The number of honey bees in the colony determines the overall hive strength and how good the colony is at collecting resources. Once a small swarm has been settled into a beehive, the beekeeper has to quickly promote an increase in the number of bees, in order for the colony to thrive. We wrote this article to guide beekeepers with small honey bee colonies on how to increase bees in the hive in order to better their beekeeping experiences.
Honey bees can survive over a wide range of climates. Natural selection has created subspecies of bees that are very well adapted to the climatic conditions of the regions they are found in. Locally adapted bees are often better at surviving in a region than bees from elsewhere. When making hive increases, it is best that you use locally adapted bees. Honey bees of the various sub species can interbreed and the improved genetics help with adaptability and survival.
How to Prepare for a Hive Increase
Before starting a hive increase, you should make sure that the colony is prepared for it.
Increasing bees to split off the hive and start a new colony takes some time. Plan the increase for early seasons when food is abundant. Beekeepers have a responsibility to make sure that resulting colonies have time to raise their numbers and store enough honey for winter. A weak colony loses many bees and may die off in winter. In general, large honeybee colonies build up faster than small colonies.
Ensure enough food stores
Make sure that the honey bees have enough stores of food. This includes both honey and pollen. It is important to carry out proportional hive increase based on food resource availability and the number of bees in the colony.
Ensure hive health
Healthy honeybee colonies are suitable for hive increases. Honeybees in a weak colony need help with hive security until their numbers are enough for defending the beehive before you increase the honeybee colony. A mated queen bee that is healthy, well fed and laying eggs is useful for a hive increase.
Ensure their is room to expand
Room to expand is another requirement for increasing bees in a hive. Be well organized with ready space for the additional bees in the colony. An extra box on the Langstroth beehive stack solves this with ease.
Ensure you have the necessary equipment
You need some equipment and tools for a hive increase. Most commonly, you should have a few queen cages ready. In the various methods of hive increase, raising queen bees requires you to sometimes catch the queen and move her to another hive. A queen cage is necessary in some of these instances. However, when moving a queen to a new hive with bees from her old hive, you do not need to use a queen cage. You also require beehive frames that have comb on them, but without stores of honey or eggs laid on them. These frames will be useful for queen bees to lay eggs during the processes of hive increase.
What are Simple Methods of Making an Increase in the Hive?
Making increases in a hive can be done in many ways. There are both simple and complex methods of achieving different results. The choice is up to you as an individual beekeeper.
Hive increases make use of queen bees to keep new colonies going. There are a number of reasons that honeybees make new queen cells. They include in preparation for swarming, to replace a failing queen bee, and to replace a queen that has suddenly died or been removed from the hive. In the latter two scenarios, swarming does not occur.
Method 1 – Split a Double Brood Box Colony
One of the simple methods of increasing a hive is to split a double brood box colony. It is simple and suitable for all beekeepers of any skill and experience level. Splitting a colony requires you to build it up to double brood boxes. You need another beehive to be ready and on standby to be set up once the split is done.
To split a double brood colony, inspect the honey bee colony and remove any super boxes. You should then remove one brood box and place it at the bottom of a new beehive stack. It is best to leave the queen in the original beehive. The bees in the new beehive will rear their queen bee. If you had some queen cells in the old beehive, you can give them to the new colony to use for their queen bee needs. Add beehive parts and components to the beehive such as queen excluder, super boxes and frames. Most flying bees in the new beehive will return to the old beehive. That is often not a problem since the bees in the new hive will start flying soon.
This basic method of splitting a double brood box honeybee colony can be done with some variations. Depending on the beekeeper’s location, it can be used early in the season to increase the number of colonies that the beekeeper has. As soon as the new colony of beehives is settled in the beehive and foraging, give it a super box so it can store some honey to use later in the year.
Method 2 – Catching a Swarm
Another simple method of hive increase is catching a swarm of bees. Swarm traps are placed out in the wild to catch swarming honey bee colonies. The swarms caught in these traps can be added to your existing honey bee colonies or set up in their own beehives. This method varies significantly from the use of package bees and nucleus hives.
Method 3 – Using Package Bees
Package bees are bees bought from other beekeepers with a queen bee and no food resources with them. Package bees can be a problem to work with in a hive increase. They do not store up enough honey for winter and have a high rate of queen supercedure in the first year.
Method 4 – Using Nucleus Hives
Nucleus hives have a small colony of honey bees complete with a queen bee. When you need to increase the numbers a hive, you move the nucleus hive into a standard hive along with its frames containing brood and stored honey.
What is the Double Brood Box Method of Hive Increase?
The double brood box method is one way of increasing honey bee colonies that the beekeeper has. In this method, the beekeeper deliberately builds up a honey bee colony to a large size and then splits it. The controlled split results in two well populated colonies. The colonies come from the two brood boxes that give this method its name. It is best to use colonies that have a prolific queen bee when using this method. She gives high number of bees for the resulting colonies.
How it Works
In the double brood box method of hive increase, place two brood boxes next to each other in your Langstroth beehive stack. Allow the honey bee colony to use up the two boxes for brood rearing. You must wait until the colony is rearing brood in both brood boxes in equal proportions. Most honeybee colonies will go for chimneying when they have too much brood rearing space. Chimneying is the use of a more vertical space for brood by honeybees with honey stored to the sides.
When the honey bee colony has filled both brood boxes with brood and has enough nurse bees, a split is done. The beekeeper removes one brood box and uses it to start another honey bee colony. You can wait until the large honey bee colony makes queen cells or move them without queen cells. If you make the split without queen cells, install a new queen bee in the beehive. Colonies split off with ready queen cells will tend to the young bees in the queen cell and the emerging queen bee will stay in the hive.
The double brood box method of hive increase is advantageous in a number of ways. It allows the new colony to have a laying queen bee in a few days. At most the colony is adding bees to the old population within about 3 weeks. In the new beehive, there is a break in the brood cycle. This break helps a lot with Varroa mite suppression. Last, the old hive can be quickly put to honey production after the split is made.
With a double brood box Langstroth beehive setup, beekeepers are able to keep a hive ready in case they need a split. When the beekeeper sees a failing hive, they can take frames of brood and honey to put into the failing hive. They can also bring in non-flying nurse bees from the strong hive to help in the weak hive. A double brood box beehive arrangement also gives you high yields of wax and honey. Harvesting honey should be done once a few frames are filled with honey in such a setup to prevent swarming. It is also alright to swap brood frames with empty frames so that bees see there is space in the beehive.
What is the Miller Method of Hive Increase?
The Miller method of hive increase was initially proposed by Dr. C.C. Miller in the early 1900s. Dr. C.C Miller was an American in beekeeping. He is credited with a number of inventions in beekeeping including the Miller feeder. In this method, split beehives are left strong as they should be. The Miller method is somewhat resource intensive. It requires you to have not less than 5 or 6 beehives for a successful implementation. The method largely uses the brood frames, and not actual bees.
Behavioral Characteristics of Honey Bees
The Miller method of hive increase puts to use a number of behavioral characteristics of honey bees. These are:
- Young bees flying from a beehive always come back to the same location every time. A bee makes an orientation flight the first time it comes out of the hive. Once the bee masters the location of the hive, it rarely ends up in another beehive. This is why foraging bees rarely drift into other beehives.
- Honey bees with nectar or pollen can be allowed into a hive from which they did not come. However, bees carrying nothing are seen as robber bees. Robber bees are attacked and killed by guard bees. In the Miller method, you do not move bees, so there is little risk of bees fighting.
- Young bees that have not yet started flying remain with the queen bee and brood. If brood is absent from a beehive, the bees will abscond and very few young bees will be left behind. This results with workers sometimes laying eggs. It is not desirable in beekeeping that your honey bee colony gets to a point where you have laying worker bees.
- Queen bees release pheromones that keep the colony together. Honey bees from a hive recognize their queen by her pheromone. A honeybee returning to a colony can make adjustments to changes in the beehive if the pheromone it recognizes is present in the beehive.
- Without a queen bee and her pheromones, bees raise a new queen from the brood that is present in the beehive. This is called emergency raising of a queen bee. It takes up to 12 days at most for honey bees to replace an absent queen bee. The queen bee also takes a number of days before she begins laying eggs.
How it Works
The Miller method of hive increase uses these facts to increase hive numbers by manipulation of the hives every 9 days. A strict schedule is maintained for success of this method. All equipment needed for the increases must be on hand before you begin. You should also identify bee resources available such as beehives and frames with honey. Starting with many beehives allows you to make increases faster.
On day one of implementing the Miller method of hive increase, identify the strongest and second strongest beehives you have. You can have a single brood or double brood setup when using this method. The strongest hive available to the beekeeper is used to produce queens for all other hives in the increase. This hive is largely kept queen less for a long period of time. It receives comb with brood from other beehives and keeps producing queen cells. The queen bees from this hive are then used to start more honey bee colonies in other beehives.
This method of hive increase is best done in the warm months. You should also wait for nectar to be abundant before using the Miller method of hive increase in your apiary. In this method, you remove brood frame from strong colonies and transfer them to weaker colonies. The strongest colony is used to make queen bees for new hives. In the warm months of the year, there is less risk of brood getting chilled. The removal of brood frames is also a good measure against swarming.
Queen Rearing in the Miller Method of Hive Increase
Rearing your own queen in the Miller method of hive increase is simple and does not involve handling bee larvae. The process works on the principle that honey bees without a queen bee will try to raise a queen from young larvae. Drawn comb of foundation is used in this method. It is placed in the beehive so that bees make honeycomb and the queen lays egg in the comb.
When the eggs that are laid in the comb start to hatch, the comb is removed. The comb is cut back to where the larvae are young – 24-36 hours old. The comb is placed in a colony of honey bees that are without a queen. They will raise queen cells on the edges to develop the young larvae into queen bees. Freshly drawn comb without foundation is practical and works best for this process. Before your queen bees emerge from their cells, make sure to spread them out into other beehives. The queen that emerges first will kill any other queen bees still in their cells.
There are no sudden beehive increases in the Miller method. Every growth realized is done gradually. When well managed, the method gives consistent results over time. In a relatively short period of time, you can have many beehives that are strong from a single hive. Large crops of honey are gathered from resulting hives. This is because the Miller method of hive increase equalizes beehives and spreads the genetic stock of the best performing queen bee to other beehives.
This method of queen rearing and hive increase is favored due to how easily it can be implemented in an apiary. It is simple, with no special techniques that the beekeeper must learn about. There is also very little equipment needed outside the usual stuff you use in beekeeping. This all works to keep the cost of implementing Miller’s method of hive increase very low. It is great for amateur beekeepers. Any virgin queen bee you manage to raise is likely to be accepted in the queen less hive she finds herself in.
Sadly, the Miller method of increase is not very reliable. It works once you have mastered it, but with a lot of room for error when climatic conditions and information are against you. In the colder regions of the world, the Miller method may not turn out very well. You should also research widely before trying out the Miller method of queen rearing and hive increase.
What is the Patterson Method of Hive Increase?
The Patterson method of hive increase was initially proposed by Roger Patterson to help beekeepers increase the number of honey bee colonies they have. It makes extensive use of nucleus hives. As a beekeeper, it is beneficial to know how to install honey bees from a nucleus hive into a Langstroth beehive. A nucleus hive has many uses in an apiary. In the Patterson method of hive increase, a honey bee colony is split into two nucleus hives and the flying bees divided equally among the nucleus hives.
When managed well, a nucleus hive is great for hive increases and for queen mating. A nucleus hive set up in spring can be used for mating many queen bees in the year. A laying queen in a mating hive can be allowed to lay for some time before being moved into a larger colony. The nucleus hive you have can also come in handy when preventing swarming. Split the honeybees from a beehive a nucleus hive for some time. At the end of swarm season, re-combining the hives restores the colony to full strength with no swarming taking place.
Another use for nucleus hives is in resting old queen bees. Queen bees with great genetics are loved by beekeepers. When you have an old queen you would like to use to breed your honey bees, you can keep her in a nucleus hive. She will stay in the nucleus hive and produce many more queen bees for you before she dies.
Making a Nucleus Hive for Hive Increase
Bees from more than two colonies do not get into fights easily. However those from two colonies will gladly get into fighting for resources. This is important for beekeepers to consider when making a nucleus hive. Additionally, you should remember that bees that have already started flying out of the hive and back, will go back to the same location if you move them less than 3 miles away. This is used by beekeepers splitting beehives to their advantage. It allows you to move the flying bees into a new hive and remain with non-flying bees in another hive. The hive that has more flying bees can be helped with some few frames of non-flying nurse bees to help the colony take care of brood. If there are not enough bees to cover brood, some of the brood dies.
In a nucleus hive, make sure that there is enough food to last the colony until your next visit. Small honey bee colonies such as those found in nucleus hives are prone to sudden failure when the food situation changes, as the colonies do not have adequately large stocks of honey. Locate the beehive in a shaded area where it gets morning sun only. A hot nucleus hive does not do well because honey bees focus more on cooling the hive than collecting nectar and pollen for the beehive.
It is also your responsibility to make sure that a nucleus hive has enough room for expansion. As the colony in the nucleus hive grows larger, it should have enough space for additional brood area. The colony will also want to store honey in the beehive. Provide enough space in the nucleus hive for these activities. If you run out of space in the nucleus hive, it is time to move the colony into a proper beehive.
The honey bee colony in a nucleus hive should have a queen bee. If not, the colony should have a queen cell, young larvae or eggs from which to raise a new virgin queen. Hive defense is not very good with the small honeybee colonies found in nucleus hives. Reduced entrances are recommended for nucleus hives. You should also see to it that the hive does not have any diseases, pests or parasites of honey bees.
Single vs Double Brood Boxes
In beekeeping and hive increases, beekeepers are faced with the question of whether to use single or double brood boxes. Even where the beekeeper settles on the double brood box option, they have to decide if both brood boxes will be of the same depth. Brood boxes are often of the deep sizes. You can have the second brood box being deep or medium. Shallow beehive boxes are not very well suited for use in rearing honey bee brood.
Deep brood boxes can get very heavy. Beekeepers must consider the implication of this on how easily they can manage the honey bee colony. When you often work alone on beehives, it is better to stick to the single deep brood box. It will be easier for you to move when needed. Two brood boxes can overwhelm you during hive inspection.
Wintering bees cluster around the brood but still need access to honey and other food resources. It is common practice to have the honey bee colony wintered in single deep boxes. It gives them great access to stored honey to use over the season. The honey in the box is kept in frames at the outer ends of the beehive so that the brood is in the middle of the beehive. This is especially useful since hive inspections over winter are fast and few in number. Excess exposure of the brood to cold chills the brood and the entire brood can die.
Two brood boxes in nectar flow season are recommended for a strong hive. With a queen that lays enough eggs, the colony builds its numbers quickly and has many foraging bees. This translates into better honey yields and excellent defense of the beehive. Having space in the beehive also helps to lower the likelihood of swarming happening. The large colony found in a double brood box hive is easy to split into two colonies of sufficient strength.
Having a large colony in a single brood box is not very advantageous to a beekeeper. The colony can swarm away due to space limitations. Additionally, the crowded conditions can make honeybees very aggressive. During hive inspections, the honey bees will swarm over you and make the exercise difficult for the beekeeper. This is very unsettling for beginner beekeepers that may end up not carrying out the hive inspection properly.
Identifying Queen Bees for Hive Increase
Finding the queen bee of a honeybee colony is important for successful splits and requeening. It is also useful for other hive management and manipulation needs. The ideal weather conditions for finding the queen in a beehive is when it is warm. Sunny conditions in nectar flow season are advised. The weaker colonies without too many bees make it easier to find the queen bee if she is present. Having the sun overhead helps a lot too If that is not possible, work with the sun behind you.
Spotting a queen bee is easy with enough practice. Memorize the image of a queen bee so that you know what to look out for. Usually, the abdomen of the queen is the giveaway. It is larger and distended that that of other bees in the hive. Painting the queen bee is not reliable on its own when finding the queen bee. She may be superseded in the colony and so you will miss the new queen bee.
When finding the queen bee, look for her in the brood area first. You can un-stack the boxes and go straight for the brood boxes. Having a queen excluder helps narrow the search to brood boxes only. Some beekeepers use an extra queen excluder between brood boxes. It helps them find the queen faster because there will be no eggs in one brood box. The beekeeper looks for the queen bee in the brood box that has freshly laid eggs.
Once you have opened the hive and are searching for the queen bee, work quickly to get her before she wanders from the brood area. Use some smoke on the bees but do not overdo it. Mated queen bees do not like the light. They move away from the light to darker sections of the beehive. If the queen bee is on a frame that is exposed to the sunlight, she ducks to the side in the shadow. Flipping the frame around causes her to duck back to the other side that is in shadow.
In spring, the queen bee is usually high up in the brood area of the beehive. This is because the cluster of bees moves up during winter. If you search for the queen before it is warm enough for the cluster to break, the queen is in this upper region. A stack of 2 brood boxes will have the queen in the upper brood box.
A Final Word
Making hive increases is an important and regular part of beekeeping. It is not difficult or expensive. Increases in the colony are done for a number of reasons including to replace winter losses, to produce nuclei for sale, to increase the beekeeper’s number of colonies and to prevent swarming. Others are to help supply beginner beekeepers with honeybee colonies and to produce queen mating nuclei. Use this guide on how to increase bees in the beehive in your efforts to strengthen your honey bee colonies.
What is your preferred method of hive increase? Leave a comment below and let us know.