Booklet review | Splits and Varroa

Splits and Varroa: An introduction to splitting hives as part of Varroa control by William Hesbach. Copyright © 2016. Northern Bee Books, West Yorkshire, UK. Paperbound.

When a colony is without a laying queen long enough that no open brood is left in the hive, varroa mites have no place to reproduce. This lack of brood can greatly reduce the number of varroa mites in a colony. In Splits and Varroa, William Hesbach of Wind Dance Apiary details all the steps a beekeeper must take to produce viable splits and reduce the varroa population at the same time.

With clear step-by-step instructions, Bill explains the importance of timing each phase of the process. In addition, he provides optional ways to facilitate the brood break. For example, he explains how you can do a walkaway split and allow the colony to raise an emergency queen, how to time the introduction of a ripe queen cell, and how to time the introduction of a virgin queen. So, depending on your objectives and your resources, you can choose the method that works best for you.

Don’t forget the parent colony

He also explains how to handle the parent colony so the brood break is long enough to reduce the mite population in both halves of the split. The use of a push-in queen cage is explained, along with how to make your own cage out of hardware cloth. In addition, Bill explains the importance of monitoring varroa levels so you know if your system is working.

This short book is crammed with useful information. I especially like Appendix One that contains a simple explanation of varroa population dynamics, and Appendix Two that has a “critical date” chart that shows you exactly how long you need to wait at each step. With this book as a guide, and a simple calendar, you should be able to record your colony progress and plan your steps along the way.

How effective are brood breaks?

You will hear various opinions as to whether brood breaks actually work to control varroa. In my experience, results will vary according to how isolated your apiary is. If your colonies are far from other mite-infested colonies, you can get excellent results from this technique. However, if your neighbor’s bees are nearby and untreated, drifting bees can quickly replace any mites you lose during the process.

That said, the technique is certainly worth a try because everyone’s situation is different. As I mentioned earlier, I have a top-bar hive that I’ve left untreated for seven years. But I allow it to swarm whenever it wants, which is multiple times per year. It is my belief that the frequent brood breaks allow it to thrive because the breaks cut into the mite population time and again.

My other colonies are treated, so while drifting bees still transfer mites to the top-bar hive, the rate is lower than if my other colonies were untreated. In an interesting twist, when I install swarms from the top-bar hive into my Langstroths, there appears to be no natural mite tolerance or hygienic behavior transferred to the new colony. For this reason, I think it’s the frequent brood breaks that keep the top-bar colony going. I’ve also found that when I make splits and enforce brood breaks as described in this book, my colonies have lower mite counts for many weeks.

Options are a beekeeper’s best friend

As a beekeeper, I like to have many options when it comes to varroa control, and I like to combine them in a way that works for my particular colonies. A protocol of splits and brood breaks is one of those choices that has been used successfully by many beekeepers. Indeed, I agree with Bill when he writes, “I encourage you to monitor your mite counts and use splits as part of a larger IPM program designed to keep your bees healthy.”

If you would like to add brood breaks to your mitekeeping repertoire, this small book will guide you through the procedure and timing. It is clearly written, succinct, and well-illustrated. Since a variety of approaches is never a bad thing when it comes to varroa, this text deserves a place on your bookshelf.

Splits and Varroa is currently available on Amazon and other outlets.

Honey Bee Suite

Varroa-mite-by Scott-Bauer-USDA.

Varroa mites by Scott Bauer, USDA.

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  • Thank you for pointing out that in bee dense areas, brood breaks do little to relieve colonies infested by mites. In listening to advice to use brood breaks for Varroa control, the point frequently left out is that a brood break is exactly that…a break from brood production. Every day your hive is broodless, it shrinks by the new brood that is not emerging that day + the number of field bees that die of old age. In a healthy colony, that will mean 2000 bees a day, on average from average queens. It does not take long to seriously reduce colony size, a big consideration if you have a honey harvest planned, want to make increase, or are approaching robbing season or winter. Particularly in bee dense areas, brood breaks are not a panacea for Varroa mite infestations, and may severely impact apiary goals.

    • Everything you say is true, but if your bees are sick with viruses your losses are increased by the number of bees dying of illness in addition to normal losses. So the difference is not easy to calculate. We no longer have the luxury of doing nothing, or of taking measures at a time that doesn’t interfere with honey production. Nowadays, cutting our losses and surviving year to year significantly impacts honey production as never before. I agree that brood breaks are not a panacea, but neither are chemicals, drone trapping, splitting, or having our colonies die of viral diseases. We all have to make the best of a bad situation and choose the options that work for us, or at least appeal to us. I think the bubble—the vast increase in the number of beekeepers in North America—has made the problem worse. As I know you know, there is nothing worse for the spread of predators and disease than a nearby hive.

  • Regardless of brood breaks, the virus load is still there no? No matter how many times someone ‘explains’ the brood break method, I still don’t ‘get it’. The virus load remains. Anymore, isn’t the virus load more important than the varroa load? Help me out here! Seems like the bees just ‘outrun’ the mites. It’s a race against time!

    • Debbie,

      One of the key things to remember is that the viruses are not easily transmitted from bee to bee without the mite. Yes, there is some transmission, but not much. So by lowering the number of varroa mites, you are preventing new bees from getting the virus. The old bees quickly die and are eventually replaced by healthy bees without virus. If the virus moved easily from bee to bee without the mites, it would be a vastly different story.

  • Rusty,

    Thanks for Your fascinating review of this book. Several years ago I developed a system where I remove all brood from the production colonies at the time of spring where they could start thinking of swarming (first honey super full, plenty of brood). The brood is removed with very few bees. The brood is placed in the same yard, but in a different, empty hive. The swarm with the queen (now on foundation) stays on its old stand. This artificial swarm is broodless and responds very strongly to oxalic acid.

    After about 20 days the brood can be treated with oxalic and afterwards a mated queen introduced.

    This is a rational way to combat Varroa.

    Jan Olsson, Denmark

    • Jan, that is a modification of the shook swarm procedure: in our club we are doing a trial of that method as a way to address spring mite loads. Our plan is to remove brood from all colonies, giving that brood to one or two strong colonies (just the brood on frames, no bees are added to the recipient colonies). The now-broodless colonies get a mite treatment and feeding. They go forward virtually mite-less. The recipient colonies are treated over a period of time that covers the emergence of all the brood they have received using the beekeeper’s method of choice. The advantage is minimal treatment on the donor hives, with repeat treatments done only on the recipient hives.

  • Rusty,

    I read your explanation to Debbie and still do not understand the principle at work here. Could you please give me a step by step explanation, kind of a block diagram in text?


  • I took the UMT Master Beekeeper course with William Hesbach. He is a very knowledgeable and insightful beekeeper. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention… I just ordered it!

    • Evelyn,

      That’s interesting because I met Bill in that program as well. We were in the Journeyman section together, but not the master section. Bill is very helpful to me from time to time and I always enjoy hearing from him. By the way, congratulations!

  • Hi Rusty,

    Thanks for the book review. It was timely for me as I have been reading a lot on the subject and have hatched a plan similar to Jan’s. I ordered the book and will be interested to see how it lines up with my scheme.

    Experiment as follows:
    Instead of removing brood as Jan does, mid blackberries I plan to to remove my queens (from 4 strong hives) and put them into nucs with food, drawn comb and plenty of nurse bees then move them to another yard. I’ll let the main hives carry on making honey and a new queen. I will treat the nucs with OA before they have sealed brood and treat the main hives once all or most of the brood has hatched and before (or maybe just after) the new queen starts laying.

    If it all goes as planned I will have lots of options, cull old or bad queens, recombine nucs and hives, make new hives, give away surplus queens and or bees to friends, etc….. what could possibly go wrong? ; ) Right.

    Thanks again for your blog,
    annie m

  • The longest interval w/o brood are the winter months. Why are they not sufficient? In other words what is the difference? I am told that while the mites can not reproduce during the winter they still stay alive, ready for spring.

    This brings up the next question to which I could not find an answer yet anywhere:
    “What is the life expectancy of a mite?”

  • Hi Rusty,

    Thank you for the book recommendation. I bought it and plan to try brood breaks in April, but I (of course) have some questions. First a little background. Sorry if this is too much info.

    I have two hives, both of which were swarms caught in the East SF Bay Area at the end of last May. One hive, First Lady, has done fairly well with a little help from me in keeping the mite levels down. I monitored mites but she required no intervention all summer and fall. I applied 2 Oxalic Acid shop towels in mid October as a precaution. By the end of October, the count had crept up to 9, but by mid December the mite count was down to 6. In January it was up to 14 and I treated with one Mite Away Quick Strip. The count on 2/15 was 8, and I applied three more shop towels and am hoping for the best.

    The other hive, Pride, is my problem child. That hive has had higher counts all along. I treated in August with one strip Mite Away treatments, one on day one and a second on day 14. I killed the queen during this process, but she successfully re-queened herself. At this point is was mid August and there was no brood in the hive. (She must have just hatched the new queen because I could hear her piping, although at the time I had no idea why I was hearing such an odd sound!) Despite this nice brood break, the mite count in mid September was 14, so I added 3 OA shop towels. By late October the count was up to 22! I treated with 1 MAQS and did not repeat the treatment out of fear of killing the queen again so late in the season. Early November the count was 7, then back up to 25 in mid December. I did another 1 strip Mite Away treatment hoping it would get me to springtime with a living queen. In late January the count had jumped to 45 with lots of DWV crawlers. I treated with Mite Away again, one strip with a second strip on day 7 this time. On 2/15 the count was 17 and I added 3 OA shop towels.

    So given all of that, I figure I’ll be lucky if I can keep this hive alive. I think the next logical thing to do is to re-queen. I have ordered two mated VSH queens from a breeder in the Bay Area. I am hoping to have them available the first week of April.

    The book doesn’t discuss timing splits with the introduction of mated queens, only ripe cells and virgin queens. Using the split principles and critical dates info from the book, this is what I am hoping to do. For Pride, I want to remove the queen 16 days before the new queen arrives. I’ll keep checking for and removing any queen cells that show up during this time. I’ll add the new queen, and I’m guessing she’ll probably be out and laying in about three days? 6 days after that, the last of the drones from the previous queen should be hatched out, and the new larvae would still be open, giving me about a 3 day window to do an OA dribble. I am wondering if there is any danger in doing something like that so soon after introducing a new queen. Any thoughts on that, or suggestions for something better?

    I was going to do the same thing for First Lady, except for that hive, which is strong, I actually want to remove the queen and put her in a nuc as a spare. Then I want to split the hive, allowing them to re-queen on one side so I can see if anything good happens with her genetics, just out of curiosity. I will treat the side that (hopefully) re-queens with an OA dribble according to the timelines in the book. I will re-queen the other side with the other new VSH queen and treat is the same way as Pride.

    This is my first Springtime as a beek, and I’m learning as much as I can, but I am concerned that there is some crucial bit of info I am unaware of that will doom my master plan. Your experience and advice would be very much appreciated.

    PS-What do you do with a pinched queen?


    Paula Ellen

  • Do you think that the timeline I described of re-queening and OA dribble makes sense? Do you think there is any reason not to use the dribble on a queen that was introduced only 7-9 days prior?

  • Hi,
    I lost both of my hives this winter and though I treated them three times last summer for varroa with formic acid it is clear that they died of the mites and virus infection. Is it safe to re-use the equipment: frames, wax etc? Do I need to toss everything out or do the mites die once the bees are all dead? Thanks so much.

    • Rob,

      The mites die along with the bees. Recent research indicates the viruses die within about 30 days. So just wait 30 before reusing the equipment.

    • Its always risky to give a “diagnosis over the phone”. However, what makes you believe it was the mites, i.e. any diseases transmitted by them? While quite possible, another few major causes are
      1. starvation
      2. too small a colony to form a big enough cluster to stay warm. (also depends on your location)
      3. Moisture / condensation.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I am in Portland and will have two top bar hives with packages (Carniolan) hopefully arriving late April. I plan to treat the package with an oxalic acid drip about 8 days after the queen has been released if the supplier had not previously treated them.

    As part of my varroa management, I was also considering a mid-summer (i.e. middle of July) brood break by confining my queen for 14 days and then treating with oxalic acid vapor around day 22. I know there is no “typical” weather, queen, hive, etc., but generally speaking, would a first-year hive be large enough to withstand a loss of brood for that length of time heading into late season?

    How many frames of bees would you want to see before considering this approach with a first-year colony? Based on my top bar cavity, I estimate that my fully built top bar combs are larger than a Langstroth medium but smaller than a deep.

    Is this a reasonable strategy for a first-year colony or better to wait for the second year?

    Thanks, as always!


    • Kevin,

      Since your package is broodless to start, and you are treating with oxalic after queen release, I don’t think another brood break two months later is an ideal plan for first-year colonies. It might be fine, of course, if the colonies look really strong, but I think a three-part OAV treatment, might be better.

      • Why wait until *after* queen release before treating? I have a package arriving in a few weeks, and I was planning on doing an oxalic drip soon after getting them installed, while she is still caged. I figured that way all the mite mortality is over with before open brood even starts appearing.

        Alternately, I’ve also seen a treatment suggestion to spray the package with an oxalic solution before installing. The few articles I’ve seen on this method say the package should be left in a cool, dark place for 1 to 2 days before spraying, then for another 72 hours after spraying. What is the purpose for this delay?

        • 1. Some people believe that the workers may think all the disruption to the colony is due to this new, unproven queen, and so they may decide to kill her before she starts laying.

          2. I don’t know what your articles say. I just use the official instructions issued by the US EPA:


          Ensure bees are clustered before applying oxalic acid (for example store in cool dark location 24 hours before application).
          Spray broodless package bees with a 1:1 sugar:water solution at least 2 hours before spraying with oxalic acid. This allows
          bees to fill honey stomachs with sugar water-reducing ingestion of oxalic acid.

          Mix a 2.8% oxalic acid solution by dissolving 35 g of Oxalic Acid Dihydrate in 1 liter of 1:1 sugar: water (weight:volume).
          Evenly apply 3.0 mL of 2.8% oxalic acid solution per 1,000 bees using a pump sprayer or battery-powered sprayer (for
          example, a typical 2 lb package contains approximately 7,000 bees which requires 21 mL of solution). Apply solution evenly
          on both sides of the package.

          Store bees in a cool darkened room for 72 hours before hiving.

  • Thanks, Rusty – this felt a bit much for a colony that needs to be growing, so appreciate your alternative suggestion of the 3x OAV treatment.

    For whenever I implement this approach, I have made a queen cage that is approximately 1″ wide x 3″ long x 3″ deep with only one side covered by #8 hardware cloth. In other words, all the sides are plywood except for the one mesh side. I will suspend the cage directly underneath one of my top bars and while I expect an ugly mess with the comb, I’m not sure how to do it otherwise.

    My follow-up questions are:

    1. With the queen caged for 14 days, is there a risk that the colony will create an emergency queen? I understand that queen substance is dispersed by contact and not scent, so I worry that my cage with only one mesh side may not allow the nurse bees enough contact with the queen.

    2. Regardless, do you think it would be better for me to build a cage that has mesh on both sides increasing the potential queen contact with the worker? Will the queen be okay hanging on mesh for 14 days?

    3. Finally, should I plan on including some attendants in the cage with her and, if so, how many?

    Thank you, thank you!


    • Kevin,

      These are judgment calls, so there’s no guarantee. I think one side of mesh is probably enough, but it’s possible to get queen cells nevertheless. It will partly depend on how much pheromone she puts out. Some have more than others. Fourteen days is a long time, so you will just have to keep an eye on things. I don’t think attendants are necessary as long as the queen is being fed and groomed through the mesh.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I was going to do OA dribble on some nucs I made and was wondering about the OA ingestion. Your info above recommends spraying package bees with sugar water a few hours before the dribble to fill their honey stomachs. Is that something that you do on splits as well? I have not done so in the past but now am wondering if I should do that going forward.


    • Paula,

      I think it’s more important for packages because they are not as well-fed as an established colony. It probably wouldn’t hurt to do it in a split, if you wanted to, but I’d say it’s not necessary. Check with the official directions at the EPA site.

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