What's on this page?
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 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
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.
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
If you want to build your own, here is my design.
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