bee biology queen bees

A walkaway split and the tiniest queen

A walkaway split is made from a frame of very young brood (eggs and just-hatched larvae), a frame or two of young nurse bees, and a frame of honey and pollen. You put all these in a nuc and just walk away. If all goes well, the nurses will raise a new queen from one of the recently hatched eggs. She will mature, mate, and start laying eggs with no further intervention from the beekeeper. The process can be sped up, however, if the beekeeper adds a ripe queen cell into the mix.

A few weeks ago I set up two walkaway splits from a very crowded hive that was loaded with swarm cells. I put some cells in each nuc, added the nurse bees and honey, and then forgot about them. Last week, when things started looking busy around those nucs, I opened them up to take a look.

One nuc had failed to raise a queen. The capped brood had hatched, which made the nuc appear busy, but it was doomed. I took those bees and combined them with one of the weaker hives.

The second nuc did great. Right away I saw eggs, young larvae, and a flurry of activity. But where was the queen? I couldn’t find her, although she was obviously present. I spent a very, very long time staring at those frames—looking for something “different”—until I finally saw her backing into a cell near the top of one frame.

But calling her a “queen” seemed a stretch—she was the littlest thing I’d ever seen. She’s tiny—no bigger than a worker—although in all other ways she appears queen-like. No wonder I had such trouble spotting her.

Now most literature I’ve read indicates that bigger queens are better queens. For that reason alone I’m very interested in this one. She is so small I wonder how she managed to mate. I wonder why she survived and the other swarm cells didn’t. Did she hatch in time to kill the others? Or did she have to battle it out with (perhaps) a larger virgin queen?

I closed up the nuc and waited another week. Yesterday I found a solid brood pattern, neatly stored pollen and honey, and a vigorous, hard-working crew. In fact, I had to transfer the frames to a full-size brood box in order to accommodate her growing family.

But I still have a lot of questions: Will her offspring be small? Will the colony supersede her because of her size? Will she survive until fall? Will her crew survive the long, wet northwest winter?

This morning I tried to get a picture to go with this post but, alas, I couldn’t find her. Maybe being small has some advantages—like you can blend in with the scenery and never be found. In any case, if I find her again, I will post a portrait of the tiniest queen.



  • wow, that sounds so cute. a mini queen! could she have regressed to some size beyond “small cell”? maybe her mom mated with a tiny native bee accidentally and you have a whole new breed on your hands. maybe… oh, i could go all day.

    are there any special tricks to moving bees from a queenless hive into a hive with a queen? my “left behind” hive has yet to raise a queen, and i’m wondering if i should combine them with my swarmed hive before they develop a laying worker… beekeeping is proving to be much harder than i expected.

    • If your queenless bees are in their own box you can lay of sheet of newspaper on the queenright colony and put the queenless box on top. Then make some narrow slits in the newspaper. By the time they get through the paper they will be used to each other. If you don’t have an extra box, you can spray the bees (both sets) with some Honey-B-Healthy mixed into sugar syrup. The smell confuses the issue and they will integrate fairly easily.

      Some people just combine them with no special precaution, especially if the queenless group is weak. But I think I’d go with one of the other methods. You don’t want some irritated worker to kill your queen.

  • thank you for the sound and excellent advice. they have a few more capped queen cells, but since they have raised something like five queens that resulted in nothing, i am not holding out hope. i’ll give them another week to right themselves and then move around some boxes.

    • Phillip,

      She made it for a few months and then got superseded. However, her colony lived on and her offspring seemed to be of normal size.

  • Hey everyone. I’m a new beekeeper, overwintered one hive only in London. Today I captured on my mobile camera something incredible. A week ago I coughs my only hive on the edge of swarming and moved 3 frames with brood and swarm cells to different box. Today inspected my original hive and its full of very busy bees. 5 days ago I recorded my daughter hive virgin queen piping. Today actually by accident recorded with my mobile my new queen coming back from mating flight. She is massive, black and looks very strong. Super excited.


  • If the split doesn’t work, can you recombine the two halves without any special precautions? Since they were all together at one point?

  • Hi Rusty-

    I wanted to run something by you since I value your opinion. This spring, one of two hives made it, and the one that did started growing like gangbusters. In May, when we did a serious inspection, we decided to split the hive because it was so big. I thought we would see supersedure cells, but there were none. We moved one box, with brood, honey, and pollen to a new hive. It took about a month, but by June, they were doing very very well. We did a hive check, found brood, honey, and pollen stores. Although I did not see the queen, I am assuming there is one. Did a hive check today, they are doing well. They have 2 brood boxes and a honey super, but little stores in the honey super. We closed it up and will see how they are in a few weeks. We just want them to be strong for the winter.

    The ‘Mother Hive’ that we took the box from in May, grew very fast again, with lots of bearding and stillness on the front of the hive. This is now June. We checked the hive, found it honey bound, but I thought it too early to harvest in upstate NY. We moved another box from that hive onto a third hive. Checked Mom today and doing well. Brood, honey, pollen all accounted for. Not much in the honey super, but I wasn’t really expecting anything. This hive has 3 brood boxes and 2 honey supers. We are in the process of switching over to all 8 frame medium boxes because we can no longer lift the bigger boxes, so this why this hive seems larger.

    On to the second split-, or baby bee as we call it. First, when we took off the top, there were not as many bees, and the box was very light. We had inadvertently had the bottom board opening in the wrong direction and had to right it. That meant moving both boxes. We did a check, couldn’t see a queen, but evidence of it was there. Lots of traffic in and out. I don’t know what they did with the 25+ lbs of honey, but it seems to be a viable hive.

    This sounds very unusual to me, and certainly not the norm. The bees from these three hives are very active, in and out with lots of pollen. We have several water sources, lots of plants for them to forage from, and neighbors who plant bee-friendly plants.

    These bees are very very docile, unlike their predecessors who were a bit more aggressive. I have no idea where the nice gene came from, but they are a very very calm bunch. I am wondering if one or two of these hives have laying drones rather than a queen. The brood cells don’t appear to look like drone cells, but I am no expert.

    Your thoughts on this situation?

    Thanks- Robyn

  • Hi Rusty, I just did an inspection of one of my mating nucs and found a tiny laying queen. I was wondering how common this is because it is a first for me. She is definitely smaller than some of the workers, and she has just started laying so I don’t know if she is truly mated or just laying drones yet. But the pattern is good, and the eggs are 1 per cell, so doubtful that she is a laying worker. I could not get a pic since I was suited up for inspecting lots of hives.

    • Rodney,

      She sounds like an intercaste queen, which is like a cross between a real queen and a worker. They occur when the workers choose an older larva to into develop a queen. Intercaste queens perform an important role by helping a colony survive, but they usually get superseded very quickly.

      • Wow, I have wondered on this before, but this is the first time I’ve heard of it. I thought the egg needed to be max 3 days old to get a queen- how old of a larvae is viable? Guess I’ll go read another linked article 🙂 Rusty your knowledge scope never ceases to amaze me. Thank you for sharing with us! I was reading “The first 11 days..” earlier, which led me down the rabbit hole of interesting reading on your site:) Loved reading about the “Bee trees” on your “about me” page. How things have changed.. I live in Atlantic Canada and honey bees are not a native species here. Rare to find trees as honey bee homes around here.

        I have a hive that I thought was in swarm mode yesterday. Hive is clearly overpopulated and queen cells are all capped and though yesterday was a hot gorgeous day- no swarm? Thankfully. It was inspected June 5th and I think the inspector killed the queen (accidentally). Because on closer inspection there were no eggs- and basically NO larvae that I could see! And though there was still some capped brood, majority of cells were filled with nectar! Based on 16 day queen emergence- I’m likely on day 14- catching it yesterday on day 13 and splitting -as the hive was overpopulated and I expect would have thrown multiple swarms. So now we wait and see if they succeed!! And HOPE and PRAY they don’t swarm anyway?!

        • Dorothy,

          I don’t know how old a larva can be and still be raised into an intercaste queen. It’s a really good question.

          Honey bees are not a native species anywhere in the western hemisphere. The feral ones have just escaped from managed hives over the years. They used to be common in bee trees until the varroa mites came along in the 1980s.

          It is common to find no eggs or larvae in a colony that is about to swarm. That is because the queen gets “slimmed down” by the workers until she gets small enough to fly to the new location. To prevent her from laying eggs, the workers bees backfill the brood cells with nectar. A backfilled brood nest is a reliable sign of an impending swarm, so splitting was a very good idea.

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