Are Queen Excluders a Good Idea?
story and photos by: Kristi Cook If you enjoy a good debate, ask 10 beekeepers what they think about queen excluders. As is typical in the beekeeping community, within seconds, you’ll receive 10 different answers. But consider yourself warned. You may also find yourself thrust into a rather heated debate. I have personally witnessed raised voices emitted from the mouths of otherwise kind and gentle beekeepers over the use of this one piece of equipment on more than one occasion. Strange world, at times, that of the beekeepers. So to help ease the tension a bit, here’s a quick rundown of not only why an excluder is traditionally used but also a brief look into a few less commonly known ways these handy contraptions may be utilized around the bee yard.
First, the WHY?
The purpose of the queen excluder is stated in its name — to exclude the queen. Queen excluders are designed to do nothing more than keep the queen from wandering into the honey supers to lay eggs during the nectar flow. If allowed to lay eggs, the resultant brood will darken the comb which in turn darkens the honey. This is a problem for many beekeepers who sell honey for a living because lighter honey often brings a higher retail value than darker types. (Forage type is also a significant contributor to honey color.) Therefore, the preference for lighter honey types is often a key motivator for utilizing a queen excluder.
In addition to darkening the honey, a queen running around the supers laying eggs creates a couple of additional dilemmas at harvest time. In the absence of an excluder, the queen may still be on those honey frames and must be accounted for before pulling frames for extraction. Therefore, each and every frame leaving the hive regardless of the presence or absence of brood must be inspected closely to ensure the queen does not go to the extractor. And while it is true that a bee brush may be used to brush off the bees, queens should not be subjected to the brush as injury and even death may occur.
So, to avoid damaging a queen and to save time regardless of the use of excluders, many incorporate bee removal sprays to push bees off of the supers and down into the brood chamber which usually works well to move the queen down as well. Pushing the bees down with these products helps to significantly reduce individual frame checks. However, when open brood is present, it can be difficult to convince the bees to leave the brood which increases the risk of the queen also still being present. When this occurs, any frame with bees hanging around will still require manual observation and bee removal which does take more time and further increases the risk of losing a queen.
Those frames with brood must then either be left in the hive to allow time for the brood to emerge or be spun in the extractor. When left on the hive, honey is lost to the bees. As such, every frame of honey lost is a fair amount of honey money lost as well. Alternatively, if honey is extracted from those frames, the brood will also be extracted and must then be filtered out. Depending on the filtering materials used, this filtering process also removes pieces of wax and potentially local pollen collected in the honey that many prefer to keep in their product for both nutritional purposes and increased market value. Still, other beekeepers get a bit squeamish at the idea of dead larvae and pupae hanging out in their honey regardless of how well it is filtered before consumption. So they use queen excluders.
But here’s the thing.
Queen excluders are optional pieces of equipment. Excluders do not keep honey bee colonies alive. Therefore — it bears repeating — excluders are optional. So here’s the flip side to using excluders.
Even though many argue that queens should never be allowed upstairs for the aforementioned reasons, just as many successful beekeepers argue that excluders reduce the amount of honey the bees collect. The reason for this counter-argument is that some honey bee colonies appear to resist moving upwards through the excluder. This can cause bees to deposit more nectar in the brood chamber than is optimal which may, in turn, cause them to feel crowded regardless of the extra room provided via the now inaccessible honey supers resting above the queen excluder. This buildup of honey in the brood chamber usually leads to swarming rather than moving up in these particular colonies. And swarmed colonies don’t produce much honey.
To add to this argument, many also believe the bees resist plastic excluders more frequently than they do the metal excluders. And unlike obvious facts such as the potential for brood and queens to be in the honey supers, these counterarguments aren’t quite so easy to prove or disprove because for some colonies it may be true. For others, not so much. So deciding whether or not to use an excluder is highly personal and should mesh well with your preferences and your management style.
While queen excluders are not necessary for keeping colonies alive nor for honey production, there are other ways they can be used that are often beneficial enough to justify keeping at least a few hanging around in the bee yard. For instance, a few queen rearing methods utilize queen excluders to help create starter/finisher colonies for grafted queen cells. Excluders can also be used when making splits to isolate a queen without first locating her. Some beekeepers even use the excluder between the bottom board and the bottom deep to ensure a prized queen doesn’t swarm. Even swarms may benefit from this setup as many beekeepers believe this gives a newly hived swarm a few days to settle in and begin building comb before allowing access to the exit. These alternative uses are only the tip of the iceberg, especially once non-bee-related uses are taken into account.
The merits of using queen excluders may very well continue to be a topic of much debate for decades to come. However, regardless of which side of that fence you keep bees on, know that queen excluders are not required to keep honey bees alive and thriving. Rather, the intent is to make the beekeeper’s job easier by simply keeping the queen down in the brood chamber where she belongs. However, even if you prefer to allow your bees to move more freely, there are many more uses that make these simple contraptions well worth keeping around the bee yard, as you never know just what use you may find for it. So don’t get caught up in this debate. Just grin, nod, and walk calmly away.
Originally published in May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and vetted for accuracy.