What is Splitting a Hive?
There will come a time in any beekeeper’s career that you consider splitting a hive. No, I don’t mean to literally split the hive in half with a saw! I am referring to taking 1 large beehive into 2 smaller ones.
This is an activity most often approached by a 2nd year beekeeper and beyond. Splitting a hive is relatively easy to do but you have some important things to consider first.
The simple process of taking 1 honey bee colony with a large population and dividing it into 2 may be done for a variety of reasons.
When done properly, both “halves” of the colony will grow into productive beehives.
This action is not without risks. Some beekeepers split hives and end up with 2 dead hives. Taking the time to identify why you want to do this and making a good plan increases your chance of success.
Keep Extra Equipment on Hand for Splits
Wouldn’t it be great if we could plan all of our moves as beekeepers. Well, it might be boring but it would be a bit more predictable. Alas, this is not the way things are.
Always strive to have extra equipment on hand. You will never be sorry and you may be thrilled to know that you are prepared for splitting a hive or catching a bee swarm!
Increase is the Goal of the Bee Colony
One of the most endearing things about honey bees is their focus on a common goal. It is the goal of the colony to store food and increase numbers.
In beekeeping, we work with these honey bee traits in order to reach our goals.
Our goals may be honey production or pollination of gardens, orchards, etc.
And while we may want more beehives too, the bees and the beekeeper are not always on the same schedule.
This can result in lost swarms and weak hives left for production.
Splitting A Hive: Reasons to Do It
There are several reasons that a beekeeper might want to split beehives.
One of the most common reasons is to take advantage of the bee colony’s Spring build-up and grow more hives.
Beekeepers often want to increase the number of hives in their bee yards or apiaries. In this way they can replace any winter losses or just grow bigger!
Effective hive splitting is a way to increase hive numbers without having to buy honey bees.
Bees can be purchased as package bees, nuc colonies or full-sized hives. But, buying bees is an expensive endeavor.
You can easily spend hundreds or thousands of dollars.
A beekeeper who knows how to split a hive can avoid the expense of buying Spring bees. However, beehive splits much be performed correctly with proper followup.
Hive Splitting to Avoid Swarms
Another reason to consider making a split is honey bee swarm prevention.
If the colony splits itself via a swarm and you catch it – great! But what if you don’t?
The natural inclination of a honey bee colony is to grow into a huge population.
It then splits itself into 2 smaller families and half the population leaves. Leaving behind queen cells for a new queen bee.
Swarming is a natural part of beekeeping. And, swarming is a good thing as far as colony reproduction.
The honey bee colony is able to reproduce itself and make more colonies.
However, we beekeepers don’t like the idea of half a bee colony’s population flying away to create a new home.
We would be happier if the bees stayed home and we want our bees to make honey.
For the beekeeper with a large honey bee colony, splitting a hive to prevent swarming makes sense.
In this way, we have 2 smaller colonies to grow and become productive.
You are splitting a hive before they split themselves. Depending on the timing of the procedure, you may be reducing your honey harvest by making the split.
However, that is better than losing some of the harvest and half your colony.
Requeening Split Hives
Some beekeepers use the strategy of splitting hives as an opportunity to produce new queens. Queen-less splits will hopefully make a new young productive queen.
When we make a true split, one half will have to make a new queen (or be given one.) Short term, no eggs will be laid.
When is The Best Time to Split a Beehive?
Spring is the optimum time for making splitting a hive. It is a time of rapid grow for the honey bee colony.
You can expect bee populations to be high and to see a large amount of brood inside the hive.
The time of the “honey flow” is a natural growth time and the bees are easier to encourage to grow.
They are getting ready, raising young, in order to take advantage of the nectar.
You can split a colony at almost any time during the warm season. But the new colony must have time to establish itself before Winter.
A common approach is to take advantage of the bees urge for Spring swarming.
After the colony has built up a large population with almost no room for more bees in the box, you should have a plan.
If you do not relieve congestion in the brood nest, the bees will.
When a bee colony gets too crowded, they will begin to make plans to swarm.
If you see queen cells (swarm cells) during a mid-Spring hive inspection, you must act.
Seeing acorn shaped queen cups is not a sign for action. But once an egg or larva is in the queen cell – the bees have a plan.
If you have large growing colonies and a lot of plants are in bloom, it is a good time to split your hive.
The bees can take advantage of natural nectar and some feeding by the beekeeper can help them along.
What Size Bee Box for Splits?
When you make a split from a very large colony, the most common method is to place the new bees in a full sized “deep” box.
Each division should have enough bees to guard the hive and they will grow quickly in Spring.
But sometimes a colony gets into swarm mode when the population is not huge. How can you relieve some of the hive congestion without taking half the hive resources?
Making Mini Hive Splits
I use nucs hives which allow me to make a mini colony with 2 or 3 frames of brood.
And plenty of nurse bees shaken into the new box. I will either put a couple of queen cells in the nuc or fresh eggs.
This allows them to make a queen or I can purchase one for them. This is not a long term solution.
If successful, they will outgrow the nuc box quickly. I have to watch them.
Nuc boxes are a useful tool for beekeepers. A nuc box is about half the size of a regular hive. It holds 5 frames instead of 8 or 10.
This is a great size for early splits and small swarms. Small families of bees tend to do well in smaller hives.
Then when the colony begins to grow – you can move them up to a normal sized hive.
Using Queen Cells for Hive Splits
Splitting a hive with queen cells is one of the easiest methods to use. Each half of the colony will receive either the old queen or a couple of nice large queen cells.
If you really want to be adventurous and replace the old queen, you can place queen cells in both splits and destroy the old queen bee.
In some areas, beekeepers practice splitting a hive in July or Summer. The success of summer splits will depend on your location.
It gets so hot and dry in my region, that splits made during summer require a lot attention and supplemental feeding.
It is difficult to get bees to draw comb after the first of July due to lack of nectar. I only make early Spring splits.
Must You Have 2 Bee Yards when Splitting Hives?
Having two locations for bees is advantageous. When a beekeeper splits a beehive, they are often advised to locate the new split in another location.
This is because any field bees that you move into the new box may not stay. They will feel the urge to return to the original hive location.
This can result in your new split not having even bees to sustain itself.
If the new beehive split is moved 2 or more miles away, the field bees will reorient themselves to the new location.
Now, you will be retaining your field force and increasing the chance of success for your split hive.
What if Relocating a Beehive to Another Field is Not an Option?
If you are unable to move your split to another location, a successful split can still be accomplished. I have never had another location to take new splits.
You can do it but you need to pay a bit more attention to the new growing colony.
If a quick check on the next day reveals a low population, you will need to move more bees into the split.
Shake in Extra Nurse Bees to the New Half
One option to increase splitting success is to shake extra nurse bees into the new split hive. Nurse bees have not been outside the beehive to forage.
They are found on the frames with open brood (eggs, larva) and are programmed to take care of brood. The presence of brood will encourage them to stay.
Some of these bees will return to the original hive but some will stay with the brood in the new split.
Place New Split at Original Hive Location
Another method for same yard beehive splitting, regards hive location. Move the original beehive (usually with the old queen) to another hive stand in your bee yard.
Be sure to leave frames of capped brood and all stages of larva in the hive. This hive will be losing its field force. As new brood emerges, they will become a new workforce.
Place the new split with queen cells (or eggs) at the old original hive location. This split normally has a smaller population inside.
It will benefit from field bees returning to their home location. The worker bees return to the location – not necessarily to a certain bee box itself.
You can experiment with different methods of splitting hives and choose a method that best suits your beekeeping program.
Splitting a Hive – The Basics
When splitting a hive, its is important to remember that we are not really splitting the bees themselves. We are splitting the resources of the bee colony.
If you have a 10 frame beehive, most people take out 5 frames for the new split and leave 5 frames in the old hive. Fill in the remaining space with new frames, of course.
Each half will need to retain, honey, pollen, and brood. Most importantly, each half must have a queen or something to make a queen with. One half can retain the old queen.
The other half must have a frame or 2 of fresh eggs/larva. Honey bees can not make a good queen with older larva.
Try to include a frame with fresh eggs and larva that are almost too small to see. It is good to have some capped brood to provide new nurse bees too!
Splitting a Hive -When You Can’t Find the Queen
Sometimes, we absolutely can’t find our queen bees. Hey, that’s okay. It’s hard to find 1 bee in a hive of 60,000 stinging insects.
Don’t worry – this won’t prevent you from splitting your beehive.
Carefully, divide the resources of the hive. Again, making sure each half has fresh eggs.
Return to the hive in 4 or 5 days and very carefully check for queen cell production. If you see queen cells, that is your queenless split.
Another method of hive splitting is the Doolittle method. This requires 2 trips to the hive but it allows you to make a split without finding the queen. It also has some advantages for those of you without another bee yard.
Queen Excluders – A Useful Tool
Queen excluders are used as a tool to keep the queen bee out of honey supers. We do not want her laying eggs in the honey boxes meant for harvesting.
The spaced wires of the excluder will prevent a queen (with her larger thorax) from passing through.
Occasionally, a skinny queen will sneak through but it does work most of the time.
Beekeepers also use excluders in some methods of queen rearing and making splits.
The Doolittle Method of Splitting Hives
Remove 5 frames of brood (some open and some capped) but no bees. Brush the bees off the frames of brood.
Put them in a nuc box or extra hive body. Place a queen excluder on the top of the mother hive.
Now put the box with the frames of brood (bee-less) on top of the excluder. (If you are using a nuc box – of course you will need a scrap piece of plywood etc to close up the hive.)
Over the next few hours, young nurse bees will move up through the excluder to cover the brood. Hopefully, the queen will stay below.
You can now remove the new split (top box) and place it in a new location.
Over the next day or so some of those nurse bees will become foragers and you can add a newly mated queen.
These nurse bees were not foragers previously and they are less likely to return to the original hive.
Reduce the Entrance For a While
Be sure to reduce the entrances of both beehive splits. You may choose to feed them as well. They have a lot of work to do before winter.
The bee colony population must build up again. Comb must be drawn out on new frames and that takes a lot of energy and food.
Small colonies are often victims of robbing bees. Smaller entrances until the population grows will help combat this problem.
Those beekeepers who live in an area with Small Hive Beetles may consider hive beetle traps.
I have had problems with small splits during Summer due to hive beetle infestations.
Recheck for queens
If your beehive splits are making new queens, you must check to see that they are successful. Within 4-5 days after making a split, carefully check for queen cell development.
Just a careful peek, don’t overstay your welcome. Be careful to avoid mashing any queen cells.
If they look good, recheck again in 2-3 weeks for a laying queen.
What is a Walk Away Split?
This term is so popular in the beekeeping community. It makes me laugh actually because I think people just like saying it.
It is a common easy to use method for beekeepers splitting a beehive for the first time.
But keep in mind that splits don’t always work. If you choose this method or any for that matter, rechecks are vital. Don’t wait to long to check for success!
How to Make a Walk Away Split
Find 1 frame of fresh eggs, 2 frames of capped brood (some emerging) and 2 frames with honey and pollen.
You will leave the nurse bees on these frames. Place the frames in a 5 frame nuc box or hive body.
Now, shake in extra nurse bees from the original colony. Be careful that you do not shake in your queen!
Put the lid on and walk away. Check back in 4 weeks for a laying queen.
This works most of the time. It is not my favorite method. I would use it with some extras.
I would feed the new split and I would not wait 4 weeks to check on the queen status. But, I guess that would not be a true walk away – would it?
Final thoughts on Splitting Hives
As with so many things in beekeeping, there are many ways to split your hives. Is the walk away split best or a more monitored option?
In reality, there is no one answer to the question, “What is THE best way of splitting a beehive?”.
Find a method that works for you and fine tune it until it works. And even then, not all splits will be successful.
If you monitor your new splits weekly, you should be able to see and correct any obvious problems. Don’t forget to have fun.
While splitting a hive is often the first thing considered to control swarming, take care that you do not end up with more hives than you can take care of. And, avoid making late season splits that do not have time to prepare for Winter.