Autumn angst: is it time to combine?

“My brood nest is really small and the capped brood is all spread out.”
“My brood nest, which was huge, is now the size of a DVD.”
“My brood boxes have no eggs and no larvae and almost no honey.”
“What if my supersedure queen can’t mate?”
“My queen was walking around in the empty supers.”
“I found my queen with her head in a cell.”
“Yellowjackets are going in and out of one of my hives”
“My bees won’t take syrup even though they have almost no honey.”

I am going to try to answer these all at once. It helps to understand that colonies shrink as winter approaches. First, the drones are forcibly removed, which reduces the population by 15 to 25%. Then, the number of workers is reduced by attrition: when workers die, only some are replaced.

The colony has a limited amount of food to get it through the winter, so extra mouths are a real burden. The amount the colony shrinks is dependent, among other things, on the race of bee. For example, Carniolans are known for overwintering with small colonies, while Italians go into the cold months with much larger populations.

When the brood nest first starts to shrink, brood may be somewhat scattered. This is because after the brood emerges, the workers fill the cells with honey or pollen, causing the nest to get smaller. It takes a while for all the outlying brood cells to empty, but once they do, those cells will be filled with food as well. So a situation where “the brood nest is really small and the capped brood is all spread out” sounds normal. Look again in a couple weeks and it will likely be more compact.

As time goes by, the nest gets even smaller and more compact. Usually by October or November, the brood nest is a fraction of its summer size. The DVD-sized nest mentioned above is probably perfect for this time of year. Sounds like a go. By the end of November, the brood nest may shrink to nothing for a few weeks.

On the other hand, it is not unusual to find hives with failed queens in the fall. For some reason, a certain number of colonies do not requeen successfully after a summer swarm or supersedure. If it happens too late in the year, there is no chance for successful mating, even if a virgin queen can be reared. So if your “brood boxes have no eggs and no larvae and almost no honey,” it is time to think of combining.

In colder parts of the country, an October supersedure queen isn’t good for much. If your “supersedure queen can’t mate,” she can only lay unfertilized eggs (drones) and the colony will soon collapse. Again, it is time to combine.

If your queen is “walking around in empty supers,” she is probably just out for a stroll because she doesn’t have a lot to do right now. You’re good to go, just make sure you don’t inadvertently lose her, move her, or kill her. Expect the unexpected with queens that like to ramble.

But if your queen is head-down in a cell? That doesn’t give me a warm-puppy feeling. Queens will often measure the width of a cell with their antenna, but if a queen is content to spend time with her head in a hole, it may be time to combine.

If yellowjackets are freely trekking in and out of your hive, it is probably too late to do anything. Yellowjackets eat brood, adults dead or alive, and honey as well. Open the hive and see if anything is left. Don’t combine a ravaged hive with another until all the yellowjackets are gone.

If bees with no stores will not take syrup, combine. The colony is probably too small or too weak or too cold or too demoralized to save itself. As beekeepers, we like to think we can keep small colonies alive if we feed them, keep them warm, protect them, or coddle them. But there comes a point when it is better for everyone to cut the losses—both yours and theirs—and move on.

Now, all that preaching reminds me of what? Oh yes, time to combine numbers two and nine. I keep thinking I can make a go of number nine, but who am I kidding?




How does this apply to warm-winter hives? (So Cal, coastal plain, rarely gets below 28F during winter nights) Will my bees winter the same way (smaller brood nest, fewer new bees)? We have year-round forage for them, so I’m hoping they are able to use it well.
Is fall requeening more likely to succeed in a warmer area?

Thanks for all the info, Rusty. I just have to translate into this environment.



Warm winter hives have a longer active season than northern bees, but they are still affected by changes in day length. They will maintain a smaller nest and cluster in the winter. The differences may not be so extreme, but they still exist. The colony will begin to increase in size after the winter solstice when the day length begins to increase. And yes, fall re-queening with a mated queen has a good chance of success in your area. Open mating would depend on the availability of drones, and they are probably gone by now.


“I keep thinking I can make a go of number nine, but who am I kidding?” Yep, did the same thing this year with one colony… the week I finally decided to combine, I got there to witness a robbing frenzy. That will teach me!


Good questions. Good answers. So glad you are out there, Rusty.


Thanks, Cindi!

Gary Rondeau

Hi Rusty,

I ran onto your site as I was searching for info on yellowjackets and honey bees. I’ve been keeping bees in a small way for many years. Yellowjackets have always been around, but until recently, I never gave them much thought. I figured they were mostly patrolling the ground in front of the hive for stragglers, there to clean up the sick and the weak, and the dead brought out of the hive by the healthy bees. In the last couple of years, here in Eugene, Oregon, yellowjackets have been much more of an issue. So, I’m wondering if this threat is part of the set of symptoms that is general colony health decline that we are all witnessing, or if I was just lucky with these pests in previous years? Any old-timers with thoughts on this?

I’ve found that screened bottom boards are handy for detecting the onset of serious predation. Once you start to see wings and legs on the witness board – better squeeze that entrance down to almost nothing!

One hypothesis for increasing prevalence of this problem (if it is indeed increasing), is that the delayed toxicity of the neonics, even in very small quantities, could be damaging the ability of older guard bees to defend the nest as well as they used to. My research into the neonics suggests that older bees are likely to be most affected by small levels of residue, which might make the guards less able to mount a defense of the colony.

Enjoy your site!



In my opinion, yellowjacket populations are extremely cyclic. I’ve seen several years in a row where they are everywhere, and then several in a row with almost none. I think the severity of winters has a lot to do with the numbers. Severe cold knocks them down further than mild winters. That’s not to say your theory is wrong—neonics could very well be having an effect on the ability of colonies to defend themselves. Guard bees, however, are not considered “older” bees. Guarding usually comes shortly after nursing and before foraging, so if anything, guards are among the younger bees in the hive.

Gary Rondeau

Hi Rusty,
You are probably right that it is just the sheer numbers and the cyclic nature of the yellowjackets that make a bad year. Nevertheless, I keep my eyes peeled for other explanations. Here is a recent article that describes the results of a study on behavior interaction of two ant species when exposed to sub-lethal levels of imidacloprid. Main finding: exposed ants were less aggressive than ants not exposed to pesticide.



I haven’t yet read the article, but I will. We are just scratching the surface regarding the sub-lethal effects of pesticides and I have no doubt there will be many surprises—most of them not good. Thanks for the link.