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How to Split a Beehive-The Basics

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Splitting a Beehive

Knowing how to split a beehive is a useful skill for any beekeeper. When colonies become over crowded they are prone to swarming. By splitting a hive successfully, the beekeeper does not lose bees to a swarm. This is also a great way to increase your hive numbers. However, done improperly or at the wrong time – hive splits can lead to a loss of both colonies.

A beekeeper newly split beehive to check for strength image.

A hive split is the 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 colonies.

This project 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.

Some caution is advised because the process of hive splitting is not without risks. Even experienced beekeepers have lost both halves of a divided colony. This is why it is a good idea to have some beekeeping experience under your belt before you split your colonies.

image of bees in a hive how to split a beehive

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.

This is where many inexperienced beekeepers have trouble. Each new hive start will need to have honey, pollen, and bee brood. In addition to those resources, they need enough adult worker bees to carry on hive tasks.

Honey bee eggs in honeycomb cells image.

Most importantly, each half must have a queen honey bee or the resources to make a good queen. 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 new nurse bees too!

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.

Filling in the remaining space with new frames, of course. You must not leave empty space inside the hive. The bees will fill any empty space with comb.

Reasons Why Beekeepers Split Hives

Since the process is not without risk, why take the chance? There are several reasons that a beekeeper might want to split beehives. 

  • increase beehive numbers
  • save money
  • reduce swarming
  • requeening hives
  • mite control

Hive Splitting in Spring to Increase Numbers

One of the most common reasons for creating hive splits is to take advantage of the bee colony’s Spring build-up. Dividing large, strong hives allows the beekeeper to have more beehives.

Creating new colonies in the bee yards is a way to replace any winter losses. Effective hive splitting is a way to increase hive numbers without having to buy replacement honey bees.

Splitting a Hive to Reduce Swarming

Another reason to consider making a split is honey bee swarm prevention. By reducing congestion in the hive, some swarms will be prevented.

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, 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. 

Produce New Queens

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 is usually moved to a new box. The other half of the hive will need to make make a new queen or be given on by the beekeeper.

This queenless split must have the resources needed to produce a new queen. This means very small larvae or even better-fresh eggs.

Making a new queen is a risky adventure and it takes several weeks for the colony to complete the process. Be sure to stock your splits with a lot of worker bees. Colony population will slowly drop until new bees emerge.

Perform Mite Treatments During Broodless Cycle

Some mite treatments are more effective during a time of little or no brood. Beekeepers can time their hive splitting to aid in mite control. The temporary break in the brood cycle, provides a break in varroa mite reproduction.

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 colonies are easier to encourage to grow.

Before a 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 swarm cells during a mid-Spring hive inspection, you must act.

Summer Colonies Can Be Split

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.

Wouldn’t it be great if we always knew exactly what our bees would need from us during the season.

What Size Bee Box is Needed 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 – especially if the weather is warm.

However, you don’t have to use a full size box. A 5 frame nuc box is also a popular size for new colony starts.

Each division should have enough bees to guard the hive and carry on all hive tasks until population starts to grow. Remember, colony population will drop until new bees emerge and this can take several weeks.

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?

A 5 frame nuc beehive split full of bees image.

How to Make a 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 extra nurse bees 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. Watch them and move the colony to a larger box as they grow.

Dividing Bees 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. This is a best case scenario.

When Hive Relocation Is 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.

Be sure to reduce the entrances on colonies with small populations. This helps them defend their home against robbing bees. I am not a big fan of locking bees up in a hive though some beekeepers do.

Hive Splitting -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 40,000 stinging insects.

Don’t worry – this won’t prevent you from making the split. 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

This is one method of making hive splits that is used by beekeepers. I don’t use it but you may find it helpful in your apiary.

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 super box of the mother hive. Now put the box with the frames of brood (no bees) on top of the excluder. Now close 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. Several hours later, you can 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

Another method that is a common hive splitting technique. Not my favorite but it can work well.

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 – do not shake off the bees. 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 extra attention. I would feed the new split (similar to a package) 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 Beehives

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 will be successful. If you monitor your new hives weekly, you should be able to see and correct any obvious problems. 

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