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How to Read a Frame

The most daunting part of being a beginner beekeeper is how to read a frame and know what you’re looking at, and what it all means. There’s a wealth of information out there on how to read a frame, but it can get a little confusing to beginners. The best way to learn is always just going to be by inspecting your frames and researching what you see. It’s always good to do research beforehand to get the basics down to avoid any potential issues like swarming.

What you’ll be looking for:

Identifying Brood Cells

5 Stages of a Brood Cell

Egg > larva > capped brood > pupa > empty cell

Capped Brood: Adult bees cap 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.

As you can see, the capped drones are more bulbous and protruded than the capped workers. I’ll use the workers as an example to compare with capped honey a little later.

What is the difference between a worker bee and a drone bee?

Worker bees and drone bees have different roles in a honey bee colony. Worker bees are female bees that are responsible for tasks such as:

  • They care for the queen and Nurse the brood
  • Cleaning the nest
  • Hive ventilation
  • Building combs
  • Defend the colony from attacks
  • They provide food for the colony by foraging
  • Make important decisions like swarming and changing of diet
  • They make honey through a complex process

On the other hand, drone bees are male bees that have only one purpose: to mate with the queen. They do not have stingers and are unable to collect nectar or pollen. Drones are produced during the summer months, and their numbers can vary depending on the needs of the colony.

Once the drones have mated with the queen, they die soon after. Worker bees can live for several weeks during the summer months and up to several months during the winter season. In summary, while worker bees are responsible for the day-to-day tasks of the colony, drone bees are solely responsible for reproduction.

Identifying Queen Cells

The other type of brood cell you may see is a queen cell.

There are two kinds of queen cells! 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 types look the same: this means a new queen is being made:

Queen Cell, usually described as looking like a peanut
Queen Cell, usually described as looking like a peanut

However, the difference between the two is that they are formed at different locations on the frame, and for different reasons:

Supersedure Cells (AKA “Emergency” Queen 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. Swarm cells form vertically off the bottom of the frame. When you see these, its time to split the hive immediately. Otherwise your old queen will leave with some of the population to find a new home.

Continuing to Read the Frame: Finding The Queen

To find the queen on a frame, you should first look for eggs, larvae, and capped brood, as these will be located near the queen. Then, scan the frame for the queen, who will be larger and longer than the other bees, and may have a different coloration.

Look for her distinctive long abdomen and her movement patterns, which are slower and more deliberate than worker bees.

If you still can’t locate her, identifying the eggs and larvae will tell you that she’s been around, and how long ago.

How long ago was my queen on this frame?

This chart provides the important information, at a glance:

If you see…Then:
EggsQueen was alive 3 days ago
Small larvaeQueen was laying 5 days ago
Fat, white, grub-like larvaeQueen was alive about a week ago
Capped worker broodQueen was alive and laying 8–21 days ago

Capped Honey and Nectar Cells

Honey storage cells as suggested by the name, imply the cells that have been made purposely for honey storage, which is crucial for the survival of the honeybee colony.

The honeybees rely on two main kinds of food, namely, honey and pollen (used to make “bee bread”). Honey is made from nectar, whereas pollen is collected from anthers of flowering plants.

Honey is the main source of energy, whereas pollen is the main source of protein.

Capped honey can look like worker brood cells, but the main difference is that capped honey is slightly concave, and the worker cells are slightly convex.

Take a look at the difference between the capped worker cells and the capped honey cells:

Around the capped honey, you’ll see uncapped honey!

Uncapped honey is nectar that has not reached the stage for it to become honey. The worker bees will thus leave the cells open for the moisture to evaporate until it attains the required condition.

Pollen Cells

Pollen is the main source of protein (as well as important nutrients such as lipids, vitamins, and minerals) for honeybee colonies. The worker bees collect pollen from flowering plants, and is a vital part of the colony’s nutrition. The color of the pollen depends on the plants it was taken from.

The pollen is packed into brood cells close to the edge of the frame, and will be used for making bee bread (a mixture of pollen and nectar) when needed. The bee bread is mostly consumed by the nurse bees (worker bees that care for the brood), since this helps with production of royal jelly required for feeding the larvae.

If you’re interested, I made a beekeeping journal to make logging inspections easier!

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