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Beekeepers want to manage colonies in a way that is good for the bees and makes the most of their investment. Unfortunately, not every colony grows and produces equally. In most apiaries, there comes a time when combining hives is a smart strategy. The beekeeper who knows how to combine two beehives with newspaper ends up with one strong productive colony.
Combining Two Honey Bee Colonies
A lot is known about the dynamics of the social insects known as “honey bees”. Living together in large families, they share the work required for daily life.
Since most beekeepers like the idea of having a larger number of hives, why would anyone want to combine 2 beehives in one? Can having fewer hives in your bee yard actually be a good thing? Yes, it can.
There are some good reasons for combining hives. I know from experience that 5 strong colonies will do better and produce more honey than 10 weak ones.
Reasons for Combining Beehives
While there are several times that combining colonies may be a smart move – these are the most common.
- one colony is without a queen (or suitable young larvae)
- a hive has become very low in population
- combining weak colonies in Fall for better Winter survival rates
Combine a Queenless Colony
As remarkable as the queen replacement strategy is – it doesn’t always work. If the queen has been gone for a while, there may not be any larva young enough to make a good queen.
Combining a hopelessly queenless colony with a queen right hive is a popular strategy. The workers in the queenless hive add to the work force of the new hive.
Boost Population in a Hive
Honey bees do not live long. That’s why we need a constant source of new workers coming along. Sometimes a hive will lose population due to no fault of sickness or disease. If not enough worker eggs are being laid, colony population drops quickly. It will reach a point of no return.
Perhaps the honey flow is a couple of weeks away and the beekeeper finds herself (himself) with 4 small colonies. They might be healthy (perhaps slow to build up after Winter or captured swarms) but are lacking a good work force.
Combine these 4 small healthy colonies into 2 strong one and now you have good production hives with a chance of producing a good honey harvest.
Taking Your Loses in the Fall
Another common reason to combine beehives for better Winter management. This is a tactic that I practice in my bee yard. If you have 2 very small colonies in late Fall-that seem otherwise healthy, consider putting them together.
Perform a good inspection to ensure they are not sickly. They may have a low population because of scare food, queen problems or a late season swarm.
With little chance of surviving Winter cold alone, the combined population may allow them to make it to Spring. Look back in your beekeeping journal and attempt to diagnose why the colony is struggling.
Challenges to Consider When Merging Colonies
We know that the members of a colony recognize each other and that they know their queen. This is why the beekeeper must be careful during requeening. A slow introduction using a queen cage is often most successful.
Even the workers of the hive will fight when coming into contact with other those from another colony. Though every beekeeper that I know has shared frames of brood (with bees) between colonies.
A light spritz of sugar water spray usually keeps the fussing to a minimum – allowing the beekeeper to help a weak colony out with a little extra brood. But, adding whole boxes to another hive can result in unnecessary feuding. This is why the newspaper method of combining hives is often used.
Steps to Combine Two Hives with Newspaper
There are many ways to put 2 colonies in one hive. Every beekeeper has a preference and likes his/her way best. Keep this in mind. Do what works for you and your style of beekeeping.
A newspaper combine works by allowing the members of both boxes (hive families) to hear and smell each other. But, it takes them a few hours to chew through the paper. The belief (hope) is that during that short acclimation process – fighting is reduced.
- choose the base queen right hive
- prepare the weaker colony for the move
- open the queen right hive and place newspaper
- add weaker hive box to the base
- close up the hive
- recheck for success
1. Identify a Queen Right Hive as a Base
Choose the colony with the largest population of bees as the base. With the most workers, it has the most bees in the field collecting resources. They will be returning to their hive – we probably don’t want to move it.
2. Prepare the Weaker Colony
The second hive is our weaker colony – let’s prepare it for the merge. It also has a 10 frame deep box-but only a few frames of bees. In addition to no queen, their population is very low.
They have no brood (or just a bit on a frame of two) so we know they have been struggling for a while. Maybe they have some stored bee bread and honey.
If you have several frames of brood in the weaker colony – it is good to consolidate them into one bottom box. Ideally, we want all the brood in the bottom deep. But, this is not always possible.
Arrange frames with open brood (if there is any) in the middle. If a queen is present – it is best to remove and squish her once you are positive that the larger hive is queen right.
The stronger colony will likely kill the other queen so why let them go through that process. It can result in more worker deaths than necessary.
If you have an aggressive colony (being without a queen will do that), don’t bother to search through the frames – the bees will just have to work things out.
If you can put all the frames with bees into one box – that makes things easy. Remember this is the weaker colony that we are preparing to sit on another hive.
3. Place Newspaper on the Base Hive & Combine
Place a sheet or two of newspaper over the top bars of the populous hive. Try to use newspaper that is mostly black and white (at least not a lot of color) to reduce the ink in the hive. You can very lightly spray the newspaper with sugar water if you want-but it is not necessary.
Now, sit the second hive body (weaker colony) with no queen and a smaller population on top of the newspaper. In the next few days. the bees will eat through the newspaper and work things out.
4. Close up Hive
Close up the combined hives by placing the inner cover and telescoping top in place. At this point, some beekeepers choose to close up the hive entrance for a day or so. I am not a fan of adding that stress to the bees.
This method of combining bee colonies with newspaper works well. If both hives were already sitting close together, any returning foragers should have no trouble finding their sisters.
Do keep in mind that we are basically “moving a beehive” – even if it is only 1 box. If the original location of the small colony was several feet away, any of its returning foragers may be lost. If you are lucky enough to have several hives, they may be allowed to join one nearby.
Remove any left over equipment from the dismantled hive from the bee yard. It will only cause confusion.
5. Hive Inspection Recheck in 1 Week
The sheets of newspaper between the two deeps will allow the 2 different bee families to slowly become introduced. This should result in less fighting and result in one viable colony.
In a week, it is time for an inspection. Open the colony and check for a laying queen and brood. Now is a good time to condense all the brood frames into the bottom hive body (if needed).
If you don’t use 2 deeps in your hive setup, this is the time to remove that extra deep box. All of the bees should be living in harmony with the brood nest in the bottom deep.
We do not want to leave all of this space for a colony-unless they have abundant population to patrol the comb. Otherwise, you may have problems with pests such as wax moths or Small Hive Beetles.
Hive Combining with a Food Super
Many beekeepers use a hive configuration of one deep and 1 shallow or medium. I had a special situation where the strong hive was very strong and the food super box full. I had no place to store this super of honey during the acclimation period.
In this case, you can put that food super full of honey on top. Just add another layer of newspaper between the boxes to allow for a slower introduction.
I would make sure that the queen of the colony is in the bottom deep if possible-but that is just my personal preference.
This process of combining two beehives with newspaper requires some time, and a bit of patience. However, it is a viable strategy for managing your colonies. Having 8 hives, with a handful of bees in each each, is not better than having 4 strong productive colonies.