Winter is frightening: should I combine weak colonies now?

Autumn is a good time to combine hives, especially if some are weak.

Should you combine some of your hives before winter? It depends on your climate, but small colonies may not be able to keep themselves warm.

Is it time to combine? Real-world questions:

Here is a sample of beekeepers wondering when to combine weak colonies in autumn. All these came through my inbox in the past few weeks:

“My brood nest is really small and the capped brood is all spread out. Is it time to combine hives?”

“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 questions 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.

Colonies have a limited food supply in winter

The colony has a limited amount of food to get through the winter, so extra mouths are a real burden. The amount the colony shrinks is dependent on several things, including the race of bees. 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, the 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 of 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.

A failed queen means it’s time to combine hives

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 may be time to combine hives.

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.

Queens like to ramble, don’t worry

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, and be sure to look for them in unexpected places.

Other signs it’s time to combine

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 their 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?

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  • 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.

    • Marian,

      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!

  • 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!

    • Gary,

      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.

  • 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.

    • Gary,

      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.

  • Hello, Rusty. I very much appreciate the straight forward way you approach beekeeping and your willingness to answer questions. You don’t keep “secrets” that the rest of us have to learn by trial and error, and your experience and ability to articulate your reasoning is invaluable to us new keepers.

    I have a question about combining hives. I only have two hives, both new this spring. One hive has thrived, but the other does not seem to be able to keep a queen. The queen that came with the hive either died or absconded, and the colony has not been able to produce another. I had a third hive earlier in the year, but it was very weak and didn’t seem to be expanding. I combined the weak hive which had a laying queen with the hive mentioned above thinking that would solve problems for both hives. However, the next hive check, about 2 weeks later, indicated no new brood and no queen.

    This may sound strange, but I am afraid to combine this queen-less hive with my good hive for fear of losing my good queen. I would rather let the one hive die off and get splits in the spring from my strong hive. Does that make any sense? Sorry for the length of this, but I don’t know how to shorten it and still give you enough information. I appreciate any insight you may have.

    Best regards,

    Ed Jessen

    • Ed,

      I understand your concern, but just because you had a problem combining before doesn’t mean you will again. Combining colonies is a routine procedure that usually causes no issues. Just because it sometimes backfires doesn’t mean it always will.

      If it were me, I would certainly combine rather than lose the bees in the queenless hive as long as there are no signs of brood diseases. The newspaper method should work or, if it makes you more comfortable, you could put a double-screen board between the colonies for a few days.

  • I’m a new beekeeper with two hives. One was overwhelmed with small hive beetles and swarmed several weeks ago. There are some bees left but very little stored honey. It is far too weak to get thru the winter. The second hive is thriving. Can I combine now? There are still beetles in the first hive. Do I need to eliminate them before combining? What method do you suggest?

    Secondly, I didn’t plan to harvest any honey this first year but the second hive has a lot of capped honey in the brood boxes plus they have filled one super. Should I just leave it all for them for the winter? How much is enough?

    • Judith,

      1. You said your bees swarmed several weeks ago. Swarming and hive beetles don’t have much to do with each other. Swarming is for colony reproduction and about half the colony would have remained with a virgin queen, which doesn’t sound likely at this time of year. Perhaps the bees absconded due to hive beetles, but I kind of doubt that, too. Did you actually see the bees leave? Or did the population just crash?

      2. I can’t see the point in actually putting hive beetles into an otherwise healthy colony. I would do anything possible to separate the beetles from the bees. If there are so few bees, it probably isn’t worth it.

      3. The amount of honey you need for winter is dependent on your climate.

  • I have an additional circumstance. I came into a beekeeping circumstance where the beekeeper before may have added deeps/supers before the bees were ready. In going through the hives (there are 3) I found missing frames and empty frames without drawn comb. All colonies have good populations and tons of brood production, but a serious lack of honey stores. It is September 9th here in CT. I am considering combining 2 of the hives but with so much brood production still going on, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Should I wait until brood production has slowed before consolidating and combining hives? The missing, unfilled frames and lack of honey stores make me nervous going into winter. Is combining my best bet? Or would it be worth it to try overwintering single deeps in 6a? Any tips or input would be greatly appreciated!

    • Marg,

      My preference would be to combine the two smallest hives before the cold nights become a regular thing. First, combine the two hives with newspapers. Then, after the bees are settled in, go back in and put the brood in the lowest boxes with some honey on the sides, and then top them with any frames of honey you have left. You can remove the empty frames if there is a whole box of them. Be prepared to feed your hives throughout the winter.