11 min read

Dummies, fat dummies and followers

How can something so simple cost so much? Dummy boards and fat dummies. Some you can buy, but shouldn't. Some you can't buy at all. Both can be built very inexpensively.
Five frame nucleus hive with no dummy board and limited amounts of brace comb
No dummy board ... note the brace comb (which will get worse)

Is there a statute of limitations on beekeeping topics for the internet?

How frequently should a blogger write about swarm control or thelytokous parthenogenesis or the provenance of honey?

The answer of course is as often as they want to. It's a free world.

But that doesn't mean that the posts will be read 🙁

If I wrote about swarm control every week, I'd quickly run out of new things to write, but - even more quickly - I'd run out of readers. It's an interesting topic, there are lots of ways it can be achieved (and several by which it cannot) and, at times during the beekeeping season, it's something we all have to do.

But variety is the spice of life, and there are lots of other interesting beekeeping topics that deserve attention.

Like thelytokous parthenogenesis.

However, if I wrote about thelytoky for two weeks in a row I'd probably outlast the patience of readers (by about a fortnight).

So, perhaps the frequency with which a topic is covered should reflect its importance to all beekeepers, or my ability to pronounce it?

Regular readers should remember that they were new readers once. Some will have found the site, enjoyed a post or two and then rummaged back through the archives for other things of interest. On average, visitors to the site access 1.8 pages ... so for every 5 visitors a day there are about 9 pages read (or at least viewed).

Other new subscribers never look back, don't use the search facility and wonder why I've never discussed the intricacies of - for example - dummy boards. So they post a question (or email me directly) about whatever topic is at the forefront of their minds.

Is a decade long enough?

Any readers, regular or recent, who have been looking for an article on dummy boards will have had to go back about a decade.

A week might be a long time in politics, but in the more respectable and sedate world of beekeeping, a decade is still a long time.

I've only posted twice on them before, in February and July 2014, and they were only read about 1500 times last year (a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the total ... I can be pretty sure most of you reading this didn't read them). Both posts now redirect here, but you might be able to find them in an internet archive.

Fundamentally, the only thing that's changed in the intervening period is the cost of dummy boards when purchased from the beekeeping suppliers.

In 2014 a dummy board cost about £6 and I commented that I was 'horrified' something so simple could cost so much.

The same thing is now £15.70.

That's not inflation ... that's robbery.

Using the Bank of England's inflation calculator, a £6 dummy board in 2014 should now cost about £7.89.


If I could think of a superlative greater than horrified, I would use it now.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself ...

What is a dummy board?

In the UK, we call them dummy boards. Top bar beekeepers and those in the USA probably call them follower boards.

A dummy board is a board the same width and depth as a standard frame that is used to manage the bee space adjacent to - typically - brood frames.

Dummy boards and fat dummies (see text for details)

The National hive is designed for 11 frames. Assuming the frames are not heavily propolised and that they are pushed together against one wall of the hive, there remains a 'less-than-one-frame' gap between the last frame and the opposite wall (panel A in the diagram).

This space is important. It allows the adjacent frame to be separated from its neighbour and lifted clear without rolling the bees at the interface of the frames.

However, this 'extra' space messes up the bee space in the hive and the bees will build brace comb in the gap. Under certain conditions they fill this with nectar or brood.

To avoid this you insert a dummy board, close enough to the last frame to provide the correct bee space (panel B).

Eleven frames and a dummy board

When starting an inspection it is easy to remove the dummy board, shake off the few adhering bees and then gently prise the last frame clear of its neighbour. With space to work, the bees will not be rolled or crushed and life will be much easier.

Typically, this means that you will need one dummy board per brood box.

Here's one I made earlier

Dummy boards are trivial to build.

One piece of 6-9 mm thick plywood (of the right dimensions for your frames) and some planed softwood of about 8x8 mm or 8x15 mm for the top bar. Using some waterproof wood glue and frame nails, attach the top bar to the plywood.

Cheap as chips to build yourself

Job done!

I won't insult your intelligence by suggesting how best to cut the wood to size, or get the ply and top bar centred, or clamp everything together while the glue sets. Or, for that matter, source the wood ... the offcuts bin of a local timber merchant is a good place to start.

These dummy boards need no painting, waterproofing or treatment. The bees will cover them in a thin film of propolis within days.

Really, it's that simple?

Yes. For a tiny outlay, you can make something that, purchased commercially, costs a daft amount of money.

Are they as good?

Essentially, yes.

Over time - by which I mean many years - these simple boards sometimes delaminate a bit.

Unsightly? Perhaps.

An issue in terms of hygiene? Not really if the dummy board remains in the same hive. If not, blowtorch it well.

An impediment to function? Rarely.

The £15.70 commercial dummy boards probably do not delaminate. They usually have birch softwood strips along the end grain of the plywood.

However, in my opinion, a limited amount of delamination is a very small price to pay for the ~£15 saving I make per board.

But plastic dummy boards are 'only' £8

The same Lamborghini-driving commercial suppliers who sell wooden dummy boards for £15.70 also sell a plastic equivalent for about £8.

Half the price and less than half as good in my view.

But still too much.

Here's one I broke earlier

I think there are three things wrong with the plastic ones:

  • they're plastic. The bees benefit from plastic (polystyrene) hives, so I'm reasonably happy to put up with the petrochemical products. However, I can see little or no benefit for the bees from a plastic dummy board, not least because ...
  • the lugs are fragile. Several of mine have broken. Perhaps I'm even more clumsy than I thought? You can 'fix' them using a screw in place of the missing lug, but it's not really ideal.
  • they don't cope too well being used as a stand for a hot smoker on an adjacent poly hive roof. They are also rather heavy.

However, in their favour, they do not warp or delaminate (in going through some old pictures I see that they do warp).

Super dummy boards

'Super' as in fitting honey supers ... though the price again suggests a superlative product.

Some of the commercial beekeeping suppliers also sell super dummy boards. I've never had a reason to use these and - amazingly considering the size of my bloated stockpile of "beekeeping things I've bought but no longer use" - don't even own one.

I don't routinely inspect the supers so never need to make the space to remove the first frame. My supers start with 11 evenly-spaced new frames. Once drawn or filling nicely, I remove frames to eventually leave 9.

Perhaps I'm missing something? However, I'm reasonably confident that super dummy boards are something I can do without.

Other dummy boards I can do without

With one exception - see below - I can also do without dummy boards that are any thicker than a single piece of ~9 mm plywood.

I know some beekeepers build dummy boards that are full-frame thickness, or twice that. They use these for 'dummying down' 3- or 4-frame nucleus colonies in a 5- or 6-frame nuc box.

These 'over-width' dummy boards might even be insulated to save the bees heating the dead space in the nuc.

Whilst this reasoning is perfectly sound, I take a pragmatic approach.

I only have 3- or 4-frame nucs when I'm getting queens mated in late-Spring or Summer. I doubt the bees need the extra insulation at that time of the year and am happy to use a single thin dummy board (C in the schematic diagram above).

If the colony expands and builds brace comb behind the dummy board, then I've been remiss in my inspections. I should have added extra frames and allowed them to expand properly. A fatter dummy board might prevent the brace comb ... but the overcrowding might encourage swarming.

DIY to save money

I think the price of commercial dummy boards is a compelling argument for doing a bit of basic DIY for beekeeping.

Actually, thinking about it, I could probably buy the wood, the Evo-stick glue and an inexpensive tenon saw for the price of one commercial birch dummy board.

The beauty of DIY for beekeeping is that I don't need to spend £145 on Maismore's new 'Adapta-Dummy' which automagically fills the vacant space in a hive - any hive.

I can spend 5 minutes and ~70 pence knocking simple dummy boards together from bits of ply or, if I really felt they were necessary, build something of any thickness I wanted with a little ingenuity ... and not much more moolah.

And, if I wanted to find out whether a one-frame-width insulated dummy board was beneficial, I'd build a few and test them. That's far better than selling a kidney to subsequently discover that they were no better than my current setup, and just gathered dust and cobwebs in the shed.

Fat dummies

If the financial savings of making simple dummy boards are a compelling reason to 'do it yourself', then the commercial availability of 'fat dummies' is another - equally compelling - reason.

The Maisemore's Adapta-Dummy is fictional.

At least, I hope it is.

Fat dummies are not, but to my knowledge they are not available commercially.

Hold on ... what's a fat dummy?

My definition of a fat dummy is something that occupies a substantial space in a brood box. Typically, for reasons I'll get to shortly, the 'substantial space' is that occupied by 3.5 brood frames.

Standard self-spacing Hoffman frames are 35 mm thick, so 3.5 frames occupy 122.5 mm.

Two fat dummies therefore occupy the same width as 7 frames which, in a National brood box, leaves space for four additional frames (D in the diagram above).

This setup - two fat dummies separated by four frames - is what is used in the 'Ben Harden' queenright queen rearing method.

Ben Harden setup for queen rearing - note integral feeder

This method, which Ben Harden didn't invent but did popularise with articles in BIBBA's 'Bee Improvement', is a very simple (and therefore good) way of queen rearing. In my view it is an ideal method for beginners to queen rearing to start with; you need one strong colony, some enthusiasm, and no specialised equipment.

Other than two fat dummies.

Ben Harden queenright queen rearing

I've used this method for years and written about it extensively. I'm therefore only going to focus on the aspects relevant to this post on fat dummies.

In the Ben Harden setup, the two fat dummies are separated by four frames.

The two frames adjacent to the flanking fat dummies contain pollen stores; it is critical that there is lots of protein nearby to ensure that the developing queens are well-nourished.

Between the pollen-rich frames is one frame containing selected larvae to be reared as queens (typically this is a cell bar frame containing grafted larvae).

The final frame contains open brood to attract lots of nurse bees up (from the brood box below) to the immediate vicinity of the selected larvae.

The concentrated nurse bees ensure that the developing queens are well fed. Unless there is a strong nectar flow it is usually necessary to feed the queen rearing colony with ~200 ml of thin syrup (1:1 w/v) every day or so until the cells are sealed.

Fat dummies for queen rearing

I've built a variety of fat dummies for queen rearing.

The cheapest and easiest to construct were made from salvaged Correx 'For Sale' signs, strapped together with yards of gaffer tape. I filled them with polystyrene chips or bubble wrap, reasoning it would provide better insulation, though I'm not sure if it made much of a difference.

However, it can't have done any harm.

A Correx fat dummy from 2012 ... still in use

These Correx fat dummies were built over a decade ago, are still in use most summers (and occasional winters) and 'just work'. The sides have bowed out a bit over time, but it doesn't really impact their function.

But, if you are going to DIY, you can almost always 'build something better'.

Since it's often beneficial to feed syrup when rearing queens, it was logical to build a 'Mark 2' fat dummy with an integral feeder. Whilst I'm competent with Correx, making a syrup-tight feeder was beyond me, so I used thin plywood on a wooden frame. The latter (I think ... it's a long time ago) consisted of butchered brood frames, spaced correctly with some scrap softwood. Again, these were filled with some sort of insulation.

Wooden (mostly) fat dummy with integral feeder

The feeder is sealed on the inside, probably with varnish. Alternatively, I've sealed functionally-similar frame feeders by sloshing around some molten beeswax inside.

Fat dummies for other tasks

For Ben Harden queen rearing there's really no alternative than using fat dummies similar to those described above.

But they can be used for other things as well.

When I unite nucs with a full hive - for example, when requeening a hive with a new queen mated from a 3-5 frame nuc - I'll typically use the newspaper method with a second brood box part-filled with a fat dummy.

I go through the hive to be requeened and remove the unwanted queen, lay a couple of sheets of newspaper over the top bars and then add a second brood box. The latter is part-filled with one or two fat dummies, depending on whether it's a 3, 4, 5 or 6 frame nuc that's being united. Three or 4 frames go between two fat dummies, any more and I just put the nuc frames against the sidewall and push one fat dummy up against them.

Preparing to unite a nuc with a full hive

I've previously discussed taking your 'winter losses in the autumn' by uniting weak (healthy) colonies with strong colonies in late autumn, rather than potentially losing them in the winter.

However, inevitably, I've also tried overwintering weak colonies. You can use a fat dummy to part-fill the space in a brood box, placing this over a strong colony separated by a split board with a double-mesh screen. The bees in the upper box benefit from the warmth of the colony below, and use the upper entrance provided by the split board.

However, the 'benefit' might still not be enough to keep the small colony alive ... I'm therefore much more likely to leave the fat dummies in the shed overwinter and unite the weak colony before the end of the season.


Dummy boards and fat dummies are a good example of simple beekeeping equipment that:

  • improve colony management
  • are used most of the time in every hive (dummy boards) or rarely (fat dummies) ... you either need to purchase several, or they are unused for most of the year
  • cost 'silly money' when purchased commercially, or are not available to buy
  • can be easily and inexpensively constructed

If anyone can convince me that £15.70 represents good value for money then feel free to leave a comment below.


Anyone thinking the title referred to certain activities on social media might be disappointed, but still correct.

Observant readers will note that nothing has changed on the website since last week. I hit a last-minute glitch, now resolved, so plan to change things on Tuesday next.

I hope 😉

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