. Foundationless beekeeping tends to create a larger number of drone cells, as compared to frames with foundation, since bees control the cell size directly and will revert to their genetic norms.

The issue of managing drone cell counts (and hence the number of drones in the colony) is a topic for another time but is an important part of beekeeping.

This video goes over managing your colony through the summer months…

Queen Cells

Queen cells look very different from worker or drone cells. They have a peanut-like shape and hang down distinctly from the frame. They are created for three reasons:

  • Supersedure: When the colony has decided to replace the existing queen, which can occur when the colony considers the queen to be unproductive for some reason
  • Emergency: This type of queen cell is created when a catastrophic event occurs, such as the loss of the queen
  • Swarm: Swarm queen cells are created when the colony has decided to swarm and needs a new queen in the hive after the swarm has left (taking the existing queen with it)

Supersedure and emergency queen cells are often a sign of trouble, either because the existing queen is under-performing or because there simply is no queen.

By comparison, although not necessarily what a beekeeper wishes to see, swarm cells are generally a sign of colony health. They represent a rapidly growing colony that requires more space, hence the desire to swarm. In assessing the importance of queen cells discovered in a hive, the beekeeper will learn to interpret their position on the frame as a significant clue, since they differ depending on the purpose for which they are intended by the bees.

As with drone cells, the issue of queen cells – both in terms of how to identify the different types and how the beekeeper might respond – will be covered in a separate lesson. But it should be noted that the creation of queen cells is a normal part of life in a beehive and doesn’t always mean the colony is in trouble or is soon to swarm.

The Structure of the Beehive

Boxes and Frames

We ask our bees to live in a man-made structure, namely the beehive. This has a structural layout that we hope will at least simulate that which bees create in nature. For example, we install frames on the assumption that bees will work out from the center frames to the ones on the outside, which they generally do.

Let’s use the Langstroth hive as an example (the principles described below will generally apply just as well to the Top Bar and Warre hives). We often use boxes that have 10 frames, though many beekeepers now use 8 frame boxes.

We place our bees in the box and they start building their home. But how exactly will they use this real estate? They generally do so in a predictable manner.

Brood Patterns

Bees use the available cells across frames in a reasonably predictable pattern. They will use some cells to store pollen or honey. Other cells will be created for workers, drones, or used as queen cells, which are collectively called the brood nest.

The brood nest can be considered a three-dimensional shape, spread across multiple frames in the box. Think of it as a football “embedded” within the 3-dimensional space of the 10 frames. Each frame is like a “slice” of that football, with the tallest part of the ball towards the center frames.

As we move towards the outside frames, the height of the brood nest is reduced. Note that this imaginary football is not perfectly centered, so don’t be confused when your bee’s brood nest is somewhat offset within the box.

Taking out a single frame of a well-developed box, you will see the shape of the brood nest. Around that the bees will store pollen. Further out from the center still, above and possibly alongside the brood nest (separated by pollen) will be honey stores.

This basic pattern – brood then pollen then honey – is familiar to the beekeeper. Within the brood nest, there will be the occasionally uncapped cell (no brood). This is quite normal and is understood to play a role in helping keep the brood warm.