Reading a Honeybee Brood Frame: A Comprehensive Guide

After hearing over and over how important it is to “read” the brood frames in the honeybee’s brood box, and not hearing an overview of everything I need to know but rather bits and pieces of what abnormalities would look like, I decided to do a deep dive into what a NORMAL brood frame should look like and how it changes with time of year, geographic location of the hive, and the effects of different disease processes.

This is a comprehensive summary of what I have learned from that extensive research:

What am I looking for when reading a honeybee brood frame?

  • Is there a normal pattern of Energy Reserves, Energy/Protein Interface, capped brood, and capped Drone cells for this particular time of year and geographical location of the hive?
  • Is there an active laying Queen in the hive?
  • Is there evidence of diseases?

Now think of a honey bee brood frame layout as being a distribution pattern of a “rainbow” pattern with a hint of a “bullseye” overlay.

Read A Brood Frame

The upper part of the brood frame has the appearance of a rainbow pattern while the lower part of the brood frames takes on more of a bullseye pattern.

The Verbal Picture of a Normal Honey Bee Brood Frame:

Ring 1 Of The Rainbow:

This is the outer layer of the rainbow arch.
The outer layer of the rainbow is honey capped with a flat white wax area in the top of the frame called Energy Reserves. This is the stored honey that the bees intend to use when there is not enough nectar coming into the hive to feed everybody. This is the energy source that the bees use during the winter to survive until the next nectar flow in early spring.

Normal Appearance of the Energy Reserves Cells on a Honeycomb Frame:
(Outer ring of the rainbow)

The resultant look of these honey-filled cells is a zone at the top of the honeycomb frame in the shape of a Spanish arch, all that honey capped with white flat wax caps.

Ring 2 Of The Rainbow:

Ring two of the rainbow is made up of two intertwined interfaces known as:
1. Energy Interface
2. Protein Interface

The cells of the Energy Interface will appear as glistening yellow liquid.

The cells of the Protein Interface will have various colors and shades, depending on the pollen source in the pollen cells.

Energy Interface:

The Energy Interface is the zone of cells where the honeycomb contains either:

  • Incoming nectar
  • Open honey cells

Open honey cells could be nectar being processed into honey and then capped with a flat white wax cap, OR it could be a honey cell that has been opened by the bees and being used for energy needs now. It all depends on the availability of nectar, good in the two nectar flows, bad in the dearths and winter.

Protein Interface:

The Protein Interface is the zone where the honeycomb cells contain either:

  • Pollen
  • Beebread


The first thing the nurse bees do with the newly foraged pollen is to take the pollen inside their body to hid it from being eaten by microbes. They must do this quickly as the pollen is easily attacked by microbes.

The pollen that was taken into the nurse bee’s body is processed with enzymatic reactions and honey and then re-deposit into an empty cell in the protein interface zone where it ferments into beebread.

If there is more pollen gathered than can be processed by the nurse bees immediately, the nurse bees ram the protein down into the cell with their heads and begin the process of fermenting it and capping that pollen in the cell with a thin layer of nectar to deprive microbes oxygen to begin the fermentation process.

Normal Appearance of Energy/Protein Intertwined Interface
(Ring 2 of the rainbow):

The resultant look of this second rainbow ring, the cells of the “Protein and Energy Interface”, is one of open cells of honey and other intertwining cells containing the protein (pollen or beebread).

Glistening open honey cells (yellow) are seen intertwined with multicolored cells of pollen. They lay flat to the honeycomb.

This Energy/Protein Interface is dynamic and will move up and down the frame a little depending if the Energy Reserves (first ring of the rainbow) is being eaten for energy now or being stored for energy needs later.

The dynamics of this ring depends largely on the availability of nectar. This second ring of the rainbow gets pushed down during the two annual nectar flows and moves up the frame as bees consume the honey in the first ring of the rainbow for energy needed to supplement the amount of incoming nectar during the dearths (flowers not producing much nectar) and winter.

And of course, it also depends on the Queen to lay eggs in the right place at the right time. If the Energy Reserves are being eaten she will lay eggs at the top of this rainbow ring, right up against the Energy Reserves ring.

If the Energy Reserves are being increased, she will start laying at the bottom of the rainbow ring leaving the empty cells at the top to be added to the Energy Reserves.

The Target Area (Bullseye) Of The Honeybee Brood Frame:

Below the second ring of the rainbow will be a dark bullseye looking area. This is where the worker honeybee brood is being reared.

This area will contain open empty cells, cells with a egg in it, glistening white cells of larva immersed in Royal Jelly, and capped cells of brood that have metamorphosed into pupae as they age into fully formed adult bees upon emerging from the birthing cell.

This area is almost exclusively for rearing new worker bees. Drone and Queen bees are usually reared on a seperate potion of the honeycomb frame.

This area of the frame is usually dark in color. This darkening of the honeycomb is from the excrement of previous pupae that were reared in these cells. After birth, the worker bee’s first task is to completely sanitize that cell in preparation for the Queen to lay another egg.

While the cell is completely sanitized, there remains the discoloration that becomes more dark with successive use.

Some beekeepers prefer to use brood frames with a black foundation because it is easier to spot newly laid eggs, a sign of an active laying Queen.

Normal Appearance of the “Bullseye” pattern near the center of the frame
(Just below Ring 2 of the rainbow):

The resultant look of a healthy brood zone is one of empty cells, cells with newly laid eggs, the glistening white cells of larva in Royal Jelly, the capped birthing cell of the developing pupae, and the newly opened caps of bees recently emerging from their birthing cell.

The location of the newly laid eggs will change position depending on hive expansion or retraction of the brood zone.

During hive expansion during the nectar flows the newly laid eggs will be towards to bottom of the bullseye to allow the empty birthing cells to be used for additional honey reserves.

During hive attrition the newly laid eggs will be at the top of the bullseye and closer to the shrinking Energy Reserves as the bees start to consume the stored honey.

If newly laid eggs in the brood zone are not seen, it usually indicates the Queen has died or swarmed. Look for the Queen and make sure she is still in the hive. If she is, then possibly the Queen is old or just not a good laying Queen. Time to think about requeening.

If the glistening white cells of the larva is not glistening or is turning shades of yellow/brown, this is an indication of disease or a cut back on Royal Jelly feeding because of lack of pollen coming into the hive.

If the color change is from cutback of Royal Jelly feeding, it is time to start feeding the bees pollen/protein patties.

If the color change is from disease, the next step is to figure out what disease process is going on and what to do about it.

Normal Appearance of Newly Laid Eggs:

When a healty Queen bee is laying healthy eggs, she will lay one egg only in each cell at the bottom of the cell. The egg will be standing on end and remains standing on end for 3 days before it bends over and lays in a semicircle at the bottom of the birthing cell.

Newly laid eggs are initially ignored by the nurse bees until it curls over at the bottom of the cell. This marks the transition of an egg into a larva.

This change in position is the catalyst for nurse bees to start feeding the newly developed larva Royal Jelly. The optimal amount of time a larva is fed Royal Jelly to produce a healthy worker bee is 6 days.

Problems That Can Be Determined By Observing The Newly Laid Eggs:

  • If there are brood cells with eggs standing on end, you know the Queen has been alive and active within the past 3 days.
  • If there is more than one egg laying down at the bottom of the cell, or eggs that are stuck to the sidewalls of the birthing cell, you have a laying worker bee. All these eggs will develop into drones instead of worker bees. That will be a problem.

If there are two types of birthing cell waxcaps in the brood zone, some capped about level with the top of the honeycomb and others with caps that rise above the top of the honeycomb looking like a “muffin top”, then there are drone birthing cells in the worker bee’s birthing zone.

Having drones being reared in a worker bee birthing zone indicates there is either a laying worker bee or the Queen is unwittingly laying unfertilized eggs thinking they are the fertilized eggs that will develop into worker bees.

A Queen laying unfertilized eggs in the worker bee rearing zone is a sign the Queen is getting old and running out of sperm to fertilize the eggs. The Queen, at her maiden flight, collects enough sperm to last her for all her life.

A healthy laying Queen will lay eggs in a reasonable tight organized pattern. When the laying pattern is random, it is a sign of a laying worker or just a bad Queen.

To avoid these problems many seasoned beekeepers will requeen their hive every year.

Left and Right Lower Corners of the Brood Frame:

The bottom right and left corners of the brood frame is where most drone brood is reared. Drone brood cells are usually built in the bottom corners of the brood frame, looking like a stealth fighter plane trying to exit the lower corners of the brood frame.

Drone brood cells are significantly larger than any other cell in the honeycomb because the drone is a much bigger bee and needs the extra room to develop fully.

Drone brood birthing cells containing a drone pupae with a wax cap have a “muffin top” appearance.

Build up of drone brood is a very early indicator that the hive is preparing to swarm.
Learn more about swarming…..

If you see drone cells being built be sure to look for Queen cells being built by hive bees in anticipation of swarming.

The Bottom Of The Brood Frame

Be sure to check the bottom flat surface of the brood frame. This is the normal place for honeybees to build Queen cells.

A hive preparing to swarm will have to have a new Queen if the old Queen swarms, so Queen cell building is another early sign of swarming activity.

Normally honey bees will build some Queen cells for a “just in case” scenario so don’t be too worried if you see a couple of empty Queen cells, but keep a close eye on them.

Many beekeepers will automatically scrape off any Queen cell construction they find, but be sure the Queen is still in the hive. If the Queen has already swarmed and all the Queen cells are removed, the hive will not be able to produce another Queen and the hive will die.

Queen cells always point downward, even if they are constructed on the honeycomb instead of the bottom of the frame.

Once a Queen cell has the glistening white interior color of a larva immersed in Royal Jelly, swarming is emanate and only quick action will prevent the beekeeper from losing half the bees in the hive along with all the honey they can carry.

Terminology changes when there is a Queen cell containing a larva bathed in Royal Jelly. This cell is now called a “swarm cell”.

An ounce of prevention can be better than a pound of cure.

Related Topics:

Royal Jelly

What is Royal Jelly? Royal Jelly is the elixir of the honey bee providing all the essential ingredients for bee health and the only food consumed by the Queen bee and a developing larva.
Royal Jelly is consumed by every member of a beehive. The amount each bee receives is a feedback tool to every bee in the hive regarding the condition of the hive.

Learn more about Royal Jelly…..

Happy Beekeeping

Paying It Forward


A special thanks to Randy Oliver from Scientific Beekeeping for all the valuable information I have learned about reading a brood frame and for his generosity in allowing the use some of his pictures in this article.

Robert Donaldson

I am Elizabeth's father, a physical therapist, and someone who has completely landscaped our family home's nearly 1/2 acre lot after losing our home and landscape to the Thomas wildfire in 2017. All landscaping was done to accommodate our wildlife friends, especially the birds and bees.

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