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Colony Increase

An important part of beekeeping

Apart from a new swarm that has just gone into a fresh home, all wild colonies are full size. There are no small colonies or nuclei (nucs) as we get in a managed system, even though it might be argued that a swarmed colony is smaller than normal. In fact it is simply a full colony that has reproduced. There is still the same amount of comb, food and brood.

One good thing about bees is they will allow us to divide or split a colony, often into several smaller colonies that we call nucs. The size of a colony can be managed by the beekeeper to suit their purpose. They can be built up into larger colonies, split again or left roughly as they are.

Making colony increase is a regular and important part of beekeeping, but there seems to be a view, especially among newer beekeepers, that it is difficult and expensive. In fact it is neither. I don't know where this idea comes from, but I find it so simple that I often have surplus colonies at the end of the season.

I often see or hear of beekeepers with 2, 3 or more colonies who want an extra colony or two, but instead of increasing from their own bees they buy from elsewhere, often commercially. Why do beekeepers do this when they can learn so much by making increase, producing their own queens or perhaps uniting later to bring the numbers down again, if they have been more enthusiastic than they intended?

On this website I am spending a fair bit of effort on colony increase, because I think it is a rather neglected topic, with lots of variations. There is a huge amount to learn when increasing (and decreasing) colony numbers.

By using the buttons on the left you can access a number of sound methods of making increase. Some have established names, others Dave Cushman started to call "Increase - Method 1,2,3 and so on". For convenience I have decided to continue with this arrangement where there is no popular name.

When accessing information here please accept that methods are written in general terms only. Adjustments will have to be made depending on where your bees are kept. If you live in Thurso your timing will be different than someone who lives in Penzance.

Reasons for making colony increase include:-

A number of things may need attention.

The well organised beekeeper will plan much of the increase they wish to make in advance, but of course there is always the odd occasion when an extra colony needs to be made up quickly. This could be for a specific purpose, such as to create a holding colony for a valuable queen when you have nowhere else to put her, or perhaps to make use of a situation that presents itself unexpectedly, such as a good colony where the queen has "disappeared". On many occasions I have inspected a colony, only to find emergency cells and the queen has gone, leaving no larvae young enough to raise future queens from. If the queen was exceptional I don't want to lose her influence, so if I have no nucs to put the Q/Cs in, I may decide to split the colony into several nucs and give each one a Q/C.

It annoys me when I keep hearing that in the U.K. there is a shortage of bees and that we can't produce enough bees to supply the large number of beginners that have appeared in the early years of the 21st century. I come across many BKAs who have a waiting list for bees, some buying nuclei commercially to satisfy the demand.

I'm sure that with a bit of planning by BKAs they can produce good colonies of bees at little cost. For that reason I have a page on some suggestions.

What do you need to know?

Although making increase is easy, there are a few things you need to know, but quite frankly even the newest beekeeper should know them. These include:-

In General.

As stated earlier there are many reasons for making increase, some temporary, some permanent. What you are really looking for is something that is fit for purpose. Taking extremes, there is little point in making a queen mating nuc that is too strong or a colony you wish to overwinter too weak. There is a waste in both.

In most cases queens will be needed. I always discourage beekeepers from buying queens commercially, especially as they are so easy to raise, or queen cells can be sourced from good local colonies. When making increase there is an excellent opportunity to improve your bees by using queen cells from selected colonies.

If you only want the odd colony or two, it is quite easy to make increase from your own bees at any time during the summer. I think that taking in swarms is a good way of making increase, providing the normal precautions are taken. You may have to requeen them later, but that doesn't often present a problem.

If you want to expand rapidly I think it is quite easy to do. If everything goes well, in West Sussex from one colony that is strong in spring, I can get around 10 colonies strong enough to have a good chance of surviving the following winter. This is by raising queens or queen cells on a fairly organised basis and using drawn brood comb instead of foundation. I realise that in cooler parts of the country the number of colonies made will be less, but you can still increase by a significant factor.

Roger Patterson.