The spring season will pass into summer before you know it and the thoughts of many beekeepers will soon turn to the collection of honey. Yes I know, we aren’t quite there yet, but in another few weeks (mid-June) you will be able to look into your hives and see which ones are going to produce a ton of sweet golden nectar for you (At least that’s the case here in Central Oregon where the season is so short) and which ones are slow, struggling or for some reason just not getting on with things.
Something to consider is to take the slower hives and make splits out of them. (I have already completed my spring splits which I do around May 1st, but recently I have taken to doing splits later in the season so I have nucs to winter that are ready to go in the spring.) The ability to make splits is an essential tool that today’s beekeeper must possess to be successful, reduce costs and most of all, keep your hives healthy. So don’t be afraid of taking the next step in your beekeeping adventure.
There are a number of ways to make splits. One of the oldest ways of splitting a Langstroth hive is to set a new hive next to the existing hive and remove every other frame from the original hive and put them in the new hive. The spaces left in the original hive are filled with new frames and the five frames that were removed from it are placed together in the new hive with the outside empty space filled with new frames. Beekeepers who are making their first splits are often more comfortable making a split this way because they are not required to find the queen. The hive that ends up without a queen will make queen cells, raise up a new queen and replace her.
That’s the old way. The approach I take is outlined below and it should prove to be very effective in producing strong hives and healthy queens for you.
Any hive with at least four frames of capped brood can be split. I go to the beeyard to make my splits in the afternoon when most of the field bees are out of the hive. So for our example, let’s imagine a hive with seven frames of capped brood. I locate the queen and place the frame she is on in a new hive along with a frame of capped brood (two frames of brood if the queen was not on a frame of brood when you moved her) and a frame of stores. I then add a shake or so of bees (these will be mostly nurse bees since the field bees are out of the hive) to care for the larva and brood.
The new hive containing the queen is then placed in the exact same location as the original hive was. When the field bee return they will return to the new hive. The original hive that is now queenless is moved a short distance away (5 to 10 feet). There is no need to move it far away as the field bees are returning to the same place they expect to find a hive and a queen. They will not return to the queenless hive you have just created.
It takes about 7 days for new queen cells to be raised and capped, so you will want to return to the queenless hive a week after you make the split. Waiting a week allows the strength of your healthy hive to raise up healthy queens. So after a week we return to our queenless hive that began with 7 frames of capped brood. (Remember it could be four frames of brood, but that is the minimum) We removed two frames of brood when we removed the queen so now we have 5 frames of brood left. From these five frames we will create two new hives – one with two frames of brood and one with three.
When you make this split you locate the frames containing the newly made queen cells and split them amongst the two new hives. If there are a lot of queen cells you should reduce them down to two or three for each of the two new hives you make.
In another 10 days the queen cells will begin to hatch. After hatching, the new queen will destroy any other queen cells she can find. If other queens have hatched they will fight to the death. That is the reason to reduce the number of queen cells in the new splits to two or three. The new queen will need time to mature and after a week or so she will begin to take orientation flights near the colony before going on longer flights to mate. All in all the entire process will approach approximately 30 days before the new queen begins to lay. That’s 30 days without a queen – and nothing could be more healthy for your hive!!!
Mites enter cells containing larva on day eight. The bees cap the cell on day nine and the mite and any young it produces feed on the young larva before it hatches. What that does to the young bee is another conversation entirely and is beyond the scope of this discussion but we all know it’s not a good thing. So what happens when there is no larva in the hive for the mites to feed on? The mites die of course and bingo! You have the most natural control of mites there is.
So now let’s add a couple twists to our making splits gymnastics.
A the very beginning of this process, after you remove the queen and create the queenless hive you will want to “notch” some cells containing the youngest larva you can see with the naked eye. Use your hive tool to break down the very lowest edge of the cells containing young larva WITHOUT harming the larva. Break it down to the foundation. I can’t always see the tiny larva so I usually overlap between eggs and young larva. The bees will treat these cells differently and build queen cells wherever you have notched. I normally do this on three frames. Notching provides space for the bees to create the large cells necessary to build a queen cell. This process has never failed me and will virtually guarantee your own success.
The next step is for creating smaller nucleus hives you want to winter. After the summer solstice (longest day) queens begin to reduce their egg laying in preparation for the coming winter. A queen that emerges after the summer solstice will lay like a spring queen for many weeks after she is born. Because of this you can make late season splits from the hives that are coming along slowly. I’ve done them as late as July 1, but prefer to make them around mid-June because of our short season here. The splitting process is the same and the new hive will have just enough to time to raise up its numbers and put away enough stores to make it through the winter. When spring comes, these hives with their young queens take off with a bang! You can then use them to replace hives you lost or use them to sell.
If you learn to split your hives you will never need to buy bees again and the splits will maintain healthy hives throughout your beeyard. There’s still time for you to try it this year and if using the methods described here your success is all but guaranteed.