A gentleman at our bee meeting posed a challenging question a couple of weeks ago: “What should I do with a weak hive? I think it might be queenless.” Well, it depends, of course.
I’m continuing with the series of questions which I overheard at a bee meeting not long ago. Today, it’s about weak/queenless hives. As in all bee questions, we are given just a bit of information. It’s not the beekeepers’ fault – they might not know what clues to look for and what information to bring to the club when they present their questions. (Actually, if they knew what information is needed to answer the question, they’d probably already know what to do.)
Here are the previous questions from this series:
- My honey isn’t capped. What should I do with it? (I heard that one from three different beefolks.)
- Wasps are attacking my hives. How can I stop them?
- What’s the best extractor to buy?
- There was a pile of brood in front of my hive. Why?
- I have four good hives, but I think that the fifth might be queenless. What should I do? (Today’s topic)
The fellow asked us, “I have four good hives, but I think that the fifth might be queenless – what should I do?” Whether the hive has a queen or not, he has a problem. It’s getting late in the year, so a queen-right weak hive most likely will die over winter. A queenless hive is trouble at any time.
Conventional wisdom says that you take your winter losses in the fall. Get rid of hives that won’t winter because if they die, you’ll have the sad task of the bee mortician, taking care of little dead bodies next spring. Taking your winter losses in the fall doesn’t mean killing any bees. It usually means doubling up the weak with the strong so you save the bees – and maybe even the queen in the weaker hive.
Doubling-up goes like this:
- Pick a healthy, strong, queen-right colony as the double-up partner for your worthless scum hive. (Sorry, I know that you’ve been nursing it for months, giving it extra attention, extra food, and maybe you’ve tried requeening it once or twice. But this child just never did well.) If the poor hive is not sick (Nosema? AFB? Varroa? EFB? Hive beetles? K-wing? Galleria mellonella invasion? Acute Bee Paralysis Virus? Acute appendicitis?) but has been a persistent drain on the apiary’s cumulative production average, it’s time to sing some hymns.
- Consolidate the weak hive into a single box – pick out the best frames, all the brood, extra honey (especially in the fall), and end with just a single chamber.
- Take the lid off the stronger, partner hive. Put a sheet of newspaper on the strong hive, as if it’s a substitute lid. Newspaper quality matters. Don’t use free cheap ‘traders’ newspapers or anything published by Rupert Murdoch. Pick something like the Times. Your bees are going to be looking at that paper for the next week, so they might as well learn something from this experience.
- Poke a few holes into the newspaper, then set your freshly amalgamated weak single on top. (Check the video above!) Only the perforated newspaper should separate the two units. Cover the top unit with a real lid. Over the next few days, the bees will read parts of the paper and then remove it from the hive. Meanwhile, the bees’ odours and pheromones will blend, and the bees themselves will slowly mix. By the time the paper is eaten, the bees will be one big happy smells-the-same family.
- As soon as you’ve doubled them, you should probably feed your new monster hive. If you’re using frame feeders, you have the advantage of feeding the lower, stronger unit separately. You likely need to feed the top (weaker) hive, too, but be extra careful not to let leaky syrup start a robbing frenzy or your weak top unit will be in trouble and you’ll wish you hadn’t seen this web page and started doubling the weak.
- Finally, a week or two later, you may want to sort frames, consolidate brood, and squeeze the big hive down into two boxes. This is optional. Plenty of beekeepers winter in three stories. You, too, could become one of them. But as winter is nearing, make sure the hive is in good winter shape, heavy, with brood down, honey up, and bees covering almost everything.
But what about laying workers?
A wrinkle in the scheme (or wrench in the works, mud in the eye, or spanner in the works, if you prefer) occurs if the weak hive is queenless. Then you’ve got issues. My usual recommendation is not to let your hives become queenless. But let’s assume you thought you were smarter than I am (which wouldn’t take much) and you’ve managed to create a weak and queenless hive.
If the hive has been queenless for a week or two, emboldened workers will feel liberated, gender-fluid, and will start laying oodles of eggs. Unfortunately, none of them will be fertile and all will develop into drones. As if that’s not bad enough, if you suddenly insert a good laying queen into the laying workers’ den, they will kill her. And if you set such a hive atop a good strong hive, the laying workers will likely dominate and they and their allies will kill the queen in the (formerly) good strong hive. So, what’s a beekeeper to do?
I’m not going to go any deeper into laying workers right now. About six weeks ago, I wrote too much on laying workers (see The Worker Who Would Be Queen). In brief, laying workers are best treated crudely. On a warm day, walk the box a few metres away from the apiary and shake all the bees off the frames and onto the ground. Laying workers will mostly be stuck in the grass. The ‘normal’ workers will usually fly back to the old stand (but the hive will be gone) and then will enter neighbouring hives. This works OK during a nectar flow when every bee is welcomed, but not so well in the fall when the arrivals may be taunted, teased about their humble origins, or simply have their wings torn off by guard bees. But they may also end up joining the successful hive. I don’t know another option for laying workers so late in the season, if you do please send a comment.
Double or nothing
So, here’s the bottom line. In an era when 30 or 40 percent of good hives may die during the winter, don’t expect many weak ones to make it through to spring. If the poor hive is not queenless (and laying workers aren’t running the place), don’t be reluctant to double the hive. It’s better than nothing.