honey bee management

Be practical about saving a failing honey bee colony

Should you try to save a failing colony?

A failing colony may harm your other colonies, especially if it is loaded with diseases or parasites. Before trying to save a weak hive, try to figure out what is going wrong.

Lots of new beekeepers ask how they can save a failing honey bee hive. But the real question, I think, is should you even try? Could you be doing more harm than good?

If you find a colony that is obviously declining, you have three choices. You can let it collapse (or exterminate it), you can combine it with another, or you can try to revive it. But before you decide, you need to make an educated guess about why it’s collapsing in the first place. Only then can you make a good decision about the next step.

I say “educated guess” because sometimes, even after we evaluate all the evidence, we are still unsure of the cause of failure. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying because sometimes the reason jumps out and we learn a lot in the process.

What to look for in a failing honey bee colony

The first thing to do, weather permitting, is to inspect the colony frame by frame. Some things to look for include:

What lies within the troubled hive?

When you search for your queen you will either find one or not. If there is no queen and the colony is very small, there is little chance for recovery, even if you add a new queen. If bee numbers are too small, there may not be enough individuals to defend the hive, care for the queen, forage, and raise brood. Plus, brood rearing will get off to a slow start, because a tiny colony can only care for a small amount of brood.

But the more important question is, “Why is there no queen?” If you see no queen and you see signs of disease, I would delete the rest of those bees rather than try to save them. Most bee diseases and parasites are transmissible from hive to hive, so why let the remaining bees infect a healthy colony?

Deciding on the next steps

Your decision on whether or not to try to save the remaining bees should be based on what you find, but also on the time and resources you have available. Trying to save a dying colony may require much time and effort, and the colony may die anyway. On the other hand, the process can be a valuable learning experience. The go or no-go decision should depend on what you find as well as your goals.

Different problems require different tactics

If the colony is dying of Nosema, brood diseases, viruses, or mites there is no reason to combine them and no reason to allow them to drift. Spreading disease is not what good beekeepers do. I would recommend killing the remainder (a spray of soapy water works well) and cleaning up the equipment in the way recommended for the particular problem you find.

Treating for mites in an extremely weak or dying colony has no real advantages. If the colony is dying from mite-vectored viruses, the bees that remain are most likely already infected with a virus. So even if you kill the mites, the bees will not recover. At best, they will die in the hive. At worse, they will spread mites and disease to other hives.

If the hive died due to American foulbrood, you need to burn the hives to contain the spread of disease spores. If you don’t want to burn your bees, I suggest killing them first and then burning the equipment.

New evidence suggests that some bee diseases are transmissible between bee species. If this is true, allowing diseased bees to remain in the environment may be hurting the native species as well as the honey bee. This is a serious issue that needs to be considered.

What if the queen looks fine?

If you find a queen and she looks normal, look carefully at the brood. Is the brood in a tight pattern? Is it mostly worker brood or mostly drones? Are the bees caring for the brood or ignoring it?

Look carefully here. Just because you have a queen doesn’t mean she is functioning properly. You could have a drone layer. You could have an inbred queen laying diploid drones, or you could have an infertile queen and laying workers.

In a case where the queen isn’t functioning properly, even when no disease is present, there is no point in feeding, treating, pollen supplementation, or any other stop-gap measure. Without a laying queen, the colony cannot continue. If you want to save the remaining bees you can provide them with a new queen or provide them with frames of open brood from which they can raise a queen. Remember, though, it takes time, food resources, and plenty of workers to raise a new queen, and in a dying colony, you may have none of those things.

Re-queening doesn’t always work

Re-queening may seem like a simple solution but as I mentioned above, if there are not enough bees to take care of the colony, you may be wasting your money. The best queen in the world cannot reverse a dying colony if she doesn’t have a clean environment, an adequate workforce, and plenty of resources.

If you decide that the present queen is fine, or if you decide to re-queen, you can add capped brood to the hive. Capped brood will begin providing workers almost immediately, and the influx of bee power may be enough to turn things around. But you can’t get something for nothing. Remember that while adding brood helps one colony, it weakens the other. Make sure the donor colony is strong enough to withstand the loss.

Combine colonies with caution

The third option for handling a failing colony is to combine it with another so that you can save the bees if nothing else. Above all, be certain that the weak colony is free from disease and parasites before you combine. And when you do combine, use standard techniques such as introduction through newspaper.

As with all aspects of beekeeping, there are dozens of ways to handle a failing hive. But regardless of the method you chose, you should begin by assessing the colony to find why it is weak in the first place. Once you make that educated guess, you can let it die (or exterminate it), combine it with another, or try to turn it around.

Ultimately, the decision is yours, but remember this: We want to save the bees—all the bees—so keep the larger picture in mind, especially when diseases are present.

Honey Bee Suite

Trying to save a failing colony is difficult. Start by examining the colony and looking for the source of the problem.
What’s up? Unless I know why a colony is failing, I will not combine it with another. ©Rusty Burlew.




  • thanks for this I learned the hard way my 6 packages got lost in the mail and i took them any way at the post office they were not all dead and the queen was still alive not knowing what to do I installed them in there own hives I lost the queens bought more and installed them and they would not lay very much because so few of bees in the hive live and learn, I guess the hard way that cost me a lot of money . but I tried and it failed and now I know. they say package bees only live for about 6 weeks so they got to get a build up fast they did not have a chance.

  • Hi Rusty, great post. It is hard to know what to do sometimes. As I’m beginning my 2nd year I have so many questions. Most books are aimed at 1st years or experts. Comming out of my first winter with last years 2 nucs, what do I do with left over honey frames that are actually sugar syrup? The drought kept them from making honey so it was all syrup. Also if one doesn’t get honey the first year how do I judge feeding them this year? Also, barring a drought, how can I tell if I live in poor forage area? Is there a guide to how much they should have stored by a certain time? Hopefully none will be weak but at least I will know what to do as your post clearly explains. Here in February they are eating up pollen patties and I will keep an eye on food stores as their numbers will be increasing quickly. Any advice for what a 2nd year should be doing would be appreciated! And yes l have more boxes for possible splits. Thanks, Lisa

    • Lisa,

      The bees can still use the frames of syrup; just don’t get them confused with your honey frames. I can’t say anything about how much honey a colony should have at a certain time. It will depend on the size and health of the colony and the weather conditions for that particular year. Plus, even great foraging areas have poor years. Everything is variable, just as it is with any type of farming.

  • Rusty,

    Good advice, I have this exact situation at the moment, with a Kenyan Top Bar Hive in Melbourne, Australia.
    First I noticed the lack of traffic to and from the hive.
    Second an inspection last week revealed that the hive was in a certain decline, I removed half of the Bars to try and reduce the space available for pests, ensuring the bees were covering most of the frames.
    I had some wax moth evidence in the empty frames and so I melted wax and froze the empty bars.
    Thirdly I inspected yesterday to check for young larvae and they are certainly there, I removed some more bars and now they have only 6 full bars with brood and some stored honey.
    There is no further evidence of pests or disease, I have always had some chalk brood in this hive, which has increased with the weakening.
    I am going to try one frame of brood from a neighbours hive and see if things improve. Then if nothing, I will destroy the remainder.
    Mainly because I have another strong hive and my neighbours hive to consider.

    Thank you


  • Good article. I would just note that burning is the best option for AFB but hives can recover from mild EFB during a good spring buildup. At least that is a common opinion here in California.

  • Thank you for this article. It’s always hard deciding whether to save or dispatch. I am aware of burning the hive and bees for AF, but never heard of it for EF. It is my understanding that EF can be fixed by switching out frames and changing the stress factor for the bees, and that the bees usually clean up the infection on their own. It is possible for it to come back under stressful conditions. Please explain. Thanks !

  • I’m new to beekeeping and my mentor didn’t check for Varroa mites until early October instead of the late July/early August that I now know should be the target date, so they only got one treatment. Just discovered the entire nuc is dead and lots of mites in the bottom. I had bought some pollen patties in anticipation of a hive “explosion” and then promptly had a total hip replacement. The patties (from Brushy Farms- high quality) were in my foyer for 2 weeks, now are in the freezer, but are they any good? I’ll be getting more bees in late March or early April – there will be plenty of plants in bloom at that time. What should I do with these patties (10 1 lb. patties covered in wax paper)? If they’re too old, I sure don’t want to harm my new bees!! Thank you, Liz

    • Liz,

      Just keep them in the freezer until you need them. They should be fine. They usually sit longer than two weeks when they’re inside the hives, and that’s a lot warmer than your foyer, I imagine.

  • Hiya

    We have a training apiary. My bees died early Feb 2016 from too few a numbers due to heavy Varroa & lots drowned in the syrup before the winter…I couldn’t wait to get started again and bought bees too early…It’s worth waiting! (Although I treated for Varroa twice a year, an integrated pest management is needed).

    The bees I bought (in mid Feb 2016) were from someone in poor health and couldn’t provide the care needed anymore. I had a lot die within 2 meters of the hive… more died a month later and were shiny & hairless, ambling around. Probably Chronic Bee Paralysis. I used a mixture of sugar syrup with a drop of peppermint and 2 drops of lemon grass oil in. And a treatment for Varroa. Throughout the year they were not doing as well the other bees within the apiary and didn’t really build any new comb which was frustrating, because I wanted to change it as it looked very dark, possibly holding pathogens.

    They remained on 5 frames throughout the year until I combined an association hive that had a laying worker. They started to draw another 2 sides of comb but very late in the season it was hard for the queen to find space to lay.

    After visiting the apiary for a winter tidy up (Feb 2017) they was a lot of dead bee’s legs poking through the Varroa floor but they were still alive… here comes the most detrimental time for them wet and cold British weather!

    So if they make it through I feel I should control the drone population (sacrificial drones for Varroa management) by uncapping so that I do not have inferior drones mating with other queens in the area and re-queen. It has been a big learning curve and I think in hindsight perhaps I should have cut my losses and started a new.

    So I shall keep you posted as to whether the colony makes it through 🙂

  • Hi Rusty, I’m in Jakarta – Indonesia, your blog is my golden read, thank you so much for sharing. I need your opinion. I’m a newbeek with 3 hives. Bought them about 45 days ago, they all came with same amount 5 frames of bees. But now, Hive A = about 6 frames of bees, hive B = 4 frames, hive C = 4 frames. Since they came, I put pollen sub patties on all of them. Hive A eats vigorously, while hive B & C doesn’t. In hive A, about a hundred bees chewing the patty, while in B & C only 6-10 bees touch the patty. Hence the difference of population in each hive now. There are no diseases seen. All queens are laying properly, just very slow in hive B & C. Brood pattern is not excellent but ok. I wonder why the difference in my 3 hives. I gave them same patty, they are in the same location & condition. Hive B & C are just not as vigorous as hive A. Is it because of the queen’s genetics? What should I do to increase hive B & C ‘s appetite for patties, to make them eat it like hive A? Thank you so much.

    • Hornady,

      There is absolutely no reason all three colonies should behave exactly the same. If you had three dogs, or three children, or three goldfish they would all behave differently, gain weight at different rates, eat different foods, grow at different rates. Why would three colonies of bees be any different? There are ranges of “normal” and all your colonies sound like they are in the normal range.

      As for your last question, you are never going to “make” one colony eat like another. In fact, you really can’t make honey bees do anything they don’t want to do.

  • Thank you. So they’d behave just like us humans. Now I see. Then in the future I guess I should learn how to breed select queens… Lots more to learn 🙂

  • Thanks. I am a 2nd year beekeeper with 38 hives. Started with 15 hives in spring of 2017.
    So, I’m very thankful for the growth. All comments are helpful.

  • First year keeper. (Not officially, because we’re only keeping a hive clean and watching multiple catastrophes). Top bar fail from the start in Dallas,Texas. They cross combed, fat combed and dropped comb after comb. First queen was a drone layer. 2nd queen did her best until the last dropped comb. No eggs, a few hundred bees at best. All drones are gone. They’ve been overheated, drowned in syrup and robbed. No Varroa, no disease. Just no brood with every dropped comb.This has been heartbreaking. We wear no gear because they have no desire to come out and even investigate. We augmented with sugar water and they have no interest. We’ll move to 2 langs from nucs next year- but I’d love to do it now given we’re months away from winter shutdown. Has anyone else tried this in my climate (100° days)? I am watching them die off. They can’t protect, cool or store. We appreciate all the help we can get. Thanks to y’all.

    • Lee,

      When you day “dropped comb” do you mean it melted and fell off the top bar? Try a Langstroth where you can get more of a chimney effect that pulls the heat through the top. Use a screened bottom and a screened inner cover. Keep them in the shade, and keep the population high if you can.

    • Lee,

      When you day “dropped comb” do you mean it melted and fell off the top bar? Try a Langstroth where you can get more of a chimney effect that pulls the heat through the top. Use a screened bottom and a screened inner cover. Keep them in the shade, and keep the population high if you can.

      • Thanks Rusty! We already made the decision to swap out hives for next season. We had already cooled the hive with shade and reduced the hive side. It was awful to watch. We’ll go with 2 langs and nucs next year. Thanks for replying!

  • Hi. I had a strong colony, double brood box, queen (from 2017) laying well up to the second week of June. The volume of brood started to decrease, no eggs. They started to fill the second super at this stage, one or two swarm cells appeared so I made up a nuc with a cell (could not spot the queen), using frames from the second brood box. In the remaining hive from a queen point of view, things started to go downhill. The marking on the queen had worn, so she was difficult to find, but after about 2 weeks of no eggs, she laid on one frame and immediately cells were drawn from that frame. On next inspection I found the queen and re-marked her, but the next day she was nowhere to be seen, swarmed out I assume (She was clipped). At this point I left nature take its course, hoping that the first or strongest new queen would kill off the other cells. The cells hatched, the expected time for the new queen to lay has passed and there is no sign of queen activity.

    Now I’m thinking maybe those eggs laid on one frame may have been worker laid, so the queen should not be great.
    I’m aware the bees will start dying off, there has been no brood with a period of 4-5 weeks at this stage.There is still a large colony. but I’m cautious of combining with another hive as I’m unsure if there could be a scrub queen even though there is no laying to indicate any queen.

    The hive appears healthy otherwise.

  • Hi Rusty, today I found one of my three hives was lost (I am in Seattle). At an inspection 2 weeks ago I noticed fewer bees than in the other two hives, a week ago fewer still, and the last few days no activity except for an occasional yellow jacket flying in unimpeded. So I made the sad inspection today and found about 50 bees still up in the comb but not moving, some sticking their whole bodies headfirst into comb. There was some capped brood, a small number of open brood. No evidence of fungal diseases. I didn’t see deformed wings among the dead bees. The bottom board was littered with several thousand bee bodies and among them I found the queen.

    There was lots and lots of honey and bee bread. I am guessing that I treated for Varroa too late (it was September) and they became infected with viruses and their numbers dwindled so they couldn’t stay warm in the recent cold snap (a couple weeks with nights below 40 F). Or perhaps some moisture got into the hive – I put moisture quilts on only last week.

    Anyway, I still have two good-looking hives heading into the winter. It’s only early November and I am not sure what to do with the dead hive. I cleaned out the dead bodies and then sealed it up – I stapled mesh across the entrance and put a mouse guard over that. I took out the bottom board so the base is just open mesh to allow ventilation in but to keep insects out. I left a moisture quilt on top with screened holes according to your design to allow air from the top but I took out the Imirie shim so there would not be an upper entrance.

    Do you recommend leaving it this way for the winter? I plan to introduce a package in the spring. The other two hives are getting candy boards as per your design. Should I take some of the honey-filled frames from the dead hive and put them into the good hives? Or just leave the hive entombed this way until it gets a package in April? Thank you.

    • Andrius,

      I think the biggest risk is the frames of honey may get moldy, especially with the hive sealed up. I always take the honey frames off and store them in a drier environment, like a partially heated garage or shed (but never put them in plastic storage boxes). The mold won’t hurt next year’s bees, but it freaks people out.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I would be so grateful for your input. I am trying to decide what, if any, intervention is advisable with a colony I believe is failing. I am in the Puget Sound area just north of Seattle. I have 3 colonies I treated with oxalic dribble on December 17 and saw excellent mite fall on sticky boards, particularly high on Sparta colony. That colony had a smaller cluster than Athens (the other double deep next to it) but otherwise seemed OK.

    Since then I have noticed Sparta’s population declining. They haul their dead out like the other colonies but do not break cluster and fly in the same numbers when the rain stops and it warms. Today it is 47 degrees and the sun is shining. The other two colonies have bees pouring out both upper and lower entrances, and they are returning with loads of pollen. Sparta has a few bees using the upper entrance but they are not bringing in any pollen. I peeked in and there are bees but they are not hanging out in the candy board as in the other two colonies.

    I wonder if Sparta has gone queenless since the oxalic dribble, or if they have a higher virus load due to the apparently higher mite load they were carrying(?) The bees that are coming and going look fine, no deformed wings. I think it is too cold to open the hive and inspect. Possible also that this variation in activity is normal, this colony is in a somewhat more shaded position than the other two.

    I was thinking the only intervention I could do to try to help might be to do a newspaper combine with one of the other colonies, and maybe also add a queen excluder between the colonies just in case there is a live queen. But I am worried it could spread disease since I don’t know why Sparta’s population is declining. Would you take any action at this time?

    I cannot thank you enough for your beautiful blog, which I have read for many hours. I use slatted racks, moisture quilts, no-cook candy boards, and many other things I learned about from you.

    Thank you!

    • Chryssa,

      I think you are reading too much into the fact that different hives are behaving differently. Children behave differently, dogs behave differently, and so do colonies of bees. Their genetics are slightly different as well as their living conditions. You say they are hauling out the dead, and that is usually a good sign. Perhaps just give them some time and see how they do.

  • Hi Rusty

    In the southern hemisphere in early August, we removed the supers from very neglected hives and fed them before the flow to encourage brood building. (A farmer left 10 hives on our property two years ago and hasn’t returned. We notified him that three of his ten hives had died. The hive was full of moths/moth larvae. Very destroyed. We removed them last year).

    Now in early September 2021 when inspecting we found 6 hives doing great but one hive had HUGE amounts of drones and larvae and absolutely no brood capped or otherwise. Huge amounts of nectar and capped honey. We also didn’t see a queen although this is difficult among the hundreds of drones. We are assuming the hive is queenless. Not sure why. The only thing we see is some small hive beetles but loads of droppings at the bottom left corner.

    New to beekeeping, we added brood capped and uncapped to the hive hoping they would build a new queen. However, reading many comments this might have doomed the brood. We were considering combining this hive with a queenright hive but I am reluctant having read this and other threads as I have no idea why the hive is queenless when all other hives are thriving (about 80% full in two deep brood boxes)

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