Whether you are a hobbyist, sideliner, or a commercial beekeeper, spring is a busy time for many beekeepers. Of all the spring tasks, splitting colonies may be the most crucial. Whether beekeepers split to expand their operation, to re-queen their colonies or control varroa, splitting is an important, yet time consuming task. In many ways, splitting is a right of passage for beekeepers.
In simplistic terms, splitting is the act of producing two colonies from one. As mentioned earlier, beekeepers want to do this for several reasons:
Expand their numbers
Are beekeepers ever happy with their numbers? As beekeepers gain experience and passion for beekeeping, they likely want to expand their numbers. This is not different for any level of beekeeping. However, bee colonies can be expensive. Splitting colonies is an inexpensive way to expand your numbers.
Many beekeepers are not interested in expanding, but they want to maintain the status quo. Whether these beekeepers are satisfied with their numbers or have little room to expand, splitting is an effective practice to maintain numbers. Beekeepers typically split colonies in the spring to replace summer and winter losses.
Beekeepers biggest challenge for beekeeping is not skill set or management, but controlling varroa. Varroa can devastate colonies and eventually destroy your entire operation. While beekeeper may not split specifically to control mites, splitting can do just this. Beekeepers introduce a brood break when they split, which means capped brood is not found within the colony. Many varroa treatments fail because these treatments are ineffective at killing mites under the brood. Thus, a brood break can improve treatment efficacy. Whether a brood break is introduced by re-queening or caging the old queen, beekeepers can better control varroa during splits.
Older queens can place your colonies at risk for the upcoming season. Whether the queen is older than 1 year or 3 years, re-queening older queens must be considered. If not, these queens may eventually fail, begin producing male drone eggs, lose pheromone capacity, or become tormented by unhappy worker bees before they can replace her. Because of this risk, many beekeeper re-queen colonies with young, prolific queens annually. Benefits of re-queening include more honey production, larger population, more consistent brood pattern, increased foraging, and these are just to name a few.
Beekeepers can prevent warming by splitting large colonies into two smaller colonies. While many beekeepers add space to prevent swarming, splitting can be an effective swarm management practice. However, beekeepers must be aware about the stage of swarming. If large colonies have swarm queen cups WITHOUT eggs, these colonies are in the early stages of swarming, and can easily be split. But if these queen cups do contain eggs and the queen is getting smaller, then all queen cells and queen cups must be removed before splitting.
When Can I split?
Beekeepers can split whenever queens are available. Typically, commercial queens become available around April-May, so this is when beekeepers usually split. Furthermore, April-May is before many major honey flows, which can help splits become established. However, I do not want to discourage you from making splits later in the season. If you have queens readily available and a major fall honey flow, than late season splitting can be successful. But if a major fall honey flow does not occur, especially in northern climates, fall splitting may do more harm than good.
I should also mention that you can only split larger colonies. If you split weak colonies, these are less likely to succeed because weaker colonies produce weaker splits. Even if a beekeeper wants to split, they must consider their colony size, brood availability, and number of nurse bees. Typically, you want a strong, double deep colony with at least 9 frames of brood, 6 at a minimum.
How many times can I split?
Beekeepers can split colonies multiple times, but this can depend upon the strength of the colonies and the degree of the honey flow. I have heard reports of beekeepers splitting colonies +5 times, but these colonies were strong and were in an area of a great honey flow. Also, the more times beekeepers split, the less honey they will produce. If I were to provide a guide, have AT LEAST 6 frames of brood before you split. 9 is ideal, but 6 is necessary.
Can splitting help control mites?
Beekeepers can better control mites by splitting their colonies. Certain splitting practices elicit a brood break, which make mite treatments more effective. Moreover, brood breaks make organic treatments, such as oxalic acid, formic acid, and apiguard more effective. If you want to initiate a brood break, you have 3 options:
- Requeen both the parent and daughter colony
Splits require requeening just the daughter colony (the split). However, both the parent colony (the colony being split) and the daughter colony can both be requeened at the same time. If you requeen with cells, you will have nearly a 2 week broodless period by the time the queen mates, begins laying eggs, and these juveniles become capped. If inserting cells, this window is shorter (few days if the colony contains open brood), but still long enough to apply an effective treatment.
2. Requeen the daughter colony and cage the parent colonies queen
If you want to keep the queen from the parent colony, you can cage her for 1-2 weeks in order to initiate the same brood break. Queens placed into a queen cage and inserted in a colony are fine 1-2 weeks in a colony. Even though caging the queen can impact colony size, growth and honey production, this can be an effective mite management strategy.
3. Requeen the daughter colony and just pay closer attention to parent colonies.
The parent colony does not necessarily need to be requeened or have its queen caged. If you know which are the parent colonies, you can easily monitor these colonies throughout the year. These colonies will likely have higher mite levels throughout the year because they did not receive this brood break, but you can manage accordingly.
How far should I move the split?
You can choose to move your splits 4 feet or 4 miles, it does not really matter. You do not need to move the splits to new a new yard miles away, so do not feel the need to. But if you do keep colonies within the same yard, move the daughter colony at least 4 feet away from the parent colony, and make sure the entrance facing a different direction.
How to split?
I will talk about 3 methods for splitting, but please remember that every person has their own method of splitting. I am sure you can find variations of the methods I present below, but these are the methods I typically use. I did not chat about producing nucs, even though nuc production is a form of splitting. I plan to write about producing nucs in a seperate post, so please bear with me!
|Easy to gauge number of bees transferred between colonies||Queen needs to be found|
|The method requires only 1 day||Can be time consuming|
|No extra equipment needed, other than the split|
1. Finding queen and cage her
Method 1 may be the most time consuming because the method requires finding the queen. For inexperienced beekeepers, this can seem like a daunting task. However, finding the queen is an essential aspect of beekeeping. In order to easily find queens: 1)split double deep colonies before queen inspection so the queen does not run between boxes and 2) limit colony agitation by carefully inspecting frames. Once found, gently grab the queen by the wings or thorax, and place her into a queen cage. Queens are delicate insects, so they should be treated with care. Typically, beekeepers place caged queens next to the colony under shade or in another safe, shaded area.
2. Add 2-3 frames of capped brood to split
Once queen is caged, you can begin adding frames to the split. You will want to add at least 2-3 frames of brood, preferably 2 frames of capped/emerging brood and 1 frame of open brood such as eggs, young larvae, or older larvae. The new split needs capped/emerging brood because the capped brood will hatch soon. These newly emerged bees will both repopulate the colony and accept the queen more readily than older bees.
3. Shake a minimum of 3 brood frames into split
New splits need bees so the capped brood is properly warmed and tended to. I recommend shaking at least 3 brood frames into the split. Shake only brood frames because the new splits will need young, nurse bees to tend the brood. Beekeepers typically shake only 3 frames, but you can can add more depending upon the parent colonies strength and impending recovery.
4. Keep brood together, and replace frames taken away from the parent colony
Make sure the brood is kept together in the split because if not, the nurse bees begin stretching resources. For example, limited nurses can only focus their energy to warm, tend, and feed the brood in a certain area. If brood is spread apart, the nurse bees cannot easily tend all the brood properly. On either side of the brood, you can place honey frames, empty drawn comb frames or foundation frames. Just ensure that foundation frames are at least 1 frame from the edge or else the bees will not draw them out. Once the split is organized, the empty frames can be placed into the parent colony. Organize the parent the same as the split: brood in the middle.
5. Move the split
Move the split to a new location, preferably 4 feet away. Once moved, face the entrance opposite of the parent colony. I face the entrance in the opposite direction, even though it may not be necessary. I want to ensure arriving foragers orient to the parent colony, not the new split. Older foragers will not readily accept a new queen, so foragers can cause splits to fail. Other beekeepers reduce the entrance when they move their colonies. Splits are often weaker and more susceptible to robbers, so entrance reducers can limit robbers, especially during times of dearth.
6. Introduce mated queen or queen cell
Once splits are made, you can now insert the queen. Certain beekeepers wait 24 hours before introducing a mated queen or queen cell, but that is not necessary. I wait 24 hours because I want newly emerged bees to hatch, which may increase likelihood of queen acceptance. But in all reality, it likely does not matter. When introducing a queen cage, place the cage between brood frames and make sure the wire caged is NOT facing the comb.
|Do not need to find queen||2 day process|
|Quick process, despite requiring 2 days||Queen excluder needed|
|Easy to do a large number of colonies||Cannot control number of bees transferred|
1. Remove 4 frames from empty split
When setting up this split, remove 4 empty frames from the empty split. The empty split now has 4 openings, which is where bee free brood frames will be placed.
2. Add 3 frames of brood and 1 honey frame for feed to the empty split
Similar to method 1, colonies will need 3-4 frames of brood for a successful split. But instead of moving both the frames and bees to split, these frames must be inspected for the queen and shaken before they are moved. This method requires shaking because bees will auto-populate the colony over the next 24 hours. Moreover, inspecting and shaking the colony ensures the split does not have the old queen. If the queen is placed in the split, this adds more work for the beekeeper.
3. Add queen excluder above parent colony
This method requires a queen excluder so the queen does not travel into the new split. As mentioned earlier, if the queen enters the split, this adds more work and risk for the beekeeper.
4. Place daughter (split) colony above queen excluder.
The daughter colony should only contain brood, not bees. However, bees will travel to the daughter colony over the next 24 hours so these bees can tend and care for the unattended brood. The bees will control the daughter colonies population, which is an added benefit.
5. Come 24 hours later and move colony to new location
After 24 hours, the colony should contain plenty of bees, all of which will be young, nurse bees. Move the colony to a new location, preferably 4 feet away as stated in method 1.
6. Requeen colony
After the daughter colony is moved, the queen can be inserted. Similar to method 1, queens can be inserted immediately or 24 hours later, it is really a personal preference.
|Easy to split a large number of colonies||7 day proces|
|Does not require finding the queen||Extra queen excluders required|
|Hard to produce a quality split that has the appropriate amount and type of brood|
1. Place excluder between brood boxes
Method 3 is relatively quick and easy, but far less common. Essentially, place a queen excluder between brood boxes. By doing this, it keeps the queen into either the top or bottom box, which limits the time and effort needed to find the queen.
2. Come back in a week, and divide boxes
After a week, it is apparent which brood box contains the queen. Comb through the boxes, and find the frames with eggs. This brood box will contain the queen.
3. Split colony and move daughter colony to new location
The colony without the queen is the new daughter colony. Move this colony to a new location, preferably 4 feet away. As mentioned earlier in method 1 and 2, you can add an entrance excluder during times of dearth to limit robbing and/or move the entrance in a different direction to ensure foragers do not enter the split.
4. Requeen daughter colony
You can now requeen. Similar to method 1, queens can be inserted immediately or 24 hours later, it is really a personal preference.