Category Archives: Uniting

Upstairs, downstairs?

There are two common hive manipulations that involve stacking two brood boxes on top of each other – the vertical split and uniting colonies. Should the queenright colony go on the top or bottom when uniting colonies over newspaper? What about when conducting a vertical split? Does it make a difference?

In the following discussion I’m assuming the colonies being stacked are originally in single brood boxes. This is so I don’t have to qualify how many boxes are involved every time. For convenience, let’s also assume that you are uniting a queenless and queenright colony, rather than getting into a discussion of the benefits or otherwise of regicide.

Uniting colonies

There are a number of methods to unite (merge) two colonies. The simplest, the most often taught during beginners courses and – in my view – the (almost) foolproof method if you are not in a rush is uniting over newspaper.

All gone ...

All gone …

To unite over newspaper the roof and crownboard from one colony are removed and one or two sheets of newspaper are laid over the top bars of the frames. One or two small holes are made through the newspaper and the second brood box is placed on top. Replace the crownboard and roof. The only precaution that needs to be taken is to ensure there isn’t brace comb on the bottom of the frames of the top box – this would puncture the newspaper and allow the bees to mix too quickly. This is also why I stressed a small hole in the paper.

Over the next 24-48 hours the colonies slowly chew holes through the paper, allowing the bees to gradually mix. It’s best not to interfere for a few more days. One week after uniting the frames can be rearranged and the bees cleared down to a single box if needed.

What matters and what doesn’t when uniting?

You’ll read three bits of advice about uniting using the method described above:

  1. The queenright colony should be on the bottom.
  2. The weaker colony should go on the top.
  3. The colony moved should be at the top.

Frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference whether the queen is in the top or bottom box. I’ve done it either way many times and never noticed a difference in success rates (generally very high), or the speed with which shredded newspaper is chucked out of the hive entrance. I think you can safely ignore this bit of advice. I can’t even think of a logical explanation as to why it’s beneficial to have the queen in the bottom box. Can you? After uniting I usually find the queen in the top box a week later.

If colonies differ markedly in strength I do try and arrange the top box as the weaker one. I suspect this is beneficial as it stops the foraging bees from the strong hive trying to get out or return mob-handed, potentially overwhelming the weaker colony.

I think it’s also sensible to locate the moved colony at the top of the stack. I think forcing them to negotiate the bottom box encourages the foragers from the moved hive to reorientate to the new hive location.

Vertical splits

A vertical split is a hive manipulation that can be used as a swarm control strategy or as a means of ‘making increase’ – the beekeeping term for generating a new queenright colony. Whatever the reason, the practicalities are broadly the same and have been described in detail previously. Briefly, the queen and flying bees are separated vertically from the nurse bees and brood in two brood boxes with separate and opposing entrances.

Split board

Split board …

As described, the queen is placed in the top box with the split board entrance facing the opposite direction to the original hive entrance. The logic here is that the flying bees are depleted from the queenright half of the colony, so both reducing the swarming impulse and boosting the strength of the half rearing a new queen.

After one week the hive is reversed on the stand – the front becomes the back and the back becomes the front. This results in depletion of flying bees from the queenless half, so reducing the chances of them throwing off a cast should multiple virgin queens emerge. Simultaneously the queenright half is strengthened, boosting its nectar-gathering capabilities.

The problem with vertical splits

Although I’m an enthusiastic proponent of the vertical split I acknowledge there are some drawbacks to the process.

Once there are supers involved things can get pretty heavy. Simply reversing a double brood box can be taxing for some (me included). I’m dabbling with building some floors and split boards with opposing entrances to try and simplify (or at least reduce the strain of) this aspect of the process.

A second problem is the need for subsequent inspections of the colonies. When used for making increase (or for that matter replacing the queen) nothing final can be done with the colonies until the new queen – reared in the bottom box – is mated and laying well.


Of course, determining whether she is ‘mated and laying well’ involves splitting the boxes and carefully examining the lower colony. This inspection should probably take place about a month after the initial split (up to 16 days from egg to emerged queen, a week or so for her to get mated and a further week for the laying pattern to be established). Depending on colony strength, weather and the temperament of the colonies, this inspection might have to be conducted in a maelstrom of bees returning to the upper colony (which has had to be removed for the inspection). Perhaps not the most conducive conditions to find, mark and perhaps clip the new queen.

During the month that the new queen is being reared and mated there’s probably little or no need to inspect the queenright colony. They have ample laying room if you’ve provided them with drawn comb. If you gave them foundation only, or foundationless frames, they will likely need thin syrup if there’s a dearth of nectar. If you’re using a standard frame feeder this is a pretty quick and painless process.

Under the conditions described above I think it makes relatively little difference whether the original queen is ‘upstairs or downstairs’ at the outset of the split (though see the comments at the end on the entrance). However, having the new queen in the bottom box might dissuade you from inspecting too often or too soon – neither is to be encouraged where a new queen is expected.

More queens from more ambitious vertical splits

You can use a version of the vertical split to rear several queen cells. Rather than then reversing the colony and depleting the queenless half of bees you can use it to create a number of 2-3 frame nucs, each populated with a big fat ripe queen cell. In this way you can quickly make increase – trebling, quadrupling or perhaps quintupling the original hive number. The precise details are outside the scope of this article – which is already too long – but Wally Shaw covers it in his usual comprehensive manner (PDF) elsewhere.

For this you want to make the initial queenless half to be as strong as possible (to rear good queens). You also want it to be as easy to access as possible to facilitate checking on the development of the new queen cells. Under these conditions I think there’s good reason to start with the original mated queen ‘downstairs’.

Upstairs, downstairs?

Upstairs, downstairs?

A higher entrance

Remember that at the start of a vertical split, and for a couple of days after, bees will be exiting the rear entrance and returning to the ‘front’ of the hive to which they originally orientated.

Beehive kewl floor landing board and plastic skirt

Kewl floor – fixed …

If you decide to leave the original queen in the lower box this will necessitate reversing the hive at the very start of the process, then placing the split board entrance at the hive front. Bees cope well with this vertical relocation of a hive entrance. Sure, there’ll be a bit of milling about and general confusion, but they’ll very quickly adjust to a hive entrance situated about 25cm above the original one. In the original description of the vertical split they had to make precisely this adjustment at the 7 day hive reversal. It helps to try and restrict bees from accessing the underside of the open mesh floor during these hive reversals – for example with a simple plastic skirt (see above right).

In conclusion

Bees are pretty adaptable to the sorts of manipulations described above. Yes, there are certainly wrong ways to do things, but while being careful to avoid these, there are several different ways to manipulate the process to achieve the desired goal(s).

It’s worth thinking about the goal and the likely behaviour of the bees. Then have a go … what’s the worst that could happen?


Use them or lose them

Colonies with queen problems at this time of the season are unlikely to get through the winter. It’s therefore better to identify these early enough to try and rescue the situation. Having completed my Varroa treatment I check colonies to determine whether they have a laying queen. If the colony is piling in the pollen, bulging with bees and has few, if any, drones I don’t even bother to open the box. In contrast, a colony with any of the following signs gets a more thorough check:

  • little or no pollen being taken in … remember this might be because there’s none available, another example of where comparisons between colonies are useful
  • slow to take the fondant down (or syrup, though I only now use fondant for autumn feeding), but not because the box is obviously already stuffed with stores
  • lots of drones (almost all of these should have been evicted by now), indicative of a drone laying queen
  • an obviously weak colony

With a perspex crownboard you can detect all of these without disturbing the bees or opening the box.

I checked the colonies in one of my apiaries as I’d noticed two that were causing some concern at the final OA vaporisation treatment. One had a good level of stores, but the colony was weak and there were no eggs, larvae or sealed brood. The clipped and marked queen – mated earlier this year – was still present but had clearly failed* and, this late in the season, there was no chance of the colony replacing her. The bees were otherwise fine, with no signs of disease, well tempered and were well worth saving.

Rescuing the situation

I disposed of the queen and united them over newspaper with a strong colony on a nearby hive stand. In a few days I’ll put a clearer board under the upper brood box, then rearrange the frames of stores to leave the remaining box packed. Any spare frames of stores – and there should be at least half a dozen – will be used to boost other colonies.

Uniting over newspaper ...

Uniting over newspaper …

Of course, I’m not really saving these bees at all. Instead I’m using their potential to strengthen another colony, so maximising the chances of getting the recipient colony through the winter. With no brood of any sort in the colony it’s likely the queen failed at least 3 weeks ago. This means that the bees present were unlikely to be ‘winter bees’ and would therefore be expected to perish over the next few weeks. However, in the meantime, they will help strengthen the recipient colony – enhancing it’s ability to raise new brood and increasing the pollen and nectar collected as the season winds down.

Nearly ready

Nearly ready

The second colony was weaker than I’d have liked, but – reassuringly – there were 2-3 frames of brood in all stages, together with an unmarked and unclipped queen. Since all the queens in the apiary were clipped and marked earlier in the season this was clearly a supercedure queen, raised in the last few weeks. The colony was beautifully calm so I gently closed them up. My bee house will be ready soon, so I’ll make sure this colony is one of the first to occupy it. The additional shelter should help them through the winter. With the new queen laying well and the weather set fair for the rest of this week, there’s a good opportunity for the colony to build up before they’re moved.

* Remember … some Varroa treatments can cause the queen to stop laying. For example, Apiguard is tolerated by some queens but not others who can stop laying for two or more weeks. The colony with the failed queen (above) had not been treated with Apiguard so I was pretty sure she was a dud.

When uniting goes wrong

A swarm turned up in a bait hive built from two Paradise/ModernBeekeeping poly supers a month ago. The bees were steady on the comb and the dark queen was laying reasonably well. In the same apiary I had a failing queen in a colony in a double brood box so decided to unite them with the swarm. I’ve done this many times before … what could possibly go wrong?

Since these poly boxes are non-standard you need a thin wooden shim or eke, a bit larger than a National box, to stand them on. I moved the queenright swarm on top of the de-queened hive, separated by a sheet of newspaper with a couple of small holes made with the hive tool. After a few days there were scraps of chewed up newspaper outside the hive entrance and bees were apparently moving freely through the holes with no sign of fighting.

Queen cells

Queen cells …

Despite being a shoulder-high stack of boxes, there were only a moderate number of bees in the hive. The failing queen had been laying slower and slower and the swarm had been covering perhaps six or seven frames. I therefore rearranged the eggs, larvae and sealed brood into the bottom box, making sure the queen was with them, before adding a clearer board underneath the remaining boxes. On checking the colony a week later it was clear that all was not well. There were no eggs in the bottom box and no sign of the queen, but loads of freshly sealed queen cells. Grrrr! I suspect I’d been a bit hasty in rearranging the colony. Perhaps, despite the holes chewed through the newspaper, the workers weren’t mixing properly and the queen had still been ‘protected’ in the upper box. In my defence, I was a bit pressed for time preparing colonies for moving. Alternatively, the requirement for the shim to unite these Paradise/ModernBeekeeping boxes (with standard Nationals) means the boxes are – of necessity – more widely separated than usual, possibly restricting the mixing of bees.

All gone ...

All gone …

However, here’s a photograph of a poly nuc that I united at about the same time – the bees have removed almost all the newspaper between the boxes. Since these nucs are Langstroth sized, when filled with National frames and stacked the spacing is very wide, suggesting it was my haste in combining the boxes that caused the problem.

All scientists know the importance of doing a controlled experiment so I shook through the colony containing queen cells and ensured I’d destroyed all of them (a colony is unlikely to accept a new queen – certainly during normal queen introduction – if there are queen cells present), then added more newspaper, the shim and the two poly supers. Using a fat dummy to fill up some of the space I added the contents of a spare five frame nuc containing a laying queen and left them to get on with it.

Uniting a nuc with a full colony

Uniting a nuc with a full colony …

I checked the colony a week later and everything was OK. The queen from the nuc was laying well in the bottom box (she’d started in the top one) and so I reorganised the colony back down into a single brood box. This colony missed the van North so were donated to friends in exchange for a nice bottle of wine 😉