More hives, more honey

How to split hives without harming your colony

Whether you’re a commercial beekeeper or a hobbyist, you already know that buying bees to start a new hive can be expensive, which makes splitting hives an attractive option. During the warmer seasons, your bee colonies may be getting crowded and threatening to swarm. You can expand your beekeeping operation, increase your honey production and stave off swarming by hive-splitting.

There are a few ways of doing this, even if you have only one hive to split. Although splitting is most often done in spring, it is possible to do it later in summer as well. Make sure, though, that your hive colony is strong and healthy before you start, or you could have problems.

Here are some of the most commonly used methods – and some helpful tips.

Two hives are better than one

The most successful split is when a new hive colony is created from two other strong hives. The new hive gets everything it needs to build a full colony through the summer, and survive the following winter. Meanwhile the donor hives each lose only a few resources, and have time to replace them before the cold weather sets in.

Here’s the basic method for splitting two hives into three:

  1. Take two brood frames and one honey/pollen frame from each donor hive, and install them in a fresh hive.
  2. Fill the remaining slots with foundation or drawn comb.
  3. Replace the missing frames in the donor hives with new frames of foundation or drawn comb to help them rebuild through summer.
  4. Place a new queen in the new hive, or wait for the colony to develop one on its own. If you want to wait, ensure that at least one of the brood frames in the new hive contains eggs.
All this means, of course, that it’s smart to set up two hives to begin with. That way, you ensure that one will be able to replace the eggs of another if a queen dies. Then when they are both at their peak of spring production, it makes it that much easier to create a successful third hive.

Just one hive? Splitting it is still possible

You can still split a single hive, but it must be healthy and well populated, with plenty of pollen and honey, as well as eggs and larvae in the brood frames.

Start in mid-spring, and prepare similar to the three-from-two method – have ready a new box, lid and base, and eight new frames of foundation or drawn comb.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Move three brood frames and one honey/pollen frame – with bees – to the new hive. Identify which brood frame the queen occupies, and leave that in the original hive.
  2. In both hives, fill the empty slots with foundation or drawn comb frames. For best results, place the foundation or drawn frames between the brood and honey frames.
  3. In the new hive box, either introduce a new queen, or wait for the colony to develop one from an egg – make sure your brood frames include eggs if you want this to happen.
Once you have split your hive, be prepared to wait patiently, because it will take a while for both colonies to recover and grow back strong populations.

Divide and conquer

With more experience, and the expectation of a mild autumn, you can try to get two hives from one with the divider method later in the season.

Prepare a new hive and eight drawn comb frames (it’s too late in the season for foundation) and follow these steps:

  1. Take all but one of the brood frames, and both the honey/pollen frames from the first hive and place them in the new hive along with one drawn comb frame.
  2. Shake all the bees – including the queen - off the brood frames back down into the brood nest.
  3. Refill the empty slots in the original hive with drawn comb frames.
  4. Insert a queen excluder, but not a divider. Place the new hive on top of the old one and put on the lid.
  5. Leave the hives to settle overnight - some nurse bees will move up to the brood frames, and some older bees will find the honey frames.
  6. In the morning, insert a division board with the entrance opposite to the mother hive. Field bees will fly out that way, and return home through the original entrance.
  7. Install your new queen in the top hive. The old queen will still have enough young nurse bees to care for her, and in about a month she should restore her brood.
Check the divided hive after a few weeks, to see if the queens are successful. If they are, you may be able to place the new hive on its own bottom board for the winter, or you can choose to leave the two hives together. If the new queen doesn’t ‘take’, you can simply restore the original hive.

Get on a swarm list

Do none of these methods for splitting and increasing your hives appeal? Swarm collection could be an option – if you know what you’re doing. Your local beekeeping association, or the council, may keep a list of people who are willing to collect swarms. Let them know you are happy to help, and how many swarms you’d like to collect. You’ll not only gain a free bunch of bees, you’ll also be doing your community a service.

Keep your colonies protected

When you split one hive into two, and even when you perform the three-from-two method, your smaller bee populations will be more vulnerable. Other colonies may be looking for more room, pests may take advantage of the temporary reduction in numbers, and even the older bees from your original hive could try moving home.

For unwanted pests and invaders, use entrance reducers until the colonies are restored to full strength. To discourage older bees from flying home, or nearby hives from invading, move your new hive well away from your other colonies until it shows signs of strength.

As always, it’s about keeping an eye on your hives through spring and summer, so they’re strong and prepared for the winter season.

For more information on hive splitting, or any other beekeeping issues, talk to the Ecrotek team today.