splitting the hive13 July, 2012

two beehivesI haven’t written about my honeybees much this year. And it isn’t because they haven’t been up to much.

But I haven’t known what I was doing with them, and as we’ve said before, one of our coping mechanisms for dealing with the idea of potential failure is secrecy. So whether I purposefully did it or not, I’ve more or less been keeping you in the dark about my bees until I found out how my experimenting/disaster control turned out.

When I mentioned their goings on last (besides telling you about getting propolis on my shirt), I had one hive that had successfully made it through the winter and had found early sources of pollen and nectar because of our early spring. I had also just started going to a quarterly meeting of beekeepers from around southwest Iowa.

Well, the experiment I was secretly planning back then (early April), which I told neither you nor the group of beekeepers, was splitting my hive on site. You see, having just one beehive isn’t a good idea. Partly because bees make me happy, and more bees make me even happier, so one hive isn’t good enough. Also, having at least two is a way of hedging your bets. Beekeeping isn’t a trouble-free endeavor, and besides having a second as back-up, you can often offer help to a weak hive if you’ve got a second to help it with. Also, I have found it extremely useful to have two to compare to each other; since I’m new to this, I can better judge what things are supposed to look like if I have more than one data point to look at.

Luckily, it isn’t hard to go from one hive to two. First, it’s not quite right that I’m using the word ‘hive’. The hive is the physical structure that a honeybee colony lives in. I had a second hive, that is the stack of painted wooden boxes with bottom and top and frames inside, all ready to go from when I had two functioning colonies last year. What I needed was to take my first bee colony and from it start a second colony.

There are many different ways that people with bees increase the number of colonies they have. One way is to buy a new colony from someone else, either in a package as I did originally, or as a nuc (short for nucleus hive). A package will consist of just a queen and a lot of workers in a screened box. A nuc will have a queen and lots of workers as well, but rather than in a box made for transport, it will be in a miniature hive that includes frames of comb already full of pollen and honey and baby bees, all ready to go.

Or you can take the colonies you have and increase them all on your own. A functioning colony consists of lots and lots of worker bees and a queen. When a bee colony loses their queen, they know it, and they want a new one. If there are still new eggs in the hive, they can raise a new queen for themselves from those eggs. This was my plan. Alternately and perhaps more traditionally, the beekeeper can buy a queen raised specially from someone else, put this new queen in the hive, and they’ll usually accept her if they’re missing their own. So making a new colony involves separating out a group of worker bees from the rest of the colony so that they are convinced that they’re queenless.

I had previously been told the way to do this was to take a box full of frames of bees, including brood (eggs and baby bees) since I was planning on having them raise their own queen, remove it from the rest of the hive and place it at least three miles away from the original hive. That distance will ensure that the relocated bees don’t all just fly back to their original colony. It doesn’t take them long to readjust to new surroundings, realize they are queenless, and start raising up a new queen. After the month or so that it takes for the egg to grow into an adult queen, for the queen to go out and mate (PS only split a colony late enough in the spring for drone/male bees to be around), for her to come back and start laying eggs, and you’ve got yourself a new colony.

The problem was I didn’t have a site three or more miles away to relocate a new colony to even if I could bring it back home a month later. Luckily, the world of beekeeping is full of different ideas about the way to do things. A beekeeper in Nebraska with an informative website does his splits differently. And I used his method.

My hive consisted of two hive bodies (boxes) both full of brood and bees. I simply separated the two from each other, giving both of them a bottom and top. One had the original queen in it, and was happy, and the other had eggs to raise a new queen from. The trick was to make sure all the workers in the queenless hive didn’t just leave to rejoin their old queen. What I did was set up these two new hives, one with the original queen, one without, so that both of their entrances faced where the old hive entrance used to be. Worker bees returning to the old hive would find it missing, with no entrance to walk through and have a choice; right or left. In theory, half would chose one way, half the other, so both colonies would be populated. The half lacking a queen would still have the population it needed to raise themselves a new one.

In practice, I had to adjust the two hives a bit so that the queenless hive was closer to where the old entrance was. Honeybees are able to fan a ‘welcome home’ scent by their entrance, so my theory is that the incoming workers were able to pick out the hive with the original queen when all other things were even. Once the choice was between the hive with the entrance more where it should be and the one with the ‘welcome home’ scent, they split more evenly.

And after a month or so of worry over whether it had worked or if I should have just followed the more common advice, I spotted new eggs in the previously queenless hive, and later the new queen herself. There’s always a chance she won’t be a great queen, but she’s there, so it worked.

So now I’m back to having two colonies. Neither is strong enough to split again this year, but I’ll probably be doing more splitting in my future. If I’m this happy with two hives, just think how happy I would be with four!

P.S. At the next beekeepers’ meeting I was comfortable enough with my success to tell others what I had done. And to my surprise, another beekeeper reported about his success splitting hives in a very similar way (albeit with more fancy equipment). Everyone in beekeeping really does seem to have their own ways of doing things!



  • Congrats and way cool. It all makes sense, but i can’t imagine how much trial and error from other beekeepers though the years was necessary to figure all of it out.

    I also bet the quarterly beekeepers meetings must be interesting. Tell us more sometime.

    Bill13 July, 2012 at 12:17 pm

  • I’ve been catching up on my newspaper reading and found another beekeeping website you might enjoy.


    There’s a lot of honey production here in Texas.

    Aunt Laura15 August, 2012 at 10:27 am

  • Thanks, Laura. I’m checking it out now.

    A15 August, 2012 at 1:04 pm