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, indeed, one of the most amazing aspects of beekeeping, namely 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 benefit.

The collaborative way in which brood is created and tended is a prime example. Here, 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 here on where and how the colony creates and develops its brood.

Bee 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 need.

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 considerable 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 will describe below). The queen will lay an egg in the cell and then move on to the next cell, after which workers 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 bring in terms of honey production and pollination!

Beekeepers tend to decrease this percentage by using frames with foundation. 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.

Queen cells

Queen cells look very different to 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 assesses 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).

Supercedure 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.

Queen Cells

By comparison, although not necessarily what a beekeeper wishes to see, swarm cells are generally a sign of health. They represent a rapidly growing and healthy colony that requires more space, hence the desire to swarm.

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 article. But it should be noted that the creation of queen cell 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 at 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 Warre and Top Bar hives). We often use boxes that have 10 frames, thought many beekeepers now use 8 frame boxes. A common type of frame is made of plastic and covered with wax.

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. Others cells will be created for worker, drone or queen cells, which are collectively called the brood nest.

The brood nest can be considered a three-dimensional shape, spread across the 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 "displaced".

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.


10 thoughts on “An introduction to the brood nest”

  1. What I am about to write is no reflection on PerfectBee. The vast amount of information readily available on their site is a Godsend, and well thought out and presented.

    That said, the amount of conflicting information with respect to Beekeeping in books, magazines and on the internet is staggering. As a new prospective beekeeper, I am left puzzled, and more than a little confused.

    Two examples are as follows…one source states that it is a “must” to feed your colonies pollen substitute patties in the spring, while another source states to never use pollen substitute patties. Another source states to always use Queen excluders between the upper most brood chamber and the honey supers, while yet another source states to never use Queen excluders.

    This is but two examples of the literally hundreds of pieces of conflicting information available on Beekeeping. A new/prospective beekeeper doesn’t stand a chance…and I have not even touched on the amount of conflicting information being decisminated at Beekeeping clubs. This leaves a new beekeeper wholly, and completely, confused.

    1. Frances Moore

      I am not with Perfect Bee but I hope I can help u, I feed pollen substitute to get the bees going in the early spring pollen is used as bee bread for the brood to feed on, I give them patties and bee pro, they love it, the pollen encourages the queen to start laying brood so they will be strong come spring . They need the carbohydrates that is in the pollen substitute, I know people – they will not feed there bees at all and they die from starvation, But I am not going to let my bees die I put a candy board with a pollen patty on every 1 of my hives for the winter at this time I have 21 hives if they have stores or not I do it for my peace of mind I will not let them starve, on the queen excluder U can use a queen excluder or not that is up to the bee keeper it keeps the queen from laying eggs in the same frame that honey is stored in the honey supper it is hard to extract honey with brood in the frames as well. also some bee keeper think a queen excluder hinders the bees from storing honey they do not like to go though the excluder hence I have a entrance in the honey supper as well the queen cant lay eggs in the honey supper but the bees can come and go as they please. I also keep moving and robbing screens on all my hives so another hive or yellow jackets can not attack my hive and kill them. Hope this helps with your deli-ma. u just read and get some bees and work we with them and fined out what right for u. the same is with treating bees for mites some do not and say it is wrong u make weak bees I have tried both ways. all the bees died from mites now I treat my bees I am a bee keeper and I am going to do what I think is best for my bees to survive and u need to decide what u are going to do with your bees. remember u are the one that is putting all that money into them bees a hive is about 4-5 hundred dollars that is with the bees that is a lot of money to be putting out to help the bees does not make them weak. just my thoughts hope I did not offend u in any way but they re going to be your bees u do what u think is best for your bees

    2. Bill – I agree totally! This was actually one of the catalysts for our content and our course, namely the huge amount of confusing and often contrary opinions about beekeeping available today.

      The sensibilities and philosophies of any one beekeeper can often result in very black-and-white statements. Speak to another beekeeper and you may well get the exact opposite opinion. Of course, opinions are fine and to be encouraged. But, in reality, there are few absolutes. So what we seek to do at PerfectBee is not simply to take one side or another and present that “reality” as truth, but instead to look at the facts. By explaining the thinking behind any one position, we hope the reader is compelled and interested to learn more and eventually arrive at his/her own opinion.

      As one small example, let’s look at the use of a queen excluder, as you mention. If we merely took one side or the other (use them or don’t) and left it at that then we’re just joining one side of that debate, without explanation. Instead, what we do is explain that in the first year it is wise to do everything you can to maximize the chances of your bees having enough honey to see themselves through the winter. That, in turn, means taking any serious amount of honey from those bees in the first year is risky. For that reason, there is little need to worry about whether brood is found in upper boxes, at least in the first year. As such, there is little reason to use a queen excluder in that first year.

      That’s just one example, of course (and, yes, even that will potentially cause debate). But rest assured that many potential beekeepers do indeed find their way through this maze of information and it is the PerfectBee “mission” to try to present these details in a way that helps the prospective beekeeper understand, rather than just read.

      I hope this helps, Bill, but we always welcome your input and thoughts. Your comment is very much appreciated.

      1. Thank you! I absolutely appreciate any and all input. I just finished my fifth book, a different online course, attended a two-class in-person beginning beekeeping course and have another seminar this spring.

        I’m in a huge fact gathering mode. In actuality, I’ll be in learning mode for quite some time.

        Thank you, again!!

  2. In the Boxes and frames section, you state “A common type of frame is made of plastic and covered with wax.” I believe that be edited to say the foundation is covered with wax. I have wooden frames with plastic foundation covered in wax, and I’m assuming the entire plastic frames are not covered in wax.

  3. Kat,
    This is not an uncommon situation and is very easy to deal with. Simply take a one or two frames from the side of the hive furthest from the broodnest and put them on the opposite side. DO NOT rearrange the nectar and pollen frames. That would create a lot of work for the bees. Move the entire broodnest and frames of pollen/stores towards the area you removed the empty frames from. So lets say that’s 5 or 6 frames, just slide all 5 or 6 towards the empty area. Its important to keep the frames in the same order. If you move the pollen and stores around the bees will end up moving things back to where they want them.

    Thanks for your question and best of luck with your bees.

  4. I have done hives where the broodnest is to the side of the box. Usually close to the internal frame feeder. Should I scoot it to the middle and then rearrange the nectar and pollen frames around it?

  5. Agree with keith. Having only caught my first swarm 3 weeks ago, these bite size chunks of information have guided me thru identifying the different elements of comb, helping me gain confidence and develop skills as a new bee keeper. Thank you.

    ~ Trying to get help from bee keeping ‘groups’ , both natural and conventional i have found its like you are battling the egos of those running them, which is extraordinary, tiring, de-motivating and very unhelpful. Not so with this course.

  6. These articles are really great. They are in small enough groups of information that you don’t feel overwhelm yet provide a wealth of information taken as a whole. Thanks for putting together such a great course.

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