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Create an Artificial Swarm with a Taranov Split

A split is simply a division made by taking an existing colony and separating it into two or more parts. As elementary as that sounds, endless variations exist depending on the desired outcome. Splits can create more colonies, produce nucs, raise queens, prevent swarms, or control mites.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, March 2021, pp. 295-298.

An experienced beekeeper will often have a signature split, one he’s used successfully over the years. Often these specialized splits come with colorful or descriptive names. A quick google search reveals vertical splits, overnight splits, and Mississippi splits, in addition to cut-down, walkaway, and swarm-control splits.

Most of the splits with fanciful names are minor variations on a theme, so the one you choose depends on your preference, timing, or the equipment you have available. When I first tried a Taranov board, I needed to split my one top-bar hive into a Langstroth hive, so moving frames was not an option. In addition, the bees were ready to rumble: Swarm cells hung like icicles from the sides of the combs, and the bees were antsy, climbing the walls, flying but not foraging. I needed to create an artificial swarm pronto.

Mr. Taranov and his board

In 1947, G.F. Taranov, a Russian beekeeper, recognized that swarms consist mostly of very young nurse bees that haven’t yet secreted brood food or wax. They conserve all their energy for founding a new colony from scratch. In addition, these young nurse bees have never taken orientation flights, so they don’t know their way around the outside world.

In 1947, G.F. Taranov, a Russian beekeeper, believed that swarms comprised very young nurse bees that hadn’t yet secreted brood food or wax (something we now know is not quite true). He supposed that the youngsters conserved all their energy for founding a new colony from scratch and, because they had never taken orientation flights, they wouldn’t know their way home.

Taranov believed that if he could separate the experienced foragers from the inexperienced nurse bees — that is, the old bees from the young bees — he could start a new colony and prevent a swarm. The problem, of course, was how to separate bees by age.

Ultimately, he decided to remove all the bees from their hive and provide a barrier to re-entry. He wanted a barrier that the old bees would easily cross but which would befuddle the young ‘uns, thereby separating them into two groups. The barrier he chose was a four-inch-wide strip of thin air.

The presence of many capped swarm cells throughout this hive meant it was ready to go.
The presence of many capped swarm cells throughout this hive meant it was ready to go. All photos by Rusty Burlew

It’s not the vodka

Honestly, I try to be fair when assessing my fellow human beings, but when I read about a four-inch swath of air designed to barricade bees from their front door, I lost it. “They’re bees!” I exclaimed. “They have wings!” Taranov’s idea simply defies logic.

I thought perhaps that too many sub-zero nights near the arctic circle had necessitated a little extra vodka, so maybe this man Taranov was a wee bit tipsy?

But now, having seen thousands of young bees creep up to the edge of the precipice, peer across the divide, and decide against further action, I know Mr. Taranov was a genius. Each time I witness it anew, I think it’s something every beekeeper should see at least once in his lifetime. So, let’s take a closer look at his miraculous device.

To prepare the ramp, I stapled an old tea towel beneath it, and let a piece hang down for the bees to grasp.
To prepare the ramp, I stapled an old tea towel beneath it, and let a piece hang down for the bees to grasp.

The shape of a Taranov board

Basically, a Taranov board is a ramp that slopes from the ground in front of the hive up to the hive entrance. The ramp should be roughly the same width as the hive entrance, and the slope should be about 45 degrees.

The slope is more important than the length of the board, which means you need to vary the length depending on how high the hive entrance is from the ground. The Taranov system only works for hives that are above ground level because you need a considerable amount of space below the ramp for the bees to congregate. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

You need to support the top end of the ramp — the part nearest the entrance — with legs of some sort, but the low end rests on the ground. On the underside of the ramp, two-to-three inches from the top end, affix a piece of burlap, scrap carpeting, or a terry-cloth towel. Whatever you choose should be easy for the bees to grasp, because this is where the cluster of young bees will form.

If possible, it’s better to assemble the Taranov board before you need it because it can be a scramble to get it all together, especially when your bees are acting swarmy. The tricky part — the legs — need to be the proper length but strong enough to hold the ramp steady so it doesn’t tip over. And remember, even a half-colony of bees is heavy.

You can support the ramp any way you like, as long as you leave space underneath for the bees to gather.
You can support the ramp any way you like, as long as you leave space underneath for the bees to gather.

The great divide

After you complete your ramp, pull it away from the hive entrance until you have a space about four inches (10 cm) wide between the ramp and the landing board. This is what I call the great divide, the barrier that keeps young nurse bees from crawling back inside their hive.

Next, cover the entire area with a large light-colored sheet. Drape the sheet over the ramp, covering at least the lower two-thirds and stretching it out to either side, making a smooth, wrinkle-free surface. Fasten the sheet to the board with staples so the sheet doesn’t slide down under the weight of bees, and place rocks or boards around the edges to keep the wind at bay.

The sheet keeps the bees clearly visible so you can avoid stepping on them, and it prevents the bees from getting lost or tangled in the grass. Now you’re ready to proceed.

 Once the ramp is the proper height, you can just pull it away from the hive by about four inches.
Once the ramp is the proper height, you can just pull it away from the hive by about four inches.

How to split your bees

With any luck, your bees didn’t swarm while you were preparing, so now you can begin your split. One by one, remove each frame or top bar and shake it over the sheet. It’s best to shake in a quick but gentle up and down motion to avoid tearing delicate combs or displacing larvae. After the bees land on the sheet, any foragers will quickly fly away, but the nurses stay in place, often huddling in small groups.

If you come to a frame with queen cells, do not shake it. Instead, gently brush as many bees as possible from the combs with soft upward strokes of a bee brush. Do not stroke the brush downward because the upward slope of the cells can entangle and damage delicate legs.

After shaking, check the frame for the queen. If possible, you want the old queen on the sheet with the nurses. If you happen to see her, you can move her to the ramp or put her in a cage under the ramp, although it’s not necessary.

Return each frame or top bar to its original position as you go. Once finished with all the frames, close the hive and wait. Now is a good time for that vodka because your split won’t be finished for one to two hours.

The four-inch space is what I call “the great divide” because it causes the young bees to separate from the older ones.
The four-inch space is what I call “the great divide” because it causes the young bees to separate from the older ones.

What happens next?

During the waiting period, several things will happen. The foragers will either fly home or walk quickly up the ramp, fly across the four-inch air barrier, and go inside. Just typical bee business, nothing unusual.

The ready-to-swarm nurse bees and queen, none of which are accustomed to flying, will saunter up the ramp until they get to the very top. There, they will peer over the precipice in disbelief. Then, speaking in bee, one will say, “Some idiot forgot to finish the damn ramp!” Annoyed, they turn and take cover in the deep shadows beneath the Taranov board, grasping onto the fabric you provided.

By the end of the two hours, the bees will have set up two distinct camps. One group will be back in the original hive, and the second will cluster tightly under the ramp, looking very much like a swarm in a tree.

If you look carefully, you might even see a few scout bees flying about or dancing across the cluster — a sure sign you’ve successfully created an artificial swarm that is now seeking new lodgings.

Once the ramp is in place, cover most of it with a sheet spread flat so bees don’t tangle in the folds.
Once the ramp is in place, cover most of it with a sheet spread flat so bees don’t tangle in the folds.

Installing the artifical swarm

When most of the bees are off the sheet, you can simply move the Taranov board away from the original hive and carry the swarm to the new hive. Piece of cake. Or, if you want to move the bees farther away, you can drop the swarm into a tight box and move it wherever you like.

To install the bees in their new hive, you can remove the middle few frames to make the transfer easier, or you can add an empty super above the brood box to act like a funnel.

You want the old queen to go into the split, but if you are unsure of where she is, or you just want a backup, now is a good time to cut a few of those ripe queen cells out of the old hive and transfer them to the split.

The very last thing to do is gather up the sheet and shake any remaining bees on the ground near the split.

Soon after the bees land on the sheet, the young begin to march up the ramp.
Soon after the bees land on the sheet, the young begin to march up the ramp.

Not a model of efficiency

Some people ask, “Is this an efficient way to split a hive?” Absolutely not. With a Taranov split, the amount of work per bee is daunting. In truth, you can achieve the same result in a third of the time by making a shook swarm. Instead of shaking each frame over the ramp, shake it over a brood box with frames, add a queen, and you’re done.

But here’s the thing. A Taranov split is bewildering to watch. I don’t think I ever learned more about honey bees in a single day than I did by watching a Taranov in action. The difference in behavior between foragers and nurses is startling, something we don’t notice day-to-day as we tend our bees.

Learning exactly how each type of bee behaves, just like Mr. Taranov did, can make you a better beekeeper because you become more able to predict bee behavior. Understanding behavior based on age, and predicting what bees will do next, can be a tremendous help.

It doesn’t take long for the bees to divide into two groups, separated only by those few inches.
It doesn’t take long for the bees to divide into two groups, separated only by those few inches.

My first time through

My first time doing a Taranov split, I was about halfway through shaking the bees when I decided it wasn’t going to work. Why did I believe I could shake all the bees onto a sheet and expect them to divide themselves into two camps: the swarmers and the stayers? What made me think a four-inch band of air would stop a perfectly healthy honey bee from going home?  The Russian, I reasoned, was nuts.

I almost stopped, convinced I was ruining a perfectly good colony. But since I was already into it, I kept going, if somewhat sheepishly.

By the time all the shaking was complete, however, I noticed something. The bees on the sheet were steadfastly climbing the ramp. From all points of the compass, the bees converged on the ramp, marching singly or in groups. Like salmon climbing a rocky stream, they all knew the way home and kept working at it, plying their way up the sheet and onto the board. They remained calm, non-aggressive, and intent on their mission.

An hour later, I was circling the yard like a ruffled hen, cackling and fluttering. “Look!” I called to anyone who would listen. “Come see! It’s magic!” Thousands of bees converged on the ramp and stepped to the top. Once there, each bee peeked over the edge of the air moat, then turned and joined the cluster beneath the ramp. Meanwhile, the older bees, the foragers, came and went as usual, seeming oblivious to the regiments below.

I never tire of watching, either. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve made a Taranov split, but I get a kick out of seeing the entire drama unfold, no matter how predictable it is.

It takes a while for all the forages to find their way in, but eventually they return to life as usual.
It takes a while for all the forages to find their way in, but eventually they return to life as usual.

Don’t hang up on the details

I want to emphasize that the dimensions of the board, the type of fabric, the supports — all the particulars — are not that important. Nearly everyone who tries this does it in a slightly different way, using various materials and measurements. As long as you incorporate the key features that make it work, the rest is just noise.

To do the split the way I describe, you need an angled board leading from the ground to the landing board. You need a four-inch space between the Taranov board and the landing board, and you need the sheet, tablecloth, or tarp to give them easy access to the ramp. And perhaps easiest to forget, you need space for the cluster to form beneath the ramp and something for them to hang onto.

However, after much experimentation, I suspect the four inches could be increased to four feet or forty. The shook bees just need a convenient place to form their cluster, and it needn’t be near the original hive. What’s intriguing about the four-inch space is the way it clearly demonstrates the differences in behavior between the two groups.

Once most bees are settled, I remove the sheet and carry the artificial swarm to a new home that I’ve prepared in advance.
Once most bees are settled, I remove the sheet and carry the artificial swarm to a new home that I’ve prepared in advance.

Just enjoy the bees

Since I first posted information about the Taranov split on my website ten years ago, I’ve received numerous reports of people reacting exactly as I did: amazed, stunned, and incredulous that it works. They’ve sent me photos and stories and shared their excitement. Most admit to not believing it would work, then going a bit goosey when it does.

I think all beekeepers should try this at least once. Forget efficiency for the moment and just revel in the lives of bees. Have your camera ready, be patient, and let me know how it goes.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

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