Equalisation is great, but be careful

A Buckfast out apiary in the 1960s
A Buckfast out apiary in the 1960s

Just as I was about to launch into a list of beekeeping tasks to carry out in spring, I felt a metaphorical tap on my shoulder. Taking the excess out of booming hives and boosting the smaller ones a.k.a ‘equalisation’ is something that many beekeepers do to ensure that every hive in the apiary is at a roughly similar stage in development. The shoulder tap was followed by the voice of reason. It said, “equalisation is great, but be careful.” In fact, moving frames between colonies could be seen as very risky behaviour indeed.

Apiary as a unit

On reflection, it’s possibly not so bad. Moving frames between apiaries is something to be very careful about, but within an apiary it is often okay. Clearly, if you find a hive that is sick you don’t want to share its combs with others. I think that each apiary should be treated as a self-contained unit. With the amount of drifting and robbing that goes on it’s likely that whatever one hive catches will spread to the others anyway, like a COVID infected child in a classroom. This applies to Varroa mites as well as diseases. However, moving frames is akin to being sneezed on by the aforementioned child; the spread is pretty much a certainty.

Nosema apis

The form of Nosema that has always been with us is not very trendy; it’s an old fashioned malady, cast aside in favour of newer or scarier pests and diseases. It’s still there though, and if you have a colony that just doesn’t get going in spring, Nosema could be the culprit. The spores can remain viable for months in dried up bee-poo. Bees that have been confined for a long time, unable to take cleansing flights, may defecate indoors. Moving frames between colonies can accelerate the spread.

Dysentery is often associated with Nosema apis although it’s actually secondary infections that cause the runs rather than Nosema itself. The spores enter the gut, often of newly emerged young bees, as their job is to tidy up mess in the hive (such as poo). As it multiplies inside the bees, the effect is to hinder their ability to digest pollen, which halts the development of their hypopharyngeal glands. That means they can’t make brood food, which can really hold back colony growth, and in bad cases cause its demise.

hive spotted with dysentery
Hive spotted with dysentery photo by Paul Horton

As I understand it, Nosema is present in many colonies at low levels but it does not cause obvious symptoms. I like to feed bees in autumn with thymolated sugar syrup because I think it may help. Even if the thymol does not have any effect on Nosema spores (I’m not sure either way) it does prevent fermentation of any syrup left in the feeder, which might keep down dysentery over winter. Thymol has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, so I’m happy for my bees to slurp some down in their syrup.

Changing floors

When checking bees in spring I always change or clean the floor. Sometimes floors are quite clean, other times littered with debris. I don’t like it if there is a disgusting soggy mess; this has happened to me when combining solid floors with polystyrene hives. Anyway, there may be all manner of unsavoury matter on the floor after winter, so it has to be worth dealing with it. I scrape wood floors then sterilise with a blow torch. Poly floors generally just get a scrape, but if they are messy I change the floor and take the old one away and scrub it with bleach.

Assessing colonies

The early inspections are for assessing colonies. Firstly, are they alive? If so, do they have a laying queen – a queen laying worker brood, not drones? Also, are they showing signs of disease or are they looking good? I’m quite ruthless at this stage. Anything that seems very weak or sickly, or has a drone layer, gets the chop. I shake them out, take away the hive and clean and sterilise it. Now that I have my Api Melter I can use that to render the wax, once I figure out how to work the thing.

Hopefully the majority of hives fall into the ‘healthy’ category, and these can then be graded by counting the seams of bees and frames of brood. If the colony is small, such as 3 frames of bees and maybe one of brood, I might swap the hive’s position with a stronger one. This will boost the number of bees in the smaller colony, which gives the queen the chance to prove herself. Hopefully she will accelerate her laying and grow the brood nest, but if she doesn’t, at least I tried.

A large colony at this stage will have four or more frames of brood (Langstroth) and loads of bees. These ones will probably swarm if left to their own devices. There is often an even split between small, medium and large colonies, even if they all started off quite similar in strength in autumn.


Another way to boost a small colony is Ian Steppler’s approach. He will place the brood box of a small colony above the brood box of a strong one, with a queen excluder between them. What happens is that the worker bees spread out between the boxes, effectively boosting the weaker one. Often this gives the queen in the smaller colony the chance to show her stuff. Later on the top box is removed and taken to another apiary where it is now capable of being a production hive.

Ian Steppler boosts weaker colonies

The other way to equalise colonies is to take frames of brood plus bees from strong colonies and give them to weaker ones. Weaker, but not sick. The frames from strong hives can go into nucleus hives until you come upon a weaker hive, and then they can be used. The bees don’t seem to be bothered about the change of address; they just get on with it.

Once the dodgy hives are gone and the healthy ones have been equalised, there is a sense of satisfaction. It’s early in the season, and everything is nicely set up for what’s to come. It won’t be very long until supers are needed, and off we go.

3 thoughts on “Equalisation is great, but be careful

  1. Thank you for this useful blog, Steve.

  2. […] good use of an excluder is when doing the Ian Steppler boosting method, in which a small colony is placed above a strong one (both have queens). He uses newspaper […]

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