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Fall hive management: dealing with dinks

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.

Cost/benefit ratio

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.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Can this dink turn around?
Can this dink be saved? Pixabay photo.

Comments

DJ
Reply

Yep, I got one too. As of now I’m planning on playing nurse bee.

This dink colony started from a split of a wild colony. A hygienic queen was purchased and installed. When the acceptance inspection was done I looked into the hive in great horror. Hive beetle larvae had taken out the new queen in her cage. I had inspected the colony 2 days prior as I put the new hive together. I waited a couple days to add a queen so the colony would accept her. I should have inspected the hive completely to ensure I was putting a fresh new queen into a fresh new split. I will never make that mistake again.

I cleaned up the damage and added fresh brood and the original queen. The parent colony was very strong. The queen was an egg laying machine. The parent colony requeened and has filled out 2 deeps and even produced 4 shallow frames of comb honey. The dink has filled out to 5 deep frames. It is currently the only colony that has brood in it. There are lots of young bees, more so than the other colonies. If it was not for the number of young bees and the presence of brood I would have combined the bees on the 21st of October. Instead I have added more syrup and plan on feeding the weak colony until spring. If things change between now and cold weather, I will combine. The feeling is if this small cluster of bees survived last winter in a wooden wire spool, and exploded when placed in a langstroth. They should winter just fine and be ready to go in the spring.

Living in Montgomery Texas the term winter for me is a couple cold days in January and a chilly February. My other colonies were bringing in pollen non-stop. If I lived in a colder climate, I would have combined the hives back in August.

Rusty
Reply

DJ,

I have never heard of hive beetles taking out a queen. That is gruesome.

DJ
Reply

It was very gruesome. They took the queen and all the support bees. In the days they were left in the queen cage they became too big to exit, even with the candy plug removed by the hive bees.

I wanted to buy a NUC but the cost doubled. When I had the opportunity to split the feral hive and re-queen with the stock from the same apiary as my first hive, I jumped at it. I spent 27 dollars for the mated queen. It felt like I lost one of my favorite pets. The cost meant nothing. I felt like I had failed the queen and the apiary I purchased her from. It’s amazing how attached beekeepers get.

Rusty
Reply

DJ,

I agree. I get very attached.

Wendy
Reply

Rusty,

Thanks for all the advice. It’s been really helpful. Your writings are easy to read and full of common sense. Common sense is one thing I don’t find on a lot of blogs and forums.

The panhandle of Florida where I live is really great for beekeeping. We didn’t think when we started out that we would be fortunate enough to pull honey more than once a year. We’ve pulled twice and will pull goldenrod in a few weeks. Yummy buttery flavor.

This year in the spring we purchased 4 nucs from two different beekeepers and split our 3 existing hives. One split I split again within 5 days because I discovered queen cells. This one I got advice from you and it was very successful. Thanks again for the good advice! All hives were successful but for 1 nuc.

Two of the 4 nucs had queen cells to start the hives with. One nuc went as expected and became a very strong hive. Too strong actually. It was a very hot and aggressive hive. It was so bad when we were pulling honey that we gave up and only pulled about a third. Too bad we didn’t video this behavior for educational purposes and a few good laughs. We requeened it and within 6-8 weeks became more docile.

The other nuc which also started with a queen cell was very slow. Polar opposites from the other nuc. We tried everything we could think of to make a difference. At one time I took a frame full of brood and put in it. It never had 10 frames drawn out or a good brood pattern. We requeened it twice. It finally died out on its own. This hive was sitting right next to the other three hives we purchased at the same time.

We really don’t know why this hive failed. We have may theories. It’s very disappointing. At least it was only one hive. Some nearby beekeepers in the area weren’t so fortunate.

How common is this type of event?

Thanks for your input.

Rusty
Reply

Wendy,

It’s very common. You can compare it to any other living thing. If you have a flock of chickens, one underachiever will find herself at the bottom of the pecking order. In a little of pups, some are stronger than others. In a classroom of children you have a wide range of aptitude. These differences are most likely a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture, and it’s impossible to divide it all out and assign blame. No matter how many hives you have, there will always be a strongest and a weakest, some that make it and some that don’t. It is what it is.

Michael Judd
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for those clear thoughts. I am sure your writing about this will encourage many a beekeeper. Just a little question that I am not sure is relevant. I noticed when I help one of my friends here, that from time and he comes across an under performing colony or perhaps a dink. He will simply move the frames about and/or replace one or two with new frames in the middle of the colony. He calls it manipulation!

The result by the next visit is most often astonishing.

I myself, had a colony that was on one side of the brood box and on about 4/5 frames and it would not do anything, exactly as you describe. I did as my friend did and now, in Sept/Oct, the colony has become fully operational from 10 frames.

This colony either re-queened, in about August or my stimulation, as I call it, got them going.

Michael

Rusty
Reply

Michael,

I totally believe what you are telling me. Sometimes just going in and “stirring them up” makes a big difference. It reminds of certain unresponsive classrooms where the teacher goes in and makes the front row sit in the back, the left sit on the right, and so forth, just to give everyone a new perspective. In can really change the classroom dynamics. I think bees sometimes behave the same way. Instead of remaining lethargic and unmotivated, the whole world suddenly looks different. Crazy analogy, I know. But that’s what I can compare it to.

Jeffrey
Reply

Rusty,

I think I might have one hive that you would refer to as a dink. It was a two-deep box hive. Due to one unknown swarm after the initial cut-out event that I missed some how, and two re-queenings in late summer, it had to be reduced to a single deep. I managed to finally make it queenright in late September to early October and began to notice new larvae. The increase in population has now has reached the point that if it where mid-summer I would add a second deep.

I hope all my efforts will pay off next spring after they make it through winter. I say that with optimism due to the amount of effort and resources I had to, still am, and will probably have to continue to supply them until spring. As you put it, I also feel like a “ginormous nurse bee.”

As long as they make it through winter I will feel that for my first year I have accomplished something good no matter how hard it was. If nothing else I have learned to keep an extra hive on hand, ready to go at a minute’s notice.

cyrus
Reply

At first I thought Dinks was the Double Income No Kids ie lots of work and no brood. It might be easier to have some built-in insurance and make a split every year to compensate for lost colonies. The advantage is you always have at least one new queen in your yard and if you don’t need it you could just sell it. It seems like less work with better chances of success. Dinks, leave’em bee.

Andrea
Reply

In response to Michael’s comment, I’m curious–is it too late in the season to manipulate the frames of my hive? Would it disrupt them too much going into cold weather I’m in Western Colorado and we’re experiencing unseasonably warm days and nights still.

Rusty
Reply

Andrea,

It’s probably not too late. Just pick a warmish afternoon and work fast. It’s usually better to do something than nothing.

lyn jalving
Reply

Rusty,

Last week I had a late swarm of about the size you spoke of, landed close by so I scooped them up and put in a deep with 5 frames (3 had some honey and drawn comb). I haven’t seen a queen but a week later they are still there. Do I combine or leave them alone longer…not seeing any new brood…but its just been a week.

lyn jalving…Central Florida

Rusty
Reply

Lyn,

It’s possible it was a swarm with a virgin queen, in which case she would have to mate and mature for a couple of weeks before laying. I don’t know if there are still drones flying in your area but, if not, she probably won’t get mated. I would look very closely for eggs and if I found nothing I would probably combine.

Lyn jalving
Reply

Thanks if I do combine and there is a young queen will they kill her? Could I just add some brood frames from a strong hive to beef up the hive ?

Rusty
Reply

Lyn,

Yes, most probably they will kill her. And, yes, you can add brood frames to strengthen the colony. But if there is no mated queen, the brood will eventually die and you may end up raising laying workers.

Lyn jalving
Reply

I live in central Florida. If it is queenless could I add frames with all stages of brood to let them make their own queen? I’ve done the many time with success but it may be too late in season.

Rusty
Reply

Lyn,

Yes, certainly you can add brood and have the bees raise their own queen, but everything hinges on her ability to mate. I don’t know enough about central Florida climate to know if you have adequate drones at this time of year.

Larry
Reply

11/03/16

I had what you call a dink this year and decided to make an observation box and put it in my basement to see if the queen will lay eggs in the warm basement instead of dying out in the cold. She only had about 20 capped brood and and about 200 bees, maybe it is a bad queen. My bigger problem is the honey is melting from the frames and falling to the bottom and the bees are getting caught in the honey and dying. I will see what is left in the spring. I hated to waste the queen.

Rusty
Reply

Larry,

How warm is your basement? I can’t imagine it being warm enough to for the honey to leak out. Maybe those bees would be better off outside.

Jeffrey
Reply

On Oct 30th I posted about having one dink. Now, I still have one dink, but thanks to an animal attack on Halloween night, “must have been a werewolf”, I’m back to a queenless hive, and one dink. It would destroy my strongest hive. Something knocked over my double deep 8 garden hive, and dragged it across the yard, (thank god for ratchet straps), and because I use fully drawn comb with no wires, and they where laden with honey for winter, most where shattered beyond repair. I managed to piece together 8 frames, out of 16, with rubber bands, but whatever it was ate the brood frames, that it somehow managed to pull out from between the deep boxes when they separated as they slid apart about 2 inches on impact. My queen either froze or was eaten too. It was 28 deg. F out that morning when I found the wreckage. I don’t think it was a bear, there were no claw marks and the damage wasn’t bad enough for a bear attack. I hope the girls lit up whatever it was so it thinks twice about a return visit. The bees were surprisingly gentle toward me that morning as I pieced together their home. I cant take the chance of combining them with the other hive because they have already killed 2 queens this fall, and I can’t risk losing my last hive to aggression. I think it might be time to look into a electric fence. I almost threw in the towel, but I haven’t really even begun yet, and I won’t let some critter take me down. I mean how many things can go wrong in 4 1/2 months. Hummm, where to start……..

Rusty
Reply

Jeffrey,

That is horrible. Are you sure the queen is missing? If she’s gone, I don’t see any reason not to combine with the dink. With combining, you might still lose the bigger hive, but without any queen you will definitely lose the big hive. Wait a few days and check for eggs before you make a final decision.

Darryl
Reply

I live in southern Ontario Canada. I am a new bee keeper, just started last year with one hive and through some splits and buying some nucs I have six colonies and four nucs going into the winter. I had thought they were all doing well but… I have an interesting hive that ended up with my original queen and a new queen from a supersedure, they kind of created two hives within one, separated by two partially drawn frames, it has been like that since July. I just had a look at the hive, and the bee population is down quite a bit, I’m assuming due to the time of year, but the new queen is gone with just the original queen left. The original queen is missing her wings, poor thing, but looks active walking around and such. There are a few eggs, some larvae, and a bit of capped brood, but not near as much as some of my other hives. Should I cull this queen and combine this hive with one of the nucs or just keep an eye on it through the winter? What are your thoughts?

Rusty
Reply

Darryl,

The missing wings concern me a bit because sometimes workers will reject a malformed queen, although it sounds like they are okay with her so far. As a beginner, I would have attempted to get this colony through the winter. But now, having seen so many of these odd colonies fail, I would probably combine it. In your area I imagine you will be hard pressed to find days mild enough to check on the colony as well, so I vote for combining. I think it comes down to how much effort you want to put into it.

Craig
Reply

I’m wondering how a queen with no wings got mated? Seems like there must have been an event in which she lost her wings after being mated?

My guess is that the wings were lost in an attempt to kill and supersede her. Now if she was the type who was capable of a peaceful supersedure AND was able to survive an attack later I’d think she might well be worth breeding a few queens from.

Does that make sense or am I full of it?

Rusty
Reply

Craig,

Makes sense to me. I wonder how long she’s been like that.

Jeffrey
Reply

I planned to open both hives today, but the wind is not cooperating with me. The temp are in the mid 50’s but with the winds it feels like low 40’s, so I will have to wait until tomorrow. I plan to inspect the damaged hive closely, and hope I find a queen. I did miss her once before, she’s a runner. I do have my doubts though. With the amount of damage to the comb I had to deal with, and the below freezing temps that morning , the odds she made it aren’t that good. I’m still going to treat it like she’s there and finish my winter prep. Since they are probably plowing through their winter stores to repair comb I am going to give them an 8 pound candy board with a winter grease patty sandwiched in the middle. I’m hoping to find her as I quickly scan though the frames. The smaller hive will get a solid bottom board for the winter, as I did with the reassembly of my other hive, and the mouse guard will be placed on after I remove their liquid feeder. The temps are going to take a dive this week and the liquid feed will be too cold for them. I have a candy board for them too, but I will check their stores before I give it to them. If they look good I might wait until mid December before I place it on that hive. Looked into a electric fence this week. Two (2) joules should be enough to knock whatever attacked them on its ass, if it comes back. Specs say it is good for 50 miles of fence, that should produce around 10,000 volts in one second bursts. I’m only guarding 144 square feet. I would like to see the look on it’s face when it’s nose touches that thing. OUCH!! Payback is hell !!! I might invest in a trail cam too, just so I can get a look at the welt I leaves with. Hahahahaha !!! I have a feeling all will work out in the end.

Rusty
Reply

Jeffrey,

Electric fences do work. Just hope your trail cam is working the first time you back into your own fence! I’m speaking from experience here.

Jeffrey
Reply

Hahahahahahahhahhhaha !!!!! Yep, you know that’s going to happen. I’ll send a pic if I’m lucky enough to catch it. Hahahaha !!

Sara
Reply

Your post reminds me of one of my colonies that almost wasn’t. I learned how to do splits this year (5th year beekeeping, mostly self-/book-taught, finally took an actual class). Two colonies split into four. One of the splits with the queen cells swarmed, so now there are five. And both the swarm and the virgin queen colony it left behind went along like gangbusters. (Not that I’m complaining in this case, but why, oh why don’t they read the same books I do?)

The other queen cell split (hive #3) didn’t fare so well. Split it May 30th, 8 to 10 queen cells mostly capped by June 6th, no eggs by June 28th and the last queen cell empty – pulled a comb of eggs and young brood from the (very strong) neighboring colony (#4) the split had come from. By now I was rather worried as last year was a bad one for me in regards to queens (long and unhappy story-‘s why I took that class). July 5th still showed a dearth of eggs, but 4 queen cups and 1 queen cell. Pulled another comb, capped brood and eggs from #4 for #3. By July 19th the queens had emerged. July 27th, no eggs, very unhappy bees, capped honey that looked wrong-dark and wet-suspected scavenger larvae or fermenting, other honey stores almost gone-suspected robbing, and my hope that this colony would survive was completely gone.

I wasn’t going to combine the remainder of this colony with another, not with the scavengers I suspected (I‘ve made the mistake of scavenging comb from a defunct colony before and battled hive beetles the rest of the year). So, as I’d heard that bees left abandoned by moving a hive can be adopted into nearby colonies, I decided to break up the hive and put the separated components in a far, far corner exposed to the weather until I could deal with it later.

Maybe it’s possible that a few orphaned bees might be adopted, but apparently not a colony’s worth, even a small colony. The bees of #3 made a 2 to 3 bar cluster on the open-to-the-sky hive body (with another, smaller cluster on the hive parts in the far, far corner) and just stayed put. No foraging, no guarding, no building, just a cluster that hummed. Two days later, those clusters were still in their respective places, even after two major rain storms.

Anything that determined to stay alive…I was going to try to give another chance. #4 had a half-built queen cell with a lovely curled larva floating in royal jelly. #4 didn’t need it – I saw their queen and she still had a beautiful laying pattern (the twerps just wanted their brood nest opened up a bit). I dumped out the water sitting in the bottom of #3, didn’t even try to give it time to dry out as another storm was on its way, installed the bar with its queen cell and two others with honey and brood of various ages, and scooped in as many bees as I could from both clusters. Very docile bees.

August 2nd- some comb building was going on, eight uncapped queen cells, while the older queen cell had obviously been capped and then opened. August 12th, all queen cells gone. August 29th… Victory Day! Eggs! 6 combs worth of eggs! Brood of all ages! Good laying pattern! Huzzah! Hallelujah!

Of course, I knew I’d have to feed this colony. No way would they store enough for winter, even (or especially) with queenie laying like nobody’s business, not that late in the year (SW Virginia). Started doing that at the end of Sept. They seem to think all they need is about 4 or 5 combs worth of storage (honey/syrup/pollen), even though they have more combs. However, there’s a little brood nest with eggs and capped brood, so I’m just going to keep providing syrup and see if they survive.

Rusty
Reply

Sara,

That’s quite a story. One comment, though. At one point you say, “By July 19th the queens had emerged. July 27th, no eggs, very unhappy bees, capped…” While it is possible to see eggs 8 days after emergence, 10-12 are more likely. Certainly I would not be at all upset if I didn’t see eggs at the 8-day point. Just a thought. When will a newly-hatched queen begin to lay?

Sara
Reply

(Sigh.) I know. That was another reason I didn’t try to combine. I couldn’t be entirely sure there wasn’t a queen, as I only this year learned how to spot an unmarked queen and that is still a very shaky skill. Before, I’d relied only on egg/larvae spotting. However, considering the state of the honey stores (wet/dark/wrong), it didn’t seem like they’d survive even if there was a queen. I’m sure there was another way to approach the problem, but I haven’t learned it yet.

Also, if there was a queen, I figured they’d either start building afresh or leave (though considering the ‘open-air’ state of their hive, I expected ‘leave’ would be first choice). It was the complete lack of doing anything that convinced me they didn’t have a queen that time.

Jeffrey
Reply

Rusty,

Just thought I would keep you up on things. Thanks for listening. Read your post “lofty Idea” wish I had one here. Finished winterizing the hives yesterday afternoon. (nice weather) Last night around 10pm I took the dog out and I was hit again. This time it/they only managed to tip the hive over, “but still” comb damage. I was so disgusted that I just stood it up and went to bed. Bees do fly at night, I was covered in them, and yet not one sting. I like this batch of girls.

Got up this morning and it was too cold to open so I went to vote and when I got back it was high 50s so I dove right in. It was not as bad as I had envisioned. The rubber bands from the last attack kept all the comb in place. Probably acted like shock absorbers. It did however shift all the frames to one side. As I removed them to inspect and reset them, I found my queen!!!! Thank god for small favors! She looked good, but she’s a runner. Fast too. Impact shattered my candy board, the bees spent the hole day throwing chunks of sugar out the front entrance. It looks like it snowed in front of the hive. Now I have to clean that up before it attracts something bad, because it seems to always be something.

Spent the rest of the day running around looking for a black aluminum fence post so I can get that fence up. I see them everywhere, even in my own back yard, but can’t find one to purchase to save my life. I even went to a fence company and held 3 different size ones in my hands but was told to come back tomorrow because the guy that prices them wasn’t coming in today. I feel like I’m on some kind of quest every time I go to get something anymore. My mother should have named me Lancelot. Life was so much simpler 40 years ago.

Guess I’ll try to order everything on Amazon tonight. That way I’ll have it for the weekend. Just hope the coyotes don’t come back. Ya, not a bear yet, the coyote’s went through the whole neighborhood last night and ransacked everyone’s garbage cans, looked like a bomb hit this morning, garbage everywhere. So….. I’m not the only one they’re pissing off! Might here some shootin in them there hills tonight!!!! Thanks for the shoulder.

Rusty
Reply

Jeffrey,

Sounds like the local creatures have it in for you. The local stores too!

Jeffrey
Reply

Rusty,

We used to have a lot of small Mom and Pop stores in our area that carried just about everything you could ever need. Then the big box stores moved in and closed them all down. They only carry enough stuff to get you in trouble. Then you have to call a so called “professional” hum….. We seem to have a lot of them around here anymore, the only problem is every time I call one they end up thanking me for what I taught them. I’m starting to wonder who should be paying who. Just thinking out loud.

Anyway, I ordered everything I needed to do the electric fence. I should have it all by Nov. 15th. I tried to “boo bee trap” Hahaha… the back yard with string until it all gets “hear”. That’s for my misprint in my last post. I pounded in about 15 one foot high posts I cut from my tomato stakes and ran yellow mason string back and forth between them all in a random pattern in front of my hives, I know random pattern, oxymoron. I figure if whatever tries to attack again it will be too busy trying to get untangled to be bothered with my hives. Maybe if I’m lucky it will hogtie itself. I would just move them into the garage but I think I might catch some flak. I know I’m just rambling now. I’ll go…. I have some grounding rods to pound in and wire. Have a good day.

Rusty
Reply

Jeffrey,

You sound just like my husband, always ranting about how worthless the so-called “hardware stores” have become. We get nearly everything on line now, because you can’t find parts locally.

J. Hude
Reply

Greetings.

Your thoughts on what to look for when dealing with “chump hives” this time of year?

Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

J.

Beats me. What’s a chump hive?

L. Martinez
Reply

Rusty,

At what temperature does one switch to feeding sugar instead of syrup? I’m going to try and save a hive I cut out of a bird house back in July.

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Once the syrup (not the air) reaches about 50 degrees F, the bees will stop drinking it.

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