My Favorite way to Split

This article is similar to a forum thread that I started on BeeSource

Splitting always comes up a a lot this time of year and like all things bee keeping everyone has their opinion – hopefully most of them are based on actual experience, and even trying different things. Making increase is one of my favorite parts of bee keeping, and I have tried a lot of different ways – I love to see things grow.

I have all 8 frame mediums – a single box hive is about equivalent to a 5 frame deep, and in our area will winter just fine (with sugar on top) and build up to a productive hive in the spring if all goes well. My opinion is that I would rather go into winter with two such small (but strong) hives than one big hive of any size – simply because you are twice as likely to have live bees in the spring. Also, remember that hives can (and often should)  be combined in either fall or spring if it seems like a good idea at the time.

My favorite way to split –
During the spring nectar flow (now – but ending soon) From a good strong double or a strong fully built out single (such as a package started in April, that has done well so far) find the queen, and move her along with the frame she is on to a nuc in a new location in the yard. If that frame is not a good frame of mostly capped brood then find one and give it to her, then give her a frame of food – preferably a mixture of honey, open nectar and pollen. Also give the queen a shake of bees from a brood frame. Fill both hives with comb if you have it or foundation if you don’t.  At first most of the foragers will return to the original location, but in a few days some new ones will orient to the queens nuc.

Assuming that the queenless hive in the original location has at least two frames with cells ten days later move the queen and her hive to another new location.

Put another empty nuc in the location where the queen right nuc used to be, and give it a frame with a cell, a frame of food, and a shake of bees. If the queen right hive doesn’t have plenty of food, give it another frame of stores from the hive in the original location – it will have plenty by now because it has all of the original foragers and very little brood to feed.

In a week if all goes well the virgin queens will be mated, and in another week will begin laying – by three weeks brood should be apparent to even a novice.

If at any point you lose faith that new queens are being successfully produced in one of the queenless hives give that hive a frame of open brood to it and swap a frame of comb back to the queen right hive. Shake enough bees off of each frame being swapped so that you are absolutely positive that you don’t move a queen. Shake them all off if you aren’t confident in your ability to spot a queen.

Why I like splitting this way

  • The queen right nuc will retain more bees than a queenless split and it will continue growing from the very first day.
  • Because only minimum resources were removed from the main hive – which keeps all of the foragers – it will be strong enough to build nice big queen cells.
  • After ten days those queen cells will be ripe, and the spot where the queen right nuc was sitting will have a fair workforce oriented to it to take care of the queenless nuc you place there.
  • Hives of this size – single or double 8 frame mediums in late May are too small to make much honey, so using them for making splits doesn’t interfere with honey production.
  • It is a lot easier to find the queen in smaller hives.

Once all of the hives have laying queens it is best to equalize the amount of comb and brood (nucs may have to be upgraded to full sized hives) and swap the weakest and strongest hive locations to get them all on an even footing.  You can do this over the course of a few days to avoid sudden drastic changes. This will get them all building up at the quickest rate possible, and help minimize robbing.

Just be aware that as the flow tapers off in the next few weeks you might have to feed, and robbing will eventually become more of an issue. It will still work though as long as you effectively deal with those two issues.

Some Questions and comments from the BeeSource forum thread…

People often think about making a split when they find a queen cell – Which may seems like a better idea than it really is  because a cell might contain a fully formed queen – ready to emerge – or one that is still little more than a larva and has to be incubated at 94 degrees for another week. But when you put a queenless nuc in a brand new yard location it almost always gets weak until sufficient brood emerges to build it up – maybe too weak to incubate the cell. To avoid having so many of the bees go back home  you just about have to move the new split to a remote location for a week or so.  The method I just outlined allows you to know how old the queen cells are and to keep them in locations that already have associated foragers. It’s a good way for first year bee keepers or anyone with limited resources to make increase without having to use an outyard location.

 What do you do if there are multiple queen cells on the frame in the original hive? Pinch it back to one cell or let nature take its course?  No, on a small hive – no more than 2 boxes, I probably would not remove any cells when I am making increase – unless it is really excessive like 20 or more. When a really big populous hive has many swarm cells which are physically far apart within the hive it can result in multiple swarms. So you have to exercise some judgment if you find that kind of situation.

But, in this method where you are triggering cell building by removing the queen from a moderately sized hive which does not already contain swarm cells – I would not intentionally destroy any cells.

Something that bears mentioning – removing the queen from a hive which is already full of swarm cells won’t necessarily keep it from swarming. If it’s strong enough and swarmy enough it probably will. If you put the queen in a weak cell free nuc It WILL keep the queen from flying away – which is worthwhile in itself.  The hive you start with in this method of splitting needs to be free of cells when you start.

 This isn’t really a tried and true mainstream method of splitting. Most bee keepers are going to say that you should only split much larger hives than this – or that you should use purchased queens instead of making queenless splits. Some people would even say that this kind of split is inferior because it produces emergency queens. It is however tried and proven to the extent that I have tried it and it has proven to work quite well.

Anyway the queens produced like this have a couple of great advantages over purchased ones – 1) They’re never banked, caged, shipped, or re-introduced to a strange hive 2) They’re free.

However the people who “only split a booming double deep…” And maybe even use an introduced queen… They’re not wrong – because they do end up with big strong hives quicker.

But beginners don’t usually have big strong double deep hives, and store bought queens are expensive and introducing them is risky.  And I just think that making increase is a good way to stay interested and involved – and to not end up beeless.   Plus  it’s just plain fun – if your idea of fun is playing with bugs.

Any changes in the method for splits in the fall?

They need to have enough time to build up population for winter, and there has to be enough comb for them to winter on. I’ve started small hives like this in the form of mating nucs in early July and they built up and wintered just fine, but being a new beekeeper with precious little comb I had to distribute all the comb (good, bad, and ugly) that I could scrape together to make it work. Most years here in middle TN not much comb building happens after the middle of June even if you feed. Once in a while there is enough goldenrod for them to build a little in September, but you can’t count on itAlso, if there are other strong hives near by robbing can be brutal later in the season.And the later you start the less chance there is to get a failed queen going by giving the hive brood…

On the other hand a brand new queen that starts laying by the end of August can really do wonders for fall build up.

I know I’m beating around the bush here, but there are a lot of “ifs” and “it depends” involved. But I’ll try to sum it up. It will vary with location, but In middle TN…

  • Around the first of May is probably the very best time to split if you have enough bees.
  • After that – The sooner the better.
  • Conditions usually go downhill rapidly after the middle of June because the flow stops when it gets hot and dry – and SHB, wax moths, and robbing get steadily worse. You have to watch out for them more the later it gets.
  • You have to feed once the flow stops, and if you aren’t careful you can set off robbing when you do. Hives that already have a mated queen are much less likely to be robbed to death, but you still have to watch out and deal with it.
  • Sometimes a fall flow triggers a bit of comb building in September. But don’t count on having much more comb in the fall than you have on June 15 – however much that is will have to be enough for all of the hives you go into winter with – but it can be moved around and equaled up.
  • August first is really the very latest that you should try splitting in order to get a queen laying well on time for fall build up.  July 21 would be better.
  • If I don’t find brood one month after I make a late split I shake out the hive and distribute the comb to other hives. If you don’t do something similar the hive is likely to develop laying worker, SHB, or wax moth problems within days. And then your comb could be ruined.

The short version is that the longer you wait the harder it gets.

 

Now – go forth and multiply.

Installing Package Honey Bees

Soon your bees will finally be here – a most joyous occasion for new bee keepers especially. No doubt you have been studying up on how to get package bees into their hive, and already have some idea how to do it, but just in case…

Of course you already have your hive equipment all ready assembled, painted and hopefully in place in your future bee yard ready to receive your new BFFs.

If you are using a Screened Bottom Board – close it up!  Packages or swarms often abscond when installed in hives with open bottoms.  Once they have some comb built and brood going open it up if you want to, but keep it shut until then.

Note – I started keeping honey bees using the foundationless method, and while it did work out OK, I have since changed to all plastic foundation – which is another issue.  The point is that these pictures show foundationless frames, while you will probably be using foundation of some kind.  Don’t worry about that, the only difference is how you release the queen – which will be pointed out when we get to that part.

If it turns out that the weather is foul when your package bees arrive, they can be kept in a cool dark place – like a garage – for several days, but installing them sooner is better than later.  Except for this – if you are installing in a top bar hive or other foundationless system, it might be better for the bees to spend a total of at least 3 days caged up in contact with their new queen before you release them.

If there are no other bees already nearby where you are installing your package bees, then you can do it at any time of day – hopefully during nice weather – but if you already have bees in the same location you can help to keep your bees from drifting to existing hives by doing the deed as late as possible in the afternoon so that they will spend the night in the new hive before they look around too much.

How to Install your Package Honey Bees

First take 4 frames out of the hive  to make a space for the bees.  Next pry the plywood cover off of the package.

The package contains a can of syrup with a few holes in it for the bees to eat during shipping.

Hold the tab that the queen cage is hanging from as you carefully remove the syrup can. Everything will have bees clinging to it so you have to go slow and kind of wiggle things around to keep from injuring them.

After removing the can, and the queen cage keep the bees in the cage by laying the little piece of plywood back over the hole.

Notice the white wax that the workers deposited on the queen cage while they were in route.  They really cant wait to get to work.Notice the white wax that the workers deposited on the queen cage while they were in route. They really can’t wait to get to work.  But, the queen and worker bees were collected from different hives at the commercial apiary where the bees were produced, and don’t immediately accept each other.If those bees hanging onto the queen cage cling tight and feel almost like velcro when you gently brush them off it means that the queen has not yet been accepted.  But even if they have accepted the queen already a timed candy release is a tried and true way of minimizing the risk when introducing a queen to a new hive.There should be several attendant bees in the cage with the queen, and  some of them might be dead – which is normal – but make sure that the queen is alive.

Compared to the pictures of queens you might  have seen on the Internet your new queen might look kind of puny.  There are two reasons for that 1) People usually post pictures of particularly big fat queens, not average ones.  2) Your queen has been in a cage – not laying eggs – for several days, and queens get skinny when they are not laying eggs.  She will fatten up a lot in a week or two.

Most wooden  queen cages have two  corks that keep the queen in for the trip, and under one cork there is  a plug made out of sugar “candy” that the workers will gnaw away to free the queen.  Be sure to remove the correct cork – the one with candy under it – not the one which immediately releases the queen.  Immediate direct release of your queen will void the warranty – and may result in her being immediately killed.  Don’t do that!

Hang the Queen Cage in the Hive – An easy way to fasten the queen cage in is with a simple rubber band:

Your queen could come in any of several types of queen cage, but whatever kind you get you want to install the cage in the center of the hive with the candy end up so that the exit doesn't get clogged with dead attendants. You might have to remove one frame from the outside to make room for the queen cage. Make sure that the screen is not obstructed or blocked. If you use a rubber band for this, use a nice fat one so that the bees don't chew it apart before the queen is released.
Your queen could come in any of several types of queen cage, but whatever kind you get you want to install the cage in the center of the hive with the candy to the side, so that melted candy doesn’t drip on the queen and so that the exit doesn’t get clogged with dead attendants. You might have to remove one frame from the outside to make room for the queen cage. Make sure that the screen is not obstructed or blocked. If you use a rubber band for this, use a nice fat one so that the bees don’t chew it apart before the queen is released.

Don’t directly release the queen Unless, you are doing foundationless – in which case you MUST directly release the queen. If you don’t know what I mean by “doing foundationless” then this does not apply to you.  Rest assured that using foundation is a good way to go – the tried and true way.  Those foundationless guys are outlaws, who live on the ragged edge. Direct release is much more risky than a timed candy release.

The reason that you don’t put a queen cage into a foundationless hive is that the bees will start building comb right on the queen cage instead of on your carefully constructed starter strips, and instead of nice straight comb you will get something like this instead:

 

Crooked chaotic comb which will be likely to fall apart when you do an inspection – Which is something you don’t have to worry about when you use foundation.

When introducing a queen into a foundationless hive without comb.  First make sure that the queen has been confined with the package for at least 3 days, and bees are not aggressively clinging to the queen cage like velcro.  Then  just free the queen and put the queen cage in your pocket – seriously don’t leave the cage laying around or the bees might cluster on it because of the queen pheremones on it.  Now hope that she doesn’t immediately fly away, and isn’t killed by the other bees.

If after a candy release the queen is still in the cage in a week you can safely release her then  during your first inspection.

Usually in a package bee installation “how to” you are instructed to shake the bees out through the 3 inch hole left by the syrup can – lots of shaking involved which doesn’t look too pleasant for the bees – but it really doesn’t hurt them.  You can also take  the screen loose on the side of the box to open up the entire side as instructed in this beemaster video on installing a package of bees.  But really, that’s a lot of extra work, and shaking them out through the can hole works fine.

Before you shake in the bees Install the entrance reducer on the smallest opening.

When you are ready to install the bees, take a deep breath and rap the package down sharply to get all of the bees in a confused pile on the bottom.  Now just dump them right into the hive with the queen.  After you shake most all of them out, set the empty package near the entrance of the hive so that any holdouts can walk in on their own.

You might be worried that at this point they will either all just fly away or swarm all over you and try to sting you to death, but they won’t.  Actually they will probably just about ignore you.  Experienced bee keepers might not wear any equipment at all.  Smart bee keepers will wear a veil, because getting stung in the eye can cause blindness.  Beginners should suit up to the point that they are confident and don’t have to worry about it at all.  No shame in that.

After pouring the bees into the hive carefully replace all of the frames – slowly wiggle them in to give the bees a chance to get out of the way. If you have 10 frame equipment you might want to leave one frame out until you remove the queen cage in a few days – just even out the extra space on each end.  It seems impossible from the way this picture looks, but I don’t think I killed a single bee.

Now carefully replace the inner cover.

A Quart jar with some holes punched in the lid makes a great feeder – a push pin type thumb tack makes perfect sized holes.  Install whatever kind of feeder you plan to use and fill it with 1/1 sugar syrup.  Check on it and keep it filled as long as they will take it and don’t start back filling the brood nest.

Cover the jar feeder with an empty hive body, and the outer cover.

If I had been on the ball I would have placed the entrance reducer before I started.

In just a few minutes the bees were all moving inside and flying around the yard orienting themselves.  In a few hours they were already bringing in pollen from the blackberry flowers.

Now the hardest part –  leave them alone for at least a week.  The bees need time to build comb for the queen to lay in and to accept  her before you bother them – premature inspection could cause them to kill or supercede the queen.  Keep them fed, and admire how cool they look going in and out, but don’t open the hive.

This process might look intimidating, but after all of the waiting you will probably really enjoy it.  When I got my first package I worried that when I dumped all of those bees out they would just rise up and fly away if I didn’t do everything exactly right.  But the thing is they don’t seem to want to fly away.  It’s almost like if you had been cooped up in a greyhound bus for 3 days and then you were deposited right into a five star hotel with an open buffet – what they really seemed to want to do was settle in and make their selves at home.

Summary:

      1. Get your hive equipment ready – don’t forget to install the entrance reducer. Close the screened bottom board if you are using one.
      2. Remove 4 frames from the middle of the hive to make a hole to pour the bees into.
      3. Rap the cage down to shake the bees down to the bottom.
      4. Pry out the feed can, remove the queen cage, and cover the hole.
      5. Verify that the queen is alive.  If she is not alive – call me, I have a few spares.
      6. Remove the cork from the candy end of the queen cage.
      7. Fasten the queen cage into the hive with the candy end up and the screen unobstructed.
      8. Rap the package down again to shake the bees to the bottom.
      9. Dump them in there.
      10. Replace the frames – push them all together to the center of the hive!
      11. Install your feeder and close the hive.
      12. Keep them fed.
      13. Leave them alone for a whole week.
      14. If when you inspect after one week the queen is still in the cage – remove the other cork and release her into the hive – by now she will be well accepted.  And by the way, an otherwise queenless hive like this will feed the caged queen through the cage for a long time – that is exactly how commercial producers “bank” queens until they are ready to ship.
      15. Don’t get excited if you don’t see either the queen or brood the first time you inspect – both are hard for new bee keepers to spot.

A great video on installing package bees

Photography by my lovely and fearless wife Shirley – who was not wearing a bee suit.