Splitting Errs (Rhymes with Hairs)

This is the Bee Babble for May 22, 2020. I am a little embarrassed that it has been almost two months since my last post. Every day that I am in the bee yard I am thinking “here is something that I should write about in a Bee Babble.”

I also would like to fire up another Bee Babble Zoom … I enjoy talking with you all in person instead of texting or emailing. Conversing from 6 feet away with face masks is difficult, but I think that is going to be our normal for a long time until we have a reliable vaccination for COVID-19.

Welcome to new mentee Dave L. His first two weeks as a beekeeper: he installed his new nucs solo, then he worked spent a day working in the apiary where his nucs originated, and then he came out to Bethesda to help me catch … and then lose a swarm that emitted from Leif Ericksson.

My Splitting / Queen Problems

There are some things that you can learn by reading, and I encourage you all to read everything that you can find about beekeeping. Don’t believe most of it at face value, but read what you can find. Be especially careful about anything you see on the Internet. I believe that bad beekeeping ideas from the Internet has killed more honey bees than the other “4 P’s” threatening honey bee health (parasites, poor nutrition, pathogens and pesticides).

As important as your understanding of bee biology and behavior will be, your hands-on skills in the apiary are going to be critical to your success as a beekeeper. In my fourth year, I find that some of my own skills are deficient. I still have a very difficult time spotting eggs and I almost never see my queens, marked or unmarked. I am a little envious when my mentees tell me that they see their queens on every inspection. It is seldom necessary to see the queen to know that she is doing her job, but it is always a joy to spot her and see that she is well. All the practice is not going to make my eyes younger or less near-sighted. Fortunately, my mentees are really good at it, so I will be inviting you to spend more time working with me to help me find my queens!

The Dave Clark Twenty-Five

One of my biggest problems has been that my “walk away” splits (and my “Crazy Ivan” splits) have failed to make new queens in the original hive. I finally figured out the mistake that I was making. I have learned a great deal by listening to David Clark speaking, but I misunderstood at least one fundamental point. Dave teaches and lectures all over DC and Maryland. He has adapted Mel Disselkoen’s “On the Spot” (OTS) queen rearing techniques for Maryland, and is one of the most generous souls as far as teaching and mentoring new beekeepers.

Every time I heard Dave speak about splitting he has been adament about not opening the box to peek until 25 days after you made the split / start / nuc. If you violate this rule, you may lose your virgin queen. So, when I made my splits, I would patiently wait for 25 days before looking inside the box. When I finally checked, I often had a hopelessly queenless hive, probably with laying workers. Well, that is not what Dave was saying, that is what I was hearing.

Walk Away Splits

Splitting hives in the spring is an important tool for swarm management. During the spring build-up, a successfully overwintered colony will run out of space for brood, and subsequently swarm. Sometimes the colony will swarm and there is nothing that you can do about it. There are at least nine factors that are believed to contribute to swarming (according to Increase Essentials, p. 118). A crowded hive and congestion in the brood nest are only two of factors. However, those are the two that you have some control over. Splitting hives is also a way to cause a break in the brood-making cycle, which can help reduce your Varroa mite population.

A “walk-away” split (WAS) is when you start with one large and growing colony in one hive, and you end up with two colonies in two hives. Another name for a WAS is a “blind split”  because you don’t always know where the queen ends up. You can also split a strong colony three ways. You have to balance the size and number of your splits with what your objectives are for the year. Small colonies will have to spend their energy building up population for the fall and will not make as much harvestable honey. On the other hand, if your colony swarms, at least 1/3 of the bees and all the honey they can carry will go away from your apiary, unless you are lucky enough to catch your own swarm.

Skipping the details to get to the punch line, you end up with two (or three) hives. Each hive should have enough honey, pollen, capped brood and open brood with eggs or very young larvae to sustain a hive. The new hives can be as small as a 4-frame nuc, or you can split a hive that is a behemoth 50:50. Maybe you saw the queen and you know which hive she ended up in. Maybe you captured her and then chose which hive to put her in. Usually the implication is that you don’t know which colony started out with a queen and which did not.

Therein lies the crux of my error. I thought that once you made the splits, you closed up the boxes … maybe fed the new “daughter” colony because the foragers probably drift back to the “mother” colony … but leave the bees alone for 25 days. Wrong, wrong, wrongety wrong!


OK, so beekeepers do not have an agreed-upon common body of knowledge or terminology that I know of. Many beekeepers make splits and they talk about the “split” as the new hive, and the colony that they “split” as the old hive. I can’t keep track of what the heck they mean when they use the same word with a slightly different inflection for each hive.

Things get messy starting with the fact that many beekeepers conflate the term “hive” with the term “colony.” It usually does not matter, except when it does. So, let’s establish the terms that I want to use because I try to be hyper-precise.

  • A colony of honey bees is a usocial group of bees that live together as a unit. A healthy colony will comprise a queen, enough worker (female) bees to take care of the queen and sustain the colony, and usually some drones (male) bees.
  • A honey bee nest is a structure, whether natural or man-made, in which a colony lives (past, present or future). An active nest will contain adult bees, brood, resources (honey, nectar, pollen, propolis) and wax comb.
  • A bee hive is a man-made container that serves as a nest for a colony of honey bees. I would qualify that with some sense of “intention” that a human has for bees to be living in it. A wooden (or plastic, cardboard or styrofoam) box with removable frames is a bee hive. So is a skep, a gum or a hollowed log, although they don’t have frames.

Good, now you know what I mean if I say that to do a 2-way WAS we are going to start with one colony inside one hive and an empty hive and we will end up with two colonies inside two hives. The original hive will not move. The new hive may end up next to the original hive, or it may move to another location in the apiary, or to another apiary. The original colony will have a queen (maybe two in the spring). After the split, at least one of the two colonies will have a queen. Sometimes both will end up with a queen. Eventually, you will know which hive the queen ended up in … I like to call the colony in the hive that the queen ended up in the “daughter” colony  resulting from the split. The colony in the hive where the queen started is the “mother” colony. Of course it gets confusing if you do a WAS and the queen ends up staying in the original hive, which is now the daughter colony, and the new hive is the mother colony. This is only confusing when you don’t know where your queen is at the start. Technically, if you know where your queen is, and you take the queen out of the original hive and put her in the new hive, it was not a walkaway.

Where Is the Queen?

My big mistake has been that I was not checking both hives resulting from the WAS a few days after the split. I was so fixated on those 25 days that I did not look to see whether the mother colony had enough eggs or young larvae to make an emergency queen. You must check both hives resulting from a split. Each hive must end up with either a healthy queen bee, or emergency queen cells being drawn out by the worker bees. If you find a hive that has no evidence of a queen and no evidence that at least one emergency queen cell is being built, then you must intervene by adding a frame that contains open brood including eggs or young larvae (no older than 48 hours since the egg flopped).

I will wait four or five days before checking because I have trouble seeing eggs and I seldom find the queen. I can see larvae. If I see tiny larvae then I know that there was a laying queen in the hive within the last four days, and that is good enough for me. The bees will realize very quickly (I have heard 20 minutes to an hour) that they are queenless and they will immediately begin looking for eggs and young larvae from which to start making emergency queen cells.

If I have a hive that has no queen and now queen cells in the making, I must intervene. The nice thing about intervening with a frame of open brood is that it can do no harm. Any colony will accept open brood from any other colony and care for them as their own. Usually, nurse bees and drones from another colony will be accepted as well, so you don’t have to shake off the nurse bees or drones from a frame that you are transferring. I just select a frame with enough open worker brood : very young larvae (barely visible) or eggs (tiny grains of rice stuck to the center of a cell with a splash of royal jelly). If the recipient colony is queenright, all the worker larvae will grow up to be worker bees. If the recipient colony is not, they will make emergency queen cells and if all goes well, in 25 days you will have a laying queen again.

Crazy Ivan!

I have made reference to the Crazy Ivan Split, which is my own term, inspired by “The Hunt for Red October.”  Other beekeepers tell me that they call this “a split gone bad.”  Usually it happens like this:

  • Do a spring inspection
  • Find tons of queen cups … I can’t tell if they are charged or not, so I assume that they are
  • Decide to attempt a swarm split
  • Run around the bee yard looking for the necessary woodenware
  • Try to find the queen, frame by frame through the hive — no luck
  • Smoker goes out and needs to be relit
  • Bees are getting really pissy
  • Start to split the hive, carefully dividing frames between hives
  • The bees start to go into “kill the bear” mode — angry bees are all over my veil, it is hard to see, I am getting stung on my hands
  • Half open and half split, I can’t just put everything back, I have to finish as quickly as possible
  • Frames are now going into the new hive or back into the original hive at random.

At this point, I have no idea whether there is open brood in the original hive, the new hive or anywhere. I don’t know whether I dropped the queen and stepped on her, whether she flew away in the excitement, or whether she is sitting on top of my veil laughing herself silly. It is completely random what ended up in each box. It is a mess. I am a mess.

What I should have been doing is waiting 4 days (which will give the bees some time to forgive me) and then check both hives to see whether either has a queen, emergency queen cells or nothing … and go from there.

Happening Right Now

It is not just me … many of the experienced beekeepers with whom I have communed tell me that this is the swarmiest year that they have experienced, ever.  Even if you made splits to prevent swarming, you have to be checking for swarm cells. Normally we advise new beekeepers not to inspect more often than once every two weeks (or ten days if you can’t resist). However, during “swarm season” … and this year, it seems like we will have swarming risks right through until the nectar flow ends, I would recommend that you do quick checks every seven days to be sure that your hive is not preparing to swarm.

Signs of a Colony Planning to Swarm

  • Queen cups that are “charged” with eggs and royal jelly. If you can see eggs, peek inside the queen cups. Queen cups themselves are normal … honey bees like to plan in advance and they will make queen cups to be ready in case they need to supercede the queen. However, if you suddenly see many many queen cups being made … this is pre-swarm-prep preparation, and you should check again soon to be sure they are not using them.
  • Charged queen cups that are being drawn out. Essentially, swarm cells are being made. Technically, once an egg is laid in a queen cup, it is considered a queen cell … regardless of whether it is a swarm cell or a supercedure cell.
  • The queen is present, but she has stopped laying eggs. This is not always an indication of an imminent swarm. Sometimes she just needs a break. However, when the colony has decided to swarm, after she has laid eggs in the queen cups, her attendants will significantly reduce how much they feed her (put her on a diet) and start to push her and nip her to make her run around on the combs (exercise program). They want to slim her down so that she will be able to fly with them to the new nest that they select, when they swarm.
  • Workers backfilling the brood nest with nectar. When the queen has stopped laying and part of the colony will swarm, there will be a twenty-five day brood break. Normally, after a new adult bee emerges, they clean the cells and the queen will come back to lay eggs in the empty cells. When they start filling that space with nectar, they don’t expect that space for new eggs will be needed for a while.
  • Much harder to identify, and to determine which hive they are coming from, but you may notice more scout bees are out inspecting things. There will be extra interest in empty woodenware that had bees in the past, tree cavities, etc. Scouts begin to search for a new nesting site as soon as the decision to swarm has been made.

How Do I Prevent the Swarm?

If your bees are getting ready to swarm, it is too late to do a walk-away split. You must find your queen and separate her from the swarm cells.

Do not start cutting swarm cells out. First of all … you won’t find them all. They will make swarm cells to hang down, to give the queen pupa space to develop a nice long abdomen and large spermatheca. However, under the frames is only one place where they can build nice swarm cells. A small section of burr comb in the corner of a frame will do nicely, as will an overhang formed by a cluster of drone comb. I have seen hives with eleven frames with multiple swarm cells on each. Secondly, when they have set their mind to swarming, they are going to do it. Cutting out the swarm cells will only postpone  the inevitable, and if they swarm anyway, you have now ensured that the daughter colony has no hope of survival. Thirdly, sometimes the swarm impulse will be replaced with a supercedure impulse. It can be very confusing to find swarm cells and supercedure cells in the hive … or swarm cells and emergency queen cells in the hive. If something has happened to the queen, those swarm / supercedure / emergency cells are the only way that colony can requeen itself. Trust your bees to know what is best for them.

The best way to prevent the swarm from happening is to convince the colony that it has already swarmed. You do this by making a swarm prevention split, and this requires finding the queen. If you can get your queen and enough capped brood, bees and resources into a separate hive, the colony that was preparing to swarm will be fooled into believing that it has already happened. They will continue with the process of raising the new queen cells and tending to the new queen until she has mated and starts populating the new colony.

Sometimes people try things like putting a queen excluder in front of the hive entrance. If the queen can’t escape, the colony can’t swarm, right? Well …  this is true, but it is only a temporary solution. The queen excluder will prevent your drones from flying as well, so they will hang around the hive consuming food. However, as soon as that queen excluder comes off, and the weather is good … off they will go. Also, those swarm cells are going to develop into a hive full of new queens that will emerge, and you will end up with a hive full of fighting virgin queens.

Did My Hive Already Swarm?

Could be. The colony can emit a swarm as soon as the first queen cell is capped, or even a day before. Much depends on the weather. The first good flying day after Day 7 of the first egg laid in a swarm cell is the day that the swarm will attempt to fly. Many of the bees that join the swarm will be house bees. A few foragers and drones will join the party, but for establishing a new colony, the young bees have the most important roles. Your foragers will continue to bring in nectar, pollen, water and resins. You may not notice a change by observing the outside of the hive. You might not even notice a change inside the hive … maybe some freshly depleted honey stores, maybe a slightly lower house bee density … but the real clues are that you have no laying queen, no eggs or young larvae, fully formed capped queen cells, and plenty of capped brood.

If it happened, it happened. It is part of the natural reproductive process of the honey bee, and it is a wonderful thing to have a colony that is successful. You will get a 25-day brood break, which will eliminate most of the Varroa infestation. You will also have a lot of bees with extra time for drawing comb and making honey, so make sure that you have enough supers on, especially during the nectar flow. Some beekeepers recommend cutting out all but 3 or 4 of the nicest-looking (largest, well-formed) swarm cells. I’m never so sure about this.

If I have enough boxes and support bees, I will take out a frame or two swarm cells and some bees and capped brood to make mating nucs. If the nucs develop nicely, I can always combine them with a weaker hive later, or use them as “drawn comb factories” during the nectar flow. You can also use the swarm cells to help another colony that is not doing so well … maybe it is queenless, or the queen is not performing as you would like.

You can also check with your bee buddies to find out if someone has a queenless hive. You can exchange the frame with a queen cell for a frame of drawn comb, or a frame of undrawn foundation and an unspecified future favor. Be sure that if you are accepting drawn comb from another beekeeper that you trust them and their beekeeping skills … you don’t want to bring diseased comb into your apiary. Also, if you are going to carry queens or brood across state lines, even within the DMV, you need to obtain a permit from your state or DC apiary inspector.

Parting Thoughts

  • Here is a good video about doing walk-away splits for beginners from the Dyce Lab for Honey Bee Studies. Actually, you probably could have skipped reading this and just watched that video!
  • Beg, borrow or steal a copy of Swarm Essentials by Stephen J. Repasky. Get it now. Read it now. Read it again this winter. You want to know as much as you can about swarming and swarm management before your bees become active in the spring. Steve was a guest speaker at the DCBA meeting in March and the video is worth watching. You will need to get the password to watch it.
  • You might want to just borrow a copy of Increase Essentials by Lawrence John Connor (LJC), also from Wicwas Press. I have a love/hate relationship with Wicwas books, especially the ones that LJC writes and edits. There is a lot of very good information in those books but sometimes reading them is like extracting honey the old-fashioned way … crushing the combs with your hands into a strainer.
  • If you are not already doing so, subscribe to the Beekeeping Today Podcast … which is sponsored in part by Wicwas Press. You will learn something you did not know from every single episode. Some of the topics might not interest you at all (so skip them) but most of the podcasts have been helpful to my understanding of beekeeping, theory and practice. I have listened to some of them several times to get the most from them. Always keep in mind my “3/5/4/0” rule when listening … when Jim Tew joins Kim Flottum and Jeff Ott, you have three very experienced and knowledgeable beekeepers on the show … but some of what they say may contradict what you have learned elsewhere.
  • A very useful tool that you can buy (or make) is a Queen Rearing Calendar wheel. It was created to help beekeepers who are making queens to know exactly when each phase of queen rearing would happen, and correlate it to the calendar. This is very important, because if you are off by one day, all your queens will kill each other and you have to start all over again. However, I find it very useful for calculating when to expect swarm / supercedure / emergency queen cells to be capped, emerge, mate or start laying. I spent a good deal of time working out a spreadsheet for Andy for one scenario in his hives. Then I found this wheel, which would have shown us the answer in a matter of seconds. I bought one from Betterbee, and there are handy instructions with pictures on how to use it: https://www.betterbee.com/images/QBCQueenCalendar.pdf (PDF file).
  • No matter which beekeeping club is closest to your home, and especially now that most are doing their meetings via telepresence, it is a good idea to follow the web sites of several of the nearby clubs as well as your state club and the semi-national (probably EAS for everyone reading me). You can learn a great deal by jumping into online club meetings and lectures that are free. This week, DCBA had a great meeting with Zac Lamas about quality queen rearing, making nucs and winter preparation (which is done in August!).

There is always more … I have some of the questions that I’ve received from you that I would like to expand out, but this will be enough for today. I hope to see many of you in the next Bee Babble Chat online.

Warning : This pages are part of my ‘Bee Babble’ series. The content is intended for a specific audience and is subject to my disclaimer

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