March 2, 2023

Managing The Small Colony (115)

Managing The Small Colony (115)

The more colonies you have, the more you will notice differences between them throughout the year. On today's episode, Kim and Jim talk about what do you do when you open one of your colonies and it seems 'smaller' than the other colonies around it....

The more colonies you have, the more you will notice differences between them throughout the year. On today's episode, Kim and Jim talk about what do you do when you open one of your colonies and it seems 'smaller' than the other colonies around it. Is it something that should concern you? What do you look at first? Pests? Pesticides? Failing queen? Inadequate food supplies? Do you try to fix it?

Listen in as Kim and Jim discuss this sometimes perplexing topic that pesters all beekeepers, one time or another!

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Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 115 – Managing The Small Colony


Jim Tew: Kim, I have a confession to make. When I go into my yard and I look at all those beehives back there, I'm drawn to those smaller colonies. They're easier to work, they don't come after me as much, and I just find them more enjoyable. Is that a copout?

Kim Flottum: No. I think you're exactly right. The smaller the colony, the easier it is to work. Not nearly the lifting, not nearly the number of bees. In the back of my mind when I got…. I'm looking down the row here… I got three colonies with four or five boxes on them and I got one colony with one and a half boxes on it. They all started out the same as a package here about three months ago. The question is, why is this colony small?

Jim: It's a mystery, isn't it? Let's talk about it. Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: We're at Honey Bee Obscura, where today we want to talk for a few minutes about managing small colonies or are we just lazy?

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, host Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: Kim, I like your comments. Why is it small? When you go into the yard, I don't have a vast number of bees now, but I've got 10 or 15 colonies, give or take at any time. You can just look around and you can see the tall ones and the ones that just help bee populations boiling out and they're off to one side. Just like you said in your opening comments, they all started at the same time. Here's a runt over here that's just not building up. What do you do with these rut colonies?

Kim: That's a good question because there's something going on with that one that isn't going on with the other ones, and there's something not going on. Is it too much of a good thing or not enough of? That's what you got to find out. You got to find out why it's small. Obviously, it's small because there aren't as many bees in that box as there are the other boxes. Your first thought is, it's something wrong with a queen. She's not producing eggs and then you got to go look.

Jim: That's always the go-to point, isn't it? There's something wrong with the queen or, in a good hive, there's something right with the queen. It's always the queen, number one. Right away, check that brood pattern. Is it spotty, too many drones? At that point, you're a clinician and you're trying to decide what you're going to treat for. If it is a queen, then that's an entire separate discussion segment, Kim. Are you going to replace her? Is she bad enough to replace? You got to make the trip to get another one? All of those decisions have to come into play, but you got to decide first if the queen's a problem.

Kim: I'll tell you, here's where she can fool you or the colony can fool you. If you haven't been out there, a week or 10 days and the last time you were out there, you just look quick and left because they're starting to build, if in that time the queen that was out there when you went out there and looked, died, injured something, and they replaced her. Now when you go out there, you open the colony, you take a look and there's hardly any bees, but there's a heck of a good brood pattern and there's a lot of eggs and things seem to be going just exactly like they should, but it's still only a third the size of the other ones out there. That comes down to a good way to avoid that or to clue yourself into that is to mark that queen when you get her.

Jim: I was just itching to say something because I really liked your comments. You would think, why weren't you out there all the time? You're just a lazy beekeeper. You should have known that colony is replacing. No, I'm not a lazy beekeeper. I do my best to let my bees be bees and give them weeks on their own. Now, if you've only had a colony for two or three years, go ahead, open them up, have a look. If you're an experienced beekeeper, you shouldn't be pouring through them on a day when they should be out foraging. I was waiting for a breath to say, mark that queen and then you beat me to it because you need to know she's the same one. Did the bees fix their own problem? They don't need you.

Kim: That pretty much solves the problem. If you find the queen that was in there the last time you were out there and she's got that big white mark on the top of her abdomen or thorax, you can say, "Is there something wrong with this queen? She's not producing enough but look at that. Is it a spotty pattern? Is there no eggs? What's going on or what?" That's the question.

Jim: You're just looking for everything. Is there any sign of a disease issue there? In this case, it'd be something like European foulbrood, a limiting disease, and of course American foulbrood, but I don't even want to talk about that again. More than likely, it's going to be something like European, sacbrood brood, something that's causing that brood not to go through to the completion. The colony isn't building up in healthy adult bees. Like varroa mites, they're always on the list. Do you have a proper varroa mite treatment? You start out this from a package, you start it from a split, did it over a winter. Everything's in the details. Is it a disease if it's not the queen?

Kim: I can throw something at that and say, what if that colony swarmed? If the queen absconded, you'd know that she'd been replaced because you had her marked. If they swarmed, you'd know that that the queen was a different queen that was in there. There are those two things to keep in mind too. You're right, you might have a disease, but something may have caused-- Your other colonies are pretty good size and are they big enough to swarm? Maybe this one was.

Jim: Another great comment. If you've not been out there for several weeks, two, three, four weeks, did that colony build up to swarm? Part of me says, if I started it from a split or a package, no, that's not an option, take that off the table. If that was an overwintered colony that I'm surprised is now small, the queen pattern seems okay, I don't see an obvious disease. Then can I find recent swarm cells that have been torn down now? You can still see the swarm cell remains. Did you lose a swarm in the deal? Kim, see if you have that queen marked, then you would've known that you've got a replacement swarm queen in theirs, but a swarm leaving is an option.

Kim: That brings up the question, do you clip your queen's wings or wing?

Jim: No, I don't. I have in the past. I've still got the little micro-scissors that I bought decades ago to strategically clip queens, but I don't do that anymore. Do you clip them?

Kim: No, I never have. I held that bug in my hand and I got the scissors out-- Would you want somebody cutting off half of one of your legs so that you couldn't run away?

Jim: You realize we're off the subject because I'm going to ask that you clipped your chicken's wings too so they won't fly over the fence. Why don't you tell the listeners who don't know this beekeeper mutilation process, that's fallen into disfavor of clipping one of the queen's longer wings? She can't fly high. Tell the listeners what you think that is, this clipping process.

Kim: If you're brand new at this, it's probably something you don't want to do because you got to pick up the queen and you have to hold her body in your hands and then you have to separate the two wings on one side. If you take a look closer, there's a long ring wing and a short wing and you clip the long wing about in half. What that does is, is she can't fly or can't fly well enough to keep up with the swarm.

Jim: She can fly, just like that chicken I'm talking about. I used to chase those chickens down at my grandmother's that could run and glide, but they really couldn't fly. You're just keeping her close to the ground. You can put her back in the colony and then do all this again a few days later.

Kim: I never did that. I just couldn't make it work. Like I said, cutting off half of one leg so I don't run away. Borders on mutilation, but here's the thing; you can order from some queen suppliers queen already clipped.

Jim: We're really off the subject here on how we got from small colonies to clipped queens. I don't know, but it's an interesting discussion. If more and more, clipping queens began to be viewed as a reason that the bees would supersede that queen quicker, you've got to decide - and then I'm going to get back on the subject - but if you're in an area where you got close neighbors and you really can't have swarms hanging on somebody else's property, it may be worth it to do that little bit of mutilation to control the queen's flight or not. I want to add this really quickly, Kim.

We've several times have told people to mark that queen. This year if you follow the regular mark code based on the year, this year's color is red, a good solid color. I like the red year better than the white and the yellow year. For 2023, your queen should be marked in red. Next year, when it's four, and it'll be a green mark next year, you can tell that I've got a queen from last year instead of a queen from this year. All right. Is it the queen or not, is it a disease or not, or did they swarm? Let's take a break, recalibrate ourselves and come back after the break.

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Jim: Kim, I've got one really remote possibility to add to this. If you've got those colonies close together, you could have a drifting problem. I don't really like this suggestion, but I'll put it on the table. We know these bees drift, so if you've got eight colonies lined up side by side and they're two to three feet apart, it's pretty common beekeeper knowledge that those bees on the end seem to pick up more of the returning bees that make mistakes and come back to the wrong colony, drift in with the full load, call it home, and are adopted there. I don't really care for that. That's probably not going to make that small colony just stand out as the reason for being small. Let's put it on the table, kick it around, say it's not too important, and take it back off the table. What do you want to say about that?

Kim: I think you're probably right in terms of what drifting can do to a colony. The position it is if you got them all in a row, if all your colonies are white or at the same color. Bees coming back from foragers, coming back from the field tend to go to either end as opposed to the one in the middle. When you're coming in low and fast, they all look the same. It does happen. It could be drifting, it could have been a swarm, it could have been a colony, the queen could have absconded. We've looked for disease. I didn't find any. What else could be going on here that I got one colony? I've ruled out all of these other things and that colony still doesn't only have two boxes. What's going on, do you think? What might be going on?

Jim: I want to say that that list you just put out is pretty much the go-to list. If you think the queen is now okay, and the brood pattern looks like a decent brood pattern for a small colony that's on the increase, if you've decided there's not a disease issue there, if drifting isn't really much of a problem for you, then what's left, Kim, not much. The question then becomes, I don't know what happened, but this colony isn't as large as the others, so what am I going to do about it? Where do you go from that point once you've decided that it's not a pathological situation?

Kim: Well, the first thing I do it's my first go-to is I rob some of those big colonies of brood and put them in that smaller colony to beef up the population. I don't take a lot of bees because bees don't like going from home to some stranger's place. They don't get along quite so well, but I can take brood. Brood doesn't care. One thing I want to check on though is the varroa in that brood is there a lot, some are hardly any. That's just a precaution. To help that colony catch up, I'm going to take some brood from those other tall colonies.

Jim: That's exactly what I would do, if much as possible, take capped brood. That'll be an immediate boost because just in a few days, that weaker colony is going to help these young bees coming out not knowing any better. They're calling it home and getting about the business of building up. If I take eggs and larvae, then I'm adding stress to that small colony because now they've got even a bigger nursery to care for. Unless I'm feeding and helping them along, I'm not sure oftentimes that eggs and young brooded are that much of a benefit to a weak colony.

Kim: Well, you're probably right in terms of if you got young brood, you got the same number of bees that are going to have to be feeding now even more brood. You're putting that stress on the colony. One of the things that I like about some brood, let's say I take a frame from each of the other three colonies I got there, at least one of those is going to have some open brood because it begins to balance out the - what's the word I want? - the aroma of the colony. It makes it smell better to the bees; I think.

Jim: Yes. The aura-

Kim: Oh, there you go.

Jim: -of the colony. That's not a Bee-word basic, it's a concept. You want that thing. If you put in 20 frames of brood on three frames of adult bees, you haven't done those adult bees any favor. You got to keep that colony in balance. Me being an impulsive person by nature, I would want to overdo it right away. A little bit, several times adding a frame or two or three times is better than adding six frames at once. Just build it along, let it catch up, let it come back.

I guess if I had an admonishment, don't go crazy on taking those big hives apart. They were big for a reason and a perfect bee yard. I would almost say go to your good colonies and rob from them and leave those nice colonies alone. They're thriving. They're successful. Don't punish them. You got to do what you got to do. Maybe you've only got two colonies, one good one and one not so good. Then there's not the one to take it from. If you got 10 colonies, pick and choose. Don't take so much seed corn from those other colonies that you affect your subsequent seed crop on those colonies too if that makes sense.

Kim: It makes sense, but one thing I think I'd want to do before I close this up is I'd want to have a good idea of how much brood was in that colony when I first opened it. How was the queen doing in both open and sealed brood? A good way to do that is to take a picture. You got only two or three frames with brood on. You lay them out, click, click, you've got the picture. Then when you come back after adding that brood, mostly sealed from those other colonies, you can take a look at how much open brood there is because now that open brood will have been produced by that queen that was there originally. You can compare it to that picture. If she's still not laying well, I think her fate has been decided by--

Jim: Yes. You tried. You performed first aid. You did the best you could. You're going to have small colonies, Kim. I've never had, in a bee yard, every beehive be exactly the same. There are always the good ones and there's always those that are okay, and there's always those that need some help. This is not going to be something we solved this year and don't see it again. No. We're going to probably see it again this season, and we'll certainly see it next year. It's just always - what are you going to do? Of course, feed them. you can always feed them, but then that's another discussion.

You start feeding when nothing else is coming in, then you're going to start those big colonies robbing. Feeding is an option with care and with caution. If I had to end this note, small colonies are going to always be with us. How small and can we help them not be small again? Can we build them up enough to survive the winter, maybe make a honey crop, maybe have a chance themselves of not being robbed out? Is this colony just so hopeless, the queen's bad? Then we'll just combine it. Then there's yet another segment on how to combine that colony with another one. How would you like to end this?

Kim: I think you hit the nail on the head there. You do what you can. You do the first aid, you examine it essentially from head to toe, making sure there's no disease you've added. You've given it a boost in terms of population with brood and a boost in food availability to now you've got a bunch of bees that's got to be fed and there isn't a whole bunch of stored honey there, so you're making sure they get fed. Then, like you said, robbing and all the rest of it. I think going back to the very beginning, you should have been out there two weeks ago instead of four.


Jim: It's your fault, Kim. Those small colonies are your fault.

Kim: Okay.

Jim: I'm punched out. I'm done. I'm done.

Kim: All right.

Jim: I enjoy talking about it.

Kim: We'll get back to this later.

Jim: Bye-Bye.

[00:20:54] [END OF AUDIO]