How to unite bees – the Third Box Principle


Once upon a time I used to keep mice. They don’t swarm but they are territorial and they do fight. If you try to introduce two mice, of any or either sex, by simply dropping one into the cage of the other they will fight. However, if you put the two of them together in a third cage they will get along like a house on fire. This is what I call ‘the third box principle’ and the same thing applies with bees.

Before we go any further I should state that the Third Box Principle is not an explanation of bee behaviour but it is a mental model which helps the beekeeper to ‘put a handle’ on what is observed. It is also a particularly helpful thing to know when you are in the thick of the latest bee conundrum and wondering what the hell to do next – it can give you extra options.

Here are some useful things to do with it:


This is great when making up nucs. As you know, for a nuc you need a queen, 3 frames with brood on, 1 frame of stores and 1 frame with lots of pollen on it. Using the third box principle you can take frames of bees, pollen and stores from 1, 2, 3 or even 4 hives of bees to put into the nuc and they won’t fight. If you are afraid they will then just hold two frames together and watch them. If you want to put a queen in then it is probably best if you take her and the frame she is on and put her to one side of the nuc and then put another frame of her bees and brood next to her. Then fill the nuc with bees from several different hives. This has never failed with me.

Queen Rearing

If you are into queen rearing and want a really strong colony for your cell rearer then you can take a spare hive or two out with you to your out-apiaries fill it/them with frames of bees and brood taken from each of your strongest hives. Just make sure you know where your queens are! You can then quietly unite these boxes of confused bees with your rearer hives using the newspaper method.


This can also be used in requeening – which can be ticklish enough. If you have your new queen in a nuc:

  • Move the nuc to one side:
  • Place an empty, full size box and floor in its place;
  • Transfer all the frames from nuc to the back of the full size box;
  • Fill the space with bees from another queenless hive or bees you have gathered as per the method above.

This will work also work with bees which have resorted to laying workers.


You can also use it combine Apideas, say one with a laying queen and two that you have removed the queens from – 9 frames in all. In this case you’ll  need a fourth box: a fresh empty Apidea plus an empty Apidea super.

Do this on the site of the queen right Apidea.

  • Move the queen-right Apidea to one side and put the fresh empty box in it’s place without the feeder;
  • Load the 3 frames, including the queen into the fresh box then fill the   remaining two spaces (where the feeder isn’t) with two frames and the adhering bees from one of the queenless Apideas;
  • Set the super (extension – whatdoyoucallit) in place and fill it with the remaining frames and bees from the queenless apideas;
  • Spray any bees remaining in the apideas with water, gently tumble them into a corner and pour them into the new double decker;
  • Put an empty frame in the remaining space;
  • Walk away and don’t look back.


Test it

If you are in doubt about this – don’t take my word for it. It works with my  bees but it might not work with yours and there are always exceptions. So test it – get your third box and put a couple of frames into it from different hives – but not too close together – then watch as you push them towards each other…

And always be aware of where your queen/s is/are!

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2 thoughts on “How to unite bees – the Third Box Principle”

  1. With the third box principle, is it necessary that the hives that are to be united are first mover together?

    1. Yes and no.
      While they are in the box, bees in the third box obey the third box principle but when they leave it they are bound by the three feet, three mile rule.
      Unless they’ve never been out before – then they don’t know where they are or where they came from.

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