Beekeeping is an incredibly fascinating hobby thanks to, among other things the natural life cycle and function of honeybees. If you are an experienced beekeeper, here’s a question: is there anything more fascinating than splitting a hive and watching the two new hives develop? In my opinion, there’s nothing else in beekeeping quite like splitting a hive. How is this done? Here’s a very quick summary, which I’ll expand on in the rest of the article:
- You will need a separate hive stand and form (box) to put your frames into.
- Choose a location for the new hive. The best possible scenario is to select a location at least a couple of miles away.
- Remove half the frames from your current hive. These frames will be the foundation of the new hive.
- Fill the empty space in your old and new hives with empty frames.
- You need to use nurse bees to make up the foundation of the new hive’s population.
- Shake some of the nurse bees into the new hive.
For the record, nearly every beekeeper who practices the hobby for more than two or three years will have to learn how to split hives. It is part of responsible beekeeping. Splitting hives is that which makes it possible to grow your beekeeping operations despite so many things working against you.
This article will discuss the basics of splitting a hive. I recommend not attempting your first split until you are comfortable with the day-to-day routine of caring for bees. Hive splitting is quite an advanced skill usually reserved for beekeepers who have been at it for at least a couple of years.
An Explanation of Hive Splitting
Splitting a hive has nothing to do with harming the bees. In fact, it is not a bad thing; it’s a good and necessary thing. To split a hive is to divide it into two sections. In a perfect world, you would divide a hive into two smaller hives of equal size. But they don’t have to be equal. It really depends on what you’re working with.
At any rate, you create two separate hives with every split. The bees in those hives can then set about rebuilding their populations. Don’t worry, they will do so naturally; it’s what they are programmed to do.
Hive-splitting takes advantage of the nature of bees. A bee colony really has two purposes: reproduction and feeding. That’s it.
Adult females are concerned with collecting food and nurturing larva. Adult males are concerned with reproduction. Other than protecting the hive against external dangers, that is about all bees do. And because of this nature, beekeepers can increase their operations by regularly splitting their hives. Splitting basically exploits the bees’ need to gather food and reproduce.
The Mechanics of Splitting a Hive
Later on in this piece I will talk about when to split a hive and why you would want to do so. First though, let us talk about the actual mechanics. To split a hive, you will need a separate hive stand and form (box) to put your frames into. It is generally recommended that you keep one spare stand and box on your property so that you’re ready to split when necessary.
Locating the New Hive
The first step is to choose a location for the new hive. The best possible scenario is to select a location a couple of miles away. Why so far? Because bees are very territorial. They are also very committed to their current hives. Setting your new hive too close to the original could mean the majority of the bees involved in the split return to the original hive.
Ideally, you should be looking for a location that offers reasonable protection against the weather and provides food sources within close proximity. Maybe your property borders a forest or a farmer’s field. Perhaps you are out in the country with food sources all around. You know your environment better than anyone else.
If you live in a suburban or urban neighborhood, you may not have the luxury of good food sources. You will be supplementing the food your bees gather with sugar water anyway, so concentrate less on food and more on protection. Also bear in mind that your neighbors might not appreciate your beehives. It is probably a good idea to not locate the new hive too close to the edge of your property.
Not having access to a location a few miles away is not the end of the world. You can still split a hive in the same yard as your current hive. You just need to alter the way you protect the hives. More on that later. In the meantime, you are going to want to use nurse bees to make up the foundation of the new hive’s population. Nurse bees are the adult females that never leave the hive. They hang around and feed the larvae.
As you make the split, shake some of the nurse bees into the new hive. Some of those nurses may return to the old hive, but most of them will stay put, dedicated to the eggs and larva you have transferred.
Another trick you can try is moving your old hive to a new location in the same yard. Then set up your new hive where the old one used to be located. Make the split hive a bit smaller than the original, too. Any bees from the original hive that are determined to return will end up returning to the new hive instead.
How to Identify Nurse Bees
It might seem difficult to identify nurse bees in a colony that can have anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 insects. But actually, it is quite easy. You can identify nurse bees by their color and function within the nest. In terms of color, nurse bees are comparably young bees, which means they are lighter in color.
From the moment they exit their cells as fully developed bees, nurse bees have the responsibility of taking care of the brood. That’s why you will find them never leaving the brood box. They have but two jobs: cleaning cells and feeding larva. They will retrieve food deposited by workers, take it to a cell, inspect that cell, and then inject the food to feed the larva. An entire feed cycle, including inspection, can take anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes.
If you like numbers, consider this: a nurse can visit a single cell as many as 1,300 times per day. A single cell will be visited and inspected more than 10,000 times through maturity. That is a lot of visits, inspections, and feedings.
At any rate, nurse bees don’t remain nurses forever. Somewhere around day 13, they transition into worker bees and new nurse bees fall in to take their place. So again, locating your nurse bees is a simple matter of finding the lighter colored bees that are super attentive to the brood box.
Transferring Nurse Bees
Once you identify nurse bees, transferring them to the new hive is fairly simple. You just take your open brood box to the new hive and gently shake the bees off. Some beekeepers use a feather to encourage the nurses to go. Note that you don’t have to take every nurse from the box. If a few stay behind, it’s not the end of the world.
The one thing you have to be careful of is the potential for finding a queen in the brood box. Whatever you do, don’t transfer the queen from your existing hive into your new hive or all of the other bees will follow. Then you’ll have to start the hive splitting process all over again.
Remove and Replace Your Frames
After you choose a location and set up the new stand and box, you will start removing frames from your current hive. Let’s say you are working with a 10-frame hive you intend to split in half. Remove five frames, replacing them with five empty frames. The frames you’ve removed will form the foundation of the new hive.
Choose your frames wisely. You will need to split the hive in such a way as to guarantee that both smaller hives retain honey, pollen, and brood. Each smaller hive will also need a queen. But wait, where are you going to get a second queen from? You are going to let the new hive create its own queen.
By ensuring that the five frames you put into the new hive have sufficient honey, pollen and brood, you will be creating conditions for making a new queen. The nurse bees you transfer to the new hive will choose one of the eggs and nurture it to sexual maturity, thus creating a new queen.
This is helpful to know in case you cannot find the old queen in the old hive. If the split results in not having a queen in either hive, both smaller hives will start making new queens shortly after the split is complete.
To guarantee a queen in the new hive, make sure that at least one or two frames are full of fresh eggs and/or larva. Nurse bees will not work with old larva to create a new queen. They prefer to start from scratch, so to speak.
Capping off the process is the task of filling the empty space in your new hive with empty frames. This gives the new hive space to expand and grow. Remember, that is exactly what you want the split bees to do. Don’t rob them of the resources they need.
Partially Close Hive Entrances
Before we move on, here’s a little tip for completing your hive split when you can’t separate the hives by a few miles: partially close the entrances to both hives after you fill in all of the empty frame spaces. Remember that bees are territorial and protective. However, they are also scavengers. If you don’t partially close the entrances, bees from the old hive may visit the new hive to steal.
Partially closing the entrances makes it easier to defend both hives. Your bees are likely to leave one another alone if it is too hard to gain entrance to the opposite hive. Once the populations of both hives start showing rebound, feel free to open the entrances once again.
Why You Might Split a Hive
Splitting hives is a normal part of beekeeping. That said, let’s talk about why you might do it. The most common reason is all business: you split hives in order to increase bee populations which, subsequently, increases honey production and pollination. Growing your numbers makes your beekeeping hobby more financially viable.
Bear in mind that a strong hive can produce as much as 3 to 4 gallons of honey per harvest. If you get two harvests per year, you are looking at up to 8 gallons per hive. Splitting a hive doubles production provided that both hives return to full strength. You can see how exponential growth is possible by splitting your hives every season.
A second reason for splitting hives is to avoid having to buy new bees. Let’s say you want to sell hives to other hobbyists just getting started. How are you going to produce those hives? If you have to buy them from someone else, you will not make any money when it’s time to sell. If you split your existing hives however, you can sell them to other beekeepers and pad your bottom line.
The key to making this work is to time your splits so as not to endanger the health of the hives you plan to keep. You need to give your hives enough time to return to full strength and then demonstrate they can produce ample honey before you try again. Ideally you want a one-for-one split. In other words, you want to keep one strong hive for every one you sell.
Third, and probably most importantly, beekeepers split hives in order to prevent swarming. Understanding why bees swarm is critical to understanding what is happening here.
Why Bees Swarm
As previously stated, bees exist to feed and propagate. A healthy hive doing what it needs to do will eventually get to the point of outgrowing its current space. What happens next? Some of those bees voluntarily leave the hive in search of a new nesting place. This is what produces swarms.
Swarms are not a bad thing in and of themselves. In fact, they are necessary in order to maintain bee populations. But as a beekeeper, swarming is not good for you. You don’t want half your bees flying away and never returning. So you split your hive in order to keep your bees around. You split before they swarm, thus providing the new hive they need without risking heavy losses.
There are some beekeepers who wait until a swarm occurs and then make an attempt to retrieve it in order to start a new hive. You can certainly do this, and you may feel as though it’s a more natural way to allow your bees to reproduce, but it’s an awful lot of work. Moreover, you are almost certainly guaranteed to still lose some bees during the swarm. You stand a better chance of keeping your entire colony intact if you prevent swarming by splitting the hive.
When to Split the Hive
Splitting a hive does put some stress on the bees. It also puts a temporary stop to breeding. Therefore, you want to split at a time when the colony is at its strongest. When is that? Spring. We know spring is the peak time for splitting because that’s when bees are most likely to swarm. If you aren’t splitting, the bees will split themselves at some point between mid-May and early June (in the northern hemisphere).
Splitting in order to prevent swarming requires you to keep an eye on your bees as the weather starts to warm. You don’t want to open your hives daily to check on them but do take a look every couple of days. When it seems like the bees are running out of room to freely move, you know it’s time to split.
Also understand that it’s better to split before bees swarm because they are less aggressive at that point. Honeybees are at their most aggressive once swarming begins. Thus, allowing a colony to swarm before you split means you will be dealing with more aggressive bees.
In closing this article, there are a few final considerations to talk about. First, be sure to check your new hive daily for the first few days to ensure that a new queen is being made. If not, the survival of that hive may depend on you acquiring a queen from elsewhere. Don’t wait too long to make a decision, either. Waiting three or four weeks will almost certainly mean the demise of that new hive.
Finally, the first time you split a hive is going to be a lot like the first time you set up your new hive as a beginner. Prepare yourself accordingly and don’t stress out. You are going to make mistakes, and this is normal. Just plan to lose at least some of your bees on the first try. You will get better as the seasons progress and you do more splits.
Splitting a beehive is a way to manage bee populations and encourage growth. It allows you to produce more honey and, if you prefer, sell starter hives to other beekeepers. If you plan to keep bees for any length of time, be prepared to learn how to split. It comes with the territory. After a few seasons of successful splits, you’ll be an old pro.
I had a search through YouTube and I came across this video. Enjoy.