Uniting beehives is an important skill for beekeepers to learn. At some point, hives face setbacks, and combining a struggling hive with a stronger one is a good solution. In this guide, we’ll explain the simple steps to combining beehives. This method is common practice, reducing the chance of rejection and colony stress.
The steps to combine beehives
Before getting started, you’ll need to gather a few items to make the transfer seamless. You’ll need a hive tool, bee smoker, sugar, water, and some blocks of wood. Get hold of an old newspaper too but make sure it isn’t glossy.
1. Make a batch of sugar syrup
Combine equal parts water and sugar in a small saucepan. Gently heat until the sugar has dissolved then set aside and allow the solution to completely cool.
2. Cut the newspaper
Take two sheets of newspaper and cut a few slits into them. This will act as a barrier to separate the hive so that there is minimal fighting. It will take days for the bees to chew through the paper, giving each hive the chance to adapt to the new scents and pheromones.
3. Prepare the smaller hive
Begin by smoking the hive, then open it up and check the frames. If you have two deep boxes then try to consolidate the frames into one box. Hives that contain two deep boxes that are full, leave them as they are.
If the colony still has a queen, place her in a cage with some nurse bees and set them aside. If the introduced bees kill the queen, you’ve got a backup.
4. Prepare the dominant hive
Smoke the larger hive and combine all the frames into one deep if you can.
Remove the inner and outer covers and place them near the hive entrance. Then, position the newspaper on top of the strong hive and tape it down if it’s windy.
5. Combine the hives
Heavily smoke both hives to reduce stress during the transition. Move the box from the weaker hive and position it on top of the other hive.
Do you have any extra boxes or frames with no honey or brood, just bees? You can place them onto wooden blocks next to the opening of the new hive. These bees will find their way into their new home.
Finally, the top can be placed onto the new combined hive. Leave the sugar water in a feeder on top of the beehive and leave them for one week. After that time, check back to ensure the bees have chewed through the paper and combined successfully. Make sure everything looks normal and new eggs have been laid.
Why should I combine hives?
Most of the time, a hive can function perfectly well on its own, without the need for hive unification. But occasionally beekeepers need to step in to help. You may want to combine hives if any of the following events occur.
One hive is queenless: It’s preferable to requeen if the hive’s queen is missing or dead. But if you can’t get access to one quick enough, combine them with another colony that has a queen.
Two hives are weak: If winter is getting close and you’ve got two hives that are languishing, consider amalgamating them. You’ll need to destroy one of the queens first, otherwise, they’ll fight and you may end up queenless.
One hive is weak: If a hive is struggling to grow then you may want to add it to a larger colony. Make sure you kill the queen in the weak colony before making the transfer.
Downsizing: Beekeepers sometimes want to reduce their hive numbers. If that’s the case, they’ll need to consolidate the colonies first, before removing the beehive.
Winter preparation: Winter is brutal on honey bees, so combining two hives may give them a better fighting chance. It also makes a beekeeper’s job easier in winter, managing fewer hives. Check out our guide to learn more about winterizing a hive.
Artificial swarming: If a colony is swarmed artificially, the two colonies may then need to be combined again.
Tips for combining honey bee colonies
- After a few days, once the bees successfully unite, remove all the newspaper to allow the bees to easily move between boxes.
- If you manage to attract a swarm of bees you can use them to bolster a weaker hive.
- If you’re combining three hives then use a newspaper divider between each colony.
- It isn’t essential to cut slits in the newspaper, but it creates some interest for the bees and speeds the process up.
- Always check each colony for foulbrood or any other predators and disease.
- Two combined colonies will sometimes fight while three or more usually won’t.
- Introducing a common smell or disorienting the stronger hive before introducing the weaker one may help.
- Try to avoid combining beehives in the middle of winter, but if you discover a queenless hive, you are better to move them than let the colony die.
Commonly asked questions
When should I avoid combining colonies?
Honey bee colonies should never be united during winter as the exposure could have a detrimental impact. It is also unnecessary to combine two hives that are both functioning well and showing signs of growth.
How long does it take hives to combine?
Using the newspaper method, it will usually take 2-3 days for bees to acclimate to their new surroundings.
When is the best time to unite two beehives?
It is best to combine hives in early fall on a fine evening when the bees have returned to the hive. Preparation for the hives to be united is best carried out during the day while the foragers are out of the hive.
Is unifying hives risky for the queen?
There is a chance that worker bees unfamiliar with their new queen will kill her, even if the newspaper method is used. The main reasons for this aggression are that the queen may not be related genetically and the pheromones she gives off will be unfamiliar.
Why are bees sometimes aggressive?
Other than feeling threatened, bees often become more aggressive when they’re hungry, thirsty, or predators are constantly attacking them. Extreme weather, especially in late fall and summer, can also trigger aggression.
How can I keep bees calm as they’re combined with another hive?
To keep bees calm, providing supplementary food will help. Beekeepers should always stay calm and relaxed, avoid wearing perfume, and keep hive inspections to a bare minimum. Wearing protective gear during colony unification is recommended.
Pros and cons of combining beehives
- Larger colonies are better able to fight off parasites and invaders like yellow jackets, bears, and robber bees.
- Boosted colony numbers increase the chance of survival.
- Easier hive management for the beekeeper.
- Can replace an unproductive queen with a younger, more fertile option, resulting in greater honey output.
- Ventilation and warming of the hive are more efficient with a bigger population.
- Greater population diversity.
- An increase in hive numbers can increase the development of worker bee ovaries.
- Potential for the queen to be killed if managed ineffectively.
- The queen may overproduce in the short term, resulting in reduced production in the long term.