As explained in Putting our honey where our mouth is, this year has been a tough one for our new Warré beehives, and for bees in general throughout the central west. Torrential, unseasonal rain for much of late spring and into summer meant that many flowering plants had their regular cycles thrown off course, and many did not flower as per usual over spring and summer this year.
Less blossoms means tough times for pollinators, including bees. Our colonies have struggled to forage enough pollen and nectar to keep themselves going, so to get through this winter they’re going to need some help. The conventional practice of feeding them sugar syrup all winter isn’t an option we want to follow, so Tim (our fab Warré beekeeper) came up with a plan, which just might work!
Tim’s solution is twofold: firstly, to take the weakest hive back to his property, where he can winter it with a box of honey from a hive he is sure is disease free (as opposed to feeding it sugar syrup – the reasons we’re not doing this is explained here). The other two hives, we are going to combine into one – which will allow them to weather the winter as a combined team, so to speak.
Combining hives is not something Tim had done before, but he had seen his dad (a lifelong beekeeper) do it many times. The key to success in combining hives gently is to do it in a way that allows both colonies to get used to the other colony’s pheromones gradually, rather than forcing them to co-habit immediately.
To allow for this gradual combining, Tim placed a newspaper membrane between the colonies. This allowed both colonies a bit of a breather where they could smell and hear the other colony, but not access them. Over the next couple of days, the top colony chewed through the newspaper and, at a gentler pace, combined with the colony below.
A colony can have only one active queen. Which means the two queens of the two colonies will fight it out when they are combined. The stronger queen will win, the weaker queen will die, and the colonies will (we hope) combine to make one larger, stronger colony – which can put their combined efforts into effectively gathering winter stores.
After combining the colonies, we removed the excess newspaper from around the edges of the warré hive, to prevent water wicking into the hive.
Following this maneuver, we waited and watched. Within 24 hours, little pieces of paper started appearing at the hive entrance – the bees were disposing of the newspaper! This continued for several days, by which time the paper was all but gone.
Next, there was clearly a battle. It’s hard to say exactly what went on (not having access to the internal bee telegraph of this hive) but there were quite a few dead bees out the front of the hive over the next week. Then this phase ended – no more new dead bees, and lots of healthy behavior at the entrance of the hive, including successful foraging.
And a week later, when we checked the hive, all seemed well. The bees in the top box had gnawed their way through the newspaper, and the two colonies seemed to have successfully combined…