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May-Bee I Can Save This Hive?!

By: Chari Elam 

May runs a close second to the busiest time of year for beekeepers – July honey extraction rightfully holding first place! Right now, we’re running around determining which hives are ready for supers and in some cases, adding second supers for the “over

What about those “under achiever” hives? Probably classified as an affliction… but most hobby beekeepers will nurse our under-achiever hives until the very end – meaning, until they are dead. We pour all of our love (and money) into saving these not so fortunate bees, all for what? To cure what ails them of course (I say with determination in my voice)!

After a decade in this industry, we’ve tried a multitude of “tricks” to save weak hives. Some of which have stood out to be valid solutions and more often than not brought a hive back into production. Disclaimer: There are hives that are just too far gone. That’s when you accept the circumstances and move on with your head held high – After-all, the current statistics in colony loss hovers around 40+%. 

Identifying a low performer

This is a hive that is nestled in between or along with other thriving colonies being cared for exactly as the rest of them. There is no visible difference whatsoever – yet it struggles with consuming syrup, low brood, low forager activity… overall a weak hive. I’ll address a single hive bee yard that “never took off” further along in this article.

What’s different with this hive?

Mite count? Did this hive have a higher mite load than its neighbors? If so, did you retest after treatment? It is understood that hives with higher mite loads (continually) never thrive. My first order of action for this hive is to requeen asap. After a full brood cycle with the new queen, I test again and treat again if necessary. If I don’t see a difference – then it’s something else.

Drifting

Bees drift – they just do. It’s my observation that bees which under perform tend to be the hives that bees drift “away” from. Why would that be? The populations can’t seem to increase… the queen is laying… just can’t seem to keep those bees coming back! Location –location – location! It may sound crazy – but I am convinced that there are locations in the earth bees don’t want to live. We’ve had multiple bees on a platform where colony 1, 2, & 3 did fine – 4 didn’t, and 5, 6, 7… and so on did fine as well! Why? Beats me – I have no idea! But – when we moved that hive (#4) to the end or in another position on the platform it almost instantly started growing and doing better! Why? Again… beats me – I have no idea! Studies have shown that bees on a platform don’t do as well as bees spread apart or placed in a horseshoe pattern. Drifting is a big part of it. When bees drift, they “share” mites, viruses, and can deplete the forager population simply because the bees don’t return back to the hive. Having said all of that – try moving the weak hive to another location in the bee yard. You might be surprised how it makes a difference! If it doesn’t move on to the next suggestion…

Change out and donate frames to the hive

It is remotely possible your frames are the culprit. Older brood comb can become so old that the cocoon buildup (from years of brood rearing) is so extensive the queen and workers just simply don’t want to work it. Working out old frames can be difficult because it’s the active brood frames that need to be replaced! Easiest way to do it is to start by moving the center frame over 1 or 2 spaces. Then a couple of weeks later, moving it a couple of spaces more, until it’s on the outside and not being utilized anymore. Replace it with new foundation at that point. Doing this in the winter is easier than in population increase (now) but it can be done. Click here to watch Blake’s video on culling old frames from your hives. Once you’ve worked out the old frames, we’ve had success by donating a good fully capped brood frame from a healthy hive. This frame can make a huge difference in the performance of this hive once it emerges.   

It gets a boost of nearly 7000 bees and has a new(er) brood frame for the workers and queen to work with. Give it another brood cycle (21 days) and assess the hive's health again. Odds are it’s improved!

Feeding weak hives

There are times when weak hives won’t take syrup. Why? It seems illogical (in my best Spock voice) that a hive with virtually no resources wouldn’t take nectar. More times than not it’s a population problem. If you only have a few frames of bees, they won’t be able to maintain the temperature inside the hive any time of year. Bees consume “warmer” syrup better than they do “cooler” syrup. In this instance combining hives would be a good solution. Ideally combining 2 hives that aren’t feeding well (stronger hive on bottom/weaker hive placed on top) to boost the population. Obviously, you’ll have to choose a queen– and honestly… it may boil down to “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” to decide which one to keep. Or… let them duke it out and the best queen wins! 

Another reason a hive could not be feeding is a failing queen. We don’t often think about that, but workers don’t tend to bring in resources for a queen that is under-performing. Solution (maybe) – requeen. I say maybe because in the game of trying to save weak colonies, you’ll have to make your best educated guess to what each colony will best respond to. Click Here to watch how to combine hives.

A word of caution – we talk about combining weak hives, but “some” weak hives should not be combined with a good hive. If a hive is truly a “failure to thrive” hive, and you’ve tried all of the above and still nothing improves – I’d cut my losses and let it go. You can salvage the queen if she doesn’t seem to be the problem, but don’t take those frames and bees and expose them to another hive… it can easily be a boat anchor for the good hive instead of “saving” the failing hive. Freeze the frames (minimum 3 days) if they are relatively new and in good shape for using later.

Back to the single hive beekeeper

Unfortunately, some hives fail to thrive and if you only have 1 hive it makes it much more difficult to make any corrections. In this case, try reducing the size of the box to the smallest size that fits the bees. In other words. If you have a double deep but there’s only enough bees to fill a single – take off the second deep. If it’s a single deep and they aren’t filling it – put them in a Nuc box for a while. Feed nonstop and it’s possible they may take back off. Adding a feeding stimulate could help in this case as well. My next advice (if you aren’t already) is to join a bee club near you. Having the “resource” of other beekeepers can be your greatest asset! It gives you the ability to share frames with others outside of your bee yard as well as the help they offer in support.

Nursing weak hives (in my experience) only works about ½ the time. But that’s a 50% success rate in my book! Most of these suggestions don’t cost you anything but maybe a queen. And in my opinion, it’s worth the try.

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