Learning How to Split a Beehive
Honey bee colonies fluctuate in population over the course of a year. Managing colony strength is an important aspect of keeping honey bees. There will come a time in every beekeeper’s experience when you will need to learn how to split a beehive.
Splitting a hive is relatively easy to do but you have some important things to consider first. This is an activity most often approached by a 2nd year beekeeper and beyond.
It is a simple process of taking 1 honey bee colony with a large population and dividing it into 2 complete smaller bee families.
When done properly, both “halves” of the colony will grow into productive beehives.
The process of hive splitting 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.
Hive Splitting Requires Extra Equipment
Wouldn’t it be great if we always knew exactly what our bees would need from us during the season.
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 beekeeping 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!
What is a Beehive Split?
When splitting a hive, its is important to remember that we are not only 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 have honey, pollen, and brood. Most importantly, each half must have a queen or something to make a queen with.
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 lots of nurse bees too!
Why Make a Beehive Split?
There are several reasons that a beekeeper might want to split beehives.
- increase beehive numbers
- save money
- reduce swarming
- requeening hives
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. Effective hive splitting is a way to increase hive numbers without having to buy honey bees.
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? You have lost bees.
A natural part of bee life, honey bee swarming is a good thing as far as colony reproduction.
However, we beekeepers don’t like the idea of half a bee colony’s population flying away to create a new home.
Splitting Bee Hives in Spring
Late Spring is one of the most common times for creating hive splits. It is a natural time of increase for honey bee colonies.
For the beekeeper with a strong, growing honey bee colony, splitting a hive to prevent swarming makes sense. You are splitting a hive before they split themselves.
While Spring is a good time to make splits, you may also find yourself needing to split large Summer colonies. You can use splits to managing swarming at any time during the warm months.
However, you must be sure that the smaller colonies have enough time to build and prepare for Winter.
Requeening Split Hives
Some beekeepers use the strategy of splitting hives as an opportunity to produce new queens. A honey bee colony has the remarkable ability to make a new queen bee.
When we make a true split, the older queen goes into one box. The other one half-sized colony will have to make a new queen.
Unless the beekeeper provides a new queen for the colony, they must have the resources needed to produce a queen.
Short term, no fresh eggs are being produced. Colony population will slowly drop until new bees emerge.
One benefit is mite control. The temporary break in the brood cycle, provides a break in varroa mite reproduction.
Some varroa mite treatments are more effective during a time of little or no brood.
Best Time to Split a Beehive?
Spring is the optimum time for making a hive split. It is a time of rapid grow for the honey bee colony.
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.
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. If you see queen cells (swarm cells) during a mid-Spring hive inspection, you must act.
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 carry on all hive tasks until population starts to grow.
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 nuc sized hive boxes to make mini colony splits with a total of 5 frames.
Starting with 2 or 3 frames of brood, add plenty of nurse bees. In addition to the nurse bees present on the frames of brood. Shake in some extras off other brood frames that you will leave in the mother colony.
Then, add a couple of queen cells, or a frame with fresh eggs/larvae. This allows them to make a queen or I can purchase one for them.
If successful, they will outgrow the nuc box quickly. I have to watch them and move the colony to a larger box as they grow.
Making Splits in the Same Bee Yard
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.
In a few weeks, you can return the splits to the home yard. Again, the bees know their location has changed and readjust.
Relocating Not an Option?
If you are unable to move your split to another location, a successful split can still be accomplished.
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 shake more nurse bees into the split.
How to Split 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.
Doolittle Method of Splitting Hives
Remove 5 frames of brood (some open and some capped) but no bees. Brush all the bees off the frames of brood and back into the hive.
Put the frames of brood into an extra hive body. Place a queen excluder on the top of the mother hive.
Now put the box with the frames of brood (no bees) on top of the excluder.
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.
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 3-4 weeks for a laying queen.
This works most of the time. It is not my favorite method. I would use it with some extras attention.
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 make splits.
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.