Combining bees

Tom Theobald
Niwot, Colo.

Those 90-degree days I predicted last week are here, it was a record breaker at 99 the past 2 days and it will be just about as warm through the rest of the week. Up north at the Terry Lake yard the Highland has been running a full head of water for the past 10 days. Summer is here.

Some of the packages have been lost already, not lost entirely, but they didn’t thrive either. Two or three didn’t accept the queens and were unsuccessful in raising one. Ideally I would have given queens to those that were having problems, but didn’t have any queens in reserve so had to let them try to raise their own. This is expensive in terms of time, since up to a month can elapse between the time a colony draws out a queen cell and the new queen has emerged, mated and begun laying. A colony that has to do that isn’t likely to make any surplus honey and may not even make its own winter stores without help.

At some point you just have to cut your losses though. These struggling packages get one chance at raising a queen and if they aren’t successful they get combined with another colony. You may lose the chance to have another colony this way, but at least the remaining bees aren’t lost, as well, they augment the population of the colony they are combined with.

One of the packages had what appeared to be a perfectly good queen, seemingly fat, active and healthy, but in a month’s time she never laid a single egg. This is a dead end for a colony like this because they think they have a queen, but since there is no brood being produced, within a few weeks all of the adult bees will have aged and died and the colony will dwindle out. I had to snuff the queen, something I hate to do even if she is inferior, and the remaining bees were combined with another colony.

Nearly 20 percent of the packages failed in one way or another, which means the yield from the trip to California is reduced and the price per package winds up being that much higher. Queen failures of one sort or another have become more and more common across the industry and the evidence is that this is one of the manifestations of the damages being caused by the systemic pesticides. This makes it just that much harder and more expensive to replace lost colonies.

Normally bees are very territorial when it comes to the colony. Guard bees at the entrance check each incoming bee and any bee that doesn’t belong in that colony gets the bum’s rush. Scent is the identifier, each colony has a unique scent, and if the bee has the wrong scent, out she goes.

This rule relaxes if there is a honey flow on. A fielder coming in full of nectar is welcome regardless of where her home colony may be, but when times are tough every colony is testing the defenses of every other colony and all of the colonies are in a defensive mood.

Because of this, the personality of a colony can change from day to day or even from one hour to the next. This means more to hobby beekeepers who may have their bees in the back yard with neighbors close by than it does for me.

My bees are out in the country and I can let ‘em roar if it’s a bad day, but in the suburbs a beekeeper has to keep a much closer watch on the bees’ mood so they don’t hassle the neighbors on those bad days. Often if a hobbyist goes out to work their bees and finds them to be extra defensive it means that they just have to close things up and come back on a better day.

So given this colony identity and territoriality, how do you combine them without a lot of conflict then? It’s easy actually, if you do it right, and beekeepers mastered this long ago.

The most common technique, and one that probably goes back many, many years, is the “newspaper method.” With this method, the receiving colony is opened, that is the outer and inner covers are removed, exposing the top bars of the combs. A sheet of newspaper is laid over the top of the hive body, you make two or three slices in the newspaper, then the hive body containing the colony that is being added is placed on top of the newspaper and the inner cover and cover go on top.

The objective with the newspaper method is to let the bees get together slowly, so they can adjust in increments as opposed to just dumping a bunch of strange bees in on an existing colony. Using the slits in the newspaper as an edge to start on, the bees will begin to remove the paper in tiny bits. The holes get larger and larger and as they do, the bees from below and above begin to pass through, slowly at first. Within a day or two large patches of the newspaper will have been removed and the bees from both halves will have melded without conflict. Slick, eh? Those old-time beekeepers were crafty.

A second method, probably quite old, as well, is “vanilla method.” I learned this from Herman Wheling, an Arvada beekeeper. While Herman probably wasn’t around for the invention of the newspaper method, he’s a beekeeper of long experience and he could see my 38 years of beekeeping and raise me 20 or 25 years.

The vanilla method is as simple as can be, just a little pure vanilla extract with water in a spray bottle. The thinking here is that since colony identity is scent based, you mask the scent for a time and when it returns the bees have joined not knowing they were strangers. Sprayed on both halves the vanilla scent masks the hive odor for a time so the bees can join without fighting.

I carry a 2-ounce spray bottle and a bottle of vanilla in the beekeeping tool box and just mix up a fresh batch whenever I need some, and I’ve used this method many times in a variety of circumstances. I use a little when I introduce new queens. Sometimes when I pick up a swarm there is enough queen scent on the branch that many of the bees will return to the branch rather than stay in the hive body I shook them in and a little vanilla spray on the branch will mask the queen scent.

I use vanilla spray often when I am trying to bump up the population of a small colony by adding just bees. Here I go to the colony that is going to be the donor, find the queen and set her aside (I want to be absolutely certain that she doesn’t go into the receiving colony) and then I select two or three frames of open brood.

Open brood is mainly eggs and larvae and the bees on these combs are mostly young bees that are feeding the larvae. I spray a little vanilla into the receiving colony then spray the bees on both sides of the donor comb and with a quick shake deposit them in the weak colony. I can do this with as many combs as I want. The added bees will stay with the weak hive (if they were older bees they would have oriented to home and as soon as they flew out would return home).

If only we could use a little vanilla spray for international relations. I might find a good use for some with the EPA. ❖


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