Combining Bee Hives
Tips on combining a queenless hive with a strong hive.
Combining bee hives can improve overall colony health and success.
Who isn’t fascinated by grafting? How a plum tree can be grafted onto the rootstock of a peach tree to create a hybrid of drupe fruits. How a heart can be taken from a pig and successfully introduced into a human being.
What about honey bees? Are they as fluid as water?
Pretty much. One example of combining bees from different colonies is the creation of packages. Buying bees and getting a springtime package in the mail might feel like brand new bees, but where did those bees come from? Most package suppliers combine workers from multiple colonies, pouring them by the pound into a single unit, then adding a caged queen. During the ride to yours, they all get used to each other’s scent (pheromones play a large role in cohering the many bodies of the honey bee superorganism) and become a coherent colony.
Colonies can be combined at any point in the season, and for a number of reasons. A beekeeper might combine a definitely queenless colony with a queen-right colony if for some reason requeening the colony is not an option (for example, it is too late in the season for the bees to raise their own new queen, or mated queens are hard to come by).
Another reason for combining bee hives is finding a drone layer in one. A drone layer is a queen who has run out of sperm in her spermatheca, so can only lay unfertilized, male eggs. Because her scent still permeates the colony, and because she continues to lay eggs in an orderly fashion, the bees don’t always sense something is wrong and may miss the opportunity to build replacement queens. You, though, will sense something is wrong when you see inordinate numbers of drones and corn-puffy drone brood capped where there should be worker brood. You can step in and help these bees before their population of workers dwindles too much: remove (kill) the drone-laying queen, and combine the bees with a healthy, queen-right colony.
Assessing their colonies in late summer, a beekeeper may decide on combining bee hives that won’t make it through the winter on their own due to their small population, lightweight (not enough food stores), or queenlessness at a point in the season where replacing her is difficult or impossible.
How to go about combining bee hives? First make extra sure one colony is absolutely queenless. Combining two queen-right colonies leads to queen fights, and you could lose both queens.
Then take one colony, and put it on top of the other one (this is a good reason to use the same type of equipment consistently in your apiary; ie, only eight-frame or only 10-frame brood boxes).
Remove the queen you liked less based on her summer performance. Then place one colony on top of the other one. Put a sheet of newspaper or pages from an offensive novel between the boxes to create a thin barrier. During the time it takes them to chew through the paper, they familiarize themselves with each other’s unique scent. Meanwhile, make sure each colony has its own entrance via a drilled hole or inner cover notch.
Check back in a few days to see that the newspaper has been chewed through and that the now-combined colony is queen-right. If needed, you can then rearrange the boxes, condensing brood frames together and arranging food resources around the nest according to honey bee logic.
A final note: oftentimes, a small or dwindling colony indicates sickness. You never want to risk combining a sick colony with a healthy one; you’ll end up losing both. Assess each candidate for a combine (including its history and current presentation). Does it have any signs of disease (deformed wings, unhealthy-looking larvae, sunken capped brood, dysentery)? Are mite levels out of control? If your answer includes any “yesses,” let this colony go. It’s probably all but dead anyhow. If your answers are a consistent “no,” this colony may be a good candidate for a combine.
Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.