What is a Queen Excluder?
A queen excluder is a barrier placed between the brood chamber and the honey super that allows only worker bees to pass through while blocking off the queen and drones.
Ok… let’s break down this definition…
Remember that honeybee colonies have three castes of bees:
- Queen- the one, fertile female in the colony responsible for populating the hive
- Drones- the male bees whose main role is to mate with other queen bees
- Workers- the female, infertile bees that do all of the work in the hive
Brood chambers and honey supers are compartments of the modern hive used by beekeepers.
- The brood chamber is referred to the section of the hive where the queen is confined to lay broods (or baby bees).
- A honey super is a box of frames where the bees create and store honey.
Beekeepers use a queen excluder to keep the queen from laying eggs in the honey supers. Queens are larger than a worker bee so excluders allow workers to pass through. The size of the brood chamber varies with every colony and it depends on the time of the year and weather conditions. At an ideal time, the queen will attempt to expand her egg-laying by moving into the supers intended for storing honey. A queen excluder is a modern piece of equipment intended to assist beekeepers with colony management.
When you purchase bees, they typically come with a queen excluder in the shipping box. Before inserting a queen excluder, new beekeepers need to understand how they work and how bees interact with them.
What material are queen excluders made of?
Queen excluders are typically made from metal wire or plastic.
Metal Queen Excluders
Metal excluders are long-lasting, sturdy, and are less likely to damage bees as they pass through because they are smooth. They are also easier to clean because they can be scraped, steamed, or boiled to remove any burr comb.
However, metal excluders are heavy due to the material. The metal is also prone to rust. These excluders also conduct heat and cold into the hive which can affect the bees who are sensitive to temperature.
Plastic Queen Excluders
Plastic excluders are more budget-friendly compared to metal excluders. They are also light in weight and do not rust. The material does not conduct heat or cold into the hive.
However, plastic excluders are not durable and can easily be damaged. There are sometimes sharp edges that may damage bees that are passing through. It’s also more difficult to clean plastic as they are more prone to damage or deformities.
Which one should I purchase?
If you do plan to use an excluder, it’s best to look for a metal one. They are more durable and are well worth the investment.
Queen Excluders: Pros and Cons
There is a lot of conversation about the pros and cons of queen excluders in the beekeeping community. There are some beekeepers that exclusively use queen excluders. The tool gives them more control in terms of managing the queen and the hive population. Meanwhile, other beekeepers refer to queen excluders as “honey excluders” because they believe bees are more reluctant to pass them, resulting in less honey production.
- It’s easier to find the queen for inspections, re-queening, or hive splitting.
- It’s easier to inspect the hive for diseases because the queen only has access to a portion of the hive.
- It’s easier to control the colony’s population
- It’s easier to harvest honey without worrying about brood in the combs.
- It’s easier to find and preserve higher quality wax from combs that do not have brood in them.
- Many beekeepers feel that worker bees avoid squeezing through excluders and this results in lower honey production.
- Low-quality excluders can have sharp edges that damage bees who pass through.
- Bees can build burr comb on the excluders which can result in lower airflow and overheating in the hive.
When do I need to add a queen excluder?
Protect the Honey
If you aren’t using an excluder, there is a good chance that the queen will fill your honey supers with broods. Consider if you plan to do cut a comb when harvesting honey. You don’t want to eat comb with brood in it. An excluder will protect the comb and make it safe for consumption. If you are extracting the honey, then you don’t need to worry about any lingering brood in the combs.
Splitting Hives without Finding the Queen
Queen excluders are great for splitting over-populated hives. You can put an excluder between two brood boxes and wait to see which brood box has newly developed eggs (typically this takes 4 days). From there, you can identify which box is queen-less (the one without new eggs) and introduce a new queen to it. With this method, you do not have to find the original queen and make the task more efficient.
Remove the Queen Excluder in the Winter!
In regions with harsh winters, it is common practice to remove queen excluders during the cold season. When it’s cold, the bees form a cluster at the top of the hive to keep each other warm and remain close to their stored honey. Bees are dormant in the winter and they don’t use a lot of energy to move around. If the queen excluder is left in place during the winter, the queen is unable to move up to the cluster and she will die. For more information, see our article about how to winterize a beehive.
Where do I need to place the queen excluder?
Typically a hive consists of stacked boxes with different purposes. You will have the brood box on the bottom followed by honey supers for the bees (to survive the winter), and then honey supers for harvesting on the very top. You will want to place the excluder directly under the honey supers that you plan to harvest.
There is usually a support wire under the main section of wires and it should face downwards toward the brood box.
What do I do if there is brood (baby bees) in the honey supers?
Many find that brood in the honey supers is not a major concern. If the queen is laying brood in the supers, she will eventually be pushed back down to the brood chamber and the worker bees will fill the recently hatched cells with honey- preventing the queen from laying in them again.
If you are extracting honey and you find a few frames with some brood left, simply return them to the super until they are hatched. It can take 21-24 days for broods to hatch so you will need to wait at least 24 days before removing the frames again for extraction. Without an excluder, beekeepers will need to spend additional time examining each frame to ensure only honey is capped.
Do queen excluders reduces honey production?
Many beekeepers blame queen excluders for reduced honey production in a hive. However, there are typically other reasons for the lack of honey. If a colony is not strong enough or there is limited nectar flow, bees will not produce honey. Honey super placement is also important. Place a new super onto a brood box that is full of bees to increase the likelihood of them producing honey.
Alternative: Create a honey barrier
A queen will typically not cross a band of honey and that is a way to restrict her movement around the hive. One method that many beekeepers practice involves using an excluder temporarily until the first super is filled with honey. Then the excluder can be removed because the frame of honey will act as a natural barrier between the queen and the remaining, empty frames.
Alternative: Create another entrance to the honey supers
If you are using a Langstroth hive, then there will be a front entrance at the bottom of the hive for the bees to come in and out. Some beekeepers find is useful to make a top entrance for the hive as well. The upper entrance is above the queen excluder and allows workers and drones to access the honey supers without going through the brood box. They simply have to exit from the original front entrance, fly up to the upper entrance and access the supers.
Final Thoughts- Yes or No to Queen Excluders?
Queen excluders are a useful tool for beekeepers. Depending on your goals, the value of keeping brood out of honey harvesting can outweigh the potential cons of the tool. Excluders are a great way to control bees and the quality of the honey.
Although many choose not to use one, it’s good practice to have one or two excluders on hand in case you need them. A queen excluder should always be placed right below the first honey super that you intend to harvest. Always be sure to find the queen and ensure she is below the excluder and in the brood box. Inspect the tool often for any burr combs or drone bees that get stuck in the mesh.
A queen excluder is a modern tool for beekeeping. There are a few alternatives if you choose not to use one but still want to keep brood away from the honey supers. Remember to continually inspect your hive to see how the colony reacts to the excluder. If the gaps are too small, worker bees may be reluctant to pass through them. If the queen is abnormally small or if the excluder is damaged, it may not work effectively.
Whether or not you decide to use an excluder shouldn’t affect your colony’s health or honey production. The best thing about beekeeping is that you can experiment to see what practices work best for your hive. Like people, every colony is different. Now that you are more educated in this tool, see for yourself how your hive will react!