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Beekeeping comes with a number of maintenance and management activities that beekeepers have to carry out periodically. The frequency of carrying out these activities varies by necessity, and by preference of individual beekeepers. Splitting a hive is one of these activities. It is mostly done to prevent swarming. Beekeepers seeking to expand their apiaries may also opt to split an existing hive instead of buying package bees to start a new hive. This article informs beekeepers on how to split a hive using the two major approved methods.
Advantages of Splitting a Hive
The advantages of splitting your beehive outnumber purchasing new bee colonies for your apiary. With your own established hive, you are sure of the genetics and temperament of bees. Some beehive splits result in more than 2 new hives with a bee colony in them. Benefits of splitting hives include:
- Fall splits of hives break the mite cycle. This is especially useful if your beehive is infested by mites. Africanized bees with frequent absconding of their hives show less intense varroa mite infestations. Splitting hives can be part of your integrated pest and disease control plan for your apiary.
- Splitting hives in autumn leads to faster buildup of honey reserves. This gives beekeepers a bountiful harvest of honey. Package bees installed in spring show slower buildup of honey. Beekeepers get around this by splitting their existing hives. Fall splits do not experience population drops noted in package bees. This is because split hives give you colonies with drones, worker bees, brood, larvae, eggs, nurse bees and foragers.
- Requeening is greatly assisted by splitting a hive. Young queen bees produce more brood that translates into greater field force. More honey is produced by larger bee colonies. Young queens lay approximately 1,500 eggs daily in peak season.
- Bee colonies enjoying warm weather after splitting settle into hives faster. Warm weather is good for wax production and brood rearing.
When to Split a Beehive
Splitting a beehive gives you two honeybee colonies. You can say that you remain with an original colony that is reduced in size, and get a new colony of functional size. When you conduct a beehive inspection, you should look out for signs that a colony needs splitting. Indicators that you should split a colony are broadly categorized as those due to colony size and those due to the time of the year. They include overpopulation of honeybees in the beehive, appearance of queen bee cells in the beehive and too fast accumulation of honey and other beehive resources in the beehive. The purpose of splitting a hive is either to prevent natural swarming that is imminent, or to get a honeybee colony for a new beehive setup.
An overpopulation of honeybees in a beehive points to potential swarming. When the colony gets past a certain size that can fit comfortably in a beehive, it splits naturally in a process called swarming. The colony prepares a new queen bee and she leaves with a large number of honeybees to go establish another colony elsewhere. This causes slowed production in the beehive due to loss of worker bees. The beehive is also left vulnerable to attack due to fewer guard bees and less capability to fight off attackers.
Queen bee cells are large and easy to spot in the brood area of your beehive. They point to a desire of the colony to have a new queen. This may be due to the current queen bee being inadequate in some of her functions or because the colony has become too large and needs to split off to reduce the size of the original honey bee colony.
When you notice any of the above indicators, you should split the colony. It is better that you carry out a controlled split than wait for swarming to occur. If the honey bee colony swarms by itself, you may not have a chance to catch the splinter swarm and install it in a beehive in your apiary. When you carry out a beehive split yourself, you are able to install the splinter swarm in your apiary and, therefore, increase the number of honey bee colonies in your beekeeping operation.
Estimating the number of honeybees in a colony during an inspection is easy. Both beginner and experienced beekeepers can do it. The easiest method of estimating the number of bees in a beehive is using a photograph.
- To do it, wait for the late evening when all the bees are in the beehive and pull out one beehive frame at random. Photograph one side of the beehive frame in the best clarity and resolution as you can get. Most smartphones beekeepers have are adequate for the job.
- Crop out three quarters (3/4) of the frame and count the number of bees in the remaining part of the photograph.
- Get the approximate total number of bees by multiplying the number of bees you get on one quarter of the frame by 8, and then by the number of frames you have in your beehive.
- Use enough protective measures when opening the beehive to carry out this counting exercise. Proceed through the beehive opening and photographing part as fast as you can.
Time of Year
There comes a time in the year when it is likely for honeybee colonies to swarm. In late spring season, most honeybee colonies are of large enough sizes and have collected sizeable amounts of beehive resources. Through summer, they increase in size and have a large population of bees in the colony. By the end of summer, most beehives are full of stored beehive resources if you have not harvested the stored resources progressively. Due to the large population of honeybees in the colony and abundance of stores resources, swarming is likely to take place. It can happen in late summer, through mid-autumn.
Honeybee colonies swarming in late autumn have little chance of surviving winter because they do not get enough time to draw comb, store honey and ensure they have enough bees to keep the colony warm through winter. You should, therefore, be on the lookout for signs of swarming when you conduct a beehive inspection in summer and autumn. Harvesting accumulated beehive products such as honey contributes to preventing swarming.
Ensure that you manage beehive splitting so that the resulting honeybee colonies are strong and have best chances of survival. You may feed the honeybee colonies after splitting to help them draw comb faster and also to ensure honeybees do not use up stored honey as feed.
Things to Note Before Splitting a Hive
- While splitting a hive, beekeepers may opt for a queen purchased from a trusted supplier in place of a queen with the genes of the old hive. The newly purchased queen should be put into the old hive, with the old queen going into a new hive.
- Weak beehives may find themselves without a queen bee. A beekeeper that had split their hive has a backup source for a queen bee in such times. Crowded hives are at great risk of swarming. Splitting a hive reduces this risk. If you split hives and realize that one colony is left too weak, you always have the option of reuniting the hives.
- Splitting beehives requires you to be ready with a new beehive. You may use queen excluders in the new hive immediately after the split or wait some time. Newly established hives after a split may not have much in the way of honey. The colony focuses more on brood and other hive maintenance duties than storing honey. It is best not to harvest honey from recently established hives after a split.
- Your other beekeeping equipment may also be needed during a hive split. This includes your hive tool and protective clothing. You will also need a smoker during the process of splitting a hive. Smoke calms bees and allows you to go about your activities around bees without much disturbance. To avoid having to use too much smoke during a hive split, you need to work fast. Beekeepers may have a hive splitting plan to enable them work through the splitting process faster. You could also use a checklist of equipment and procedures during your hive splitting exercise.
- Before beekeepers carry out a beehive split, they should identify a suitable location for a new hive. Select a colony whose gene stock you would like to keep. Positive attributes of a good colony include the honey crop, foraging abilities, gentleness and spring buildup. Disease resistance should also be taken into consideration. After you have identified a colony to split, prepare a deep brood box. This box should have some frames with drawn comb. Beekeepers may dry the brood box in air for a few days to prevent robbing from happening.
How to Split a Hive
Splitting a hive will see you working with bees in close proximity. Your safety and protection from being stung should be a top priority for you. Beekeepers splitting a hive should make sure to have adequate protective clothing. Such clothing should include a beekeeping veil and beekeeping gloves.
- Once you have your brood box ready, place it next to the colony you will be splitting. Smoke the bees in your original colony and wait for a few minutes.
- Go through the frames of your original bee colony and get the frames with honey, pollen and brood. Be sure not to remove the queen with them. You will remove the queen later in the process.
- Place the frames you have selected into the new brood box. You may provide your new colony with many frames of pollen and honey if they are available. Take care not to take too much from the original bee colony. If you take too many resources, the colony will be affected and will become weak.
- After removing frames from your original beehive, replace them with enough frames. Your bees will use them in the hive for their activities. Due to having a low number of bees after a hive split, beekeepers are advised to reduce the entrance of their hives. This applies to both the new hive and the original hive. It increases hive security and reduces chances of robbing.
- The new split may be placed in the location of the old hive or in a new one. This depends on the preference of individual beekeepers.
Splitting a Hive to Prevent Swarming
Thriving bee colonies may outgrow beehives. This happens when the space in your beehive gets too small for your growing honeybee colony. Beekeepers have the option of adding more space to a beehive to accommodate the colony, or splitting it to have two bee colonies. An additional beehive is extra income. It expands your beekeeping empire and gives you valuable beekeeping experience. Both amateur and professional beekeepers can split a hive to prevent swarming.
- Splitting a hive to prevent swarming can be done in two ways. You may choose to keep the old queen in the old beehive or take her to your new beehive.
- Entering swarm season can be problematic to beekeepers without extra boxes and frames. You should stock up on this crucial equipment to be adequately prepared for swarming.
- Inspecting your beehive during spring and summer gives you insights into whether your bees are preparing to swarm. Beekeepers will observe supercedure cells on their brood frames if the hive is getting ready to swarm. You may move these cells out of the hive.
- To prevent swarming by splitting a hive, move the queen to a new hive. The queen will think she has swarmed. In normal circumstances, swarming bees have the old queen leave the hive with more than half of the worker bees.
- Make sure to provide adequate food stores for the new hive. You may equally share out the existing food reserves of a hive between your old hive and the new hive. Brood and pollen should also be provided for the new hive during your splitting activity. Bees in your new hive take better to brood they are already familiar with, and settle in the new hive with ease when they have their old queen with them.
- Leave the frames with supercedure cells in the old hive. The bees you leave in there will think the colony has swarmed due to absence of the queen bee. In the old hive, beekeepers are free to cut down the number of supercedure cells to 2. The first virgin queen out of her cell will most likely kill the other upcoming queens in their cells. It takes approximately 3 weeks for new queen bees to mature, mate with drones and lay eggs in the old beehive. Your new beehive with the old queen should have freshly laid eggs within a week.
After splitting your hive to prevent swarming, you may notice more activity in the old hive than the new one. This should not worry beekeepers. The new hive will get increasingly busy as the brood matures to young bees. The honey bees that were nursing the brood in your new hive turn into foragers. Freshly hatched young bees nurse the subsequent broods in the hive.
The arrangement of the frames you transfer to the new hive during splitting is important to the bee colony. Proper arrangement allows the bees to quickly adapt to the new hive. Brood frames in your new hive should be placed in the middle, with the outer areas taken up by pollen frames and then honey frames. With 5 brood frames, you should have 2 pollen frames and 2 honey frames. This brings your total number of frames in the new hive to 9. Other beehive frames in the new hive should be empty, with comb or foundation.
Beekeepers may sometimes not be willing or ready to split current beehives in their apiary. These beekeepers can still get bees for new hives by being on ‘swarming lists’. These are lists drawn up as a record of beekeepers that are in search of new swarms. You may indicate how many swarms you are interested in. Additionally, you may note down the preferred location of the new swarm you want. Local beekeeping clubs are a great avenue for beekeepers to meet, share ideas and register onto a swarming list. With luck, you will get all the swarms that you need. Beekeepers wishing to have more than one swarm may have to wait until each beekeeper in a swarm list has received at least one swarm. Additional swarms may then be shared out between beekeepers who want more than one swarm.
When is it too Late to Split a Hive?
Splitting a hive for whatever reason is best done early in spring and summer. This allows the bees in both hives to settle in and build up food reserves. It additionally enables your honeybee colony to build up its number for higher chances of surviving winter. Beekeepers splitting a hive should do it on time to allow the bee colony at least 3 brood cycles before winter sets in. Splitting should be determined and guided by the excess resources that bees have.
Where beekeepers initiate a beehive split, they must take measures to ensure the process sis as natural as possible. Splitting a beehive in spring gives you better honey yield even with the split. Where honey production is not the focus of your beekeeping, you may carry out beehive splits in late summer or autumn. You may however not harvest any beehive products from a late split beehive until the following spring.
It is too late to split a hive past mid-fall. Winter too is not a good time to be doing beehive splits. Beekeepers that see the need to split a hive during these late seasons would be required to heavily feed their bees. Splitting a hive late in the year increases the rate at which bees in the colony die during winter.
Proponents of late hive splitting advance a number of reasons and benefits including saving money. In the northern hemisphere, late splitting improves the stock of bees in the region. Whatever time you are splitting your hive, provide adequate protection for the split hives. Small hive beetles and robber bees are the biggest threat after a hive split. Robbing may be done by bees from the split colonies or other bees near your hives. Entrance reduction is a great way to prevent robbing in newly split hives.
Bee colonies get too big for hives over time. Beekeepers not willing to add boxes must eventually split their beehives. It is good for both beginner and experienced beekeepers to know how to split a hive. By splitting a hive, beekeepers enjoy strong colonies with known histories and strong genetic qualities.
What are your thoughts on this article? Leave a comment below and let us know.
I had a couple hives of bees while going to college in Ventura, California, back in 1971-73. Now that my family is down to my wife and I it is being considered to start another bee keeping hobby for the grandchildren to learn from. So I have been looking at your suppliies, talking about it, reading your very informative helpful information. I had purchased all my supplies from Sears back then and moved an existing hive of a widow’s property to protect her child allergic to the bee stings. SO I had a good start, with no information to go… Read more »
We’re glad that you decided to embark on your beekeeping journey; I trust it will be more than worthwhile.
There’s a wealth of information on this site to help you and if you have any questions feel free to ask.
I love the information in this article. I do one thing differently when moving frames between hives from what you do. A commercial beekeeper in the club I’m in recommended using sugar water spray in place of the smoke. I’ve found that a sugar water mist sprayer with a bit of Honey-B-Healthy in the sugar water will calm the bees better than smoking them. I can check with less defensive behavior in a derth as well using this process: I open the hive, spray the bees and topbar so the bees and top bars are moist, not wet. Go heavy… Read more »
Hi Ruth, I’ve never heard of this method before, thanks for sharing!
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