Category Archives: Uniting

Use them or lose them

Colonies with queen problems at this time of the season are unlikely to get through the winter. It’s therefore better to identify these early enough to try and rescue the situation. Having completed my Varroa treatment I check colonies to determine whether they have a laying queen. If the colony is piling in the pollen, bulging with bees and has few, if any, drones I don’t even bother to open the box. In contrast, a colony with any of the following signs gets a more thorough check:

  • little or no pollen being taken in … remember this might be because there’s none available, another example of where comparisons between colonies are useful
  • slow to take the fondant down (or syrup, though I only now use fondant for autumn feeding), but not because the box is obviously already stuffed with stores
  • lots of drones (almost all of these should have been evicted by now), indicative of a drone laying queen
  • an obviously weak colony

With a perspex crownboard you can detect all of these without disturbing the bees or opening the box.

I checked the colonies in one of my apiaries as I’d noticed two that were causing some concern at the final OA vaporisation treatment. One had a good level of stores, but the colony was weak and there were no eggs, larvae or sealed brood. The clipped and marked queen – mated earlier this year – was still present but had clearly failed* and, this late in the season, there was no chance of the colony replacing her. The bees were otherwise fine, with no signs of disease, well tempered and were well worth saving.

Rescuing the situation

I disposed of the queen and united them over newspaper with a strong colony on a nearby hive stand. In a few days I’ll put a clearer board under the upper brood box, then rearrange the frames of stores to leave the remaining box packed. Any spare frames of stores – and there should be at least half a dozen – will be used to boost other colonies.

Uniting over newspaper ...

Uniting over newspaper …

Of course, I’m not really saving these bees at all. Instead I’m using their potential to strengthen another colony, so maximising the chances of getting the recipient colony through the winter. With no brood of any sort in the colony it’s likely the queen failed at least 3 weeks ago. This means that the bees present were unlikely to be ‘winter bees’ and would therefore be expected to perish over the next few weeks. However, in the meantime, they will help strengthen the recipient colony – enhancing it’s ability to raise new brood and increasing the pollen and nectar collected as the season winds down.

Nearly ready

Nearly ready

The second colony was weaker than I’d have liked, but – reassuringly – there were 2-3 frames of brood in all stages, together with an unmarked and unclipped queen. Since all the queens in the apiary were clipped and marked earlier in the season this was clearly a supercedure queen, raised in the last few weeks. The colony was beautifully calm so I gently closed them up. My bee house will be ready soon, so I’ll make sure this colony is one of the first to occupy it. The additional shelter should help them through the winter. With the new queen laying well and the weather set fair for the rest of this week, there’s a good opportunity for the colony to build up before they’re moved.

* Remember … some Varroa treatments can cause the queen to stop laying. For example, Apiguard is tolerated by some queens but not others who can stop laying for two or more weeks. The colony with the failed queen (above) had not been treated with Apiguard so I was pretty sure she was a dud.

When uniting goes wrong

A swarm turned up in a bait hive built from two Paradise/ModernBeekeeping poly supers a month ago. The bees were steady on the comb and the dark queen was laying reasonably well. In the same apiary I had a failing queen in a colony in a double brood box so decided to unite them with the swarm. I’ve done this many times before … what could possibly go wrong?

Since these poly boxes are non-standard you need a thin wooden shim or eke, a bit larger than a National box, to stand them on. I moved the queenright swarm on top of the de-queened hive, separated by a sheet of newspaper with a couple of small holes made with the hive tool. After a few days there were scraps of chewed up newspaper outside the hive entrance and bees were apparently moving freely through the holes with no sign of fighting.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

Despite being a shoulder-high stack of boxes, there were only a moderate number of bees in the hive. The failing queen had been laying slower and slower and the swarm had been covering perhaps six or seven frames. I therefore rearranged the eggs, larvae and sealed brood into the bottom box, making sure the queen was with them, before adding a clearer board underneath the remaining boxes. On checking the colony a week later it was clear that all was not well. There were no eggs in the bottom box and no sign of the queen, but loads of freshly sealed queen cells. Grrrr! I suspect I’d been a bit hasty in rearranging the colony. Perhaps, despite the holes chewed through the newspaper, the workers weren’t mixing properly and the queen had still been ‘protected’ in the upper box. In my defence, I was a bit pressed for time preparing colonies for moving. Alternatively, the requirement for the shim to unite these Paradise/ModernBeekeeping boxes (with standard Nationals) means the boxes are – of necessity – more widely separated than usual, possibly restricting the mixing of bees.

All gone ...

All gone …

However, here’s a photograph of a poly nuc that I united at about the same time – the bees have removed almost all the newspaper between the boxes. Since these nucs are Langstroth sized, when filled with National frames and stacked the spacing is very wide, suggesting it was my haste in combining the boxes that caused the problem.

All scientists know the importance of doing a controlled experiment so I shook through the colony containing queen cells and ensured I’d destroyed all of them (a colony is unlikely to accept a new queen – certainly during normal queen introduction – if there are queen cells present), then added more newspaper, the shim and the two poly supers. Using a fat dummy to fill up some of the space I added the contents of a spare five frame nuc containing a laying queen and left them to get on with it.

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

I checked the colony a week later and everything was OK. The queen from the nuc was laying well in the bottom box (she’d started in the top one) and so I reorganised the colony back down into a single brood box. This colony missed the van North so were donated to friends in exchange for a nice bottle of wine 😉