If you have a small or weak colony or perhaps, a colony in need of a new queen, you may consider uniting it with another colony, particularly before winter, to optimise its chance of survival.
Uniting is the term used by beekeepers to describe the process of putting two groups of bees together. This can refer to full colonies, nucleus hives or swarms. The end result is that the beekeeper will have fewer but stronger colonies.
It’s not possible just to place one hive on top of another as the bees from the two colonies will fight. This page describes the methods you can use to unite colonies safely. There are various reasons for uniting colonies; it may be that the beekeeper has decided to manage fewer colonies or s/he has run out of equipment or space. Many beekeepers unite smaller or weaker colonies prior to winter to give them the best chance of survival.
Most beekeepers have tried unsuccessfully at one time or another to take small colonies through winter. If you want to make increase, far better to unite small colonies prior to winter and then split them again in spring.
Uniting colonies prior to the main nectar flow is also common as it increases the foraging force. Sometimes, beekeepers who have controlled swarming, perhaps using the artificial swarm technique, may reunited the two halves of the split later in the season. Uniting colonies may also be used to introduce a new queen or to merge a queenless colony with a queenright one.
Before uniting, the most important point to consider is the disease status of both colonies. Both colonies should be carefully inspected prior to uniting to ensure both are healthy. It’s a good idea to conduct an inspection which is as detailed as your first inspection of spring.. If a colony is weak, try to establish the reason for the weakness before uniting as the weakness may be the result of disease.
Similarly, if both colonies have an old or failing queen, uniting alone will not be enough to solve the problem. The united colony will require requeening once the unification process has been completed.
Bees unite more successfully if there’s a good nectar flow on. If that’s not the case (for example, if you’re uniting in the autumn), feed both colonies for a few days prior conducting the procedure.
There are various ways to unite colonies. Perhaps the most popular technique is the newspaper method which is generally successful. This method can be used to unite two full-sized colonies, two nucleus colonies or a full-sized colony with a nuc.
Process before uniting
The two colonies need to be brought together with their entrances facing the same way. This is because both sets of foragers will need to be able to navigate back to the entrance of their new joint hive. If the two hives are in the same apiary, the beekeeper can progressively move the two hives closer together; three feet per hive per day is ideal.
If this isn’t possible or is too inconvenient, move one of the colonies to an out apiary more than three miles away and leave it there for about three weeks. After three weeks, the hive can be moved back to its home apiary and placed next to the hive with which it’s to be merged. The three week stay in the out apiary will ensure no forager remembers the original position of the hive.
Having now brought the two hives together, it’s time to decide which of the two queens to keep. This is where your notes will be helpful. Review the recent performance of both colonies, then make a decision as to which queen in stronger. You will need to find and kill the weaker queen or if it’s earlier in the season and you have sufficient equipment and resources in other colonies, you may decide to make up a nucleus colony in which to house the spare queen as an insurance policy. Only do this though, if the queen isn’t failing.
Uniting the colonies
It’s best to undertake the procedure in the evening when the bees have finished foraging for the day. This is to reduce the possibility of returning bees meeting guard bees from the other colony and fighting.
Quietly open one of the colonies and place a sheet of newspaper paper over the top of the brood frames. If there is a queen excluder already on the hive, it’s easier to place the newspaper on top of that.
Prick a few holes in the newspaper with a pin or similar but don’t make the holes any bigger. You don’t want the bees uniting too quickly as this may result in fighting.
If there was no queen excluder on the hive, one can be placed on top of the newspaper. This has the advantage that it stops the newspaper blowing away but it’s also important to keep the queen in her original box so you know where she is. On the subject of the newspaper blowing around, this manipulation is much easier if there’s two of you. If however, you’re working alone and there’s a breeze, you may need some means of holding the paper temporarily in place or you can use drawing pins.
Next, the other brood chamber (with its crown board in place) can be gently lifted and placed on top. The roof can now be placed on top of the double brood box. The process can be helped if during a previous inspection, brace comb is removed from both boxes as this will help to ensure a snug fit. Over the next few days, the bees will nibble through the paper and unite without fighting. You may notice shreds of newspaper at the front of the hive which is evidence of their activity.
Image: Dave Cushman
If there are supers
If there are supers on one or both hives you can separate them with newspaper as well. Alternatively, use a clearer board the day before to empty the supers of bees prior tto uniting the colonies. Once the bees have united, you can add back the supers you want, placing any surplus frames with stores in a super above the crown board. The bees will bring down the stores.
After a week or so, you can lift off the top box, place it on your upturned roof or a floor, then consolidate the brood frames into one box. Make sure it’s the box with the queen in!
If there’s still some stores in the other brood box, place it above the crown board; the bees will move the stores down. Remember if you do this, place another crown board on the top box too.
There’s another technique for merging colonies which is quick and useful for uniting nucleus colonies into one full-sized brood chamber.
1. Bring the colonies together as described above with their entrances facing in the same direction.
2. Move your nucs to one side and place your full-sized box on its stand and floor exactly on the site previously occupied by the two nucs.
3. Find the queen you wish to keep and either cage her using fondant as a plug or place the frame she is on into the full- sized box after first spraying the frame and bees with a very light syrup or water.
4. Then, spray another frame from the queen’s original colony and place it next to her so she is surrounded by bees from her own colony.
5. One-by-one, take alternate frames from the two colonies, lightly spray and place in your brood box so the bees become mixed-up.
6. Repeat, spraying and placing alternate frames until the brood chamber is complete.
When constructing the new brood nest, keep frames with brood together, place frames with stores on the edges of the brood nest and any empty frame on the outside.
If you happen to collect two or more swarms on the same day, these can be united by simply shaking the bees from both swarms into a brood chamber at the same time. Or you can walk the bees in (See hiving a swarm). This technique is useful when the swarms collected are small, perhaps cast swarms. As the bees have swarmed and have no brood or food to defend, they will not fight.