Answer: it depends. That is always the answer for every beekeeping question, or so it seems. Actually, there is one which is always ‘yes’ – see end of this article. When I had kept bees for only two or three years, I decided to forego queen excluders, to see what happened. This is actually quite worthwhile, even if you only do it on a couple of hives, just to observe what bees do when given space and freedom to roam. My biggest ever colony, which was much taller than me, 6 ft (1.83 m), happens to have been one of the ones without an excluder. Unfortunately, the farmer clipped it with his tractor, and it crashed to the ground. The bees extracted their revenge on the fleeing farmer’s head, and then on me as I put it back together again. Anyway, queen excluders: are they needed for successful beekeeping?
Honey excluder by proxy
When I learned about beekeeping, initially from evening classes at my beekeeping association, and later from books, the queen excluder was simply part of the hive. It never occurred to me that you could survive without one. Every picture of a hive showed an excluder sitting above a single brood box. It was as important as the roof, as far as I was aware. Later, I discovered exotic practices, such as ‘double brood’ and even the outrageous idea that a queen excluder is, in fact, a honey excluder. I’m in no doubt that it’s not, by the way. However, it could be a honey-excluder-by-proxy (HEBP) if it led to over crowding in the brood nest, causing the bees to make swarm preparations. Wow, HEBP – it just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
The purpose of the queen excluder is to prevent her from moving from one area of the hive to another. It does not always work. I have found that my framed wire excluders can be quite leaky, so now I tend to use those flat plastic ones. They are cheaper and seem to work better. Going back to the BIG QUESTION, I believe that the answer is YES. Queen excluders are indeed needed for successful beekeeping if your beekeeping involves raising queens. I would further argue that every beekeeper with more than ten hives should try to raise some queens, but I digress.
Essential for raising queens
If you wish to graft larvae from your prized breeder queen, it helps to know for certain that larvae of the right age will be available and conveniently located on one frame. I trust to luck, and mostly that works, but a vertical queen excluder in the breeder queen’s hive can guarantee success. The queen can be placed on a frame containing empty comb and separated from other combs using a vertical excluder. Then, four days later, the comb will contain larvae of the right age because the queen had nowhere else she could lay. It’s a bit awkward making a groove in the hive walls and cutting the excluder so that it slides into place snugly, but it can be done. Bob Bonnie calls it a ‘timing box’. Top tip: use a dark comb or a plastic frame to make grafting with a Chinese grafting tool easier.
Most people who raise queens like to use a queen-right finisher. Cells that have been started off in a queenless colony are placed in a box above a hive containing a queen, but the boxes are separated by supers and one, or even two, queen excluders. Without excluders, there is a risk that the cells would be destroyed, which would be demoralising and a complete waste of resources. I have messed about in the past with re-queening a colony by putting a sealed queen cell in between super frames, then removing the excluder once the virgin has emerged. The idea is that, to the bees, it’s like a supersedure. Once the new queen is mated they will get rid of the old queen and, hey presto, you re-queened a colony with minimal effort. To be honest, it worked for me 50% of the time, but that was only 1 out of 2. Not really a rigorous test.
Other excluder uses
Another good use of an excluder is when doing the Ian Steppler boosting method, in which a small colony is placed above a strong one (both have queens). He uses newspaper too. Without the excluder, one queen would be killed, which would be about as far from a ‘boost’ as you could get. Moreover, the Demaree method, as originally described, could not work without an excluder.
How about this. If you want to harvest a load of nurse bees – to put into mating nucs, for example – you can use an excluder. If you put a box containing open brood above a strong colony with an excluder between boxes, the nurse bees will move up to look after the brood. Drones and the queen can’t get up there. You can then shake the frames, knowing that the queen is safe, and you have got nurse bees for your mating nucs.
The main event
Of course, the main use of queen excluders is to keep her majesty away from honey supers so that you don’t get brood mixed in with honey. Or it could be to keep the combs in the honey supers nice and light (brood makes the wax go dark). Some people are not too keen on extracting honey from combs that have had brood in it. I don’t think it’s a problem because the bees clean out cells and polish them, applying propolis as they go. However, if frames have had amitraz strips or other chemicals near them, they should be kept for brood, I think. I haven’t used amitraz for ages as thymol, oxalic acid and formic acid seem to do the trick. Thymol would surely taint the honey, but these things get applied when honey boxes have been removed.
For the last 7 years I have used excluders in the way that is normal, at least in the UK. They keep the queen from the supers at all times. I’m thinking of going to a sort of hybrid system this coming season. The idea is that in spring and early summer, as the colony is in rapid expansion mode, I will add boxes as the bees need the space, but minus the excluder. This gives the queen the chance to go where she wants and to create the brood nest that works for her. No artificial crowding into one box. However, as we get past the June solstice, she can be shaken (or placed) down into the bottom box with an excluder overhead. She will be laying fewer eggs from then on, and the swarming season will have (theoretically) passed. Any brood upstairs will emerge, and the cells will be cleaned up and used for the forthcoming honey flow in July.
In the past, when I didn’t use excluders, the queen moved down as the season progressed anyway. She tended to have her nest mostly in the second box up from the bottom, with honey in the boxes above. The bottom box often had a bit of pollen and little or no brood, plus numerous older bees who wanted to kill me, so I didn’t go down there much. The hybrid idea, in which the queen is confined to a single brood box from July onwards, might mean less swarming and more honey. We shall see.
The answer is yes
Finally, the question to which the answer is always yes: “If I don’t monitor varroa mite levels in my colonies, and I don’t live in some remote part of Scotland where mites have yet to arrive, should I treat?” Oh, and following on from that, “should I treat every hive in the apiary at the same time?” Yes!