Posted November 7, 2016
by Hilary


  1. If you are inspecting your hives regularly, you can usually see the end coming. When a colony starts to fail, it can be challenging to figure out why, let alone solve the issue. So, what can a beekeeper do to help their bees? Read on to find out about some catchall techniques that might reverse the course of a crashing hive.

If you notice there is something not right with your colony, you should absolutely try to figure out what it is. It’s much easier to solve the issue if you can identify it. Unfortunately, not all new beekeepers are skilled enough to do this, heck, even experienced beeks struggle sometimes. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do that will generally help an ailing colony no matter what their issue is and I will list them below.

1. Reduce entrance and hive cavity.

If you don’t already have an entrance reducer on your hive, put one on. A weak colony will be extremely vulnerable to robbing from other colonies and wasps. You should also reduce the hive cavity so that your bees can regulate their temperature more easily. To do this, you need to determine which combs they are still using and remove the ones they aren’t. Undefended empty combs will allow for wax moths and hive beetles to breed out of control. Your bees expend a lot of energy defending those combs to keep the pests out. An empty comb will have nothing stored in it (no honey, brood or pollen). If you see combs with honey, pollen or brood in them, you should leave them. The exception would be if your colony has shrunk significantly and you have several supers of honey, in that case I would harvest some of the honey to reduce the risk of robbing.


  1.  2. Feed them. 

Many problems in the hive are exacerbated by a lack of food. If your bees don’t have honey, they won’t have the energy to fight whatever is ailing them. Additionally, a queen will not lay well if your hive does not have the food stores to support the population. As your colony’s workforce shrinks, so does its ability to manage its ailments and protect itself! When a colony starts to do poorly, adequate food stores is the first thing I check. If the hive looks like its taking a dive and they don’t have any honey, start by feeding them sugar water and see if they improve. However, feeding a weak hive can be tricky because sugar water can draw pests and a shrinking, sick hive will not be able to fend them off. Make sure you feed in such a way that your bees can defend it. I prefer internal hive-top feeders.

3. Add capped brood.

There are two main hurdles to a colony recovering: food and population. When they have plenty of both, they can usually overcome problems on their own. When your colony begins to shrink, they will almost always benefit from a boost in population. If you have a second, healthy colony you can steal a frame of capped brood from them and give it your weak hive. Make sure you find a frame with  mostly capped brood (like in the photo below). Uncapped brood will stress your weak colony more because those young larvae will demand food and nurse bee resources your hive probably does not have. A frame of capped brood will just need to be kept warm until the brood hatches. Then your queen will have a fresh batch of nurse bees that may allow her to lay more eggs and start bring the population up again. Be careful not to weaken a healthy colony by taking too much and similarly you should not give a weak colony too much brood at once from another hive because they probably don’t have the resources to support that many new bees. When adding the frame, make sure all the adult bees from the other hive have been swept off before putting it in your weak hive. While brood from another colony will be adopted, the adult bees will most likely fight each other.

5 WAYS TO SAVE A FAILING HIVE 4. Treat for mites?

Even though I am a treatment free beekeeper, there are times when mites will overwhelm bees and action needs to be taken. The reality is that mites almost always play a role in a crashing hive. Sometimes feeding and adding brood will strengthen a colony enough to resolve the out of balance mite load on their own, but sometimes it is not enough. If your colony has a high mite count, you might want to do something about it in addition to the above. You’ll need to decide if your mite issues stem from weak genes or if there is an outside factor involved. So, while I am someone who subscribes to the survival of the fittest / treatment free philosophy, I believe there is a grey area. For example, what if your bees were poisoned, their population took a hit and now mites have gotten out of balance? You can hardly blame the genetics of your queen in this instance. For that reason, I sometimes do treat for mites by shaking powdered sugar on them. It helps the mite drop and combined with the above can get the colony back to a place where they are strong enough to fight the mites on their own. If the bees are genetically weak and require regular mite treatments to survive, a powdered sugar treatment will do little to help, instead I recommend requeening with a queen that came from a treatment free breeder.


5. Check the queen.

First of all, make sure you have a queen. Maybe the reason for your hive’s decline is that they are queenless. Second, if you suspect a brood disease is present, requeening to create a break in the brood cycle sometimes corrects the issue. Requeening is something I do only after all other methods have failed and only if there is still a reasonable bee population left to support her. Once a hive’s population dips too low, their chance of bouncing back is so slim it usually is not worth buying a queen.

It should be noted that these interventions are listed roughly in the order that I would implement them when faced with a weakened hive. First, I reduce the entrance and begin to feed the bees. Then, if their population is low, I will also add a frame of capped brood. If after two weeks I see no improvement and I think mites are playing a role, I consider some form of mite treatment and/or requeening.


  1. Erik

    For your #4, you should be aware that powdered sugar is not generally recommended any more. Research seems to show that it does not have much impact on the mites and seems to cause problems for the bees.

    You really should count your mites so you know definitively if this is a problem. If you don’t want to use organic chemicals, then requeening, splitting, or otherwise forcing a brood break may allow them to recover. If the mite count is too high (typically over 6%) then allow the hive to fail and find a way to prevent robbing so the huge number of mites don’t simply transfer to another hive.

    • Hilary

      Links please.

        • Hilary

          I think you are misunderstanding what I wrote. I am not suggesting that powdered sugar is an effective long-term treatment against mites. I am saying it some time helps with drop as a temporary bandaid (combined with feeding and adding capped brood) to get the hive back on its feet. It only works if you have a colony that’s somewhat resistant to mites already who’s just down on their luck. In all other cases I just requeen.

          • Emily

            Fair enough, that makes sense as a lot of the chemical/organic mite treatments would be harsh on a struggling hive.

          • Bill

            The principle here is that agitated bees or bees cleaning themselves dislodge mites that would normally have a free ride. Just opening a hive will increase mite drop some, Misting with water will cause cleaning that will dislodge mites. Fogging with a natural oil and so on as long as it is not toxic to the bees. ALL of these activities disrupt the ambient temperature and pheromone messages inside the hive and will take time for the colony to recover from.

      • Erik

        Check the Bee Health Coalition report from this past March, which says “This Guide represents the current state of the science regarding Varroa mites. It will be updated as new products or information become available.”

        There is a table for each type of treatment available, from organic treatments to the nasty synthetics. On the treatment of powdered sugar they say:

        Effectiveness: Minimal < 10%; Do Not rely upon. Check post treatment to determine effectiveness.

        BIP Results: No reduction in overwintering loses from 4 consecutive survey years.

        They have further references in the back, including Randy Oliver's scientifcbeekeeping.com. Randy did a number of tests with powdered sugar to test its effectiveness in years past and no longer recommends it as a form of treatment for mites.

        • Hilary

          I think you are misunderstanding what I wrote. I am not suggesting that powdered sugar is an effective long-term treatment against mites. I am saying it some time helps with drop as a temporary bandaid (combined with feeding and adding capped brood) to get the hive back on its feet. It only works if you have a colony that’s somewhat resistant to mites already who’s just down on their luck. In all other cases I just requeen.

        • Hilary

          Wild ones.

      • Randy

        Great to see a new bee site, I just found.
        Been at it 47 yr.. Christmas 1977 my wife
        Surprised me with my 1st bee keeping
        outfit,( she ordered it from the SEARS
        Catalog) complete with bees coming in
        May/June. Longest 5 mo. I ever had !!!!
        I could recite the booklet that came with.
        Purchased “ABC-XYZ of Beekeeping” &
        was HOOKED FOR LIFE.
        Remembering seeing all those hives
        A I. Root had in his front yard. (in the
        old version).Boy,did I have dreams !!!
        I enjoy sharing information, I live in
        S.W. Penn. honeybeeware75@gmail.com
        Thanks and keep it up…….Randy

    • Ruth

      I use powder sugar shakes on all of my topbar hives over a screened bottom board with diatomaceous earth on the solid bottom board underneath. Been using it for a couple of years now and it works for me.

      • Erik

        Yes, the BIP document says powdered sugar treatment can help (~10% worth) though is not something to rely upon. Ruth, I know you also do brood breaks and splits, which are very effective methods. I wonder if you stopped the sugar shakes if you’d see any change in your overall survivability.

        Drone trapping is another highly effective method that avoids use of organic and synthetic compounds. I saw Dr. Kirsten S. Traynor speak this past weekend and she uses it in her hives from April to September. A little trickier in a top bar hive though I’m thinking about how you might make it work.

        • Ruth

          I did have one hive that did not get the monthly powder sugar shakes because I was given a Perdue Ankle Biter queen, so I wanted to see how she did. I cut out a section of her capped drone brood on Aug 3 to pull the drones (queen was installed May 1). Found 2 or 3 mites out of the 100 drones uncapped. I patted myself on the back and thought she’s doing fine. I let that hive go until Oct 15 when I took out a full bar of capped drone brood (who needs it that late in the year), and uncapped them to look for mites. Found way too many mites to count. And although the original colony with the ankle biter queen is managing to live despite the mite loads, when I pulled 2 bars of her capped worker brood over to a late fall nuc that needed a boost, when those workers emerged, many were diseased and died in the nuc. So I feel like a lot of these things work hand in hand to control the level of mites in a hive.

          • Hilary

            “So I feel like a lot of these things work hand in hand to control the level of mites in a hive.” This is something that BIP states as part of their philosophy so it is curious that they are trying to evaluate and rank everything as if it exists in a vacuum.

        • Estaban Delkab

          I just started beekeeping this spring and the first thing I’ve noted about my brood is that my queen hasn’t laid many brood eggs at all and I’ve been checking the hive weekly since the second week of April when I installed my package bees. Should I worry about this?

          • Estaban Delkab

            In my previous post I meant to say my queen hasn’t laid many Drone eggs not brood eggs, the brood pattern is good but very few drones. I just figured she knows what she’s doing that laying females, worker bees is whats needed to build up her hive.

          • Hilary

            Hi, the queen will only start to lay drone eggs once the population is high enough in the colony to support them. They are a luxury item. You may benefit from taking my intro to beekeeping class online, it explains a lot about how the bees function inside the hive https://vimeo.com/ondemand/gndhoney

      • Veronika

        Thank you for sharing this valuable information.
        Would you physically reduce the hive cavity as well, or is it sufficient to remove unused comb?

        • Hilary

          Do both if you can.

  2. Ron Lane

    The comments regarding powdered sugar are pretty much spot on and it should also be noted the anti-caking compound/s added (usually corn starch) is not good for bees. So here is a successful spin on the dusting with sugar approach. Don’t use powered sugar, use sugar powdered. That is, use granulated cane sugar you grind in something like a coffee grinder. It contains no anticaking agents and works very well at knocking down mites. Shake one to two tablespoons of it through a sieve, over the top bars above the brood nest and then brush off the remaining sugar from off of the top bars. Try it and then do a mite count after just 10 minutes. You will soon see how well it works. Similar to the normal powder sugar dusting, this only knocks down the phoretic mites, and needs to be done every three to four days for three weeks (3 weeks is coordinated with the mite life cycle) to have a significant impact on the mite population. Labor intensive yes, however, for those attempting to be treatment free, try it on just one or two hives. I think you will find the results very encouraging.

    • Hilary

      Thanks for this info.

      • Mykaila

        I’m doing a research paper on bees and just basically how humans are affecting them by using pesticides and also how we can save them. I was wondering if you could just email me at mykailacox01@gmail.com and give me some helpful information.

  3. drrota
  4. Helen Fisher

    Just joined in first time,thanks for all the interesting suggestions.if there is any bee people living near me in Myaree I’d love to hear from you.

  5. Estaban Delkab

    Glad to have found this blog, you never get to old to learn a few things from other beekeepers what they are doing to help the bees and new beekeepers.

  6. Kelly

    At what point without recommend merging the hive? (especially if the weak one happens to be a queen less nuc?)

    • Hilary

      If one is already queen less, there’s no reason to wait. Merge them right away.

  7. Scott Schroeder

    I have a different variation on a weak hive. Brand new to beekeeping and ordered a box-of-bees, but the box arrived with signify the transportation fatalities. Money was refunded but I installed what was left on preserved frames from first year attempt. The queen was laying eggs in fresh built comb in just a few days. Knowing that it will be weeks until new helpers arrive/hatch, and with a few frames of honey from previous attempt as well as reduced opening is there anything else I can do to give the girls a fighting chance.
    Mite treatment shouldn’t be necessary at this time I would guess.

    • Hilary

      Definitely don’t try to treat for mites. I would see if you can find anyone local who will give you bees and brood quickly.

  8. kim

    Thank you!!



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My name is Hilary Kearney. I’m the author of the book, “Queenspotting” and founder of the urban beekeeping business Girl Next Door Honey in San Diego, California. I’m an artist turned beekeeper on a mission to help new beekeepers succeed and educate the public about the magic of bees!

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