Beekeeping: Combining my Hives

Beekeeping: Combining my Hives

swarm on apple tree
The swarm hanging from our apple tree.

I have been remiss in discussing what has gone on with my hives in my first year of beekeeping. There are pictures on the beekeeping page, but I have failed thus far to write a good description of the story. Long story short: my bees swarmed in early July. This is not normal behavior for bees in the first season when they are still filling out a hive. As near as I can tell, they overbuilt due to rapid weather change. I only have one hive box, and did not have the money or desire to get a second one.

The swarming overwhelmed me. It just wasn’t supposed to happen the first season. I was able to catch them and put them into a 5 frame nucleus box. From there, it took me forever to get a good idea what to do. I realized I had skipped my previous planned inspection and just given them a quick glance- not that I would have noticed them preparing to swarm.¬† It seemed fine, but was depleted. The bottom brood box was in good condition, though depleted.

However, in the upper box I had made a drastic mistake in not leveling the hive properly (living in Palouse level ground is in short supply), and I somehow didn’t¬†realize that bee festoons hang down like a plumb line. For a moveable frame hive, it is crucial that the comb stays on its own frame.Further, like an idiot I had left a

bee festoon
A bee festoon

piece of wax which had broken off sitting in the hive, thinking they would recycle it. Instead, they built down to it as it laid across the frames. The result of all of this was a crazy bee cavern that in no way worked in a Langstroth hive. I had to harvest what was in the upper box, setting my poor bees work back quite a bit- though they had constructed the cavern at an impressive rate.

At this point I was dejected. These are basic mistakes, but I had gone into beekeeping with so much confidence and not taken it up as rapidly as I had hoped. There are reasons I was concerned about combining the hives. For one thing, I never manage to even find the queens and had little desire to kill one. I also wasn’t convinced the main colony would have the numbers necessary to make it through the winter if left to their own devices. Also the stronger colony is supposed to be on the bottom, which was presumably the one which had swarmed, but it wasn’t in a proper box and didn’t have filled up frames.

Thinking of it, none of this sounds that complicated, and I am unsure what about this seemed so confusing and complicated.. I think I was just dejected and did not want to think about it at all, and somewhat resigned to the fate of the bees not making it through the winter.

Due to these things, I did not check them for far, far longer than I should have. I think maybe 6-8 weeks. (New beekeepers should generally check hives every 2 weeks.)

healthy bee frame
A very healthy frame from the nucleus box. Notice the good balance of larvae and food stores. (The black cells have young larvae)

A week ago, I finally actually checked the bees. I checked the nucleus hive first which was as perfect as could be. Not completely filled out, but they still have a month or more to fill out their stores. Then I checked the original hive, which had never returned to it’s preswarm vigour. Somehow the upper hive frames had been rebuilt the wrong way again, for no reason that is clear to me. They have some honey but nowhere near a winter’s stores. I opted to leave that how it was for the time being and avoid damage.

Then I checked the lower brood box. It had plenty of bees in it, but essentially no evidence of brood and, and very little vigor. I’m terrible at spotting queens anyway, but sure did not see one this time. And they did not have a great amount of winter stores. I really suspect something went wrong- however without a queen almost all the bees in there would be dead or dying by now.

Beekeeping brood box
The lower brood box on 9/16.

One way or another, it’s a weak. So I decided to combine with the nucleus box as the more powerful hive, which I did today. Some of the out frames had almost nothing on them, so they can just be discarded to put the nucleus into the middle. I ran a long knife through the combs to save what of them i could, moved the honey to the outside, and then inserted the nucleus.

This was all actually relatively uneventful, which was good as it is my most complex beekeeping task thus far. The upper box was being used by the bees only for honey storage, which I found strange, though there also wasn’t really brood anywhere. The lower box with the old hive was set on top of the colony which came from the nucleus. For now, they are separated with a piece of newspaper so the bees to get used to the smell. before they chew through the paper. (I just remembered I forgot to poke holes in it.)

Thus far, the bees seem like they’re figuring it out and nothing crazy is going on- though they are substantially more active than they normally would be at this temperature (62 degrees.) There are also confused stragglers at the old nucleus location, but not an excessive amount. The bees which ended up on the ground when I was clearing out the top box are not there anymore, and it would appear they were accepted into the other colony without a problem. However, the newspaper is still separating the colonies, so anything can happen when they actually meet. Still, so far there seems to be limited conflict.

Here’s to hoping they don’t ultimately go crazy and kill eachother. They will certainly need to be sugared heavily in preparation for winter.

I really should get a proper beekeeping mentor already.

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