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Splitting the top-bar hive with a shook swarm

Today I split my top-bar hive. It is eleven months to the day since they swarmed down from the sky and took over the abandoned hive. Twice during the winter I thought I was losing them, and twice I moved them into the garden shed to keep them warm. But ever since last Sunday (when I found the mouse) I’ve been trying to decide what to do with them. They were going to swarm any minute.

Normally, I would take a hive that big and just break it in two. But I have only one top-bar hive and the top bars won’t fit into a Langstroth box–something I have regretted from day one. I finally decided to do a modified shook swarm.

I say “modified” because I had no idea where the queen was. I still don’t. The top-bar combs are huge, about 6 inches deeper than a deep frame. There are 22 of them and all 44 sides were completely coated with bees. I didn’t kid myself about finding the queen in those teeming masses; I didn’t even try.

I put a deep Langstroth box on top of a screened bottom board with a queen excluder to keep them from absconding. Inside the box I put a frame of honey, a division-board feeder, two drawn combs, and six new frames. Then I shook all the top-bar frames over the new box. Bees were everywhere.

Once that was done, I closed up the top-bar and moved the Lang about 300 feet away. I was afraid everyone would fly back, but I must have gotten a good number of nurse bees because they pretty much stayed put. That was about four hours ago. Right now, it looks like I’ve got two strong hives.

However, I know one is queenless. So I will keep checking for eggs until I figure out who needs a queen. The other problem is that there is no brood in the new hive, so even with a queen, that hive will drastically shrink in population until the first brood develops. That aspect of a shook swarm is very similar to a real swarm. I will probably steal a few frames of brood from my other Langstroths to keep it strong.

The procedure went smoothly and quickly. The thing that most amazed me was the number of drones. As others have pointed out recently, those free-form combs are drone cities. It’s hard to believe the colonies expend so much energy raising males . . . but then, I’m biased.


I tacked a queen excluder over the entrance so they wouldn't leave while I was getting ready to split them.

One of forty-four sides where the queen could be.

Swarm cells being prepared.


  • I have been searching for someone else with top-bar hives and creative ways to meet their needs. Finally found your site and blog and hope to learn from you. I am in North Central Arkansas and the only TBH keeper around. I switched from Langstroth hives last year with the belief that TBH will be easier on my back and healthier for the bees. Look forward to more interesting info from you and your bees.

    Thanks for taking the time to share to help others with raising bees.

  • Thanks for your great information. This is my first tbh with another to come. I lost two national (UK) hives and I need to restock them from my tbh, I like the way you don’t need to fuss around a top bar and apart from removing the roof; no hefting supers around.

  • Rusty,

    One of our top-bar hives is very full (as you explained above). We saw several uncapped queen cells. We tried to find the queen. There were just too many bees. We feel certain they are going to swarm. We have another empty top-bar hive. If we just split the full hive into the empty hive how many bars should we take with bees? Should we leave the hives with equal amounts of brood and pollen? We could also give both of them some 1:1 syrup. We will move the “new” hive 300 feet away. Should we close the entrance of the new hive for a day (as you would a swarm)? Thanks for your help. You have helped us to be better beekeepers.

    • Nel,

      I like to split half of everything: half the pollen, honey, brood, nurse bees, and queen cells. The foragers will all go back to the original location, so that hive will appear to be bigger and busier at first. But after a while, when brood hatches in the new hive and nurses become foragers, the two hives will look more even.

      You can close the entrance for a day if you want to, but most of the foragers will go back to the original location anyway, so it doesn’t matter all that much. Personally, I don’t close them up. You can give syrup but if there is lots of honey you don’t need to. Just check on stores and make a decision based on that.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I am in a position where I have a Warre hive and want to convert it to a national, could you please advise?


  • Hi Rusty, very nice site! I too, have a top bar hive with 20 full combs of bees and 3 more less populated. I saw 2 queen cups today – couldnt see any larvae, but doesnt mean there may have been an egg. Do I wait to split until I see larvae in the queen cup or go ahead and do it before hand. I added a bar of drawn comb today a bar in front of where I saw the queen plus an empty bar hoping to lessen the congestion and give myself a little more time. Have an empty top bar hive – ready to go.

    I have read if you wait until the queen cell (swarm cell) is completed and capped – you are too late. ??

    • Melissa,

      The presence of queen cups doesn’t necessarily mean a swarm is imminent. Some colonies build queen cups but never use them. Backfilling of the brood nest is a much better indicator of possible swarming.

      If you are going to split, you can do it any time; an impending swarm isn’t necessary. Since you have a hive ready to go, just do it before they swarm.

      I don’t quite understand your last statement. Too late for what? If your swarm cells are already capped you are too late to stop the swarm impulse, but you are not too late to forestall that swarm by initiating the swarm yourself in the form of a split. I generally use a Taranov split on the top-bar hive, but you can use the shook swarm just as easily. Be careful not to shake combs with queen cells attached; use a brush instead.

      • Thanks for the info! I meant if you wait to see capped queen cells you are too late to stop the hive from swarming. I did a split and probably could have shook more bees in the new hive (I shook 2 combs of bees in and that went very well) I put 8 top bars of honey/capped brood all together plus shook the 2 combs of bees in. My orig. hive still has 15 bars for themselves. I didnt touch the bar that had the queen cups, I left that alone.

        I checked this week and in the orig. hive I now have 4 capped queen cells on the same frame I first saw the 2. Blackberries are in the works presently – so the orig. hive is full of unripe honey. It appears now I need to create some empty comb space for the new queen. The queen cells are on bar #9 in the hive. 45″ hive in length, they have the entire space, but are concentrated in the first 15 bars.

  • Checked my original hive today that I split. The 4 queen cells were open, didn’t see any brood. Some spotty capped brood, but it may be from the old drawn comb I used in this hive. I saw the swarm cells (capped) on the 12th – today is the 20th. So, maybe it’s early, but there was another capped swarm cell that was new. The original queen has been out of that hive since 6/3rd. It is bursting at the seams with honey/unripe and ripe. I had a frame of brood from the split with some small larvae (I didn’t see any eggs, but this had the smallest larvae) so I gave that to the original hive with apparently no queen. Hope all goes well – that hive was a #3 pkg – lots of honey – but what an expensive way to get it. 😕

    • Melissa,

      I’m not sure if there is a question here, but I think you are jumping the gun on the queen cells. Queen cells remain capped for about 8 days, and then it can take an additional one to three weeks to get the virgin queen mated and laying. So depending on whether you saw the cells toward the beginning or ending of their capped period, you may not see a laying queen until the second week of July. It could be earlier, but maybe not. You could very well have a virgin or a newly mated queen in there. They are harder to distinguish before they start laying because they are not fully developed.

      • Sorry, for the vague comment. I think I was looking for a “sounds like”……….. “you are jumping the gun”…… Thanks Rusty, which means from the looks of the hive. 🙁 she would have no where to lay – the hive is full of unripe/ripe (only a couple bars on the ripe) honey comb. no joke. We are at the end of blackberry bloom here in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. There are some empty bars at the end but that’s it. I have noticed the last week – I am seeing lots of bees at the water…. more than I’ve seen before. I can say as well, they were not liking my inspection nor presence – even with some smoke.

        • Melissa,

          If they manage to raise a queen, they will move some of the nectar out of the way for her. You can also replace a bar with a new one by moving them aside and pulling one in from the end.

          • Thanks for the reply somehow last night I found a really good article by Walt Wright on Bee Source – about backfilling – …… Walt Wright said, “Observation of the internal workings of the colony suggests that the colony can’t tolerate empty cells within the cluster perimeter. Within the constraints of field forage availability, and flying weather to collect it, empty cells are filled on a priority basis. Given the opportunity, there are no empty cells within the cluster most of the time. Brood nest expansion is accomplished by consumption of honey/nectar in the direction of the anticipated growth.” when you actually see this happening (“no room for the queen to lay”) and read about it – it starts an almost a – ha moment. I did move a couple full honey bars to the back and replaced 3 or so with empty bars.

    • Gene,

      I don’t know. My top-bar hive has 22 bars. In late spring, I’ve seen brood on 16 bars. Most of the time, I’d say the brood spans 12 bars. In winter, I’d say it’s closer to 6.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Just a few questions. When do you realize that your top bar hive needs to be split? And does it matter how far you move them apart? Also when you are installing your bees in your TBH do you use follower boards or do you just dump them in? My TBH is a small 2 and 1\2 foot long hive so I am little confused about what to do. Also if you use a follower board, when do know to keep moving it further back? Thanks so much! Your site is very much appreciated!

    • John,

      When do you realize that your top bar hive needs to be split? I like to split when I see the bees backfilling brood comb with honey.

      And does it matter how far you move them apart? No. Just realize that all the foragers will return to the old hive. You won’t see foragers around the new hive until the older nurse bees begin foraging. That may be a few days to a week.

      Also when you are installing your bees in your TBH do you use follower boards or do you just dump them in? I just dump and let them decide where to build, but follower boards work, too. Either way is okay.

      Also if you use a follower board, when do know to keep moving it further back? I wait until about 80% of the bars are drawn.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I have a new TBH that I started as a split from my Langstroth hive and they are rapidly building comb. I’m having trouble imagining shaking bees off this comb to make a split. Is it really tough enough to withstand that? It looks so delicate!

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