A beekeeper asks – Removing bees from a rotted hive

A beekeeper asks:
I have been given a colony of bees, it seems to be a very strong one, and it fills 3 deeps & a medium. My problem is it has been left undisturbed for about 8 years, the boxes & frames are rotting to the point of there being almost a 1 inch gap between some of the boxes, and as soon as you try to inspect a frame, the top falls apart. I truly think that beeswax & propolis are just about all that is holding the hive together.

How do I get the bees to move in to a new set of boxes without destroying the old hive in the process?

Phil’s reply:
While visiting beekeepers in Kentucky, I’ve observed this problem a number of times. Sometimes in hives, like yours, that had received no maintenance for years, most often abandoned hives that were falling apart from rot. I’ve also often run across hives containing frames that were not manipulated for so long that while the wood was still structurally sound, the frames were so glued together with propolis that the propolis bonds were stronger than the frames, with the same result – frames broke when an attempt was made to remove them. Both of these situations present the same problem, how to replace the frames or all the woodenware without tearing the hive apart and killing lots of bees? The situation is similar to removing a feral colony from a building or a tree.

First, I would suggest waiting until early next spring before tackling this project. You will need to force the bees to move into new foundation and spring is a better time for the drawing of new comb. The bees can then take advantage of the spring nectar flow and quickly build new comb in the new hive into which you place them. Do the transfer when you see bees building new comb in your hives and bringing in fresh nectar. There will also be less honey in the old hive in the early spring, the presence of which will make the task even more difficult.

Often when beekeepers encounter such hives, the hive consists of only two hive bodies and the beekeeper can at least separate these. In those cases, I typically suggest the following. In parts of the country where we have winter, we will find all the bees in the top hive body at the end of winter and the bottom hive body devoid of bees, brood and honey. This is due to the bees consuming the honey in the bottom of the hive first in winter and then moving up into the top hive body. At that time a new hive body containing frames with foundation or drawn comb can be placed on top of the old upper hive body of the rotted or propolis bound hive. The empty bottom hive body (empty) can then be removed. The new top hive body can be inspected and managed throughout the year as you would your other hives. Then next year, the process can be repeated, this time removing the second bad hive body. There can be variations to this procedure, which may even allow removal of both old hive bodies in the same year, but this is a basic simple procedure that can be followed to accomplish the transfer and getting rid of the old hive bodies, without a great disturbance of the bees. It sounds like, that if you attempt to even just separate the hive bodies of your old hive, they will fall apart. Your hive also consists of four boxes, which makes also this procedure impractical. So you need a different plan and I have one.

An alternative procedure would be the use of a bee repellant like “Bee Go” or “Bee Quick” applied on a fume board, to drive all the bees out of the hive. This is a method commonly used to force bees out of honey supers when removing honey from hives. By applying an ample amount of the repellant however, the bees can be driven completely out of the hive. You’ll also need to construct a screen or wooden trap to place over the entrance of the hive, to catch the bees as they exit. The bees and hopefully the queen can then be captured and shaken into a new hive, sitting adjacent to the old hive, as one would a package of bees. You likely will discover, due to the number of hive bodies on this hive, you will have difficulty driving all the bees out of the hive with the initial application of the bee repellant. However, removing the boxes of the old hive and reapplying the bee repellant will solve that problem. Thus after the initial application of the bee repellant, remove the boxes one by one, reapplying the repellant – if you encounter bees below after you remove each hive body. With the bees forced out of the hive bodies you can then remove the frames as you proceed, breaking them if necessary. Just be careful, if not all of the bees have been driven out of the hive, to minimize the tearing of combs containing honey. Honey dripping onto frames below will drown bees, including the queen. While the loss of a few bees is inevitable in this type of manipulation, you’ll want to do all you can to avoid loss of the queen. She may contain valuable disease resistant genetic material, especially if the current colony of bees has indeed survived for even close to eight years on its own. As you remove the frames, you can also place comb with large areas of capped brood into empty frames (without foundation), tying it into the frames with string, and placing these into the new brood boxes. This is a similar method used by beekeepers when removing bees from buildings or bee trees.

If you have adequate drawn comb it would be possible to take this task on without waiting for spring, but due to the current lack of a nectar flow, robbing bees from other hives would make this a difficult and unpleasant task this time of year. I would wait until next spring.

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