Hive splitting came up when I talked about how spring means swarms in an earlier post. That blog was mostly an introduction to what swarms are and why they aren’t something to worry about. I mentioned there that if you really wanted to avoid your bees swarming, hive splitting was the way to go. In this post I’m going to cover the what’s, why’s, how’s, and when’s of hive splitting, before having a brief discussion on whether or not I think hive splitting is worth it. But you’ll have to read until the end to get that.
As for what hive splitting is, it’s pretty simple, although, the name is a bit of a misnomer. You aren’t actually splitting the hive, which is the structure bees live in, you’re splitting the colony between two hives, usually the original and a new one. You do end up with two hives, but not because you sawed your Beepod in half and both parts grew back like an earthworm. In reality, hive splitting is a way of controlling a colony’s macro-reproduction. My boss, Brad, called it the bee version of a C-section compared to swarming as natural birth, and I think that analogy works pretty well for our purposes.
Now that we’re on the same page about what hive splitting basically is, we can get move on to some of the reasons for it. There are a whole bunch of reasons, from large-scale, commercial beekeeping operations wanting to replace their losses, to researchers trying to breed a better bee, but for now let’s just focus on reasons beekeepers with a small scale operation might be interested in hive splitting.
Now, even just with smaller businesses and backyard beekeepers, there are still a couple of reasons why people use hive-splitting. The big two are growing your apiary and not losing your bees, and as you can probably see, these two connect. To start with, put yourself in the shoes of a first-time beekeeper. You installed your hive in the spring, watched it flourish during the summer, saw your bees stock up on supplies during the fall, worried about them all winter, nursed them through the doldrums of early spring, and then, right when they really seem to be kicking it into high gear, half of them leave. Talk about disheartening. Now, you know that swarming is natural and all, but still. Half your bees leaving doesn’t sound fun. Stepping back from our example, it’s easy to see why you’d bee tempted to head this problem off at the pass.
That ties into the other reason I mentioned: growing your apiary. Like swarming, a successful hive splitting results in two healthy, honey-producing hives. And that’s the opposite of a problem. There’s always a chance you can recapture a swarm and install it into a new hive, but that’s not a guarantee. Without buying a new pack of bees, the surest way to make sure you can turn your own hive into two is a successful hive splitting. There is a reason I’ve been emphasizing that a “successful” hive splitting is so important. For all the benefits I’ve laid out so far, it’s no sure thing that any given hive split is going to work. Worst case scenario, you end up with no healthy hives. But that’s why the how-to section is next.
There are about a million and a half different sites with instructions on how to split a hive. And those were all from the first Google page. I don’t even want to see what Bing brings back. To be honest, neither the internet nor you need a step-by-step walkthrough from me on hive splitting. Instead, I’m going to go over some of the basics, talk about some of the pitfalls, and give some particular pieces of advice. First off, the actual process of hive splitting is simple enough. Take some bars from the original hive and put them into a new one. You’ll want bars loaded with brood so the new hive can get up and running quickly. Which leads straight to the first potential problem, and also my specific advice.The problem is that both hives are going to need a queen.
A colony without a queen isn’t much of a colony. Both of our hives need a royal lady to get them back to full strength. Thankfully, there are a lot of solutions, from trying to entice your workers into raising a new queen to ordering and installing a new queen yourself. There’s another solution that ties straight into your original problem, namely, if your colony is about to swarm, there should be a new queen on the way already. When you see full queen cups, a swarm is imminent, and a new queen is just waiting to pop out.
Other common problems are that you might split one healthy hive into two weak hives, your new hives might compete with one another, or either hive might not be able to restock enough resources before winter. But it just so happens a lot of these problems are dependent on the content of our very next section.
One of the most important things to consider when you’re thinking about hive splitting is the timing. There are two measurements to pay attention to: how long have you had your colony and what time of year it is? I’ve vaguely connected these questions based on them being time related, so I’m going to lump them together here. When it comes to how long you’ve been keeping a particular colony, the only colonies you should consider splitting are ones that have already overwintered. This is for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, a hive that survived the winter is likely to produce other hives that will do the same. Also, a more established hive is just better suited to splitting than a green one. If your hive survived a full year, you know the area can sustain a hive.
Which leads us to why time of the year is so important. There are only so many months of the year when hive splitting is feasible. Remember our example from way up above? Swarming usually happens in the spring or summer because that’s when there are enough resources to support two hives. As a rule of thumb, if your hive is in danger of swarming, you can probably split it. Hives swarm when their population gets too high, and that happens when there are plenty of resources to go around. Getting these two factors right, time of year and age of the hive, go a long way toward circumventing the problems I mentioned earlier. A strong parent hive plus abundant resources is the best starting point for a successful hive splitting.
If I’ve done my job writing this post so far, my conclusion shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Hive splitting is basically fine as long as you take the circumstances into consideration and do it carefully. There are pros and cons to hive splitting and letting your honey bees swarm naturally, and it’s up to each individual beekeeper to decide what they think is best. Colonies swarming naturally puts more honey bees into the wild who can breed to become better suited to the environment, but also, they’re a nonindigenous species who can outcompete local bees if they aren’t managed. And that’s just dipping a toe in all different ways this can get complicated. Beepods is all about beekeeping for the bees, and if hive splitting is the best call for your bees, all I can ask is that you do it right.