Bee Report — Splitting Hives and Raising Queens (Part I)

Many beekeepers depend on purchasing packages (screened boxes full of bees with a queen) or nucleus hives (mini-hives to be inserted into a full-size one), which cost between $150 and 250 each, depending on the local variables. Some beekeepers end up purchasing bees each year to replace dead-outs (bee colonies that died during the winter). In addition to often getting a mix of random bees with no known genetics or winter survival success, its cost has caused some beekeepers to give up the hobby. One solution to this problem is to split your own surviving hives, creating new queens and colonies from your existing resources. Beekeepers have developed many methods to do this, but I follow a modified version of Mel Disselkoen’s On-The-Spot (OTS) queen rearing method and the Coweta Beekeeping Method. In this post, I’ll describe how to split an existing hive and encourage the growth of new queens. In the next post, I’ll go over how to finish the split by making hives for honey production or population increase.

Work with Bee Biology

Left to their own devices, a colony of bees will divide at least once each year. When it starts to outgrow its space, the queen will lay eggs in special, downward-facing cells called queen cells. These will become new queens and the original queen will “swarm” with half of the colony population, while new queens will grow in the cells. As they emerge, they could swarm with half of the remaining population, or they might stay and kill the other queens before they emerge. It is perfectly natural but disappointing for beekeepers to lose a swarm, because it reduces their population and can cause a colony to keep swarming and become weak.

Queen right in the center.

Divide the Hive

This method of dividing a hive simulates a swarm and makes a colony reproduce itself while reducing the likelihood of losing later swarms. First, the hive has to have at least six frames of brood (preferably eight or more) as well as at least two frames of honey for each division the beekeeper wants to make. This should be done in the first half of the year, so the hives have a chance to build back up before winter. It should be late enough, though, that drones are flying and pollen is coming in.

During a hive inspection, the beekeeper should remove the frame of brood with the queen on it as well as another frame of capped brood, putting it in a nucleolus colony with two frames of honey and an empty frame. Then two more frames of brood should be shaken over the nucleolus to give it more nurse bees to tend the brood. This nuc can then be moved at least two miles away for two weeks or so to retain the field bees, or, it can be moved within the same bee yard with the understanding that all the field bees will go back to the original hive and the queened nuc will be weak for a few weeks and must be fed with sugar syrup (don’t forget to add frames with pollen, too) as the bees will have to raise brood without field bees at first.

Removing the queen will cause a quick reaction in the now-queenless original colony. Without her pheromone, the bees will become agitated and also try to raise a queen. Any female egg can become a queen if fed royal jelly for her entire gestation (not just the first few days like is done for worker bees). The bees will pick larvae less than 36 hours old and turn some of them into queens. We can help them by “notching” cells with this young larvae. This means tearing the bottom third of a cell downward to help the bees create the downward-facing queen cells. See these instructions from Mel Disselkoen’s website. The young larvae can be difficult to see, especially in dark, older comb, but it is exactly this older comb that is difficult for the bees to manipulate. Larvae less than 36 hours old are the size of and resemble a comma on newsprint. Notch each frame with this young larvae and close up the hive for another three days.

Some uncapped queen cells visible.
More uncapped queen cells.

After three days, check to see that some cells have been made into queen cells with growing larvae in them. Be extremely careful not to shake the frames as the growing queens can be sensitive to vibration. If no cells are present (these cells look like nostrils, pointing down, and away from the usual cells), exchange a frame of brood from the original colony with a frame of brood from the nuc with the queen with young larvae, notch the cells again, and give them a chance to raise a new one. Just be sure you don’t transfer the queen back to the original hive!


Eleven uncapped queen cells circled in red.

Head over to part II for the rest of the process.


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