15 min read

Closing up

High season, busy hives, lots of bees. How to reassemble the hive after an inspection without leaving a trail of death and destruction behind.
Busy h
Busy hives

I recently had to vacate an apiary at short notice, just as the oil seed rape was turning bright yellow.


Rather than rush around the county searching for sites not already occupied with bees - assuming I could find the landowner in the first place - I relocated some hives to another (already crowded) apiary and the rest to my association apiary.

Association apiaries are often used by beekeepers who are unable to site hives on their own land (i.e. garden or yard; beekeepers probably don't qualify as 'landowners', at least not in the same way as the Duke of Atholl does), and may also have colonies belonging to the association used for teaching and demonstrations.

Part of the quid pro quo for relocating some hives to the association apiary was that they could be used for teaching if needed. We all had to learn once, and I remain grateful to the experienced mentors who looked after me during my first tentative catastrophes steps in beekeeping.

On visiting the colonies for the first time after recovering from the lurgi it was clear that some of my hives had been opened.

Even without delving inside the box, it was obvious ... the long 'tail' on the ratchet straps were neatly coiled up and tidily tucked out of the way. That's far too organised for me 😄.

Upon opening the hives, there was additional evidence ... all of which made me think about the act of 'closing up' a hive.

If you read accounts (or instructions) on hive inspections they usually emphasise smoking the colony, lifting the crownboard, gently lifting the frames etc. In fact, they tend to focus on starting the process and what to look for.

This post is about putting everything back together again.

There's more than one way to do it

Like most things to do with beekeeping, there are many ways of achieving a particular goal. You can use the Pagden, Taranov or nucleus methods to control swarming; the end result - you don't lose a swarm - is the same, though the implementation is different {{1}} .

Remember, those {{squiggly brackets}} are footnotes, which you can only read by viewing the post on the website (not email).

This plethora of ways of achieving broadly the same outcome is one of the things that makes beekeeping so enduringly fascinating ... and it's also one of the reasons that beginners get confused. I've written about this before in a post entitled Tim Toady (which you would only find if you knew something about 1980's computer programming) and suggested some solutions to make life easier.

And, in the same way, what follows is how I reassemble my hives after inspection, though there are sure to be alternative approaches ... some possibly better, others undoubtedly worse.

All have the same final goal; a secure hive, with everything back in its place, and with the minimal possible disruption to the colony.

The more, the merrier

Strong hives make almost all aspects of beekeeping better and, in many cases, much easier.

Strong colonies overwinter better, they collect more honey {{2}}, and they are much less likely to be robbed by wasps or other honey bee colonies. With one or two notable exceptions, they are more resistant to pathogens, and I cannot think of a good reason why they're not desirable.

However, during inspections, strong colonies create two problems ... the huge number of bees makes spotting eggs, larvae or the queen more difficult, and there always seem to be bees in the way - and so in danger of being crushed - whenever you return the frames, queen excluders, supers or crownboards.

Coping with the first problem comes with experience.

It involves learning to spot the things that are important, and ignoring those that are not, even when covered with a wriggling - and dancing - curtain of workers. The tell-tale lumps and bumps, an additional 'bee depth' or so, that indicate an obscured queen cell, or the fleeting glimpse of the slightly larger, longer-legged queen, as she scuttles around the bottom of the frame etc.

But how do you reassemble the hive when there are so many bees in the way?


I've witnessed - either first-hand or the results of - some shockingly poor colony manipulations. Usually, though not exclusively, these involve returning things to the hive.

  • when opening one of our research colonies (a day or so after one of my team had collected samples), I discovered the entire upper rim of the brood box was covered in squashed bees. Clearly the queen excluder had been returned without any attempt to clear bees out of the way. Mea culpa. More training was provided.
  • during an association evening training session (not of an association I belong to), one of the 'experienced' beekeepers literally dropped the frames back into the overflowing brood box, crushing bees under the lugs. To make things worse, the beekeeper then used their heavily gloved hands to force the frames together, crushing yet more bees. The scent of alarm pheromone - isopentyl acetate (that distinctive banana smell) - was heavy in the calm evening air.
  • dark stripes of crushed bees under the polycarbonate cover of poly nucs, caused by a combination of heavy-handedness, a lack of awareness and brace comb.

Colony inspections are disruptive and, even with the best will in the world, even the most careful inspection is likely to cause some damage to individual bees in the colony.

Since squashed or damaged bees immediately attract the attention of other workers, this is one way in which diseases such as Nosema and some gut-associated viruses are transmitted in the colony.

However, with a little bit of care this damage can be minimised, so reducing the stress to the colony (and to the beekeeper I hope) and, simultaneously, the risk of disease transmission.


Many beekeepers - and I include myself in this - probably use too much smoke during inspections. Lots of smoke certainly masks the alarm pheromones and encourages the bees to gorge themselves on nectar, but less smoke and a little patience work at least as well, and often better.

Less is more when it comes to smoke

When reassembling the hive - returning frames to the brood box, adding back the queen excluder or the supers etc. - too much smoke simply causes them run (or fly) frantically about in a panic, getting in your way as often as they get out of your way.

Far better to give the gentlest puff or two, directed precisely where it's needed, and wait for the bees to move aside ... which they usually do.

On a recent visit to the association apiary the grass had been cut. In my experience, dried grass produces lovely cool smoke. I light some old wood shavings in the bottom of the smoker and then pack the grass in tightly, topping it up as needed through the afternoon.

An apiary with cut grass
A limitless supply of smoker fuel (on a dry day!)

It's great stuff and smoulders - with almost no 'bellows action' - for ages ... exactly what you need when inspecting a series of hives, using a minimal amount of smoke and not having to worry about the smoker going out.

It's not unusual for the smoker to remain lit after sealing it in my smoker tin and driving to another apiary - a few healthy squeezes of the bellows, a little curl of smoke rises from the spout, and I'm ready to start all over again {{3}}.


Any manipulations of the frames - including returning them to the box - is made easier by using the thinnest gloves possible.

Marigold washing up gloves are infinitely better than those terrible thick leather welder's gauntlets, and nitriles are better still.

With nitriles you can feel individual bees under your fingertips, and move them (or pause while they move) as appropriate. They make beekeeping a much more tactile and enjoyable experience.


Most readers probably use Hoffman 'self-spacing' frames in the brood box. Having briefly dabbled with spacers on frame lugs years ago, I soon saw the error of my ways and have used Hoffman frames ever since.

Hoffman sidebars
Hoffman sidebars

That being the case, some of what follows can safely be ignored if you don't use Hoffman frames (in which case you will need to work out alternate ways of safely returning frames to the brood box).

Frames removed and stored safely
Frames removed and stored safely

You need to make space in the brood box to remove the frames. I take out the dummy board, gently separate the adjacent outer frame and - having looked over it for whatever I should be looking for {{4}} - stand it safely between the lateral rails of the hive stand (1 and 2, below).

Frame manipulations
Frame manipulations (dummy board, grey; first frame, red; last frame inspected, blue)

Working from back to front through the box, I check each frame in turn. The first (i.e. the second frame in the box) goes back adjacent to the side wall (3, above), with each successive frame being lowered gently next to and touching the sidebars of the frame before it (4, above).

Hoffman sidebars

The touching faces of the Hoffman sidebars are relatively small in area and only extend a couple of inches from the top of the frame. It is therefore easy to see whether there are bees in between them if you look vertically down into the box.

Furthermore, the curved shoulders of the Hoffman self-spacing sidebars can be gently lowered against those of the adjacent frame, so that they are touching throughout the period the frame is being lowered.

Rather than placing the frame into a gap between adjacent frames, separated from both, I manipulate it so that it is touching the last frame I inspected as it is being lowered.

This is easier to do than it is to describe.

More frame manipulations
Space between frames (A) risks squashing bees, which can be avoided by returning frames in contact with the adjacent frame (B)

Essentially, I aim to gently lower the frame without leaving space (between the current frame and the last one I inspected) that bees could occupy ... compare diagrams A and B above.

Done gently and slowly, the bees move aside and there are no gaps left for the bees to occupy before you add the final frame, push the frames together and close the hive up.

Returning the final frame

Having looked at all the frames I can do one of two things.

  1. I can place the first frame I removed into the gap at the opposite side of the brood box I have created (6a, in the first schematice diagram above), or
  2. use the hive tool and/or my thumbs to slide the frames gently away from me, leaving the gap at my side of the box (6b, above).

I can think of a couple of reasons why it is better to leave the frames in the same order (and orientation) as I started, but I don't think it makes a huge amount of difference to the colony.

Returning the dummy board

One of the shortcomings of Hoffman frames is that the interface between the sidebars is a magnet for propolis. If there's the smallest gap between the frames the bees tend to seal it up tightly with propolis.

Over time, with repeated inspections, this can add an appreciable thickness to the 11 frames in the box {{5}}, making it increasingly difficult to replace the dummy board (or sometimes even the last frame).

Squeezing frames together with a hive tool
Squeezing frames together with a hive tool

To minimise this, I always tightly push the frames together, using the hive tool as a lever against the end wall of the brood box. This achieves two things:

  • it creates ample space into which the dummy board fits, and
  • minimises the subsequent deposition of propolis

I knew my hives in the association apiary had been opened as the frames were not tightly squeezed together ... and the gaps were being filled with propolis 😢.

A tiny puff of smoke
A tiny puff of smoke

By lowering the frames into the hive so that they are touching the previously inspected frame, there are no gaps that bees can get trapped in except those between the outer frame and the end wall of the box ... a tiny puff of smoke on each side is usually then sufficient to allow you to push the frames together and add the dummy board.


In the description above I've ignored the bees adorning the frame runners and/or those that are at risk of getting trapped under the frame lugs.

This is where nitrile gloves makes a real difference.

The additional dexterity means you can hold the frame lugs, lower the frame, and do it slowly enough that you can feel the bees moving out of the way under your fingers.

The key is to do it slowly enough to give the bees time to move.

A slight 'waggle' movement with the frame a few millimetres above the runners can help encourage bees to move aside. You can judge the space with your fingertips ... but not if you're wearing leather gauntlets.

Sometimes when you lower the frame you'll hear a higher pitched buzzing as a worker is trapped by the leg ... simply lift the frame a millimetre or so, and she'll scuttle off out of the way.

Cursing you 😉.

As before, all of the above takes longer to describe than it takes to actually do.

It might be worth looking at a few YouTube videos to see some good and bad examples of frame handling. Beekeepers who are good at it make it look very simple. Those who have poor technique are very obvious ...

Hint, anyone manipulating frames with one heavily-gloved hand whilst operating their smartphone with the other is probably an example that should not be followed.

Too many frames, too much propolis ... and gaps

There are certain circumstances when you need to insert a frame between two flanking frames - for example into the gap shown in #4 in the diagram above.

Typically, this occurs when some of the comb is uneven and/or there are too many frames in the box, or too much propolis gumming everything up, but there are other situations when this is necessary as well.

With care, coupled with the judicious application of small amounts of smoke, it's possible to achieve this without leaving a trail of death and destruction.

Direct a small puff of smoke to the gap between the sidebars on either side of the frames, wait for the bees to move out of the way and very gently insert the final frame. The gaps between the frames can be as narrow as a single Hoffman frame.

As you lower the frame, ensure it remains hanging vertical from your fingers, and once the Hoffman 'shoulders' are reached, slide it down one - or ideally both - of both sidebars of the neighbouring frames. Any bees in the way on the frame you are holding are gently eased off onto the tops of the adjacent frames, any occupying the gap you're inserting the frame into are pushed aside.

It's probably easiest to do this when there is only just enough space to insert the frame. In this case it's often necessary to apply gentle pressure to the ends of the lugs to push the frame down into place.

With a slightly wider gap between the frames it sometimes helps to use a gentle side-to-side rocking movement of the frames to encourage the bees aside.

You should, of course, make a note in your records to resolve whatever is causing the box to be so packed at the next inspection ...

Queen excluders and crownboards

These can be dealt with together, as the problems encountered are almost identical.

The upper rim of the brood box (or top super) is covered with bees. This is where a combination of the application of a small amount of smoke, the proper equipment and good timing are needed.

Get out of the way!

Flush-fitting queen excluders - such as unframed plastic ones or (horror of horrors) those punched zinc sheets - are more difficult to fit without crushing bees.

Framed, wired excluders are easier to use. Yes, they're five times the cost, but in my view they are a worthwhile investment {{6}}.

Wired queen excluders
A good investment

Gently smoke the upper edges of the box, wait while the bees move aside then offer up the queen excluder (or crownboard, split board or whatever) at an angle, overlapping the furthest edge of the box. Holding the queen excluder by the front corners (i.e. those nearest your body), gently lower it and simultaneously apply an even more gentle side-to-side movement and slide it towards you so that it's square with the top of the box.

The intention here is to make contact with the bees, but to do so sufficiently gently that they take the hint and have the time to move out of the say.

Again, the additional dexterity provided by thin gloves makes this much easier.


This requires a broadly similar technique but is made a lot more difficult as full supers are very heavy.

Returning one super is hard work. Gently returning two or three (if full) is almost impossible ... at least that's my experience. I might be able to lift them off together, but I cannot replace them without risking serious damage, either to the bees or my back.

It therefore makes sense to replace the supers individually, using as little smoke as practicable, placing them at an angle and then gently twisting them so they are aligned (see also my comments below about brace comb and frame spacing).

At this time of the season, with many hives topped with three or more supers full of oil seed rape honey, inspections are hard work.

Oil seed rape field going over
Oil seed rape ... almost over for another year

The prospect of lifting a few hundred kilograms of supers, tetchy bees because the OSR is going over and/or the weather is poor, and the absolute need to inspect the colony (because they'll almost certainly be making swarm preparations about now) can produce mixed emotions in even the most dedicated beekeeper.

Brace comb

All the discussion above - on returning frames, refitting queen excluders, adding back the supers or replacing the crownboard - make the assumption that the space between the various hive components is not partially or completely occupied by brace comb or propolis.

Replacing a rigid, framed wire queen excluder is made a lot harder if there is brace comb on the top bars of the brood frames, or on the underside of the excluder ... each of these areas with incorrect bee space is another potential space in which bees could be squidged.

It therefore makes sense, and saves time overall, to use the sharp edge of your hive tool - together with a small puff or two of smoke as needed - to slice away the brace comb before closing up the hive.

Unless you are superhuman and remove and replace your supers all at once, then you will find that poorly aligned super frames will create gaps that the bees fill with brace comb. The same thing happens if you mix'n'match supers with different numbers of frames in them; they build up from the top bars into the vacant space in the super above.

Align super frames and use the same number in each super
Align super frames and use the same number in each super or risk brace comb (B)

Again, a couple of minutes with a sharp-edged hive tool - possibly aided by a gentle waft of smoke - leaves the frame tops clear and reduces the chances of crushing bees.

Polycarbonate crownboards on poly nucs

These tend to be rather flexible and - at least on the poly nucs I use (from Thorne's and Maisemore's) - 'sag' a little, spoiling what is probably intended to be top bee space. Inevitably, the bees fill some of the gaps with wax.

Polycarbonate crownboard
Polycarbonate crownboard on an Everynuc (and some brace comb)

On a cold day, it's trivial to scrape the polycarbonate clean with a painter's window scraper ... but on a cold day you won't be inspecting the nuc. If you do this on a warm day the wax tends to smear a bit.

I do two things:

  1. I label the upper side of the polycarbonate so I always replace it in the same orientation. This means only one side of the polycarbonate gets wax-encrusted.
  2. I've found that gently laying the crownboard over the frames, even if a few bees are trapped, and then tapping in it with a hive tool or my fingers, encourages the bees to wriggle out of the gaps and down between the frames. Some might get trapped in a wax cul-de-sac, but I find I can usually prise up the side or corner of the polycarbonate sheet to release them, without allowing lots of other bees to re-appear from the seams and get in the way.

If you don't do this the inherent flexibility in the polystyrene roof and underlying polycarbonate crownboard means that bees will be crushed once you strap the nuc down (or add a brick to stop the roof blowing away).

Nitriles, be gentle, cool smoke, slow and steady

That section heading pretty much sums up the last 3,400 words.

I should have just posted a 3 minute video showing the entire process, but then you'd have sent in a load of comments critiscising my shaky camera work, one-handed frame handling and welder's gauntlets 😉.

Bee's lives matter

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{{1}}: Aficionados of swarm control will also be aware that these three methods are not only implemented differently, but also result in different worker populations for the resulting queenright and queenless colonies. The same, but different.

{{2}}: Or, pedantically, they collect more nectar and so make more honey.

{{3}}: But also something to be aware of to avoid immolating your car on the way back home.

{{4}}: This is about reassembling the hive, not inspecting the colony.

{{5}}: These are National hives, but the same situation applies whatever the hive dimensions or number of frames.

{{6}}: And not only because they are easier to use; they are also much easier to clean, less easily damaged, don't warp or bend and last longer. What's not to like?

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