Grow, shake or drum? Transferring bees between hive types

Recently a question was raised on the OxNatBees members’ mailing list on how to transfer bees from one hive type to another where the bars are incompatible, in this case from a National deep brood box to a Warré.

The discussion arising, given in summary below, was around three possible methods: growing down, making a shook/brushed ‘swarm’, or to drum them out. The method chosen and the member’s experience is also given.

What method(s) do you prefer?

Growing down

TBH to Warré grow down  – photo courtesy Ann Welch

This is where the occupied hive box is placed above the empty hive with an adapter board between. This method has the advantage of being very unintrusive and preserves existing brood and comb (although this may not always be wanted, for example if transferring to reduce varroa, etc.).

The bees continue to live in the original box but any expansion is downwards into the new hive. The old comb is eventually abandoned by the bees and the colony becomes established in the new hive at which point the old box and adapter can be removed.

However, the experience of a couple of people in the group who had tried this in practice was that their bees still had retained their nest within the original box two or more years later and so they could not remove the old box/adapter. They did not generally recommend it for this reason.

Shook/brushed swarm

This method sacrifices any brood left behind in the National brood box, but was suggested as potentially viable at this time of year (Spring) as the Queen is actively laying.

The occupied combs are each held above the open top of the Warré and the bees brushed and/or shaken down into it. After an initial shake a long goose feather or a specialised bee brush is used with a gentle movement to remove any still left on the comb or in the box. You must be careful that the Queen is not left behind or ‘lost’ in this process and so some people would recommend catching the Queen first and holding her temporarily in a cage within the new hive.

An example of such a transfer is outlined in this article Making a Shook Swarm posted previously on the blog.

It has been used successfully within the group.

Additional advice included:

It  is best to do this about an hour before sunset so they have no option but to stay there (and block the entrance so they can’t get out that night, but allow some ventilation). Let the brood die from cold overnight then let the bees salvage stores from the old comb.

This is the best time of year to do a shook swarm, because the colony / queen is healthy and the brood losses are relatively low. The colony lifecycle is programmed to build up numbers now so this loss of brood is a bump in the road, not a car crash. An incidental benefit of a shook swarm is that it gets rid of 90% of any varroa there may have been, because they tend to be in the capped brood. The sooner you do it the more time the colony has to rebuild and grow strong this year.

The one time I did this it was with Warre combs, which were only supported along their top side (where the bees attached them to the bars). So they could not be shaken violently. I think my main technique was brushing them with a feather, not shaking fragile comb. It worked and was straightforward. I was doing a shook swarm because the hive had become infested with varroa and I felt it needed a reset to near-zero mites to recover. The interesting point there though was: I moved the hive a few feet from its original location, then placed a new hive at the old location. 95% of bees that flew up returned to the OLD location and entered the new hive. Perhaps you could use this behaviour in your situation, by acclimatising the bees to their new location with the twigs-in-front-of entrance trick, then a couple of days later do the shook swarm into a Warre whose entrance is at the exact location of the original box.

Don’t do the shook swarm on the same day you move the brood box because, like catching a swarm, the bees will be agitated from the move and likely to abscond. With a swarm you can hive them the same day in the evening but I suspect a colony not in swarm mode will be even more upset about being messed around.” – Paul Honigmann

Drumming out

This method was suggested as an alternative to a shook swarm. It sacrifices the brood but it is quicker than growing down and less intrusive than shaking/brushing.

It has been used successfully within the group.

“It works from any shaped box into any shaped box provided a converter board can be made to accommodate the difference in shape between the two boxes. Thus, for a National to Warré transfer, the board would be made to fit the National but with a square hole in the middle which is Warré sized.

Remove the National box from its floor and place on an empty ‘stand’ such as a spare box so that the combs are exposed below. Remove the covers on the National and place the converter board on top of the open hive. Place the empty Warré box on top of the board and put a top cloth over. The bees are now in an enclosed space, the top part of which is the empty Warré with top bars in place.

Smoke the National box from below – this need not be a lot of smoke, just enough to tell the bees to start moving upwards. Then, with two stout pieces of wood start drumming two opposite sides of the National. Create a rhythm that feels slightly vigorous but pleasing. After a while, maybe about 4 – 5 mins, the bees will have formed into a quasi-swarm and will flow UPWARDS into the empty Warré box. Keep drumming until about 10 mins or a bit more have elapsed. By that time most of the bees and the queen should be clustered, swarm-like,on the top bars in the top box. Check by peeling back just a corner of the top cloth.

When all, or nearly all of the bees have moved up, the Warré box can be placed on its proper floor in the position of the old hive. Those bees that are left in the National box (there will be a few) can be shaken or brushed on to a board placed in front of the entrance to the Warré and they will join the rest of the bees.

There is a video of beekeepers doing this with cork hives in Portugal somewhere on the internet [see end of post]. I have done it with two hives so far this year. It is a lot less disruptive than shaking/brushing all of the bees from the old hive and took about 10-12 mins to get the vast majority of the bees transferred. I then placed a feed on the new hive (since they had beendeprived of their stores as well as brood) and after about 12 hours they started building new comb and behaved exactly like a swarm.” – Gareth John

What method did they use and how did it go?

The member decided to try to do the transfer by drumming and there were were two follow-up questions:

Is it better to do this morning or late afternoon?

Whenever the bees are active and not too late in the day.

Currently the national hive has a brood box and a super, do I drum both boxes on top of each other at the same time or one at time starting maybe with the brood box to transfer the queen first?

“If the National is fitted with a queen excluder, I’d start with the brood box to get the queen and nurse bees transferred first. (The queen would not be able to get through the QX in any event.) Then I’d do the super. I have not tried moving bees that have been separated from the queen with a QX but my hunch is that they may be more resistant, so you might have to brush these bees.

If there is no QX, it is not so critical (and you won’t know which box the queen is in) so I’d do the two boxes together. The only thing that might make me separate the two boxes in this case is if the super is solid with honey. Queens don’t like moving over sealed honey, so in that case I’d do the brood box first.” – Gareth John

Here is the report of what happened, ultimately a combination of both drumming and then brushing down was used:

We used the recommendation from Gareth took the brood box and removed the queen excluder added the transfer board to fit the Warré hive on top. Smoked them from underneath and drummed them for 10min. 10 min of non stop drumming is a lot longer than I thought!

After a while I looked through the observation window and saw a cluster of bees in the top box so we added it to the floor of the Warré. There were still plenty of bees left on the frame of the combs with brood, we were not too sure whether the queen was transferred but then we saw some bees entering the Warré so we took this as a signal that the queen must be in.

We then added another box on top of the Warré where the cluster was and brushed off all the bees from the frames of the brood box and did the same with the frames of the super.

Between start to end including tidying up all the equipment moving all the frames away and taking the old hive away, it took us 3 hrs between the 2 of us!

All the rest of the bees went then inside the hive on their own after we fully assembled the Warré. We extracted their honey to feed it back to them. And they are currently all clustered inside the top box, so fingers cross they will build some new combs very soon.

The harsh part was to let the brood die and seeing new bees being born but unable to fly to go to the hive, the combs and brood all looked really healthy. – Mags

Sounds like a successful transfer – good luck Mags!

Videos of drumming

I could not find the specific video Gareth mentions but did find two nice examples showing bees being drummed, although not using an adapter board – the first from one box into a box held above it, the second from a box into the hive next to it. Note how calm the bees are in both instances, with just a little smoke being used:

What methods have you tried and what was your experience?


This entry was posted in Group Digest, Hives, ONBG, Warré and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Grow, shake or drum? Transferring bees between hive types

  1. Emily Scott says:

    Not exactly the same but I moved some bees from Langstroth onto National frames. I purchased a colony on Langstroth frames from another beekeeper, he gave me a conversion board to fit over the top of the Langstroth frames. We then moved the queen up onto new National frames with a queen excluder between. Once all the brood in the Langstroth frames had hatched out I gave them back to the beekeeper, by then the queen was laying in the National frames.


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