Spring Colony Management: Making Splits from Strong Colonies
There are many reasons one would choose to divide a strong, healthy colony. One is to prevent bees from swarming off into your neighbor’s yard. Another reason is to make nucs or packages and sell to make some extra cash, or to expand your own operation.
One important question you will ask when checking your colonies early spring is ‘Are they strong enough to be split?’. If the colony has only 1 to 2 frames of brood, they are definitely not ready. But if they have more than enough brood and bees, you can split!
Be careful: Dividing a colony in two may result in two weak colonies. Generally, (and I say generally because it is not always the case as we will learn here) the parent colony should not be reduced so much that it can no longer make a full honey crop
There are about as many ways to make splits as there are beekeepers, because everyone has their own climates, needs, and time constraints. We will outline a few methods below using single brood chamber colonies as a model, but you should work with others and experiment to find a splitting method you like and that works well for you. Most often, a new colony is made from either a strong single parent colony or from a two-parent colony.
Before you start:
|Preparations/recommendations for splitting:|
|– Order queens ahead of time; unless you are letting the colony raise their own queen (which we will talk about shortly) or using your own newly mated queens.|
|– Weather: warm temperatures and low risk of frost. Warm, sunny days with low wind is best for colony divisions.|
|– If the division is made to replace winter losses, it should be done as early as possible or colonies won’t produce a full honey crop.|
|– If splits are made late, consider making splits stronger to allow for a shorter build-up.|
|– Prepare the equipment that you will need ahead of time and have it ready in the field for the time of colony divisions: bottom board, brood chamber (containing frames with honey, pollen, empty drawn comb or foundation). If honey frames are low, consider using a frame feeder with 2:1 sugar syrup.|
A) ‘Conventional’ split
- Find the queen from the parent colony and cage her. Place the caged queen in a shaded place protected from the wind.
- Take one or more frames of brood with bees from the parent colony, checking each one for diseases, and place it in the new brood chamber (split colony). ** If the parent colony has a surplus of honey and pollen, you can take frames of honey and pollen from the parent colony and give to the split colony.
- New split colonies may end up with 3-4 frames of bees and brood (mostly capped with nurse bees) and extra frames of bees if needed.
- Add a new queen to the split colony. We will talk about a slow release method to introduce new queens to colonies. Attention: If split colonies are to be moved to a new location soon after the division is made, the new queen should be added after moving the colonies to the new location. This will result in better queen acceptance and low risk of injuries to the queen:
- It is recommended to move split colonies to a different yard, away from parent colonies to avoid the drifting of bees back to the parent colony.
- If moving is not possible, the splits should be placed as far away as possible from the parent colony and oriented in a different direction.
5. The hive equipment of the split colony should be bee-tight. Make good use of beekeeper’s best friend duct tape and seal any gap of hole from where bees could escape. Entrances should be reduced in the first few days to slow bees’ flights and prevent robbing. Use entrance reducer or close the entrance with grass.
6. Parent colony will receive empty drawn comb and, in the case of doubles, may also have the brood chambers consolidated, if desired.
7. If making multiple splits, place each well sealed split in the shade to keep the bees cool.
B) In-hive split or double screen split
- Inspect the parent hive for signs of diseases. Select 3-4 frames of capped brood and a couple of frames with nectar/pollen, shake off the bees and place the frames in a new brood chamber.
- Replace the brood frames taken from the parent hive with drawn comb frames.
- Place a queen excluder on top of the brood chamber and add the new brood chamber (split colony) on top.
The bees will quickly move up to cover the brood, but the queen will remain in the parent colony due to the queen excluder. In about 1-2 hours the split colony can be placed on top of a bottom board and moved, possibly to another apiary.
C) ‘Walk-away’ split
This is one of the easiest ways to do a split. This method is simple because it’s less time consuming than the two previous methods, you don’t have to find the queen, and you don’t have to come back 24-48 hrs later to add a new queen. You just need to make sure that both resulting hives have the goods to make a new queen. Ensure that both hives (parent and split) have plenty of bees and each has some eggs and young larvae. One hive will have the queen, and she will keep laying, and the other hive will raise a new queen.
This method is often used to make nucs. Here, a healthy and strong colony is divided into X number of nucs (or splits) they can produce, about 1-2 lbs packages.
What is the difference between making nucs and splits? Nucs are not intended to produce a honey crop within the same season it’s made. They are primarily made to replace winter dead-outs or to increase colony number the following year. Nucs are often made in early June, so they have time to build up before the winter. If colonies are overwintered indoors, nucs can be made at the end of June.
- Inspect the parent hive for signs of diseases. Select 1-2 frames of capped brood with bees and place in a nuc box.
- Add a new queen to the colony.
- Provide sugar syrup and protein supplement as needed.
Slow release of queens:
The probability of queen acceptance is greater in the new split colony if it’s fed sugar syrup and is kept queen-less for a day.
To install the queen using the slow release method, remove the cork from the candy end of the queen cage, and make a hole in the candy with a small nail. Be careful not to injure the queen. Slightly separate two frames with brood (in the middle of the box) and center the queen cage in the middle of these two frames with the screen facing down. Make sure the two frames are pressed tight against the cage to hold it in place. Close up the hive. Return after 5-7 days to check that the queen has been released and that she has started laying.