Sept. 9, 2021

Combining (Joining) Weak Colonies (038)

Combining (Joining) Weak Colonies  (038)

Right now, you have to make some decisions about how to overwinter your colonies. If you live in the deep south, there probably isn’t much to think about. But if you live north of warm winter weather, there’s a lot that has to be done. One of...

Newspaper MethodRight now, you have to make some decisions about how to overwinter your colonies. If you live in the deep south, there probably isn’t much to think about. But if you live north of warm winter weather, there’s a lot that has to be done. One of these tasks is what to do with a couple of small, weak colonies, because they are just not big enough to make it on their own.

Several options are available. In this week’s episode, Kim and Jim look at the strengths and weaknesses of each to help you better decide what you can do with your weak colonies.

Combine the two and keep the best queen? That’s one way, but which queen is the best queen, and why? And why were both colonies small and weak? And what do you do with the queen that you decide to remove?

Discarded NewspaperOr, perhaps you can combine the two and add some bees and comb and make one stronger colony or nuc to overwinter, so you will have a nuc in your beeyard next spring, which is always a good thing.

Or, what about putting those small colonies in a well-insulated hive box so they don’t have to work so hard, and maybe both will make it?

Other overwintering schemes are discussed, but the most practical, perhaps, is the most common way to handle this overwintering question. Listen in and you can decide what is best for your operation.


We welcome Betterbee as sponsor of today's episode. BetterBee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, BetterBee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


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Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, Walking in Paris by Studio Le Bus, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

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Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 38 – Combining (Joining) Weak Colonies



Jim Tew: All right, Kim, this is a situation I've got. It's late August. I've got two small colonies there are actually nothing more than nucs. Both have pretty good queens. There are not going to survive the winter. What do you think I should do?

Kim Flottum: Oh, I hate this time of year, because almost every year I have the same problem. There's a couple or three directions you can go and I like them all sometimes.

Jim: That's a good answer for a typical bee guy. Let's talk about all of them for a few minutes. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: We're here at Honey Bee Obscura where today we are going to ponder what to do with two colonies that have a bleak future. Kim says they have three options or so.


Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world in an engaging and informative discussion meant for all beekeepers, long-timers, and those just starting their journey with bees. Sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: Option number one. What to do with my colonies are? What to do with colonies like this, that anyone may have?

Kim: Every book you've ever read on beekeeping will tell you one of the stock answers. I bet you it's in your book. I know it's in mine, and that is what they tell you to do is just very, very casually, assess the situation, which is the best queen of the two colonies. Assuming one is better than the other, save the better queen, join the two colonies, requeening or making sure that the better queen stays with it and then dispense with a queen that wasn't good.

The problem is with that-- That's the best way to do it, so say many experts. Join the two, keep the best queen. Problem solved.

Jim: Most common way.

Kim: It raises some questions. How do you evaluate a queen, A. What's the evaluation criteria that you're using? B, why are both colonies small?

Jim: Good.

Kim: Is it the queens? Is it something you did? Is it something in the environment? The third thing is what about the other reasons, other things that you can do with these colonies, like putting them, joining them to a big colony? Then you've got extra queens again. The best way - or no - the most common way is to join them, keep the best queen and dispense the queen that wasn't as good. That's the first answer.

Jim: All right. I'm still soaking up the fact that you're going to have me kill queens, because just a few months ago, I was whining to you on discussions like this, about paying $35, $40 bucks for a queen, and now late August. We're sitting here saying, well, you may have to kill some of these queens. Is this a strange world we're in or what here?

Kim: [chuckles] Yes.

Jim: I understand what you're talking about. The most practical way to go. She's going to die anyway. Do you want to let her die an ugly death freezing to death? Or do you want her to just make it over for her? I don't know any beekeeper who just relishes killing bees at any time. That has to be dealt with, bees die all the time.

Kim: That may just be when you said, "Good luck, girls," and head home and call it a day because that's nothing more you can do, but there are other things you can do, or other things that I've tried that work pretty well. One of the things that I like to do is, I always like to have a nuc in my bee yard. I like to have a nuc in my bee yard all year round. A nuc is essentially a bee supply store. It's got everything you need. It's got bees and it's got brood and it's got comb and it's got queens; it's got everything you're going to need, but you're not going to need any of those things in the winter.

Again, I'll go back to maybe combining the two and just leaving the best queen in and calling that nuc a bee supply store for next spring, when your other colonies are going to need a queen or brood or comb or whatever. That's the one you're going to rob Peter to pay Paul here, but that still doesn't solve the queen problem.

Jim: Hold that thought, Kim, you got my mind racing, which is a painful thing for an old mind like mine. What if it's not going to be, what if it's not a terrible winter? What if I put that convenience store - that bee supply store - and one of those heavy Styrofoam - expanded polystyrene - nucleus boxes can that nuke actually survive outdoors if it's four or five frames and I've got honey in there, you ventilate it, keep it disease-free. Keep her all locked down. What's the chances of that small colony actually surviving the winter on its own in a protected hive body?

Kim: Well, I think the "on its own" is the key here because you've given it everything it needs plus. It's got enough food. You're going to rob some of your bigger colonies and supply it with some-- if there's any brood to come out, so they got some bees. If nothing else, you're going to give them some bees and some food, and you've kept the best queen. You've given them everything they need. I'm just thinking of bees in a tree here. You've provided enough protection that I'd bet good money it would make it.

Jim: I really do have two small colonies, very small, probably four frames each. It really is the end of August. If I don't do something, those colonies really are going to die. So, Kim, I like the idea and I think it's practical of me choosing who goes, who stays, and then using what newspaper, just combining those colonies with traditional ways. I'm left with one colony that has a chance of surviving the winter. Alternatively, if I'm just tinkering - and I am - then maybe since I have two or three of those Styrofoam boxes-- I shouldn't say Styrofoam. That's the brand name - expanded polystyrene. Just see if they survive the winter and that's really my only two options, isn't it?

Either combine them or don't combine them. Either way, someone's probably going to die, but is this something novel? No, we have small colonies all the time. Small colonies die in the wild all the time. This is nothing really that I should lose sleep over at night. It's just beekeeping, some colonies build up and thrive and others don't. One way or the other, we've got to do something.

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Kim: There is another alternative here and it's-- I don't want to say not more practical. It's more businesslike I guess you'd probably say, is that a couple of years ago, I got a couple of queens from the source and neither one of those queens produced a good colony. They just weren't good queens, neither one of them. For me, it was an easy choice as you get rid of both of those queens, because they're not good. They're not good. You don't want them to overwinter, you don't want them around. Then you take those colonies, and you combine them with other colonies you've got, and that way you don't have something you're going to try and overwinter, you've gotten rid of the bad genetics from those two queens. You strengthened the other colonies in your bee yard. Like I said, it's more businesslike.

Jim: Well, business is one word. Practical? I'm still looking for the perfect word. Harsh, but ultimately pure, because once all is said and done, if you're trying to develop a strain or a line, or you've got a brand of bees that you're happy with, then what you're doing, promotes your development of that brand. If those bees don't fit what you're trying to do, then they're done. You always give the queens away, call somebody up. There's always a desperate beekeeper. Call them up. I've got two queens they're going to die. Do you want them, let somebody else take the guilt and give them to them?

Kim: [chuckles] Yes. Here, I got a bad queen. You want her? She's free.


Jim: I can tell you what else you probably would want to try if you're a tender-hearted person, I am. Why don't you just put her in a cage and then try to winter her over in a cage and the warmth of your house or somewhere. Maybe go out and change some worker bees every now and then if you have workers in there. I actually did that years ago as a younger man and a lot more curiosity and energy that I have now, and the one question that quickly came to the top is what kind of queen will I have next spring if I do keep her alive all year, all winter long in a cage? What's her ovary condition going to be? What's her productivity going to be?

Overall, after trying to winter queens over, I didn't really pursue that much anymore, even though it has been tried, Kim. Right now, we're talking about in Fall killing queens, if there was some way to get those queens till next spring, their value just skyrockets. Even a bad queen can get a colony going and keep it going long enough for you to replace her. No queen, in a colony – that ain't going to work.

Kim: All right, think about this for a minute. I try to always look at things at dollars per hour, how much time did you spend taking care of that queen on your kitchen cabinet, from August [crosstalk] May.

Jim: This was exploratory science, Kim, this was me developing protocols for future avenues. This was laying the first railroad track in the country.

Kim: Well, the way I look at it, I'm going to say, Okay, I'm going to take care, I'm going to have to go out there at least once a week and get more workers and I'm going to have to protect her and I got to make sure that she gets covered every night and then she gets fed every day, and then next spring-- [crosstalk]

Jim: Just in that previous segment we shot a few days ago, we talked about a few days ago, you're laying comb in your driveway, and wetting it down like a man who has nothing else to do, so when do you decide what your time is worth? I'm jerking you around, it's not practical, even with the expense of queens, with the agony and the tension of feeding and nurturing, and she becomes a pet for crying out loud. Don't name her, she's probably not going to survive, so if she becomes a pet, and then when you go in there one day and she is dead, then you feel guilty about it, because you just tortured her right up almost all Christmas before she finally died or whenever she went.

Kim: I'm thinking, keep the best queen get rid of the other one. Join the two colonies together.

Jim: I'm thinking exactly the same thing. You just stand there at that moment, two queens, two weak colonies, you're going to combine them, and you think isn't there anything else I could do? What I think you and I've just tried to discuss for the last few minutes is, no, there's nothing else to be done.

Kim: No. Get the hive to its best and move on.

Jim: Yes, it's very arrogant for me to sit here and say, "No, you're great," and "No, you're not." You got two queens, two small colonies, they're both failures. If they were in nature, nature would give them a hive to test of its own design. It's not an easy call, is it, Kim? It's one of those aspects of beekeeping that isn't as enjoyable as many other aspects of beekeeping.

Kim: Beats hosing down frames in the driveway.

Jim: I do want to close on this note. If I can keep them alive and keep them pumped up enough, I will see if I can get six frames together and see if they'll survive, and that expanded polystyrene nuc box, no harm done. I can just pretend it was a tree. They would have died in the tree had they'd been a small nest. All right, I'm rambling now. I've enjoyed talking to you.

Kim: Send me a picture. Send me a picture of that.

Jim: I'll send you a picture.

Kim: Okay.

Jim: If anybody's still listening to us as we have rambled on and on here, and we really appreciate you listening. Love it if you'd subscribe, help us stay in business. Thanks all of you out there. Kim, I'm finished.

Kim: I'm done here. I'll just echo what you said. Thanks, folks, for listening. We hope you enjoyed it. Take care.

Jim: Bye-bye.

[00:14:23] [END OF AUDIO]