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Making splits, or making increase as some call it, is one of the most fundamental skills required to create a sustainable apiary. Yet, far too often beekeepers choose to rush to the nearest nuc producer to purchase expensive replacement colonies anytime there is a colony loss or when additional colonies are needed to grow the apiary. Good business for the nuc producer, not so great for the beekeeper’s pocketbook. The good news is, making splits is nearly as simple as unstacking boxes on moving day with walkaway splits, so keep your cash in your pocket and read on to discover the simplicity of this new skill.
Two types of Walkaway Splits
There are two types of walkaway splits taught today, with both methods offering simplicity and minimal knowledge of bee biology. The original method is arguably the simplest and is the one chosen by many beeks making splits for the first time. In this method, the beekeeper selects a strong, double-deep queenright colony loaded with bees, brood, and food stores during spring buildup and/or swarm/splitting season. Both the top and bottom deeps are checked to ensure both brood and food stores are present in each. However, no frames are moved around as both top and bottom deeps most often contain all elements needed to form a successful colony anytime splits can be made. No queen is located.
Once the colony is selected and food and brood stores checked, simply separate the two boxes. Place the top box on a new bottom board and give it a new top cover. The bottom deep keeps its top and bottom board. No queen has been located and no new queen is added. After the lids have been placed on both boxes, walkaway.
However, the newer model offers a few advantages over the original. In the original method, no equalization of resources occurs because no frames are moved. This allows for a potentially out-of-balance split, giving more resources than needed to one half. If the remaining stores in the other half are lacking, poor queen quality may occur, colony loss is higher, and the end result is often not the two colonies desired, but rather one tiny colony. Hence, the newer version.
To perform the newer walkaway split, you begin just as in the original — with the selection of a strong, double-deep queenright colony during spring buildup and/or swarm/split season. Upon inspection, however, the resources are evenly distributed between both boxes to ensure both new colonies have equal stores to better ensure both splits survive. Both nectar and pollen are evenly distributed as well as all ages of brood. This is the only difference between the two versions.
However, the significance of this difference cannot be overstated. The dividing of resources ensures both colonies have ample food and ensures the queenless colony has the resources needed to raise a high-quality queen. This equalization also ensures an adequate amount of brood of all ages is present in both splits to replace those bees lost to death during the building process. As a result, this modified version of WAS offers a better assurance of success than the original process.
The beauty of walkaway splits resides in the fact that no queen is located prior to splitting, no queen has to be introduced, and new beekeepers with limited, but growing, knowledge of bees can readily make splits. However, there are a few extra optional details that help give the splits that added edge when it comes to survival.
One of those details is in the handling of the splits after the split is made. Because forager/field bees return to the original location, it is often considered better to keep one split in place while relocating the other. The colony that remains will tend to be larger than the other split due to these returning foragers. The other split, if it remains next to the parent colony, may attract a few foragers but not enough to make a difference. However, if one split is removed from the location immediately upon splitting, then any foragers placed inside that colony will remain with that split provided it is placed three miles or further from the original location. This allows for the strongest possible split that is more capable of fending off small hive beetles and wax moths more easily as the split grows.
Another alteration that many prefer is the addition of a new queen. When making these splits, many choose to check these splits on day three or four to determine which split contains the queen. This is a simple matter of checking for eggs, as all eggs within the queenless colony will have emerged, thus indicating no queen. At that point, many beekeepers choose to add either a queen cell or even a caged queen to ensure the colony’s success and to speed up the growth process. However, if selecting this option, be sure to check every frame for emergency cells as most colonies begin raising new queens within 72 hours of losing their mother queen. (And technically, the addition of a queen or cell renders this a traditional split and not a WAS, according to some beeks.)
Making splits is an integral part of building a sustainable apiary that requires little to no out-of-pocket expenses to replace losses or make increase. And while splitting colonies is a bit intimidating for many beekeepers, the walkaway split takes the guesswork out of the process, enabling any beekeeper to jump in feet first and start making increases of their own. So don’t fill your local nuc producer’s pockets this next season. Instead, keep your pockets full and make your own.
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.