Should I be Worried About my Walkaway Split?

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Carrie Fox asks:

I just did my first walkaway split. The hive was 3 deep and surprisingly had no swarm cells, only 1 or 2 queen cell cups, which were empty.  The 3 deeps were all filled out but the honey super not touched. We got into the hive and couldn’t find a queen. I documented with pictures and found eggs though. Now it is too cold to go back into the split and not sure if we gave them any new eggs. We gave them sugar water, Honey B Healthy, and pollen. Now I am worried that it is the wrong time for them to mate with crazy weather. Tomorrow night it is going to be 28. Possible rain for the next eight days, mostly in the 50s.

Josh Vaisman replies:

I feel like there are two rollercoaster times in a beekeeper’s timeline: When we first get our bees, and our first overwintered colony. The mix of emotions is always so palpable — excitement and anticipation mixed with some dread, worry, and utter fear. Will I do this all right? Will I take good care of my girls? Springs splits can definitely elicit all of the above!

So here’s what I’ll offer to start. If this doesn’t help or you have more questions, definitely let me know.

Let’s talk a bit about splits. As we know, bee colonies are one giant organism. In the “wild,” when the organism (colony) is happy and healthy and the circumstances allow (e.g., right time of year, plenty of bees, laying queen, nectar, and pollen coming in, etc.) it reproduces on the colony-level by way of a swarm. The colony raises a bunch of new queens in what we call swarm cells. When they get capped to pupate, the old queen leaves the hive with roughly half the workers as a swarm. The bees left behind keep about their business raising a new queen and generally caring for the colony. About a week later — so 16 days from the egg being laid — a virgin queen emerges. She takes a couple of days to build her strength so she can fly. Then, so long as the weather allows, she begins taking her mating flights. These happen over one or more days until she is sufficiently mated. Shortly after her last flight (maybe 1-3 days), she starts laying fertilized eggs.

There are a couple of versions of a split (or divide) that simulate this.  One is by using swarm cells in the split(s). The other, which it sounds like is what you did, we call a “walkaway split.”  I just did one yesterday so I’ll explain how I did it.

I have a healthy colony in my back yard in Colorado.  I took a look at the extended forecast and for the next two weeks, it’s going to be in the 60s and 70s here. Remember, it takes 16 days from egg to emerging virgin queen. Then another 1-3 days before she is ready to fly. So while I can’t know what the weather will be like then, I am pretty confident it will be plenty warm enough.

I opened the hive and began inspecting frames. My goal was to do a walk away split with 4 or 5 frames. I ended up using 4. 

One frame clearly had eggs.  I inspected it very closely to be sure the queen wasn’t on it and then placed it in the new hive with all the nurse bees on it.  Two frames had capped worker brood (and a little capped drone brood).  Again, I made sure no queen — then placed them, with all the nurse bees, in the new hive. The last frame was a food frame with a bunch of nectar, some honey, and bee bread. I placed this, with all the bees, in the new hive, though I suspect many of the bees on there were foragers and they would return to the big hive. No biggie — nurse bees stay with the brood so I had at least 3 frames of bees going in my split.

I should also mention, I split them into a 10-frame deep box and the other frames have some honey still on them so I am not supplemental feeding them. That said, there’s no harm in supplementally feeding a split — I always advocate for erring on the side of feeding bees when they don’t need it rather than not feeding only to discover later they have starved.

In a week, I’ll open the split to carefully inspect the frame with the eggs.  If all goes well, I’ll find at least one queen cell. If I find no queen cell, I’ll open my big hive and find a frame with eggs and do a trade out with the split. In this way, I’m giving them a second chance to raise a new queen.

Another option — if a week from now when I inspect the split I do not find a queen cell, I could buy a mated queen from a local breeder (if there is one available) and just introduce that queen. I’m trying to avoid that because I like my bees to be locally grown from my own yard and it’s an added expense to get a mated queen, but it is an option.

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