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The Classroom

The Classroom – July 2022

- July 1, 2022 - Jamie Ellis - (excerpt)

The Classroom - ABJ - Jamie Ellis
Q  Culling a Weak Colony


My manager and I were discussing old beekeeper strategies. I remember reading that older beekeepers always culled the weak hives from their apiaries before winter set in. If I remember correctly, the amount of culling was about 15%. Through the winter, losses were about 15%. This gave about a 30% loss every year. She mentioned that some beekeepers are now recommending that we cull our weak hives every fall. This culling would remove the weak hives, I assume that is a hive with fewer bees, one that would be more easily infected with mites. I did not understand this approach because I have not read where the strength of the hive was a determinant in whether or not mites destroyed a hive. I am led to believe that either we reduce the mites with treatment or we acquire mite-resistant honey bees. I tell my customers that it is not the mite that kills the honey bee, but the pathogens that the mites carry and introduce to the bees that kills them. From what my manager was saying, I assume that a more populous, strong hive would have better resistance to mite pathogens than a hive with a smaller population.

Aldon Maleckas
Michigan, April



Thanks for sharing these thoughts. It is a common practice for beekeepers, especially commercial beekeepers, to cull colonies. Beekeepers typically do not call it “culling” a colony, but rather refer to it as “combining” a colony (i.e., merging a weak colony with a stronger one). Though the terms are different, they describe essentially the same management activity. This is because the weak colony is culled by virtue of it being absorbed into a stronger one.

In its most basic essence, culling a colony refers to eliminating a weak/dying/diseased colony altogether. This would involve killing the bees and maybe even destroying/eliminating the equipment. This is a reasonable thing to do when colonies have something like American foulbrood. However, most beekeepers do not go to this extreme when addressing weak colonies. Instead, the beekeeper will typically combine a weak colony with a stronger one. To do this, they usually dequeen the weak colony (after all, why let the queen leading the weak colony be the one to lead the combined colony — the problem may lie with her), and simply combine it with a stronger colony. This, they do in “real time,” meaning they merge the two colonies immediately after dequeening the weak one.

Combining colonies is a common beekeeper practice, very common in fact. I have never seen data on the subject, but I would guess that 10% or more of all colonies end up getting combined with others for one reason or another every year. Similarly, you shared that you heard the “cull” rate was around 15%.

I believe combining colonies is a very reasonable way to deal with weaker colonies. Of course, you could argue that you are simply moving one colony’s problem into another colony. However, I suspect that the stronger colony can handle whatever the weaker colony brings with it more often than not.

I do not believe combining colonies is an effective way to control Varroa. These mites need a more active approach to control them. If you are a long-time reader of this column, you will know that I am a proponent of monitoring your mite levels and treating when your infestation rate is ~3% (i.e., 3 mites/100 adult bees). You can review the Honey Bee Health Coalition’s Guide to Varroa Management for more information on this topic. You are correct, though, that the strength of a colony is not a reasonable predictor of its ability to handle Varroa. In my experience, these mites will end up taking out most colonies that are not actively managed for this pest.



Q  Culling Frames

 I was donated a swarm from last year that, when given to me, the donor said the five frames accompanying the swarm were very old. The colony overwintered and is currently housed in a single deep. The original five frames from the nuc housing the swarm are in the center of the hive and being used by the bees. I would like to cull them when the weather warms here in Michigan. I would obviously like to have them empty or near empty when I do this. How do I go about this?

Rick R.

Michigan, April



I get this question quite a bit. Essentially, you have bees using combs in the brood nest, combs that you want to cull from the nest due to their age. There is an easy way to do this.

First, allow the colony to grow to the point that it fills/uses all ten frames in the brood nest. You may have to feed the bees to do this if they are outside of a nectar flow. Once the colony fully occupies the brood nest, add a queen excluder and an empty deep box above it. Move the five old frames from the lowermost brood box, bees and all, above the excluder into the upper brood box. Make sure that the queen remains in the box below the excluder.

At this point, you will have five newer frames with bees/brood/queen in the lower box, an excluder, and then the five older frames with bees/brood in the upper box. Add five frames of foundation or pulled comb to the lower box, in the space created by removing the older five frames. Now, you have ten frames in the lower box and five frames in the upper box. (You can also add five pulled combs or five frames of foundation to complete the uppermost box, especially if you are in a honey flow. That way, the bees do not build burr comb in the empty space.)

Allow all the brood to emerge from the frames in the upper box. It may take three weeks, or slightly longer, for this to happen. Once done, remove the frames from the upper box, shake the bees from the frames into the lower box, and sit the frames outside of the hive to be robbed. You have to do the latter because the bees likely will have stored honey in the frames while they were in the upper box. At this point, you can discard the frames, or melt the wax for rendering purposes.


Q  Honey Harvesting

I have a couple thoughts and a few questions regarding the harvesting of honey. I have been taught that the optimum time to harvest a honey super is when the frames are full of honey and capped. Unfortunately, my ten-frame supers are seldom completely full of honey and completely capped at the time of harvest. Some frames will be completely full and capped and some frames will be mostly full of nectar and partially capped. Even at that, the supers are weighing in between 50 and 60 pounds.

I have also been told that if one is unable to shake the uncapped honey from the frame it is ok to harvest the honey. I make it a practice to test the moisture content of my honey with a refractometer and if it is 17% or below, it is OK to harvest. It is my understanding that honey with a moisture content above 17% has a higher risk of fermentation and should be avoided or mitigated.

My questions:


  1. Is moisture content of honey/nectar at or below 17% the only qualifier to have harvestable honey?
  2. Are the enzymes bees mix with the harvested nectar a measurable qualifier to be classified as honey?
  3. I live in an inland area of Southern California that generally has very low humidity. How will honey from my area compare with capped honey from a location with very high humidity?
  4. Can capped honey from a location with very high humidity exceed the recommended moisture content threshold?
  5. What are the honey harvesting standards you adhere to?

Warren Carl

California, May


I am glad you are so focused on producing a quality honey product! Well done.

  1. Generally speaking, honey is considered ripe and optimal for harvesting when the moisture content is between 15.5 and 18.5% moisture. Honey above 18.5% moisture is prone to fermentation while honey below 15.5% moisture is prone to granulation. Your target of 17% is right in the middle; so you should be fine.
  2. Interesting question. I do not believe this is the case. Bees do add enzymes to nectar to aid in the conversion process to honey. However, I do not think you can use enzyme level/type as an indicator of ripe honey.
  3. I am over-generalizing here, but the capped honey should be roughly in the same humidity range in both locations. However, the moisture content will be prone to vary during and after the uncapping process. Honey tends to take on moisture from the atmosphere. Where I live, the humidity is quite high and honey that is otherwise in the right moisture range when capped can increase in moisture content, leading to fermentation, after I extract it.
  4. It certainly can. Yet, as noted in #3 above, the moisture problem is more likely to occur during and after processing rather than while it is capped.
  5. I like to extract frames that are >90% capped and when the moisture content is between 15.5 and 18.5% moisture. Of course, this is not always possible. Many commercial beekeepers in my area will try to …