Splitting


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Introduction


Splitting is the time honored practice of taking the hives that you have and making more of them.  It's a bit more precise than swarming and often prevents swarming.  In times before modern movable frame hives, less was known about the lifecycle of the bee and most increase was done by catching swarms.  Harvest was accomplished largely by killing the hive.  However, it doesn't make much sense to kill the hives that produce honey.  That's not good for the gene pool.  Fortunately, the movable frame hive made easy splitting possible meaning for a sacrifice of some of this year's honey, you could take the hives with the best traits including gentleness and production and multiply them.  What followed is most of known beekeeping history with lots of gentle productive bees.  If you are interested in seeing how it was done back in the day, I recommend you visit this page on my blog and watch videos of skep beekeeping the way it was done in antiquity.  It's very informative and you'll see the utility of the way we do things now.


Timing

Timing is important.  There are certain times of the year which are much more advantageous and others which will simply result in failure.  There are a few specific conditions that must be met and more that really help.  Number one is the requirement of flying drones.  Drones must fly or the queen will have no one with whom to mate and missing a relatively narrow window, she will be infertile forever.  This should be a foundational concept, but in case you hadn't heard, most drones are kicked out of the hive in the fall and the hive overwinters with few if any drones.  Drones begin to be reared again in the spring and you can safely start splitting with this aspect in mind when you see capped drone brood in your hives.

Timing also affects temperature.  When you make a split, you divide a well formed cluster.  Bees like their clusters more or less spherical.  A sphere encompasses the most volume with the least surface area, thus a sphere is easier to heat than other shapes, all other circumstances equal.  Divide that in half, and you have now made the center of this cluster the outside.  You have also halved the number of bees around to keep this brood warm.  You have increased the heat loss while decreasing the heat supply.  At a certain point, a half and half division won't matter because of the combination of there being enough bees to cover all necessary areas and there being higher outside temperatures meaning less heat is needed.  There are other ways to help with these hurdles, but we'll discuss those a little later.

Another thing there needs to be is nectar available.  It has been reported that virgin queens will not fly without fresh nectar coming in.  I believe Michael Bush mentioned that sometimes even a tablespoon of sugar syrup is all that is needed to convince the queen that conditions are favorable.


The Walkaway Split

This is the simplest of the splitting techniques and may be the most effective and done correctly, the method most likely to result in two healthy hives with a surplus of honey.  There are nearly as many variations of this method as there are people doing it.  I'll only talk about a couple methods here, but the concepts are fairly simple.

The basic idea is that you divide up the hive into two new hives.  Whichever hive doesn't have the queen in it will make a new queen and in a month or so, you should have a new queen and a fully functioning hive.

Here's my method.  Well, this is my method when I used to do this.  It's a fairly inefficient method because while the bees spend a whole bunch of energy and work making maybe a dozen or more queens, they end up killing each other and you only get one.  So I don't do it anymore.  But if you want to split hives and you don't want to mess about too much, it doesn't get much simpler than this.  What I do is get into the hive and find the queen.  I make up the new hive using the queen and most of the capped brood in the hive, five or so frames in total.  The capped brood will provide new bees for the new hive.  The old location is put back together and allowed to raise a new queen.  It's also helpful to shake a few frames of bees in with the old queen in the new hive.  The old location has the benefit of a sizeable field force and no brood to care for until the new queen gets started again which will be about a month.  The new location benefits from having a laying queen and a crop of fresh new workers.  Both hives can make a crop of honey in the right conditions.

Michael Bush has an interesting method made possible by his use of 8-frame medium hives.  I got the opportunity to go up to his place in Nebraska and help him work his bees a couple years ago and got to see this method in person.  Because 8-frame medium hives are smaller in volume, the broodnest takes up more of the frames and spans more of the boxes.  Therefore, there is a pretty solid chance that by taking a stack of boxes and dealing them in to two piles, one for you and one for you, each hive will get a share of the correct aged brood with which to build a new queen.  The benefit of this method is not needing to find the queen, or indeed even looking at a frame.  It's quick, simple, and has the same good chance of success.  However, as popular as keeping 8-frame medium hives has become thanks to Mr. Bush's advocacy, many more still use other size hives and frames and so more methods are necessary.

Another of the most common and most simple methods is to divide the hive half and half, making sure each hive gets a solid complement of eggs and very young brood.  As long as both hives have eggs or young brood, you don't need to find the queen.

There is another method wherein you place the hives next to each other, either facing the same way or facing opposite ways.  Every couple days after the split is completed the hives are switched in location so that returning field force will equalize the populations of the hives.  In this walkaway split situation, the hive with the queen tends to end up with more bees, all other variables held constant.  In hives separated or not switched, the hive at the home location will initially end up with more bees.


Queen Castle

A useful and very utilitarian piece of equipment for making splits (and indeed mating nucs and other uses) is the queen castle.  More info on the Queens page.  The Queen Castle is essentially three or four extra small nucs housed in a single hive body.  This serves purposes more related to the queen than it does to nucs and larger hives.  That is not to say that a two frame nuc cannot graduate eventually to a full sized hive, it can.  But a Queen Castle allows you to use the bees' abilities to make queens and get them mated with a minimum outlay of resources.

With a Queen Castle setup, you can take one up and coming hive and turn it in to four, or as many as dividing up frames of brood will allow.  Understand that these hives will be small and the queens may not be of the highest quality, but time and supersedures can solve lots of problems.  Queen Castles can be used to place frames with swarm cells and serve as mating nucs that way.  These queens will be of high quality because they have been created by a well fed and healthy hive.

If you want to build your own, here is my design.

Queen Castle

If you don't like the medium size, you can adjust the height to ten inches and with deep frames, only two frames are necessary so you can adjust the distance between dividers accordingly.  Each nuc will be 3 1/2" wide rather than 4 3/4".  I like the three frame version even with deep frames because it gives more flexibility and space for the nuc to grow.  For entrances, either drill a hole or cut out a small slot in the base for each nuc before you attach the bottom.  You don't want more than enough space for one or two bees to pass at once and make sure the placement of the entrance will not allow a frame to be pushed up against it and block it off.  See the Queens page for more details.


Add a Queen

A quicker method to get a new split going is by adding an already mated queen to it.  It works the same way with adding a queen cell (like I do with mating nucs) but a queen should get going sooner.  After apportioning a new nuc with brood and stores, add a queen you purchased.  The bees will be freshly queenless and looking and will be more open to the introduction another queen.  Follow standard methods for requeening and queen releasing.  If your queen was provided with queen candy, place the cage in the hive and allow the bees to eat through the candy and release her.  If she isn't out in a week, do it manually.

This method provides several benefits such as adding new genetics to your collection, laying queen sooner, probably at least as likely to succeed as allowing them to make their own queen if not more so, and you can know with reasonable certainty the traits that the queen has, as long as you trust your breeder.