bee biology

Why all your honey bee colonies are not the same

We talk about the benefits of genetic diversity. We try to avoid inbreeding. Bee breeders import semen to enhance the gene pool. Yet, when a beekeeper has a colony that acts differently from his others, panic sets in. Oh dear. One colony eats more, stays out later, is not as big, eats less, stores no pollen, stores too much pollen, is nastier, smarter, or gentler than the rest. What should you do?

The irony, of course, is that you can’t have it both ways. If you achieve genetic diversity in your apiary, your colonies are not the same. That’s the whole point. Remember, diversity and sameness are polar opposites.

Recognizing normal when colonies are not the same

When someone is in a twist because one colony is different from another, they nearly always decide that the bigger, gentler colonies are the normal ones and the others are somehow off. But that conclusion is merely a reflection of our own desires. I never hear anyone claim that the smaller or feistier colony is the normal one, but how do they know? It’s odd when you think about it.

We don’t apply this same standard to our children. We accept difference as good. Perhaps one child is good at sports and one is good at math. Or one is tall and one is short. We accept both.

I know, I know. I’m anthropomorphizing and some people hate that. But seriously, why do we think every colony should be a carbon copy of every other?

Genetically identical populations never do well. In fact, as a gene pool shrinks—regardless of the species—individuals become more and more alike. And while that population may have strengths, it also has weaknesses. When a population becomes too homogeneous, extinction is usually not far behind. Sameness means there are few variations to fall back on when something goes awry.

Colony difference can be good

Just yesterday I received an email from a beekeeper with four colonies. She said they were all doing great, packing in lots of honey and pollen, and all had low mite counts. But one wasn’t as big as the other three and she was obsessing over it. She was feeding it more, giving it extra frames of brood, and offering pollen supplements, but she couldn’t make it bigger.

But think. Why does it have to be the same size? If it is healthy, thriving, and doing the things bee colonies ought to do, what difference does it make? Many times those smaller colonies do better over a long winter than the gigantic ones that have many more mouths to feed.

Understand that I when I say “different,” I don’t mean failing. I don’t mean sick. I’m referring to colonies that are healthy but—for whatever reason—are just not the same as the others. Most of us don’t have crystal balls that can predict which colonies will overwinter and which will not. Assuming they are all healthy as we dive into winter, it is impossible to know which will thrive and which will fail.

Size is not the same as resilience

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve decided that certain smaller colonies wouldn’t make it, while I assumed the larger, more active colonies would. I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve been wrong. So now I’m happy when I have a mix. With a diversity of genetics, a variety of strengths and weaknesses, I have the best chance of having plenty of bees when springtime rolls around.

Oftentimes, all the colonies make it, but sometimes a few don’t. Knowing which is which is not nearly as clear as you might think and may come as a complete surprise. So relax and be grateful that not all your colonies are alike.

Honey Bee Suite

Colonies are not the same, so while bees may look similar, their behaviors may be very different.

While bees from different colonies may look similar, their behaviors may be very different.


  • I always worry about everything “different”, even when I know better, so this is an excellent post for me.

    The further from Complete Newbie I get, the fewer things seem panickfully different at least.

    Also, before I lost all my bees last winter, all my experience was with Russian bees. I had so many beekeepers tell me the Russians were too aggressive, which I didn’t understand at all. Until I started over with Saskatraz bees. Oh my goodness these are gentle bees. Even at honey harvest and dearth, they’ve been no more aggressive than the Russians in a nectar flow.

    On the other hand, it’s well into October and they’ve scarcely begun to cut their populations for the winter. This could be a problem.

    Yay for diversity.

  • I have three different subspecies of bees in my four hives so they were different all year. I will say that over the years, the more “feisty” colonies are always the best honey producers. Do others see this?

  • So sometimes they are not equal because something beats them up. I have a 4 frame over 4 nuc that was doing fine. But now it seems they were robbed out. Down to 3 frames – no stores – no brood. Also a lot of half bee bodies laying on the bottom board. Yellow jackets? No mice nests in there. Bummer.

    I plan to feed them and give them a chance but am not too confident I can get these girls to recover and survive the winter. Luckily they are still queen right. Any suggestions? I have 4 other hives that are strong so they will not benefit from merging these bees in.

    • Herb,

      I was careful to say that I wasn’t talking about colonies that are in trouble. “Understand that I when I say “different,” I don’t mean failing. I don’t mean sick. I’m referring to colonies that are healthy but—for whatever reason—are just not the same as the others.”

      All you can do is keep feeding them. If you have a lot of trouble with robbing and yellowjackets, consider leaving your robbing screens on year-round.

  • Small colonies seem to be less vulnerable to winter losses from varroa. Less brood = less brood for varroa to reproduce in.

  • Thanks for this, I have a hive that does not behave ‘properly’ and while I just love that it ticks all my boxes, it annoys me that I am not believed when I tell people about it.

    I see people talking about breeding better bees, but I seldom see them saying to breed from their odd bees.

  • Speaking of colonies that don’t behave as you expect them to… One of mine sent me into a minor panic. First off, this colony (#1), and this one only, decides to up and move the brood nest to the other end of the hive, away from the entrance. A few scattered capped brood where the brood nest had been and the queen with a small, dense cluster of young brood/eggs at the other end (Top Bar Hives). I never had this happen so abruptly – usually the brood nest just gradually shifts this way or that over the months. This was odd, but not really worrisome. The worry came next inspection when I found what seemed to be remnants of three capped queen cells near that new brood nest. October in SW VA (USA) is not the time for your bees to decide to requeen, or swarm. It’s going into the cold period and few drones are around. They still had the marked queen however and the empty queen cells seemed to be mostly opened from the side which I’ve been told means that the virgin queens were killed vs. emerging on their own. Next inspection, there were two more queen cells, capped and ready to emerge. No young brood/eggs, didn’t see the marked queen.

    So, great. Old queen likely dead or left, new queen not likely to find mates, probably going to have to split this colony and merge it with a couple others. Lovely. And it was one of my strongest colonies too. So, next inspection, it’s cloudy, rained recently, 50*F, bees are cranky, but I’ve just got to find out the status of this colony, if no one else. Fourth comb in from the entrance, I find the marked queen and young brood. I close up the hive, breathe a prayer of thanksgiving, and decide for the nth time that my bees don’t read the same books I do and wish to drive me nuts.

    What’s really weird is that last year, in a different colony (#2), that queen also wasn’t replaced, even though in that case it was prime swarm season and it seemed all set to go. Multiple capped queen cells, drone brood buildup, plenty of storage and capped brood. And then all the queen cells were empty, most from holes in the side, and the marked queen was still there, doing her thing. I still have her – this was her third year. Now these two queens are related, sort of. #2 is the grandniece of #1 according to my split/swarm records. There are other colonies with the same ancestry, but all of those queens are new this year due to splits or swarms. Maybe I’ll see this again if one of the others stays through her second year?

  • Hi Rusty,

    My bees swarmed last Jun. Most prob I’ve missed a hidden queen cell during inspection. The hive had 60-70,000. As a new beekeeper what intrigues me is how does each individual worker know whether she is staying or joining the swarm. Many thanks for your most enlightening articles.


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