You have a small colony of honey bees that seems to have stalled. The frames of bees look normal enough, and they contain brood, honey, pollen, and a seemingly healthy queen. The bees are performing normal honey bee activities, but the colony doesn’t seem to thrive. Instead it just persists. Although the entire colony covers just two, three, or four frames, the bees seem happy with the status quo.
As a beekeeper, you are perplexed. What do you do with it? Can you get them through winter? Should you even try?
Colonies like this are often called “dinks.” They have been around as long as beekeepers, and every fall the same questions come up. Should you feed them, combine them, destroy them, shake them out, or just ignore them?
1 dink + 1 dink = 1 dink?
The truth is, over the years I’ve changed my philosophy about these grapefruit-sized clusters. When I first started out, I frequently heard the advice that a dink plus a dink equals a dink.
The thought was that if you combined two weak colonies, the combined colony will still be weak and unable to make it through the winter. So it was considered a stupid thing to do.
Instead, I was told to combine a weak colony with a strong one so that I wouldn’t lose any bees. The problem with this idea is that it assumes the dinky colony is healthy and won’t harm the strong one. But is that true?
Any colony that under performs does so for a reason. We might never know what the reason is or whether it is contagious. But unless we know for sure, why risk passing the condition to a strong and healthy colony?
For example, if the dink is weak because it is malnourished or headed by a defective queen, there is little harm in combining. But if the dink is weak because of a pathogen or parasite, we certainly would not want to introduce that into a healthy colony.
So common sense tells us that if we combine two dinks and the resulting colony dies, we haven’t lost much. But if we combine a dink and a thriving colony and the resulting colony dies, we have lost in a big way.
Shaking is worse than combining
Here’s another bad piece of advice I frequently hear: Simply shake the bees out of the dink at the edge of the apiary so the individual bees can move into other hives. In my opinion, this is worse than combining the dink with a good colony. By shaking a diseased dink, you can easily pass whatever it is to all your other colonies at once. How utterly efficient!
So what should you do?
Usually, I start thinking about dinks in August when I evaluate the hives for mites. If I have any hives that appear weak, I start by doing a thorough inspection. I lift every frame and check for brood diseases, I look at the brood pattern, count mites, and check for winter stores.
If I have more than one dink, and they appear healthy except for mites, I combine them before mite treatments. If I have only one, or if I have two with drastically different mite loads, I keep them separate and treat the one that needs it. The next decision is whether I want to overwinter these mini colonies.
Another old adage proclaims that “once a dink always a dink.” I don’t believe this is true. In fact, at times I have been shocked by the turnaround a dink can make, especially when you keep it well fed. It almost seems like they have an internal timer. Once their time comes, they’re off like race horses.
The problem, as I see it, is that these small colonies can take a lot of work. If you are willing to put in the effort, you can often turn them around. If you are already pressed for time, it may not be worth it. So at this point, I’d say it’s a personal decision.
When I say lots of work I mean the bees may need constant feeding, they may need pollen sub, they may need insulation, they may need protection from robbers and wasps, they may need windbreaks and rain shelters. In other words, you personally have to make up for the small population. Your role changes from “beekeeper” to “ginormous nurse bee,” at least until the colony gets through the rough spots.
If you succeed, it can be quite rewarding. But if you fail you’ll wonder whatever possessed you to think you could keep the thing alive. I know because I’ve done both.
Honey Bee Suite