Growing Your Apiary: All About Splitting a Hive

When, Why and How to Split a Hive

Growing Your Apiary: All About Splitting a Hive

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When I started beekeeping, my sole mission was to keep my bees alive throughout the winter. I diligently fed them, watched for mites and pests, and took note of their population sizes. I spent so much time and energy on overwintering my apiary that when they finally did make it through the winter and into spring, I was surprised all over again to relearn that the reward was two-fold; not only did my bees live but I also get to experience splitting a hive colony into two, immediately doubling my bee yard size.

Splitting the colony is a natural part of the honeybee’s reproductive life cycle—in nature we call this action “swarming.” Why do bees swarm? With increased hours in daylight, the queen bee begins to lay her eggs and grow the hive’s population. As worker (female) and drone (male) bee larvae is capped and then hatched, space within the hive becomes congested. The innate response on behalf of the honeybee is to create swarm cells that contain new queens in preparation for flight. After these queens emerge, one of these queens will win the fight to claim a large percentage of the bee population as her own. Hundreds of worker bees will gorge themselves on honey and when the time is right, pheromones are used to communicate between the workers, drones and the mother queen that it’s time to leave the mother hive behind in search of establishing new living quarters. The daughter queen stays behind with drone and worker bees and continues business as usual.

Loading a frame of worker and drone brood into a nuc hive box. After the box is filled with the necessary frames, the nuc hive will be moved to its new location.

The beekeeper acknowledges this natural behavior and can choose to capitalize on the swarming event by splitting a hive colony manually before the bees swarm. In watching for “spring buildup,” the beekeeper can gain a sense as to when the colony is organically preparing to divide. The major signs of a pending swarm include successfully capped swarm cells containing new queens, the presence of drones within the hive, capped drone and worker brood, lots of larvae and eggs, and the noticeable existence of honey and pollen stores. These elements of a healthy and populous hive signal the time and opportunity to split.

Should a beekeeper identify the major signs that the bees are ready and able to swarm, they may decide to split the hive. Whether you use a Langstroth, Flow Hive or any other hive, the following steps can be followed to ensure a successful division is formed.

Step One: Locate the Queen

Locate the queen from the original hive. Ensure that she does not make her way into the new hive box by temporarily caging her or by placing the frame which she is on inside the hive box surrounded by frames you do not intend to disturb.

Capped drone or male bee brood (top) and worker or female bee brood (lower left).

Step Two: Gather Brood

With your second and new hive body at hand, look for frames filled with worker and drone brood. Carefully place two to three frames of larvae into the new hive box. These bees will hatch within their new hive and help to populate the colony.

Inspecting a frame filled with honey. A mite treatment strip is visible on the side of the frame.

Step Three: Collect Provisions

Select two to three frames of pollen stores and honey and move those into the new hive box with the previously placed brood frames. Be sure there is still food left behind for the original hive colony.

Step Four: Add Frames

Replace the frames that were removed from the original hive with empty frames. The bees will draw new comb and fill with brood, pollen or honey. After releasing the queen if she was caged, close the mother hive. In addition, any remaining space in the new hive box should be filled with empty frames for the bees. As with the original hive, new frames will be constructed with fresh comb and filled. 

A freshly split nuc hive filled with drone and worker brood, capped queen cells, pollen and honey stores.

Step Five: Queening the New Hive

Your new hive box should hopefully contain at least one swarm cell that was formed on the brood frames of the original hive. The bees will allow this queen cell to hatch and will accept her as their new ruler. If there are no queen cells at the time of splitting, the bees will create an emergency queen cell from one of their worker bee brood cells by feeding royal jelly. A new queen can be reared in 16 days. A third option for re-queening a hive is to simply purchase a caged queen from a supplier. She and a few of her attendants will arrive in a corked cage. Replace the cork with a marshmallow and insert the cage into the new hive. By the time the worker bees chew through the candy cork, they will recognize her pheromones, release her and accept her as queen.

Step Six: Feed and Monitor

After splitting a hive, the new smaller hive should be monitored closely for successful re-queening and acceptance. New colonies are fragile and vulnerable and require feeding to help them establish. They also should be equipped with an entrance reducer and/or a robbing screen because they can easily fall victim to thieves.

Swarming and dividing is a natural occurrence for a hive colony. By learning how to split a hive by hand when the colony shows that it is ready and well equipped, the beekeeper can grow the apiary for only the cost of new equipment as the bees are simply free. Have your ever tried splitting a hive before? 

One thought on “Growing Your Apiary: All About Splitting a Hive”
  1. Just the information I was in need! My second year. My first spring management cycle to learn the process. Excellent article that maybe you can help answer questions! I have not been into my three deep hives only to monitor food and pollen pad. The weather will be in the low 30’s and high 20’s at night. Day temp ranging in the ’40s for the next week. In a week, the weather will break to higher low night temps; then, I was going to split the hives. Again not sure if I have any queen cells. I was hoping for that since last year in Sept; we had an emergency split that the hive had produced a swarm cell, capped. It was totally inept and comical. But all three colonies survived.
    Now the question for me is when to do this? Is my thinking correct?

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