How to make a swarm-control split

Hives can be split for many reasons. A beekeeper may split a hive in order to increase the number of hives, to raise queens, to increase the number of workers, or to keep a hive from swarming. There are dozens of ways to do a split, depending on what you are trying to do and when. What follows is the method I use to make a swarm-control split. Next time I will discuss some variations on this procedure.

  • Before you can think about splits, you need to think about equipment. This may seem obvious, but it’s a helpless feeling to discover your colony is ready to swarm and you don’t have a place to put a split. So first things first: make sure you go into swarm season with some extra boxes and frames.
  • Once queen cells appear on the bottoms or sides of your brood combs, swarming is imminent. You can either move the swarm cells out of the hive or move the queen out of the hive to make the split.
  • I prefer to move the old queen into a new box and leave the swarm cells where they are because this simulates actual swarming. So here is what I do:

o   Catch the queen. You don’t have to actually confine her, but it makes things a little easier if you do. In any case, you have to know where she is.

o   Divide the frames between the old hive and the new hive. For example, if you have 10 frames, put 5 in each hive. Try to equalize brood, pollen, and honey so both hives have some stores. However, make sure the old hive has at least one swarm cell and the new hive has the queen.

o   Arrange the frames so that brood is in the center of the box, just outside the brood put frames containing pollen. Add at least one frame of honey.

o   Fill out the rest of the box with frames of empty comb or foundation or starter strips.

  • Now you have two five-frame colonies, one with a queen and one with a queen cell. Each hive now “thinks” it has swarmed.
  • The nurse bees in each hive will stay with the brood, but the foraging bees will return to the old hive. So, for a few days, the old hive will appear very busy compared with the new one. The new one will get busier as young bees hatch and nurses become foragers.

o   Since it will be a few days before lots of stores are brought into the new hive, make sure it has plenty of honey and pollen. One way to speed things up is to make sure the new hive has mostly capped brood—it will hatch much sooner than uncapped brood.

o   To prevent this new hive from swarming it is best to cut off any remaining swarm cells. Again, this simulates a true swarm because there would be no swarm cells in a newly colonized hive.

o   More than one swarm cell in the old hive is okay. Again, it simulates actual swarm conditions where several swarm cells are left in the original hive. The first virgin queen out will most likely kill the others.

  • Once the queen cells are capped in the old hive it can take up to three weeks for the queen to mature, mate, and start to lay eggs. If you don’t see eggs after that time, you may have to provide a queen, a queen cell, fresh eggs, or very young larvae to keep the colony alive.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

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Comments

Lisa
Reply

Thank you! That sounds so easy…I bet I get all flustered when I actually try it. :)

Curious…does it matter how far away from the original hive the split goes? I was hoping to split my top bar (I’m fairly certain they’ll swarm again this year) and install another top bar a few feet away. Will that confuse them with the scents being so similar, or will their little mental snapshots be enough?

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

It really doesn’t matter how close they are. All the foragers will go back to the original hive anyway. The newly hatched bees in both hives will learn where they live when they take their first “orientation” flights. If the entrances are within inches of each other, there may be a little mixing in the beginning but not enough to worry about. A few feet apart is fine.

The top-bar procedure for splitting is basically the same as the Langstroth except–in my opinion–a little bit easier because you don’t have multiple stories to worry about. You will do just fine, I know it.

anned ;anned
Reply

One trick I have used that I believe works is to turn your old hive 1/4 turn just after sundown after making the split.

I also block the entrance of the new hive for 24 hours to keep the bees I put in it there for a day.

I have not tried it but was told to put a couple drops of lemon grass oil in the new hive before blocking the entrance for 24 hours.

The new hive will have a odor they will remember by the time you open it and the old hive will not smell the same.

The bees from the old hive remember there hive location and direction as they leave in the morning.

The bees in the new hive remember their old hive by the last time they left. Turn it and it confuses them and they are more likely to return to the new hive if you leave it facing the same direction the old one was.

Rusty
Reply

I think this is all good advice. Just lately I’ve also been closing up the hive for a day or so once nightfall comes. It seems to help the bees orient and I think they “forget” about the old hive the more time goes by.

I haven’t tried the quarter-turn, but I also think that’s a good idea. I will try it!

Thanks for sharing.

Jeff
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I need your opinion. Is this a good sign for a hive I am considering a split with?

This is my first winter with honeybees and the girls appear to be strong coming out of winter. Right now Crocus have been in bloom for a week and Colts Foot is just starting to flower well. I have been feeding 1:1 sugar water to encourage the queen to lay and Friday was a spring teaser with temperature at 64° – 65°F. So I decided to take a quick look in the top box to see how everything was looking.

There were three frames of capped honey/sugar syrup. I assumed that was carried over from last year. There is one frame of capped and uncapped brood. There was also two frames of eggs and you could see the queen laying. It was only a quick peak as to not chill the brood or eggs.

On days where the temperature is >10°C the bees are bringing pollen by the droves. Last year the nuc was not available until July 19th. I’m hoping by all indication that I should be able to make one or two splits with this hive the way things are progressing. I didn’t look in the bottom box as I assume there is not much happening down there yet.

Keep in mind I live up where Phillip lives (aka Mudsongs). My goal is to make a split(s) and while still having enough bees to get one shallow super of honey.

Any input would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

This is a complex question. Although it sounds like you’re doing fine, it’s kind of early to tell if you can make a successful split–especially if you also want to get some honey.

I assume you are not going to introduce a queen, but raise your own. Am I right? If so, you’ll need warmer temperatures, more bees, lots of drones, and a good honey flow in order to get a good split.

Once you have at least four frames with brood, you can take one for a split as long as it is completely covered with nurse bees. If there is no swarm cell you will need to include eggs or day-old larvae to make sure the bees can build a cell. Also be sure they have honey (or syrup), be sure drones are flying, and be sure the nighttime temperatures are not too cold.

If you take more than one split from the original hive, you lessen the chances of getting harvestable honey. But it you take a second split from the first split, you have less of a chance of either surviving the winter. You could speed the whole thing up by introducing a queen, or you could wait and see how well the original hive and the first split build up–and then decide where to take your second split.

It sounds like the weather is warming and things are starting to bloom. You’re getting lots of eggs and your queen sounds strong. Your hive should be building very quickly in the next three weeks–at which point you may be able to do your split. It would be nice to get a swarm cell before you split as that would speed things up be be more likely to produce a viable queen.

Jeff
Reply

My intent is to buy a fertilized queen to get a jump start on things. Also if need be I was going to add a third brood box to reduce likelihood of swarming while I wait for a fertilized queen. My nuc wasn’t available until July 19th last year and it made it through the winter ok and off to a good start. Once again the decision to make one versus two splits will be based on the time of year on the buildup in the existing colony. Colony survival is top priority, hive increase is second. Honey production would be nice.

Thanks for your input.

Rusty
Reply

It sounds like a well-reasoned plan to me . . . and you have your priorities straight. It should work out for you.

eric : GardenFork.TV
Reply

Could I recombine the swarm control split in X number of days? I don’t really want more hives and I’m not sure there are enough drones nearby to mate the virgin queen properly. thanks, eric.

Rusty
Reply

Eric,

Yes, definitely. Once the urge to swarm is satisfied you can recombine. You can do it immediately (the same day) or wait awhile. If you wait a few days, you should use newspaper to combine as the swarm will have forgotten the queen’s pheromone scent.

The recombined hive may swarm again if, in the future, it develops a new urge to swarm. This is similar to a hive throwing multiple swarms but is not related to the fact that you re-hived the first swarm. Once swarm season is over, the problem goes away.

Tim
Reply

Rusty, I went to my monthly beekeepers meeting last night and we had a speaker that spoke on sustainability beekeeping (no chemicals, produce your own queens, etc.) He said to make a split now, first couple weeks of August into a nuc. He had two purposes for doing this. One was to control varroa mites by removing 1/3 of the mites with the split and since the split will not have a queen to lay brood for several weeks(he leaves the queen with the old colony), and the old hive has a 33% reduction in mites. The second was to improve his chances of having at least the same number of colonies after the winter.
I have three colonies now and two are going great and one is so so. I thought about doing the split now on the two great colonies as he suggest, but originally was planning on doing it next spring. Do you have any thoughts or experience in doing fall splits?

Tim

Rusty
Reply

Tim,

I prefer to make splits in the spring. Fall splits are harder to get through the winter because they have so little time to get ready and I don’t enjoy feeding syrup.

But going back to what you said earlier: “One was to control varroa mites by removing 1/3 of the mites with the split and since the split will not have a queen to lay brood for several weeks (he leaves the queen with the old colony), and the old hive has a 33% reduction in mites.” It makes sense that the new split will have some mite reduction because there is a break in the brood cycle due to the absence of the queen. But the original hive with the original queen will have no reduction. Sure it has 1/3 fewer mites but it also has 1/3 fewer bees, so the the number of mites/bee is the same as it was.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty,

My first attempt at a split (moving a good frame of sealed brood, frame of eggs, pollen & honey, to a spare deep) failed to produce a queen. When we checked, the frame that had held eggs was empty—no sign of eggs. The weather had turned cold (40° nights) and I assume the eggs got chilled and the bees discarded them.

Last week we added another frame of eggs and one of brood and nurse bees (my original hive is full of brood in all 3 boxes). THEN we were hit with another cold spell. I added a moisture quilt and some windbreak (sacks of straw) around the base. It’s been down to 40, 41.

I really hate to recombine if it fails this time, because the big hive is so full and one of my goals in splitting was to forestall swarming. I may, if it fails, combine these with one of my new packages which is in a deep.

My question is, should we be waiting for a minimum temperature forecast before splitting? This business of bees wanting to swarm + cold spells in May is maddening. They were calling for frost, which we were spared: but would a colony know better than to swarm when it’s that cold?

Thanks!

Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, KY

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

A few 40° nights won’t hurt a swarm. If it’s warm enough during the day to swarm or split, then it can be done.

When you make a split with sealed brood and eggs, the most important factor to consider is the number of nurse bees that will be attending it. If there are not enough nurses to cover the brood and the eggs, the nurses will eat the eggs to decrease the nest size. This will limit their chances of rearing a queen. If you are going to split with a frame of brood and eggs, I recommend shaking at least three or four frames of nurse bees in with it—many more than you think you will need, especially in cold weather.

If your original hive is as big as you say, I’d start with several frames of brood (some ready to emerge), a lot of eggs, and as many nurse bees as you can pile in there. You have a much better chance of succeeding.

Nancy
Reply

Thanks Rusty! It sounds as if my weak point was not giving them enough nurse bees. It explains the disappearing eggs, too. I’ll see how they do, now that the grown-up foragers are bringing them all that locust and lots of pollen!
Nan

Timothy
Reply

Rusty.

Hi, I was wanting to know when I make my splits I’m putting 1 frame of pollen/honey and 1 frame of brood and 1 frame of eggs and then shaking a lot of nurse bees in it should I put them in a nuc box or a 10 frame box and what would be the different outcomes? And should I keep them locked up for a week in their box in a warm place until they can keep themselves warm. Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Timothy,

You can put them in a nuc or a full-size box; it is a personal preference. I usually use a full box so I don’t have to transfer them again later. If you are going to sell the nuc, then put them in a nuc box to start.

The key to a successful split is having enough nurse bees to completely cover all the brood, both capped and uncapped. With enough nurse bees, they will keep themselves warm. No need to worry. Also, the nurses have never been outside, so there is no need to lock them up for a week.

Timothy
Reply

Ok thanks. I’ve never made one. This will be my fist year so I needed to know some tips for doing it. (-:

Timothy
Reply

Rusty.

If I had them in a smaller box word it be easier for them to heat?

Rein
Reply

Very interesting reading throughout the blog! One comment on leaving multiple cells in the old hive. If the hive remains stronger than average, it is likely to throw a cast in this case. Since I have that experience and I do not like to climb trees, I make sure there is only one cell left. Queens tend to mate better in a full-sized or close to full-sized colonies than in mating nucs, and leaving multiple cells in will not help that either.

Just a warning on unnecessary weakening of the colony as a result of lost cast (which can go unnoticed).

Greetings from the other side of the world (Estonia)!

Rusty
Reply

Rein,

I’m always afraid the one I decide to leave will be the one that doesn’t emerge.

Rein
Reply

You have point there. I always try to make the splits when the bees tell me to – the height of the swarming season. By that time the hives are strong and split in two does not weaken them enough to avoid the cast. One needs to make a choice here and the decision somewhat depends on time available. I get to check them on weekends only. My reasoning here is that if the queen does not emerge or does not mate (which can happen with multiple cells also), I fail to get a queen and lose bit of potential brood but keep the bees. If I lose a cast from a strong hive, I lose a lot of bees plus run the risk that the remaining one does not mate. This is fun, no science. :)

Our winters are tough and summers short, the populations explode in the spring. Plus I am keeping Slovenian Carnicas, who tend to be “good” swarmers. So, I have a very good base for losing casts.

Take care!

Derrick
Reply

I am a 2nd year beekeeper, and I have really enjoyed the experience so far.

I have read a lot of beekeeping material since I became involved with beekeeping, and I’d have to say this site/blog has been one of the better ones I have read, so before I ask my question I want to say thank you for all the information on this site; it has been most helpful.

I live in northern Alabama, and spring has really kicked in here. This is actually my 1st winter to winter a hive of bees. I fed them sugar syrup all winter to make extra sure they had enough stored for the really cold days and nights. A couple of weeks ago I noticed my hive was bearding, so I got my equipment to have a look see. I found 14 queen cells in the upper brood box. I really had no idea what to do. I had so many bees that it was actually a little intimidating at first. I destroyed all of the queen cells and closed it up to research the situation.

A week and a half later I finally decided to split. Both brood chambers are packed full of bees and brood. I took another 10 frame brood box (deep) and I located my queen in the bottom box and added an excluder to make sure the queen remained there. I took 5 frames out of the top brood box. I made sure I had lots of brood capped and uncapped. I had plenty of drones, and nursing bees on those frames. I a good deal of honey and pollen stores on a couple of the frames I transferred. Added 5 new frames with new foundation to both the new hive and the old hive.

I sprayed sugar water with brood supplement to hopefully entice the bees to start drawing out comb and gave both hives sugar water with hive top feeders. I also put in my entrance reducer with the smallest opening (about 1″) on the new hive. They are about 4 feet apart from one another.

Looking back I think I should have rather did the 50/50 split and added an extra 10 frame on top of each with new frames and foundation. I did have 3 queen cells that I left on one of the frames that I transferred, and left the old queen in the old hive (which I might not should have done).

What are your thoughts on this particular split? What would you have done different?

Thank you so much in advance for any tips on future splits.

I personally thank you all for what your doing for the beekeeping community.

Rusty
Reply

Derrick,

First, let me say that finding your queen it a hive like that can be quite a trick. Congrats!

I would have done it differently, not to say that my way is any better or worse. Just different. I would have taken the top box and set it on a new bottom board. If I could find the queen, I would put her in the new box. In a real swarm, the old queen goes to the new colony. So, by simulating that, the old colony “thinks” it swarmed.

If I couldn’t find the queen, I would just make sure each half had an ample supply of brood, and especially eggs. With eggs, either colony can start a queen. So I would even up the brood, the eggs, the pollen, and honey as best as I could and then I would add a new brood box to each.

The nurse bees will stay where you put them, and the foragers will fly to the old hive. As new bees hatch and become nurses, the old nurses will become foragers, and pretty soon everything will look normal. After a few days, I would make sure the queenless colony is building cells, or if they already had cells, I wouldn’t worry about it too much.

The only thing I take issue with is killing the queen cells. By killing and waiting a week and a half, you put yourself behind on getting a new queen. It will probably be fine in any case, but I consider queen cells valuable and not something I want to waste without really considering the options.

Derrick
Reply

Well actually my wife found the queen, so I have to give her all of the credit. She is a great beekeeping helper.

Thank you so much for the advice for future splits. After reading several of your articles and some of the comments. I have really learned a lot.

Yes ma’am you are right. Looking back I shouldn’t have destroyed the queen cells, I just kinda panicked. Next year it will definitely be done different.

I peeked inside today just to check the level of sugar water of my split, and of course I really couldn’t see any new eggs or larvae, but I did see a few foragers flying in and out of the new hive. Hopefully that is a good sign.

Again thanks for your help my wife and I really appreciate it.

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