Lots of new beekeepers ask how they can save a failing colony. 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), 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
The first thing to do, weather permitting, is to inspect the colony frame by frame. Some things to look for include:
- Does it have a queen?
- Is there any brood?
- Are food stores readily available?
- Do you see signs of brood disease?
- Are there signs of varroa mites, such as guanine deposits or deformed wings?
- Do you see signs of other predators such as mice or shrews?
- Is the colony being attacked by other invertebrates, such as wasps or plundering honey bees?
- Is excrement accumulating inside the hive?
Deciding on the next steps
Your decision on whether or not to try 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.
What lies within?
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?
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 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.
You find the queen and she 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 work force, 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 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), 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