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The Beekeeper's Guide to Splitting a Hive

The Beekeeper's Guide to Splitting a Hive

As you do your hive inspections and find that your boxes are almost completely full – inspection shows that 80% or more of the frames are filled with healthy brood and honey, you have a decision to make. You can add a super or you can split the hive.

When a hive body becomes full, you must do one or the other to prevent the honeybees from swarming. When bees don’t have enough room in their hive, they will smarm – at least half of the bees and the queen will leave to find larger accommodations for themselves.

Why Do You Want to Split the Hive?

The main reason beekeepers choose to split a hive is that they want to expand the number of colonies they have in their apiary. If your beekeeping goals for the year are to increase your hives over that of increased honey production, you can split hives that are healthy and thriving. Wait until a hive is almost full before doing a hive split so that you will have enough bees for both hives. Don’t split a hive that is struggling, or you may lose them both.

Other reasons beekeepers split hives:

  • To control varroa mites – split hives have fewer varroa mites. Some beekeepers split their hives every year for this very reason.
  • To discourage swarming
  • Selling the split colony (essentially a NUC) to produce income

When you split a hive, you essentially are doing a controlled swarm - deciding when the swarm is going to occur and where it will settle. If you find queen cells in your hive, use the frames with these queen cells in your new hive.

How to Split a Hive

Make sure you have things set up and ready for the new split and that there is plenty of nectar and pollen available, although you should supplemental feed a split until it’s time to add a super. Minimum lead time should be six weeks before a target flow.

After doing a hive investigation, determine whether a split can or should be done. Typically, splits that are larger and performed earlier in the season have better success rates. On a 72-degree day, bees should be covering the bottoms of at least six frames, otherwise, the hive is not ready to split.

Set up two brood chambers. You will be placing your splits on top of these boxes. Place an empty hive box on top of one for the brood chambers and place the frames you are removing from the existing hive into this box.   The brood chamber allows for expansion and provides room just in case you used the heavy half of the hive in the split. Providing this extra space below reduces the amount of heat loss.

Choose the frames that you want to move to the new hive, planning to leave half of them in the old. You can do splits with as little as one frame, but three or more generally work better. Remember to look for frames that have queen cells for use in the new hive, leaving the queen in the old.

How Do You Know the Split was Successful?

After a few weeks, inspect some of the brood frames in both hives. If the frames have brood in all stages of life, even very young larvae, the split is a success. Your inspection may also reveal queen cells if your honeybees are still preparing to produce another queen. Both hives should be treated as you would a new first-year hive. This means that you want to do supplemental feeding for both hives. Look at the various feeder options and find the right one for your circumstances.

You can purchase a queen to place in the split, especially if queen cells were not available, although they often are. You can also rear a new queen yourself in an empty NUC using a queen rearing frame. If eggs are on the split frames, you will likely have a new queen in two weeks. If the hives were getting full and the bees were thinking about swarming, they will have probably laid queen cells.

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