Navigate / search

Should you try to save a failing colony?

Lots of new beekeepers ask how they can save a failing colony. But the real question, I think, is should you even try? Could you be doing more harm than good?

If you find a colony that is obviously declining, you have three choices. You can let it collapse (or exterminate), you can combine it with another, or you can try to revive it. But before you decide, you need to make an educated guess about why it’s collapsing in the first place. Only then can you make a good decision about the next step.

I say “educated guess” because sometimes, even after we evaluate all the evidence, we are still unsure of the cause of failure. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying because sometimes the reason jumps out and we learn a lot in the process.

What to look for

The first thing to do, weather permitting, is to inspect the colony frame by frame. Some things to look for include:

  • Does it have a queen?
  • Is there any brood?
  • Are food stores readily available?
  • Do you see signs of brood disease?
  • Are there signs of varroa mites, such as guanine deposits or deformed wings?
  • Do you see signs of other predators such as mice or shrews?
  • Is the colony being attacked by other invertebrates, such as wasps or plundering honey bees?
  • Is excrement accumulating inside the hive?

Deciding on the next steps

Your decision on whether or not to try save the remaining bees should be based on what you find, but also on the time and resources you have available. Trying to save a dying colony may require much time and effort, and the colony may die anyway. On the other hand, the process can be a valuable learning experience. The go or no-go decision should depend on what you find as well as your goals.

What lies within?

When you search for your queen you will either find one or not. If there is no queen and the colony is very small, there is little chance for recovery, even if you add a new queen. If bee numbers are too small, there may not be enough individuals to defend the hive, care for the queen, forage, and raise brood. Plus, brood rearing will get off to a slow start, because a tiny colony can only care for a small amount of brood.

But the more important question is, “Why is there no queen?” If you see no queen and you see signs of disease, I would delete the rest of those bees rather than try to save them. Most bee diseases and parasites are transmissible from hive to hive, so why let the remaining bees infect a healthy colony?

Different problems require different tactics

If the colony is dying of Nosema, brood diseases, viruses, or mites there is no reason to combine them and no reason to allow them to drift. Spreading disease is not what good beekeepers do. I would recommend killing the remainder (a spray of soapy water works well) and cleaning up the equipment in the way recommended for the particular problem you find.

Treating for mites in an extremely weak or dying colony has no real advantages. If the colony is dying from mite-vectored viruses, the bees that remain are most likely already infected with virus. So even if you kill the mites, the bees will not recover. At best, they will die in the hive. At worse, they will spread mites and disease to other hives.

If the hive died due to American foulbrood, you need to burn the hives to contain the spread of disease spores. If you don’t want to burn your bees, I suggest killing them first and then burning the equipment.

New evidence suggests that some bee diseases are transmissible between bee species. If this is true, allowing diseased bees to remain in the environment may be hurting the native species as well as the honey bee. This is a serious issue that needs to be considered.

You find the queen and she looks fine

If you find a queen and she looks normal, look carefully at the brood. Is the brood in a tight pattern? Is it mostly worker brood or mostly drones? Are the bees caring for the brood or ignoring it?

Look carefully here. Just because you have a queen doesn’t mean she is functioning properly. You could have a drone layer. You could have an inbred queen laying diploid drones, or you could have an infertile queen and laying workers.

In a case where the queen isn’t functioning properly, even when no disease is present, there is no point in feeding, treating, pollen supplementation, or any other stop-gap measure. Without a laying queen, the colony cannot continue. If you want to save the remaining bees you can provide them with a new queen or provide them with frames of open brood from which they can raise a queen. Remember, though, it takes time, food resources, and plenty of workers to raise a new queen, and in a dying colony you may have none of those things.

Re-queening doesn’t always work

Re-queening may seem like a simple solution but as I mentioned above, if there are not enough bees to take care of the colony, you may be wasting your money. The best queen in the world cannot reverse a dying colony if she doesn’t have a clean environment, an adequate work force, and plenty of resources.

If you decide that the present queen is fine, or if you decide to re-queen, you can add capped brood to the hive. Capped brood will begin providing workers almost immediately, and the influx of bee-power may be enough to turn things around. But you can’t get something for nothing. Remember that while adding brood helps one colony, it weakens the other. Make sure the donor colony is strong enough to withstand the loss.

Combine with caution

The third option for handling a failing colony is to combine it with another so that you can save the bees, if nothing else. Above all, be certain that the weak colony is free from disease and parasites before you combine. And when you do combine, use standard techniques such as introduction through newspaper.

As with all aspects of beekeeping, there are dozens of ways to handle a failing hive. But regardless of the method you chose, you should begin by assessing the colony to find why it is weak in the first place. Once you make that educated guess, you can let it die (or exterminate), combine it with another, or try to turn it around. Ultimately, the decision is yours, but remember this: We want to save the bees—all the bees—so keep the larger picture in mind, especially when diseases are present.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Should you try to save a failing colony?
What’s up? Unless I know why a colony is failing, I will not combine it with another. ©Rusty Burlew.

Save

Save

Comments

frances I Moore
Reply

thanks for this I learned the hard way my 6 packages got lost in the mail and i took them any way at the post office they were not all dead and the queen was still alive not knowing what to do I installed them in there own hives I lost the queens bought more and installed them and they would not lay very much because so few of bees in the hive live and learn, I guess the hard way that cost me a lot of money . but I tried and it failed and now I know. they say package bees only live for about 6 weeks so they got to get a build up fast they did not have a chance.

Lisa
Reply

Hi Rusty, great post. It is hard to know what to do sometimes. As I’m beginning my 2nd year I have so many questions. Most books are aimed at 1st years or experts. Comming out of my first winter with last years 2 nucs, what do I do with left over honey frames that are actually sugar syrup? The drought kept them from making honey so it was all syrup. Also if one doesn’t get honey the first year how do I judge feeding them this year? Also, barring a drought, how can I tell if I live in poor forage area? Is there a guide to how much they should have stored by a certain time? Hopefully none will be weak but at least I will know what to do as your post clearly explains. Here in February they are eating up pollen patties and I will keep an eye on food stores as their numbers will be increasing quickly. Any advice for what a 2nd year should be doing would be appreciated! And yes l have more boxes for possible splits. Thanks, Lisa

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

The bees can still use the frames of syrup; just don’t get them confused with your honey frames. I can’t say anything about how much honey a colony should have at a certain time. It will depend on the size and health of the colony and the weather conditions for that particular year. Plus, even great foraging areas have poor years. Everything is variable, just as it is with any type of farming.

Michael Williamson
Reply

Rusty,

Good advice, I have this exact situation at the moment, with a Kenyan Top Bar Hive in Melbourne, Australia.
First I noticed the lack of traffic to and from the hive.
Second an inspection last week revealed that the hive was in a certain decline, I removed half of the Bars to try and reduce the space available for pests, ensuring the bees were covering most of the frames.
I had some wax moth evidence in the empty frames and so I melted wax and froze the empty bars.
Thirdly I inspected yesterday to check for young larvae and they are certainly there, I removed some more bars and now they have only 6 full bars with brood and some stored honey.
There is no further evidence of pests or disease, I have always had some chalk brood in this hive, which has increased with the weakening.
I am going to try one frame of brood from a neighbours hive and see if things improve. Then if nothing, I will destroy the remainder.
Mainly because I have another strong hive and my neighbours hive to consider.

Thank you

Michael

Steve Gibbs
Reply

Good article. I would just note that burning is the best option for AFB but hives can recover from mild EFB during a good spring buildup. At least that is a common opinion here in California.

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

That was an error I forget to fix. Sorry.

debbie
Reply

Thank you for this article. It’s always hard deciding whether to save or dispatch. I am aware of burning the hive and bees for AF, but never heard of it for EF. It is my understanding that EF can be fixed by switching out frames and changing the stress factor for the bees, and that the bees usually clean up the infection on their own. It is possible for it to come back under stressful conditions. Please explain. Thanks !

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

Fixed.

Liz Bateman
Reply

I’m new to beekeeping and my mentor didn’t check for Varroa mites until early October instead of the late July/early August that I now know should be the target date, so they only got one treatment. Just discovered the entire nuc is dead and lots of mites in the bottom. I had bought some pollen patties in anticipation of a hive “explosion” and then promptly had a total hip replacement. The patties (from Brushy Farms- high quality) were in my foyer for 2 weeks, now are in the freezer, but are they any good? I’ll be getting more bees in late March or early April – there will be plenty of plants in bloom at that time. What should I do with these patties (10 1 lb. patties covered in wax paper)? If they’re too old, I sure don’t want to harm my new bees!! Thank you, Liz

Rusty
Reply

Liz,

Just keep them in the freezer until you need them. They should be fine. They usually sit longer than two weeks when they’re inside the hives, and that’s a lot warmer than your foyer, I imagine.

Samantha Walker
Reply

Hiya

We have a training apiary. My bees died early Feb 2016 from too few a numbers due to heavy Varroa & lots drowned in the syrup before the winter…I couldn’t wait to get started again and bought bees too early…It’s worth waiting! (Although I treated for Varroa twice a year, an integrated pest management is needed).

The bees I bought (in mid Feb 2016) were from someone in poor health and couldn’t provide the care needed anymore. I had a lot die within 2 meters of the hive… more died a month later and were shiny & hairless, ambling around. Probably Chronic Bee Paralysis. I used a mixture of sugar syrup with a drop of peppermint and 2 drops of lemon grass oil in. And a treatment for Varroa. Throughout the year they were not doing as well the other bees within the apiary and didn’t really build any new comb which was frustrating, because I wanted to change it as it looked very dark, possibly holding pathogens.

They remained on 5 frames throughout the year until I combined an association hive that had a laying worker. They started to draw another 2 sides of comb but very late in the season it was hard for the queen to find space to lay.

After visiting the apiary for a winter tidy up (Feb 2017) they was a lot of dead bee’s legs poking through the Varroa floor but they were still alive… here comes the most detrimental time for them wet and cold British weather!

So if they make it through I feel I should control the drone population (sacrificial drones for Varroa management) by uncapping so that I do not have inferior drones mating with other queens in the area and re-queen. It has been a big learning curve and I think in hindsight perhaps I should have cut my losses and started a new.

So I shall keep you posted as to whether the colony makes it through 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Sam,

Yes, do let me know how they turn out. It can be a lot of work saving the weaker ones.

Tammy
Reply

Thanks Rusty!

Leave a comment

name*

email* (not published)

website

Want to Attract Pollinators to Your Garden?15 Ways
+