Uniting Bees

Beekeepers have always found it necessary to unite two swarms, two colonies or a swarm and a colony when they are either short of beehives or when a colony needs strengthened.

Before uniting bees, you should judge the performance of the two colonies being united and eliminate the one which performs poorly.

Sometimes when a colony loses its queen, you may decide to unite it with a colony that has a good queen (a ‘queen-right’ colony) instead of waiting for it to produce its own. If queens have been allowed to be raised, you may take a limited number of bees from each of the hives to form the nucleus of a colony.

After swarming, some colony populations may be so reduced that the brood can be left uncovered. If this occurs, more bees must be added to clothe the brood combs left inside the hive. If this is not done, the exposed brood is quickly cooled and will die of cold. In this case, bees from any source, but preferably from a strong colony, should be collected and united with the weakened colony.

When colonies or swarms are united, one of them must be queenless because two queens cannot live in the same colony. If two queens are left together they will fight to the death and the survivor may be severely injured during the combat. Beekeepers can prevent this by removing or killing one of the queens 24 hours before carrying out the operation. The decision as to which queen to eliminate rests with the beekeeper, but he should always try to keep the better of the two. Some beekeepers will put the two queens in a jar and let them fight until the stronger is victorious thus providing you with the strongest queen, this is not recommended as it could possible kill both queens.

Another step in preparing for unification is to place some fragrant material (oil of lemon, lavender, camphor, etc.) in both hives. This makes the bees familiar with one another’s smell, making them less aggressive to each other.

Evening is the best time to unit bees, after they have stopped flying. This prevents robbing and makes unification easier. When uniting a swarm and a colony, the beekeeper carries the swarm to the colony. If uniting two colonies or two swarms, always carry the weaker to the stronger. If uniting a queenless to a queen-right colony, carry the queenless to the queen-right. Uniting this way disturbs the stronger group less than the other and interferes less with their production.

Before uniting the two groups the beekeeper should smoke them both in order to calm them and make them more receptive. After uniting them more smoke should be used to make sure they have a homogeneous smell so that fighting among workers will not occur.

The next day check whether there are dead bees at the entrance of the hive. If there are no casualties, then they have accepted each other peacefully. When uniting a queenless to a queen-right colony, or in forming a nucleus, it is advisable to carry the new colony three kilometres away so that the bees added cannot find their way to rejoin the parent nest. If the hives were originally next to each other however, the new colony does not have to be moved but the empty hive must be taken away after the exercise.

Uniting bees with white paper is the best method of all but can only be applied when the Langstroth frame hive is used. Smoke both colonies, open the top cover of the hive and spread the white paper with two or three holes punched in it above the combs. Add another super and pour or shake the bees onto the paper. The bees under and above the paper will start to chew the paper and will merge gradually without fighting. If both colonies are in Langstroth hives, put just one box (without bottom) on the paper above the other hive.

How to judge a queen bee? Good queens are always judged by their ability to lay. Therefore there should be a rapid increase of population before the main honey-flow season, producing a good crop. The size of the queen should be regularly observed, because when it dwindles, this suggests that something adverse is happening. Her wings or legs can also be clipped (not by the beekeeper), causing her to limp, affecting her movement and ability to lay.

The age of the queen is also important. Normally, colonies with young queens swarm less and produce about 30% more honey than those with queens two years old. There are some young queens that will do poorly, while some older queens produce eggs rapidly, sometimes there is no accounting for experience.

Another thing to watch is the progeny. Some colonies are more aggressive than others. Some will swarm more rapidly, wasting resources to the detriment of the beekeeper. When choosing to divide in order to multiply colonies, the beekeeper should consider dividing the very good colonies, which of course suggests that the queens are good.

In temperate climates, the queen is controlled. The beekeeper marks and puts her into the hive. When he feels he has to change her, he does so. However, due to the nature of the tropical bee, African beekeepers do not disturb their colonies much to find the queen, remove and replace her. Requeening therefore has not been a common practice. The tropical beekeeper relies much on swarming, and nature does the requeening for him.