Learning how to combine beehives is an important skill for a beekeeper. Buying bees and equipment to set up your apiary is not an inexpensive task. You want to manage your colonies in a way that is good for the bees and makes the most of your investment. Sometimes, that involves making 2 hives become one.
Their home is often called “a beehive” – especially when it is a man-made structure. However, they can also live in other places – including hollows inside trees.
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While the colony may have thousands of members, there is normally only 1 queen bee present. It is the job of the queen to lay eggs. These new bees will become the future workforce for the colony.
Since most beekeepers like the idea of having a larger number of hives, why would anyone want to combine 2 beehives in one? Actually, there are some good reasons for combining colonies.
Reasons for Combining Colonies
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
Honey bees have a great system for making a new queen. They only need a viable population and some very young female larvae.
As remarkable as the queen replacement strategy is – it doesn’t always work. Also, if the queen has been gone for a while, there may not be any larva young enough to make a good queen.
Or perhaps, she is still present but has become a drone layer. Running out of semen-she can only lay unfertilized eggs. They are not queen bee material.
Honey bees do not live very long. That’s why we need a constant source of new workers coming along. Within a few weeks of queen loss, colony population begins to drop quickly. It will reach a point of no return.
In these cases, even if the beekeeper gives the hive a frame of fresh brood with eggs- it may be too late to save the colony. These hives may develop laying workers and other problems that doom the colony without serious intervention.
Another common reason to combine hives has to do with 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.
Perhaps, they are sickly and not worth saving. Or, they may have a low population because of scare food 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.
Steps to Combine Beehives
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.
This is one of the most common ways of doing a newspaper combine in an apiary. However, it certainly is not the only way that works.
Join me on this imaginary journey in the bee yard. Let’s say you have 2 colonies – each in 10-frame Langstroth Hives.
Choose the colony with the largest population as the base. With the most workers, it has the most foragers out in the field collecting resources. They will be returning to their hive – we don’t want to move it.
The second hive 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). Maybe they have some stored pollen and honey.
If you have several frames of brood in the weaker colony – it is good to consolidate them in the bottom box. Ideally, we want all the brood in the bottom deep. But, this is not always possible.
If you do move brood frames, spray them lightly with sugar water. And, arrange them around the queen and existing brood frames in the bottom box.
If you have an aggressive colony (being without a queen will do that), don’t bother to search through the frames – the bees will work things out.
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 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.
Close up the hive 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 works well. If the 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.
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 or two, it is time for an inspection. Open the colony and condense all the brood frames in the bottom (if needed).
If you don’t use 2 deeps in your hive setup, this is the time to remove that extra 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 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.