Single Deep Splits with Mated Queens
Reading Time: 6 minutes
One aspect of beekeeping that never ceases to amaze me is how quickly one tiny nucleus colony goes from five frames of honey bees to three and more boxes. This rapid growth allows colonies to not only prepare for winter but gives them the numbers they need for reproduction as well. Beekeepers wishing to expand their operation can take advantage of these strong colonies by making splits throughout the season. Some choose to split into five-frame nucs, some do walk away splits, while others conduct a combination of splits. Another split to add to the repertoire is the single deep split with an introduced mated queen. This method is by far the most reliable and is, perhaps, the most commonly selected type of split performed by most beekeepers.
Not a Walkaway Split
Keeping up with the various types of splits and the myriad variations of each can seem daunting at first. Many times, names of splits get muddled, and information gets crossed, confusing the new beekeeper. One such example is the walkaway split (WAS).
In a walkaway split, the beekeeper splits a double deep colony into two halves, ensuring each half has brood and food stores. Often, stores are not equalized, and no queen is located or added. The queenless portion of the split is allowed to raise its own queen without assistance. Hence the name, walk away split. Minimal effort. Minimal time. Usually successful.
But not always. Because the bees have to raise their own queen, this creates a brood break. This break in the brood cycle costs the colony several weeks of growth and honey production. This loss can be hard for both the bees and the beekeeper, but if there is no pressure on production, this may not be a bad thing.
However, the initial production loss is not the only risk involved with walkaway splits. In addition to the loss of growth, the first round of cells may not succeed. This loss is not uncommon during the uncertainty of spring weather and can be a problem in extremely hot conditions. When this loss occurs, the colony is hopelessly queenless unless the beekeeper intervenes with another chance at a queen.
Queens not returning from mating flights can also be an issue, again resulting in a hopelessly queenless colony. Colonies without a queen for a short time are usually ok. However, if too much time passes, queenless colonies will dwindle in size, making them more susceptible to pests and disease. Laying workers also become a problem and make requeening difficult. Eventually, the colony fades out. Not the best recipe for success, but walkaways do work more times than not. Nature is funny that way.
The Queen Makes the Difference
However, if you’re like many beekeepers who prefer to micromanage their colonies, you may find you have greater success at splits when adding a mated queen. This type of split is often mistakenly called a walkaway, as two boxes are split apart. However, that is where the similarities end. This type of split is different in both the addition of the queen and how the splits are managed. These two changes work together to increase the two colonies’ success.
The benefits incurred by adding a mated queen often justify the queen’s expense for many beekeepers. Perhaps most importantly, there is little to no break in the brood cycle because most mated queens begin laying within a few days of emergence from the cage. Laying picks up speed over the following couple of weeks. This allows the colony to maintain a balance between each class of bees as well as maintain the overall population, enabling the colony to continue business as usual. Because growth is not hampered, disease and pests are also kept at bay, as a strong colony is better capable of fending off threats. This continued growth is the number one difference a mated queen can make.
Make the Split
The goal of this split is to make both boxes equal in strength. To better facilitate this, it is often recommended to have a new location three miles or more from the apiary to use as a new home for the new colony. However, moving the second box is not necessary. If both colonies are placed within the same apiary, the colony placed in the new spot will be smaller initially as foragers will return to the original location. This is usually not an issue when splitting a strong double deep; however, due to the higher number of bees involved when the split is conducted properly.
To get started:
- Select a strong colony that has a minimum of two deep hive bodies loaded with bees and brood. If working with medium bodies, select a colony with four mediums.
- Ensure the colony is queen right.
- Set a bottom board next to the mother colony.
While carefully searching for the queen, move honey and pollen frames between boxes until both deeps or all four mediums contain the same number of frames of food stores. During a solid nectar flow, it is often best to leave a minimum of two food stores in each deep as they work to reestablish the colony, depending on your location. If no nectar flow is going, four may be in order.
Next, search through all brood frames in both boxes while continuing the search for the queen. When the queen is found, select a box to place her in and note its location. Continue running through frames, placing equal amounts of open brood and capped brood in each box. This is an important step as this balancing of brood stages helps the colonies maintain that ever-so-desirable balance between the ages and classes of bees for optimal colony health and production.
After both boxes (or all four mediums) are loaded with the maximum number of frames, it is a good idea to go ahead and add a second deep to the colony placed in the original location. This is where the foragers will return, thus making the colony the largest, which will need room to expand rather quickly. The queenless box can often go without a second box right away, but it’s usually best to add one to be safe, especially during spring buildup and a nectar flow.
To add the queen, it’s usually best to wait a few hours to overnight before placing the caged queen with the colony. This short wait gives the newly queenless split time to realize they’re queenless. To introduce her, place her cage between two brood frames with the screen facing the bees to allow attendants room to feed and tend to the queen as she awaits her release. Place the lids on both boxes.
In 3 to 5 days, return to the colony with the caged queen and determine if she’s been accepted. If no balling of the cage is noted and bees are feeding the queen, remove the candy cap to allow bees access to the candy for queen release. Return in a week to check for eggs. That’s all there is to it.
Making splits is a fundamental skill that every beekeeper learns along the way. While many types of splits exist, the ones utilizing mated queens are the most risk-free way to make increase and give the new beekeeper the assurance that their new colony has been given the best chances at success as possible. This makes the extra work and expense for a mated queen worth the price for many.
KRISTI COOK lives in Arkansas, where every year brings something new to her family’s journey for a more sustainable lifestyle. She keeps a flock of laying hens, dairy goats, a rapidly growing apiary, a large garden, and more. When she’s not busy with the critters and veggies, you can find her sharing sustainable living skills through her workshops, articles, and blog at tenderheartshomestead.com.
Originally published in the Winter 2022/2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.