Last Updated on December 14, 2021
Every now and then we find a hive that is a bit weak and needs a hand to build up enough to make it through winter for example. There are ways of adding bees to a weak hive – I generally caution against this, but, it can be done. In this article, I take a look at a few methods I have used over the years to bulk up weaker hives.
A Quick Introduction To Why This Is Not As Easy As It Sounds
If you take a bee from one beehive and dump it in another hive, that bee smells like her hive and not the recipient hive. The bees in the recipient hive will rather quickly kill the “invader” bee. The reason for this is simple – if bees from one hive are able to gain entry to another hive, they can return to their hive with honey stolen from the other hive. Within minutes they will send an army of their hive mates to the other hive and rob it dry.
Bees consequently really do not like bees that come from other hives. We do get a weird phenomenon called drifting – when bees go out and collect nectar and pollen and come back loaded they can accidentally fly into the wrong hive. The guards do not mind this, and these drift bees just join the new hive.
This means that if we try adding bees to a weak hive, we cannot just dump those bees into the hive. This will cause a catastrophe of angry bees stinging each other to death and can even result in the bees being dumped into the hive actually stinging the queen to death.
There are a few simple methods that work.
Combining Bee Hives – Slow Low-risk Method
I have had a lot of luck with this method of adding bees to a weak hive by combing two together. The basic principle is that you take two pathetic hives, and let them combine. Then you may just have enough bees in the combined hive to enable them to make it through winter. In spring, combining two useless hives may give you one hive that will give a crop, and free up a box for installing a package or catching a swarm.
Dequeening The Weaker Hive
Each beekeeper has its own variation on this theme. The one I like to use is as follows. I find two weak hives. The stronger of the two will be the bottom hive. I place two sheets of non-glossy newspaper over the frames on the bottom hive. Then I place the second hive on top after dequeening it. I do this just before sunset. If you take a pin and make a few holes through the paper it helps.
Bees Get To Know Each Other
What normally happens is that the bees start licking each other through the pinholes. They enlarge the holes and a lot of licking happens. After a day or two by the time they have nibbled right through the paper, they are so covered in each other’s scent that they don’t fight anymore.
After five days, open the top hive, remove all the queen cells if any have formed, remove any bits of paper that are left, move brood to the bottom hive, and remove the extra box. You should now have a relatively well-combined hive that you can feed up for winter and then put a candy board on. These combined hives are always a bit weird and fiddly – do not hold your breath – it will probably still die, but you have a chance it will make it through winter.
If you are doing this in spring, you have a better chance that your hive will make it to production status. Normally weak hives are due to bad genetics, or a dud queen – you may consider requeening in spring once you have combined the hives. If you cannot source a queen, you can always graft a cell from a strong hive. This will have better genetics.
Learn more about: Do Bees Stay In Their Hives In The Winter?
Quick High-risk Method To Combine Hives
If you are in a hurry you can use this method. Do this towards sunset to avoid robbing incidents. Remove one queen from one hive. Spray the bees with a mixture of 1 part sugar and one part water. I usually put a bit of vanilla essence in the sugar, as it smells strong and helps the bees misidentify each other as friends. Dump all the bees from both hives in front of the stronger hive, put all the brood and pollen combs back in the one hive. With a bit of luck, the bees will combine. I find in my area this works about 80% of the time. Friends in other parts of the world find they have a higher or lower success rate.
How To Strengthen A Weak Beehive Without Adding Bees
If you find you have a hive that is not bulking up, you can always add a single frame of brood from a strong hive. Put this in the middle of the brood nest. This will add a few thousand bees to the hive in a week or two. Repeat if necessary and you can rapidly build a hive up this way. If the hive does not get strong this way, it is probably sick or has a useless queen.
How To Strengthen A Hive By Adding Bees To An Existing Hive
If you have a good strong hive, you can harvest young bees from that hive. These will often be on the edge of the brood nest or making wax in the supers. Look at the bees and if they are very fluffy, they are young. Shake a few frames of these bees into a suitable container and then spray them with a 1 part sugar 1 part water solution with a bit of vanilla essence in it.
I have had quite a bit of luck using this method – I just open the weak hive at sunset, spray the bees in that hive with this 1/1 sugar water vanilla mix, dump the nurse bees into the hive and close the lid. There will be a few dead bees from this, but nurse bees are not easily rejected by a recipient swarm.
There are many other ways of adding bees to a weak hive. These are the ones I have used and can attest to their functionality. Try these, and use local knowledge in your area to see if there are methods that work even more effectively where you are. I hope you enjoyed this, and please share if you did. We need lots of vanilla bees to counter the marmalade bees – for a chuckle check out this link. You will laugh.
Dr. Garth A. Cambray is a Canadian/South African entrepreneur and beekeeper with 28 years of experience in apiculture and specializes in adding value to honey. His Ph.D. research developed a new advanced continuous fermentation method for making mead that has resulted in a number of companies globally being able to access markets for mead. His company, Makana Meadery, exports honey mead to the USA where it is available to discerning connoisseurs. He has also developed technologies to commercially manufacture organic honey vinegar in Zambia for export globally. He holds a few patents globally in the ethanol industry and believes in technology and knowledge transfer for human development and environmental sustainability. One of his proudest achievements is the fact that the wind farm he started at one of his old apiary sites has essentially made his hometown carbon neutral.