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Tip of the Month

Merging Colonies

Beekeeper Holding a Honeycomb

There will be a time when it is beneficial - to the bees or the beekeeper - to join two colonies together. This may be:

-    to protect a small colony from being robbed; or

-    to help it to get through the winter. As a rule of thumb roughly five or six frames covered in bees should be adequate. But any fewer adult bees may struggle to generate enough heat to survive the winter; or

-    because a colony is queenless and it is too late in the year for a virgin queen to get properly mated or

-    you need to cull a queen with undesirable traits, or simply to reduce stocks. This is a relatively simple operation, requiring the minimum of equipment.

 

Bees cannot simply be introduced from one colony to another as they are sensitive to the pheromone of their nest mates and will eject non-residents from the hive and a large influx of intruders would immediately put them in defensive mode resulting in excessive fighting and deaths. Therefore to be successful it must be done in such a way as to disguise the odour, and reduce the risk of putting the bees on the defensive.

 

The simplest and most successful method involves the use of a sheet of newspaper.
The principal is to place one colony on top of another separated only by newspaper. The bees will chew through the paper within a few days and unite and in the meantime they have become acclimatized to the smell of their new nestmates.

 

The hives to be united should be prepared during the day, when most of the flying bees are away from the hive, and the actual uniting done in the evening when all is quiet. The best time of year to unite is in early autumn, after the honey crop has been removed, although it can be done at any time. It can be achieved with supers in place on one or both of the hives being merged but this will require extra manipulation of the hives.

If both colonies are queen right, the decision must be taken which queen to retain. Some beekeepers do not want to kill off what they see as perhaps a perfectly good queen, so they unite the two colonies leaving the queens to “fight it out”. This is not a good practice, as although the strongest queen is usually the victor, she can be injured during the confrontation resulting in her no longer perhaps be fully functional. It is much better to choose which queen you wish to keep and the remaining queen can be euthanized or temporarily kept in a queen cage with attendant worker bees and fondant in case another colony’s queen fails late in the session. The colony without a queen should always be united on top of the queen right colony, not the other way around.

 

Many colonies will build brace comb under the bottom bars of the brood frames. If these are then placed on top of a sheet of newspaper, the paper will be broken, rendering the operation futile, or the frames will be pushed up, thereby raising the crown board. So check and if necessary clean the bottoms of the frames in the queenless colony that is to be placed at the top. Once the queenless colony has been prepared it can be closed down until the evening.

 

Now turn your attention to the receiving colony. Check that they are in fact queen right, and scrape off the top bars of the frames to provide a smooth surface for the newspaper to rest on. A single sheet of newspaper is then applied and held in place by covering with a queen excluder. The crown board and roof can then be replaced, and the hive left until the evening.

 

In the evening, when the bees have finished flying for the day, quietly removed the roof and crown board of the receiving colony. The bees are not disturbed as they are covered by the newspaper. The queenless colony is then quietly released from its floor, and gently placed over the newspaper. If there are supers, ensure that there is a sheet of newspaper wherever adjacent boxes contain different bees. Close up and leave for a week. The enhanced colony can then be inspected, and combs moved around to place all the brood in one area, or the brood in the upper chamber simply left to emerge, after which this brood chamber can then be removed.

merging colonies.jpg
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