Splitting Beehives for Success

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Knowing how to split a beehive is a useful skill for any beekeeper. Colonies that become over crowded are prone to swarming. In a swarm, part of your bees may fly away. By splitting beehives successfully, the beekeeper does not lose bees to a swarm and now has 2 colonies.

Strong honey bee colony prior to splitting the hive image.

However, done improperly or at the wrong time – hive splits can lead to a loss of both colonies. This is why you must consider all aspects of hive management when making these decisions.

What is a Beehive Split?

A hive split is the 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 if you follow the guidelines to make sure that each half has the resources needed to thrive.

Benefits of Splitting a Beehive

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

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

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 into 2 – allows the beekeeper to increase their hive numbers.

Reduce Replacement Costs

It is the rare beekeeper that does not experience some loss of colonies over the Winter season. By creating new colonies from existing hives in the bee yard. Empty hives can be refilled without have to buy replacement honey bees.

Reduce Swarming

Another reason to consider splitting your mature hives is swarm prevention. By reducing congestion (bees crammed close together on the comb) in the hive, some swarms will be prevented. But, be aware – this is not always successful.

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 in the wild.

However, we beekeepers don’t like the idea of half a colony’s population flying away over the tree tops. If you have the opportunity, a few hive splits make increase your chances of keeping all the bees at home.

Another technique used to ease hive congestion is reversing the hive bodies. If your bees are all concentrated in the top box – this is an option.

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 replace a queen bee at the end of her life cycle – if they have the resources.

When we make a true split, the older queen is usually moved to a new box. The remaining population of the original hive will need to make make a new queen or be given a purchased queen by the beekeeper.

But, this queenless split must have the resources needed – very small female larvae or even better-fresh fertilized eggs. Be sure to stock your hive splits with a lot of worker bees.

Perform Mite Treatments During Broodless Cycle

If you are wondering when to do a mite treatment, try for a time of little or no brood. Sometimes, beekeepers can used hive splitting to aid in mite control.

The temporary break in the colony brood cycle, provides a break in varroa mite reproduction too. Not usually enough for complete mite control. But, the break can help slow down mite population growth.

A beekeeper newly split beehive to check for strength image.

Preparation

When splitting a hive, it 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 beginner beekeepers have trouble. Each new hive start will need to have honey, pollen, and bee brood. In addition, they need enough worker bees to carry on hive tasks.

Most importantly, each half must have a queen honey bee or the resources to make a good queen – such as viable queen cells.

Try to include a frame with fresh eggs and young bee larva that are almost too small to see. It is good to have some capped brood to provide lots of new nurse bees too!

Honey bee eggs in honeycomb cells image.

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. Especially in the Spring, both halves should grow quickly.

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.

Infographic with key tips for splitting beehives.

How to Split a Beehive-Common Methods

There are many ways of splitting hives and it seems that each beekeeper has a favorite. Some methods have stood the test of time and some a just a bit qwerky – but if it works?

Easiest Method

For myself, the easiest way to make a hive split is to simply split the resources by hand. Making sure each part has brood, food, resources to make or rear a queen bee and a lot of workers.

It is not always successful, but work often enough that I keep doing it. However, it is certainly not the only way to get the job done.

Doolittle Method of Splitting Hives

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

1. 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.

2. Put the frames of brood into an extra hive body. Place a queen excluder on the top super box of the mother hive.

3. Now put the box with the frames of brood (no bees) on top of the excluder and 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.

4. Several hours later, you can remove the new split (top box), add a bottom and top and place it in a new location.

Over the next day or so some of those nurse bees will become forager field bees and you can introduce a mated queen. These nurse bees were not foragers previously and they are less likely to return to the original hive.

Moving frames with brood and bees into a new hive split box.

How to Make a Walk Away Split

Another method that is a common hive splitting technique. The walk away split is not my favorite but it can work well.

1. 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.

2. Now, shake in extra nurse bees from the original colony. Be careful that you do not shake in your queen!

3. 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 sugar water to bees in 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 – now would it?

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 – but it requires more effort. Carefully, divide the resources of the hive. Again, making sure each half has fresh eggs and food resources.

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. Also, you may find it easier to locate her on the frames in a less populous hive.

A 5 frame nuc beehive split full of bees image.

How to Make a Mini Hive Splits

We often hear of ways to divide a large colony into two or more equal parts, but there are other ways too.

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.

Be sure they have some honey/nectar and pollen. And fill any empty spaces with frames to make sure the box is full. The bees will fill any empty space with burr comb.

If successful, they will outgrow the nuc box quickly. Watch them and move the colony to a larger box as they grow. Then continue to add a super box as space is needed.

This is a useful way to keep a queen in reserve in case she is needed in one of the production hives later. You can make use of some queen cells that you don’t know what to do with.

Best Time to Split

Spring is the optimum time for making a hive split. The time of thehoney flow is a natural growth time with plenty of resources available.

Deciding when to take action or not is a bit of a guessing game. But, 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.

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. But, you can not always follow a calendar when it come to hive management.

Reduced entrance on a new hive split in a bee yard.

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 colony not having enough 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.

In a few weeks, you can return the new colonies to the home yard. Again, the bees know their location has changed and readjust. This is a best case scenario-but not every beekeeper has this option.

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 colony.

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 (for a few days) though some beekeepers do.

FAQs

How do you care for a new split?

Check new hive splits weekly to confirm their queen status and growth. Feed if needed and observe the entrance for any signs of trouble.

Can I recombine splits later?

Yes, if for any reason you need to combine splits into one larger hive, you can do so. A simple combine of beehives with newspaper method will work.

Do I need to introduce new queens to splits?

Not necessarily, if they have queen cells, let them raise them. Otherwise, ensure they have fresh eggs and plenty of workers.

Final Thoughts

As with so many things in beekeeping, there are many ways to make hive splits. If you monitor your new hives weekly, you should be able to see and correct any obvious problems.

Don’t fall prey to the desire to increase your hive numbers too quickly. Having too many hives for one beekeeper to manage is not a good thing.

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.

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5 Frame Nuc Hives – excellent tool for the bee yard – houses splits or small swarms

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