Splitting Hives

By the time readers receive this Issue, Spring will be well underway, the brood nest will have expanded and hives should be booming. Now is the time for beekeepers to give thought to increasing their hive numbers, even if it is only from one hive to two hives.

There are some good reasons for doing this.

  1. When I started beekeeping, Bruce Ward said to me, ‘It is always easier to keep two hives than one. If one queen dies, you can take eggs from the good hive, give them to the weak hive, and have them start another queen in order to get them up and running again. If you only have one hive and the queen dies, you’re stuck with empty boxes.’ Not quite that simple, but the principle is spot on.
  2. Well into Spring, a crowded hive is at risk of swarming. Splitting the hive reduces the risk. The second hive can, if needed, always be reunited back to the original. No harm has been done, but more likely, some good.
  3. Expanding your hive numbers, even slightly, increases your commitment to your bees. You are more likely to look after them if you have a greater commitment. After all, who wants that new hive, which you have just put all that effort into starting, to die out. Plus it will give you more honey and more enjoyment.

So how best to go about this ‘splitting’ hives? The following details one method that has not worked, and two methods that have worked well for me. Plus a third that also works, but is separated from the other two for reasons that will become obvious. Bear in mind that splitting of hives should only be practiced when pollen and nectar are coming in (ie when conditions are ideal for colony expansion.) There is an article later in this Issue about ‘summer splits’.

The Less Successful Method

When I got my first hive, I split it in half to get two. I had started with a single box of bees, 8 frames. I bought some new frames and foundation, the extra boxes and base/lid to double my hive numbers, and ordered a queen. When the queen arrived in the mail, I then split the hive in half, put half in the new box, wasted a lot of time working out which box the queen was in, then added the new queen to the second box, filled both the boxes with foundation and let the two hives expand into the two boxes.

All good. But very slow. Takes time to get the foundation drawn into full comb, and more time for the queens to lay eggs, more time for the bees to hatch. All the time struggling to expand with a small field population.

But when you only have one hive, probably the only method you can use. Why? Because you don’t have enough resources (as in bee numbers or drawn comb) to do otherwise.

The whole process of expanding this way can be accelerated by feeding sugar syrup, in amounts that the bees can take up in two days max. Wait a day or two, then feed them again. The sugar syrup will stimulate egg-laying, the bees will be stimulated to collect pollen for brood raising, ‘Bob’s your uncle’. If good pollen is not available, a pollen substitute will help, but be aware that small hive beetle has to be considered.

The More Successful Methods

Method A.  Three Hives from Two

This is the method I usually use – it is a little slower, but has the highest rate of success. The parent hives only suffer a momentary setback, while the new hive starts off life with a reasonable complement of bees – this enables it to kick on quickly. For every two hives you have, an extra hive can be started. The frame positions stated below assume 8 fr boxes are being used.

1.       Have your new queen (s) ready to go.

2.       Take a frame of honey (and pollen if possible) from the first ‘parent’ hive, complete with bees. Place it against the wall of the new bottom box. Replace with a frame of drawn comb, or foundation if necessary.

3.       Find the queen in the first parent hive. Set her and the frame she is on to one side.

4.       Remove two frames of brood, together with all the bees on those frames, and install them in the new bottom box, in positions 2 and 4, with a frame of drawn comb (or foundation) in between them.

5.       Replace the frame of brood with the original queen, back into her own brood box.

6.       Replace the frames taken from the parent hive with two frames of drawn comb (or foundation) in positions 3 and 6.

7.       Repeat the whole process above, from steps 2-5, with the second parent hive.

8.       The two parent hives have each now ‘donated’ 2 frames of brood and 1 frame of honey/pollen, together with the bees that were on the 3 frames. The bees that were on the brood frames will be mostly young bees, capable of feeding the brood, (as well as the new queen) and the bees on the frame of honey should mostly be older field bees. This means the new hive has a goodly number of bees, and has a ‘balanced’ population of young and old bees.

9.       The new hive now has 6 frames of bees, with 2 frames of honey, 4 frames of brood, and two new frames (into which the new queen can lay eggs immediately, or which can be drawn into full depth comb very quickly).

10.    The order of frames in the new hive should be

a.       Frame 1,8 = Honey/pollen

b.       Frame 2,4,5,7 = brood

c.        Frame 3,6 = new (or drawn) comb

11.    The new hive can be set in its new position, or (if possible) moved 5 km away for a few days. This will ensure a minimum of the older bees will return to their original parent hive, but this is entirely optional, and I do not consider it to be a big deal.

12.    The new queen can now be installed into the new hive. I usually place the queen cage between the brood frames at positions 4 and 5, in the centre of the brood nest. It is probably better to wait a couple of hours before installing the queen, but as a commercial beekeeper this was often a luxury that time did not afford me. Rather I set up all the new hives in that yard, then immediately went around and inserted all the new queens. Sometimes I would set up the new hives, then return home for a night to pick up the new queens, then go back the next day to install them. The rate of success did not seem to change much either way.

Hobbyists often seem to fret about the idea that the frames of bees from the two parent hives will have a ding-dong set to and fight with each other, but I very rarely found this to be the case. I did in my early beekeeping days use the paper method to get boxes of bees used to each other (by inserting 1 or 2 sheets of newspaper between boxes of bees), but this was not going to work anyway in the method described above, as all the bees are going into one box. I am not saying it will not happen – just that I found it didn’t happen, and I did not have to worry about bees from different hives having an argument when placed in a new box.

Method B. Two Hives from One

This method does work, but is probably better tried when the beekeeper has some experience, and is better able to monitor the development of both the parent and the infant hive. It is necessary to have a ‘division board’ for each new hive, and is probably best used to split hives later in the season, when honey production is not likely but when conditions going into winter look good – so that both parent and infant hives have time and the conditions needed to enable them to go into winter in a state good enough to ensure survival.

1.       From the parent hive, remove all but one frame of brood, and the two wall frames with honey/pollen

2.       If the old queen is found, leave her downstairs with the two frames of brood. If she is not found, no problem, simply shake all the bees off the remaining brood frames, shaking them into the brood box. This should mean the queen is shaken downstairs with the bees.

3.       Fill out the old brood box with frames of drawn comb. It is too late in the season, using this method, to expect them to draw foundation, unless you are prepared to feed a lot of sugar syrup.

4.       Set up the new hive above the excluder, with two frames of honey, the 5 frames of brood taken from downstairs, and one empty drawn comb (in position 3). Do NOT at this stage insert the division board.

5.       Leave the hive overnight. Nurse bees will move up from downstairs to look after the brood, and some older bees will also move upstairs.

6.       The next day, insert the division board. This is a board that has shallow risers, to imitate a bottom board, and has an entrance that need only be 100mm wide, facing in a different direction to the parent hive (to one side or to the back). Older field bees will use the new entrance to leave the hive, then probably fly back into the original parent hive. The result is that the new hive is sitting atop the old, with a division board in place, and containing mostly young bees.

7.       The new queen can now be installed in the new hive upstairs.

8.       The old queen will have enough young bees to look after her, plus all the field bees from the parent hive. Shewill re-establish her full brood nest within a month. (Remember I said you need time and good conditions late in the autumn to allow this to happen).

9.       Any box of honey that was on top of the old hive should be left with the old hive, underneath the division board.

10.  After a couple of weeks, check both the old hive (to see how the old queen is going with re-establishment of the brood nest) and the new hive (to check the new queen is laying). If for some reason either queen has not ‘worked’ the two hives can be re-united. No real harm has been done, and the hive will still be in good shape for the winter. If the new queen has taken, the new hive can be placed on its own bottom board for the winter and monitored to ensure it will go through winter as a strong single, or it can even be left on top of the division board for the winter. I have taken such hives through an entire winter on Spotted gum on the South Coast on one occasion, making honey from both top and bottom hives. It was a lot of work, as I had to lift two boxes off to get at the lower hive, but at the time I did not have enough bottom boards ready for the new hives.

The Fourth Method

This is not really splitting, but does enable colony expansion.  Get your name onto a ‘swarm list’, as being someone who is willing to collect swarms. This is one of the benefits of being in a beekeeping club, as they often maintain such a list to help the local council (who may maintain a list themselves if there is no local club.) Usually you can indicate which areas you are willing to collect swarms from, and how many swarms you are prepared to collect that season.

A good club (or council) will go through the list, giving everyone a chance to get a swarm, before going back to those who want more than one swarm.

You are thus providing yourself a ready source of extra bees, as well as a community service. In the early days, I went from 3 hives to 11 hives in one season, simply by collecting swarms.