Can I Do a Late-Summer Split?

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Can I Do a Late-Summer Split?

Kris K asks — I’ve got one hive that is packed with bees. They are bearding 24/7 and packed full of brood. There are no swarm cells that I saw. I’ve never done a late summer split and historically my splits have not done well. Should I leave them or split them?

Rusty Burlew replies:

I want to dispel the notion that bearding is a bad thing. Somehow, bearding has become firmly tied to swarming in the mind of many beekeepers. While it’s true that honey bees may beard shortly before swarming, they also beard for other reasons that have nothing to do with swarming.

Certainly, this is not swarm season and you have already observed that swarm cells are absent from your hive. Usually, bearding in summer and fall is a form of temperature regulation. Lots of work goes into keeping the brood nest at an ideal temperature, but by removing many of those little heat-generating bodies, the bees have an easier time of it. 

Bearding is always temporary, usually lasting several weeks or even more but eventually, the colony will return to a normal configuration. It’s a completely natural and common activity for honey bees, and my own advice is always the same, “If your bees want to beard, let them.” No harm comes from the activity, and indeed they seem to enjoy it.

Splitting in fall is possible, although tricky. You need good-sized populations and lots of food stores and you may need to buy a queen. Drones are usually thrown out in August, or even earlier during a dearth, so a do-it-yourself queen may not have a lot of opportunities to mate.

Colonies in North America get drastically smaller from August through December. If you split your colony now, both halves will get smaller as winter approaches. Personally, I think you’re better off going into winter with one strong colony, than two small ones, especially if your splitting experience has been so-so. Also, if you split now and forage is scarce where you live, you may have trouble with one of your splits robbing the other.

I would say you are fortunate to have a booming colony that is effectively managing their home by bearding. If they were mine, I would continue to check mite loads but otherwise, let them be.

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