A nuc box repurposed as a quiet box when opening a hive.

When you’re doing inspections, does it sometimes seem as though the bees are getting more upset by the minute? Once you’ve spotted your queen on the frame, how can you be sure to keep her protected while you finish your work? More than one queen has been stepped on after falling off a frame. What do you do with the outer frame you pulled out to make working room which may be oozing with honey and quickly attracting the attention of robbers? Have your ankles ever been targeted by the bees from a frame leaned against the base of the hive?

Bees live in a snug, dark, self-contained environment. When we unexpectedly pop off their roofs, they are suddenly thrust out into the light, dispersing all the familiar pheromones. Many young bees are still in a stage where they are negatively phototactic, meaning that they run away from light. And yet, they may be on frames perched up on frame hangers, flapping in the breeze.

Bees are tolerant of our intrusions, up to a point

The wonder isn’t that they allow us to mess around in their boxes, it's that they don’t launch explosively into suicide missions to drive us away. Choosing the timing of your inspections when all the foragers are away "at work" helps keep things calm, as does working to reduce your open-hive time as much as possible. But if you're still learning about your bees and taking your time studying the frames, or engaged in something more complex like making a split, you will need to be working in the boxes for more than just a few minutes.

Fortunately, the solution to this problem is simple, and often readily at hand. Just set up a quiet box, or two, before you open the hive. That way you have a place to park any frame that isn’t in its own slot, in its own box. The frames don’t care of course, but the bees on them do, profoundly.

The "secret" to calm bees

Honey bees are not naturally aggressive, even if faced with some level of hive disturbance. Since their defense – stinging – is lethal to them, they are not inclined to waste their lives if not needed. A skilled beekeeper can handle the frames quite extensively, even with all the rumpus of prying them loose and turning them upside down to look at the backsides. Most of the time the bees will simply stay put, or go about their business. At least, for a while they will. But, eventually, their tolerance for the disturbance will run out.

Smoke helps, of course, as well as smooth movements. However, what really makes a difference is to minimize the amount of time the bees are exposed to the open air – out of their boxes, away from their all-important pheromone communication system, and exposed to light and temperature changes.

To prolong the amount of time you can work with your bees before they lose their patience with you, simply have a quiet box at hand to stow any frames you have removed from the hive.

Quiet boxes, from fancy to home-made

Quiet boxes can be purpose-built ones like the sophisticated example described by Virginia beekeeper, Billy Davis, in this YouTube video. This style has extra ventilation and added space to protect queen cells on the bottom of frames. It would be lovely to have one like that and it would be a great winter project to make one.

But you can start using quiet box techniques at your next inspection, even without special purpose equipment.

At its most basic level, any bee box, set on a base and covered with something, qualifies as a quiet box.

You can use a nuc box, although some of these don’t offer much extra room underneath the frames, which can squish bees hanging from burr comb or damage queen cells on the bottoms of frames.

You can also use a spare box. This is an excellent use for a slightly damaged old box, or two mediums or even a medium and a shallow stacked up to make up the height of a deep frame.

The base need not even be a “real” bee-equipment base. Something as simple as a piece of plywood with furring strips nailed around the edges to raise up the bottom of the box about ¾” to 1” above the floor will work just fine.

For a covering, anything lightweight and easy to move is ideal. A favorite of mine is a plastic political sign as it is light enough to avoid harming bees when set down, and I can also safely nudge it off with my knee when I have my hands full. Cover cloths are another option. You can also use an inner cover, or an insulation foam insert from inside the telescoping cover.

Temporary base made from plywood and furring strips.

How to work with a quiet box

When removing the first frame (or two) from a box, slip it into the quiet box and cover the box. Now you have working room in the box you’re inspecting.

When you find your queen, slip her and the frame she’s on into the quiet box, too. Since you now know exactly where she is, you will be able to move a little more freely throughout the rest of the inspection. If you plan on doing a sugar roll or alcohol wash, you can proceed with no worries that she will be accidentally included among the test subjects. If you have placed your queen in a quiet box, as you return the frames to the hive, you should make a point of spotting her on a frame before dumping out any stragglers left in the box. Occasionally she will leave a frame and be on the side of the box, but usually she will just keep prospecting around on the frame you moved her on, or an adjacent one.

If you’re planning on making a split, or equalizing resources among hives, it helps to have more than one quiet box set up so that you can sort frames of brood from frames with stores into different boxes. This saves time and the frustration of trying to remember exactly where a specific frame was among multiple boxes. Even a simple task such as moving a few frames of brood up to a new box to “bait it” is easier if you have a place to stow them while you adjust the frames in the lower box.

Put the first frame or two removed from a box, and the queen's frame when you spot her, in the quiet box.

Enlarging the quiet box idea to encompass the whole inspection process

When you start out with bees, you just have a single box, so you open the top and start your work. But what happens when you add the next box, or supers? Do you have to keep starting at the top and working down? Sometimes there’s a reason to do that, but more often what you’re doing is creating a cascade of progressively more-alarmed bees as you work downward from box to box.

There’s another way to go about it: Assuming you plan to look in all the boxes, start by lifting the top box off the hive and setting it down, flat, on a base (another good use for your home-made base). Cover it while you work in the lower one. If you have more than two boxes on the stack, you can either reverse stack them or set each box on its own temporary base and cover it. Work the lowest box you plan to inspect while it is still on the stand. Then cover it, and work the other box on the temporary stand. Working this way offers you a fresh start on each box without an accumulation of alarm signals. When you’re through with all the boxes, just restack them. (Don’t forget to put the queen back in her box!) This way, by the time all the bees get together again to compare notes about their “alarming” experiences of the day, you’ll already have the hive closed up.

It may seem like extra work to go to the trouble of using a quiet box, but once you’ve tried it a few times, I think you won’t go back. At the very least, start taking an empty nuc box out with you on every inspection. The first time you’ve got the queen on her frame and you think, “Hey, I can set her down in there and she’ll be safe!”, I think you’ll be sold on the idea.

Using a quiet box while working on a multi-box hive. All the boxes are set on temporary bases, and a spare box is used to hold frames removed from the boxes during the work.