My nephew was incredibly flexible when he was young. He reminded me of the comic book character Plastic Man. Family members joked that he was made of rubber. He could bend his hands backwards and contort himself into poses that could only be achieved by a human body less than a decade old. One of his more impressive tricks was dropping from a standing position into a perfect split. He would do this so suddenly and so completely that all the females marveled and all the men winced with pain at the sight of it. My nephew grew up and is now an adult about to leave for college. He doesn’t perform gymnastic parlor tricks anymore, and I stopped thinking about splits until I became a beekeeper. Doug and I have been doing splits this spring but not the kinds of splits that lead to a groin injury. In the beekeeping world, a split is what you do when you divide a bee colony, and bee splits can be just as tricky as the splits performed by gymnasts.
A beekeeper has four ways to increase the number of bee colonies in the apiary:
- You can buy bees. A package of bees can cost anywhere from $100 to $150, although I haven’t checked the prices for 2021. Maybe bees, like everything else, are more expensive now.
- You can catch a swarm.
- You can remove an existing bee colony from a place it doesn’t belong like the inside wall of a house. This is called a cut out, and it is probably the hardest way to get bees. Power tools and trips to the hardware store are usually involved because you have to repair the damage done after the bees are removed.
- You can split one of your existing hives to make two colonies. This is a great option because it doesn’t require much work and is free.
We purchased bees in April 2018 when we started our beekeeping adventure. (If you want to read about our start in beekeeping, click here.) We began with two nucs. Apart from a couple of queens, we have not purchased any other bees in three years. Now we have six colonies. How did we triple the number of colonies without buying any bees? We kept performing splits.
Here is how a split works. You start with a strong hive that has a laying queen. You remove several frames from the strong hive and place them into a hive box (aka a nuc box). We usually take five frames out of the strong hive, but some people use three or four frames. The frames should have everything a bee colony needs including food (honey and pollen stored in the comb), eggs (needed to make more bees), capped brood (baby bees that are about to emerge into the world), and adult bees.
A hive only has one queen. The existing laying queen can stay in the parent colony or she can be placed into the smaller colony. Some people purchase a mated queen that can be placed into the queenless colony. Doug and I have purchased queens several times, and we have not had good luck with them. We find that they die quickly. I’m not criticizing the suppliers. I just think that bees aren’t like widgets that can be easily mass produced and shipped to any person that has a credit card and an internet connection. Doug and I prefer to let Mother Nature make the queens for us.
If a colony has eggs, it can make a new queen. The process the colony uses to make a new queen is miraculous and mind blowing. For the non beekeepers, let me remind you of a few basic things about bee biology. Each colony has three types of bees: a queen, male bees called drones, and female bees called worker bees.
A full size colony in spring will have one queen, several hundred drones, and tens of thousands of worker bees. The worker bees have different jobs (nurse bees, foragers, guard bees, etc.), but they are all still worker bees. The honey bees you observe on your flowers are worker bees foraging for food. New bees come from eggs that then become larva that then become brood that then emerge from their cell in the comb as a fully formed bee. The diet fed to the larva is what dictates if it will develop into a queen bee or a worker bee. When a colony senses that it needs a new queen, it will identify a future queen and build a larger cell in the comb for her to develop. This larger cell is called a queen cup or a queen cell. The larva destined to be the queen is fed a secretion of vitamins and hormones called royal jelly. It is this special diet that causes the larva to eventually develop into a queen rather than a common worker bee. When the fully formed queen emerges from the queen cup, she then must leave the hive to mate with the drones. After she is mated, she stays in the hive laying eggs all day.
When a beekeeper performs a split, it is important that the queenless colony have eggs that can be used to make a new queen. A colony without eggs will eventually die out because it can’t make a queen. Without a queen, no new bees are made and the colony has a population collapse. It is a good idea to place the mated queen from the original colony into the split because she will keep laying eggs and build up the new colony quickly. If you choose to keep the queen in the parent colony, then a beekeeper has to keep checking the split to make sure it has enough bees to sustain it while it makes a new queen. The beekeeper may have to move more frames of eggs and brood from the parent colony into the split to fortify the split during this process. This is what Doug and I have been doing this spring.
Here is some crazy bee math for you. We went into the winter with six colonies. Four colonies made it into spring, but we immediately split two of those four colonies and now have six colonies again. Does that mean we lost two colonies, gained two colonies, or are now even? I’m saying we are even, but Doug thinks we lost colonies. These are the types of conversations that consume us in the evenings and may be why we have not turned on our TV in three months. (Side note for my husband who may or may not be reading this blog post: Why can’t we just get rid of our aesthetically unappealing television that sits in the middle of the living room? We aren’t using it, and I’m tired of dusting it.)
Our focus this year is going to be on growing the number of hives we have in the apiary. We have a new sunny location we are anxious to populate with bees, so we are going to be making splits throughout the spring and early summer. Ideally splits should be made when the cold weather is over and plenty of drones are available for mating. However, you don’t want to wait too long to make splits because a strong hive might decide to swarm before you make the split. Also, you don’t want to make a split late in the summer because the colony won’t have time to build up before winter. Timing splits can feel like playing chess but only if you happen to play chess with pieces that have wings and fly off the board in the middle of the game.
The splits that Doug and I make are not as entertaining as the splits our nephew performed at family gatherings. Life has a way of rolling along. Children grow up. Winter turns to spring. Flowers bloom, and the bees go about their work. I’m happy to have the chance to see all of it.