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Raising honeybees is a practice that has been around for centuries. It is believed that humans have kept bees for more than 9,000 years. This is such a long time and thanks to all the efforts put into it, modern beekeepers can now focus on best practices of raising honeybees. Weak colonies have proven to have the least chance of making through the colder months such as winter, hence the need to sometimes combine honeybee colonies. This strategy makes it possible for the beekeeper to go into winter with a stronger colony.
Combining two weak colonies is the sure way of creating a robust colony. Nonetheless, we describe this as an art since it takes skill and experience to do it. In essence, you do not just wake up one morning and decide to dump bees from a hive to another. Doing this proves to be harmful rather than helpful to the honeybees. In this article, we exhaustively explore the art of combining honeybee colonies. Join us in this exciting journey.
When it is Necessary to Combine Honeybee Colonies?
Honeybee colonies are usually combined or united for a number of reasons. The term unite is used more profoundly than the term combine. You might also come across some beekeepers referring this to as merging or joining, or amalgamating. Nonetheless, all these terms connote the same thing. With that out of the way, it is important to comprehend why this is important and when it is necessary to do so. There are a number of methods and equipment that are used to unite honeybee colonies, a single frame of bees, or even nuclei.
Some of the reasons for combining honey bee colonies include the following:
The beekeeper might be downsizing or needs to reduce the number of colonies under their control. These colonies might have increased due to manipulations and it is now time to reduce the number, so that it becomes more manageable to the beekeeper. Remember, honeybee colonies might pose a serious risk of loss during wintering if unmanageable. Even normal months demand some due care and maintenance of the colonies. The beekeeper might find it convenient to have a few strong colonies, instead of spreading efforts thin managing weak colonies that may not even survive. In terms of productivity, it also makes financial sense to have a few stronger colonies that are profitable instead of tiny ones that do not profit.
2. Surviving Winter
This a common practice prior to winter. The beekeeper will combine two or more weak colonies so that they stand a chance of surviving through winter. Winter is tough for honeybee colonies and it is uncommon not to report cases of die-outs after winter. These colonies that are combined may never survive on their own, hence the need to unite them with similar colonies. It also becomes easier to manage few colonies during winter since the beekeeper may have to provide supplemental feed where necessary. Parasites and diseases also become easier to keep on check when the colony is smaller and stronger.
3. Unproductive Queen
Failed mating often occurs in honeybee colonies, which ultimately affects the productivity and future of the colony. Therefore any colony that might have a shortage of a fertile queen will be rendered unproductive and its future jeopardized. The only solution to this big problem is through the unification of honey bee colonies. The incoming colony queen will help restore the viability of the colony and balance the equation. That is the only way the colony will be restored and its future generation of bees produced. Additionally, stronger honeybee colonies resulting from the combination can defend itself from robber bees and other invaders such as yellow jackets, ants, and other intruders.
4. Drone laying queen or laying worker bees
There might be a scenario whereby the existing honeybee colony has a drone laying queen or laying worker bees. It is not a common occurrence but is counter-productive for any surviving honeybee colony. It will happen when the colony is queenless, forcing the worker bee to begin laying eggs. This is greatly discouraged and hence the need to introduce a new queen to the colony through the unification process. This incoming honeybee colony will make it possible for the queenless colony to once again become productive.
It is worth mentioning that the queen bee plays an important role of unifying any colony, no matter the size. It produces a special chemical that guides the colony. The queen also lays lots of eggs given its fully developed ovaries.
5. Post artificial swarming
Honey bee colonies may be united after an earlier induction of artificial swarming. This happens rarely but at times it becomes necessary when the colony size is too big to manage under the same roof. Summer is particularly a time when honeybee colonies are highly productive, thus leading to ballooning of colonies. If this happens, the beekeeper may induce artificial swarming, or the bees will split by themselves. If this is done during the peak season, then the beekeeper might unite these colonies later one just before the onset of winter. That way, the resulting stronger colony is much safer and will likely make it through winter.
6. Re-queening a colony
It becomes necessary to unite honeybee colonies when the beekeeper wants to re-queen a colony. As earlier mentioned, the queen bee plays an important role when it comes to the survival of any colony. She is central to the success of the colony. As a matter of fact, the queen bee is resistant to certain diseases, including chalkbrood. Perhaps you have heard that requeening is one of the solutions to diseases such as chalkbrood. A colony may also have a queen that is drone-laying. If this is the case, then it means the colony will have a shortage of worker bees, without which it becomes almost impossible for a colony to survive. The only solution to the problem will be to introduce another colony.
7. Combing a weak colony with a stronger one
Combination of a weak colony with a stronger one. This is a good reason for unifying honeybee colonies. The queen from the weaker colony is removed before combining or she is caged so as to prevent the other colony workers from killing her.
8. Loss of a queen
A colony might have lost its queen or the newly crowned queen fails to show up after a mating flight. If any of these happens then the colony remains queenless and a replacement needs to be sought.
When Not to Combine Honeybee Colonies
Not only is it important to understand when it makes sense to combine honeybee colonies but also when not to. It is not necessary to combine hives when the two are functioning well and independently. It is only practical to combine them when either of the hives is struggling. If one is weak and the other is strong, then you need to combine. A queenless hive will also require some boost from another. Two hives that are weak can also be combined. The latter might seem counter-productive but it will help boost both of the hives. The domesticated bees unlike their feral counterparts require some support, especially during periods of dearth such as winter. Beekeepers are encouraged to minimize any form of intrusion during the colder months since an exposure during this time will affect the normal condition within the honeybee colony.
How to Combine Honeybee Colonies
- A number of newspapers. Could be printed or not but not glossy paper. Avoid papers with heavy prints since these may contain metallic components that can harm bees to contaminate the honey and colony
- The hive tool
- The bee smoker
- Blocks of wood or cement
Before you combine colonies, you should do the following:
- Sugar syrup should be prepared. This will be used for feeding the two colonies once the unification is completed.
- Cut three splits on the pieces of newspaper to allow easy combination without any fighting. This separation helps the two colonies to exchange pheromones before they are united. By the time the two colonies are merged, the honeybees will already be familiar with each other.
- The smoker serves an important purpose. The hives should be smoked well before you even begin to bring them together. Smoke has proven to lull honeybees, thus making them less aggressive. This will make your work much easier.
- The blocks of wood or cement should be placed at the hive front.
- Remember, bees cannot combine naturally since they are sensitive to any new smell and will treat any new visitor as an intruder. This will trigger an aggressive response hence the need for drastic introduction of a new colony using the newspapers as a partition.
- Preparation for unification of two beehives should begin during the day. This is ideal during this time since most of the flying bees or foragers are away from the hive. The actual uniting should be carried out at night and early autumn is the best time for combining honeybee colonies.
- The decision of deciding which queen to keep is never easy especially when both of the colonies have the ideal queen. If this is the case then serious considerations have to be made. You can decide to keep both of the queens and let the two colonies choose which queen to keep instinctively. The outcome of this will be a stronger queen prevailing over the weaker one, but often with resulting injuries. In fact, you might lose both of the queens due to injuries. It is thus wise to choose and kill the weaker queen.
- The colony that is queenless should always come on top of the colony with the ideal queen. Therefore, the bottom of the frames should be checked and cleaned for the queenless colony. This will help prevent the bees from building brace combs underneath the bottom bars thus inhibiting the unification process.
- Focus on the colony to be united during the day. Prepare it and close it down until evening when it is time to be combined with the other colony.
- The receiving honeybee colony should be checked and confirmed to be queenright. Its frames or top bars should then be scraped off and smoothened to ensure the right surface is attained for placing the newspapers.
- Carry out an evaluation of both colonies and determine which one is queenright and stronger. Based on your judgment, let the stronger one remain in its place. Proceed to smoke the smaller hive then open it. If this hive is made up of two deep boxes that can be combined into one then proceed to replace filled frames on the lower deep hive with empty ones. However, if both of the deep boxes are full, then these should be transferred as they are.
- The same procedure of smoking and opening the hive should be applied for the larger or stronger hive. It should be consolidated into one deep box. The maximum number of boxes that can be combined is three deep boxes.
- Any supers should be removed and the queen excluder moved temporarily away from the bottom section.
- Place two sheets of the newspaper on the top of the upper box on the lower section of the hive. These might hang on the edges of the boxes but that is still in order. If it is windy then you can tape the sides of the papers to prevent it from being blown off. You can also use drawing pins to hold the newspapers in place. Use the hive tool to make long slits, of approximately 3 inches in length along the sheets of newspapers. The main reason why we use the newspaper to separate the two colonies is due to the fact that it gives the bees time to get accustomed to their odor. The newspapers help create an introductory period through which the odor from the two colonies mix and it becomes impossible to differentiate them. Without this, the stronger colony will treat the newcomers as their enemies and will engage in a serious fight. The queen might also be killed in the process.
- Place the box or boxes of the second colony on top of the newspapers. Smoke both of the colonies heavily while doing all this, to ensure they are not aggressive during the transition.
- Add the queen excluder and the supers to the combined hive. You can use any of the supers picked from either of the combined hives.
- Place the inner and outer covers in their rightful places. The notch in the inner cover should also be temporarily closed by ensuring that the telescopic cover lays flat against it. You should also place the feeder at the top of the combined beehive.
- Your work is now completed. Allow the honey bees to do the rest of the work. The expected turnaround time for this is under a day. By then you will find some pieces of newspapers outside the hive. That is an indication that the bees already chewed through the newspapers and united with the other colony to become one unit. You can also leave the bees alone for a week then return to evaluate the hives.
- Open the hive and remove any remaining pieces of newspaper. You should then arrange the boxes accordingly, placing the honey stores above and keeping brood frames in their rightful place.
Pros and Cons of Combining Honeybee Colonies
- Uniting honeybee colonies helps bolster the colony size and increase the chances of survival of a colony.
- Larger colonies resulting from unification, stand a better chance of withstanding parasites such as varroa mites. The presence of a large number of worker bees minimizes parasitism in honeybee colonies. It is particularly effective in keeping off parasites that enter the nests and oviposit into the brood cells. The fact that the hive is well guarded makes it possible to keep off these parasites.
- The stronger colony can defend itself from external invaders such as robber bees, yellow jackets, wasps, bears, and others.
- Improves productivity. One of the reasons weaker colonies are combined, is to not only improve the colony defense and immunity but to also increase its productivity. Newly introduced colonies will bring in a fertile and more productive queen that will produce healthy generation of future bees. These will be more productive in terms of making honey and other products.
- Unification of honeybee colonies will help make wintering easier for the beekeeper. It takes the least effort to manage stronger colonies through winter. This will keep any possibility of a die-out during winter at minimal.
- It becomes much easier for a larger colony to accumulate nectar and pollen reserves that are crucial for periods of shortages. For instance, in winter when honeybees can no longer forage, the honey reserves sustain the colony. Foragers from a larger colony are more effective when compared to foragers from a smaller colony. A larger colony is also in a better position of locating rich resources more quickly.
- The larger colony benefits from communication much more than smaller colonies. This is crucial for the survival of the colony. This means the colony enjoys greater foraging performance per-trip.
- It takes a lot of energy to generate significant heat that can sustain a honeybee colony. Smaller colonies have to work much harder when it comes to generating heat for the hive. Beehive ventilation is also vital for the colony’s wellbeing and this requires a lot of effort from worker bees. All these become easier when the colony is bigger and stronger. Each of the tasks assigned to the honey bees are handled with ease.
- Honeybee colonies comprises of hundreds of male drone bees, about 20,000 to 80,000 female bees, one queen bee, and brood comprising eggs, larvae, and pupae. This number may change depending on the season, with the biggest population being recorded at the peak of the active season. The honeybee population relies on the diversity of its population to survive. Each of these categories of bees has a special task to perform. A larger honey colony enjoys all these given the diversity of its population. This is made possible when honeybee colonies are combined.
- A stronger honeybee colony may force a queen to overproduce thus resulting to a reduced production potential thereafter.
- It may also prove to be impossible for the queen bee to suppress the production of eggs by worker bees when the colony is too big. An increase in colony size leads to an increased development of ovaries in worker bees.
Tidbits on Combining Honeybee Colonies
- Do not combine a strong and healthy honeybee colony with a disease or parasite-infested colony. Treat the sickly colony before uniting it with the healthy one.
- Two colonies that are combined may fight. However, three or more will not.
- A physical barrier such as a newspaper is important while uniting honeybee colonies. It might also be wise to cage the newly introduced queen to avoid any potential attack from the new worker bees. The barrier created by the newspaper used for separating two colonies helps avoid any potential aggression between the colonies.
- Direct introduction of a new colony becomes much easier when the existing colony is disorientated, disrupted, or a common smell is introduced.
- Any unification done during autumn requires extra caution. Such colonies should be strong enough for winter and if necessary additional frames of sealed brood from other colonies should be introduced at intervals until the colony is sufficiently strong.
- The easiest way of uniting colonies is where two swarms from different colonies are dumped together into a board placed near an empty hive.
- It is wise not to kill the queen from the weak colony. Instead, keep her and carry along a dozen of nurse bees. She can be secured in a queen cage during the unification period and fed with the nurse bees. This will help in case the colony combination fails resulting in death of the receiving colony queen.
- You can still use a single newspaper to separate the two honey bee colonies that are combined. Nonetheless, two is preferred since it helps delay the process of digging through them. The slits are also not mandatory though it helps create some interest for the bees to venture into the other colony.
- You can also introduce a swarm into a weaker or smaller colony. In this case, either the swarming queen or the queen in the existing colony, should be killed or taken to another hive. The colony queen can also be caged as the swarm queen is killed or taken somewhere else.
- The newspaper method of combining honeybee colonies has proven to work and can be employed even at the dead of winter to save queenless honey bee colonies.
- A honeybee colony may reject a queen for a number of reasons. First off, the fact that she is not familiar with the worker bees. The worker bees are not yet accustomed to the pheromone she produces. Secondly, the queen bee originates from a colony that is not genetically related to the honeybees in the new colony. Therefore an easier way to guarantee acceptance of a queen is by picking one from a genetically related colony. The use of the cage also works. In some cases, add a candy to the cage so that the worker bees become accustomed to the queen bee by the time they complete chewing the candy.
What Causes Aggressive Behavior in Bees?
Honeybees in some instances, can portray an aggressive response to any form of intrusion. This can happen as well when combining honeybee colonies. Fortunately, bees will only respond aggressively when they feel provoked or attacked. An understanding of this behavior of honeybees can help keep the bees docile when you are doing routine inspection, combining colonies, or even harvesting honey.
Some of the main causes of aggressive behavior in bees include:
- Unfavorable weather conditions such as extreme cold, rain, heat or snow trigger the aggression in honeybees. Late summer and late fall tend to the seasons when you can expect the highest level of aggression from the bees. This can be attributed to the fact that the colony is gearing up for winter and hence tend to be defensive.
- Hungry bees are angry. It is advisable to approach colonies with caution during period of nectar dearth. Thirsty honey bees are also extremely aggressive thus it is important to monitor environmental changes while handling bees.
- The bee strain also affects the level of aggression in honeybees. Some honeybee strain tends to be docile unlike others. Therefore that can be a reason for an aggressive response from the honey bees.
- Aggressive behavior may occur as a result of continuous predation on a colony. Honey bees are a target of many predators such as bears, birds, skunks, yellow jackets, and many others.
How then do you ensure the honeybees remain calm even when combining colonies? Well, you can do any of the following:
- Feeding works with bees. They tend to be most aggressive when hungry. Supplementary feed can help calm the bees prior to handling the hive.
- It is wise to keep hive inspection at bare minimal since honeybees dislike any form of intrusion.
- Interestingly, honeybees can read your behavior when handling the hive. If you stay relaxed and calm then they will not sting.
- Do not use perfume or come in contact with any weird smells prior to combining honey bee colonies or undertaking any other work on the bee colony. These trigger a negative response from the honey bees.
- Provide a calm environment for the bees during routine inspection and other activities. Bees are provoked by loud noises and high vibrations. Choose the hive location wisely.
- It is recommended that you wear protective gear when combining honey bee colonies. This will help cushion you in case the bees become aggressive. You should also avoid bright clothing since these attract honey bees, just like flowers. Neutral or plain colored attire is preferable. The attire should also be cleared after every visit to the hive to remove the pheromones that stick to the clothing.
It is important to understand how to combine honeybee colonies. The method mentioned herein is pretty straight-forward. If you are starting off in the business, then it will be wise to consult before trying this. Most of your local beekeepers might be doing this already. Alternatively, you can join a local beekeeping club and engage experienced beekeepers. Remember it is always much safer to go into winter knowing that your colony is strong. That is certainly a guarantee your colony will make it through the tough cold months. Weak colonies might not have a chance when it comes to winter and its share of challenges. Uniting a weaker hive with a stronger one helps create a superior colony. The newspaper bag method is a popular strategy employed by most beekeepers since it is not only easy but practical as well.
Combining of colonies tends to be much easier unlike colony splits. Unfortunately, not all weak honeybee colonies are eligible for unification. Disease or parasite-infested colonies should be cured before joining it with another colony. Failure to do so will translate to a bigger problem that may get out of control. Therefore, sort out the issues first to ensure that two healthy colonies are united.
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