Spring Hive Split

It’s that time of year again! Two out of three of the hives we inspected this past weekend had queen cells in some stage of development. After months of book learning, discussion with beekeeping friends, and formation of a new subgroup in our bee guild dedicated to gaining and disseminating knowledge of how to divide hives and raise queens locally (‘The Bee Selective’), Kelly and I finally made our first hive split.

We were fortunate to have Nickie, a beekeeping buddy, along who helped us muddle through (real life always varies from what you read in books). Following are the hive stats and details on how we made the split. Long live the queens!

What we started with: onsite equipment

–Ten-frame Langstroth (all deeps) with seven frames per box and follower boards, a la Serge Labesque, three boxes total.

Hive lineage

–Spring 2011 bee package purchased from Olivarez Honey Bees, originally hived in Redwood City, CA.

–Swarmed in June 2011 with multiple queens, and we hived two groups of bees (one in a Lang, one in a top-bar).

–The top-bar (still in Redwood City) lived through the winter and swarmed at least three times in March and April 2012. Again, all were multiple queen swarms (6-10+ queens per swarm).

–The bees we just split overwintered in San Mateo from one of those swarms. They were a small group last year, and we harvested no honey.

The bees' family tree.

The bees’ family tree.

Is that a queen in your pocket?

We began in the morning and soon discovered several closed queen cells at the bottoms of frames in the top (third) box. We also saw lots of drone brood, and some capped worker brood. We returned in the late afternoon with extra equipment to split the hive and proceeded to do a more in-depth inspection. We wanted to be sure that the queen cells were swarm cells, not supersedure cells to create an emergency replacement queen.

Examining a frame (photo by Nickie Irvine).

Examining a frame (photo by Nickie Irvine).

Though we never found the queen, we did find lots of eggs on one of the frames in the third box, as well as larvae, suggesting that a healthy queen has been laying since the worker bees made the queen cells. However, the frames predominantly held capped worker and drone brood (consistent with a hive that is preparing to swarm). We found many more queen cells, some of which were built between boxes and ripped open when we lifted boxes off to inspect below. We also were somewhat surprised to find brood in all three boxes. We would have expected the queen to be hanging out in the upper portion of the hive at this time of year. Clearly, the hive was congested.

Splitting the hive

We assembled a bottom board and one deep eight-frame box and selected four frames from the established hive. Two frames had queen cells and capped worker brood. The other two were predominantly honey (capped and uncapped) and pollen. All the frames were covered in bees, and we also shook bees from two other frames on top of the open box. We slapped on an inner cover and telescoping cover, and added an entrance reducer to the front of the hive so that this small group of bees has a smaller front door to guard.

Finally, we consolidated the brood and added replacement frames to the outer edges of the boxes. We also added an eighth frame to each box (because the bees had seemed cramped and an eighth frame fits easily with the follower boards in ten-frame equipment). We also added an extra deep box on top, bringing the total to four boxes.

Adding a box to the original hive. The split is in the foreground (photo by Nickie Irvine).

Adding a box to the original hive. The split is in the foreground (photo by Nickie Irvine).


We think we split too late to prevent swarming, but we decided to go forward with splitting the hive because of the longevity, honey production, and mellow nature of this lineage in our apiary. These bees aren’t taking any chances with queen rearing; Kelly thinks she counted 20-25 queen cells, though I would place the number somewhat lower.

We will keep you posted! In the meantime, enjoy the photos our beekeeping friend Nickie Irvine took.

5 Responses to Spring Hive Split

  1. Sarah, in the back of my mind was the thought that I must respond to your enquiry as to any colony splitting experience I might have and I see you’ve now had a go yourselves. Two years into beekeeping I did split my first colony and it was relatively successful, the only problem being the bees left in the hive with the queen decided to supersede her (unless I accidentally killed her). Anyway it left me with both colonies having to start off again with a virgin queen. For all that it wasn’t a bad year for honey extraction as they expanded quite rapidly, something Terry’s bees are renound for.

    In your inspection notes you don’t mention what you did about all those queen cells; can I assume you removed them? I was taught that so long as you can see the queen keep destroying the cells until hopefully the bees give up any idea of swarming but again Terry would say if you find queen cells in your hive then they have already decided to swarm and there’s little you can do to stop them! As ever, conflicting views but I’d always trust Terry. A couple of weeks ago my local apiary had an indoor meeting to discuss spring cleaning and by the end my head was spinning from all the varying opinions! Now my neighbour I share the hobby with and I have decided to go our own way as much as possible and use our instincts. Fingers crossed…….

    Great photos by the way of what are obviously quiet, good mannered bees and I’m jealous of that blue sky as we are still in the depths of winter days after the spring equinox!

    • Jackie, we didn’t remove the queen cells. Perhaps we’re idiots. The thing is, though we found eggs, we never actually saw the queen. But even if we had, we’ve never been able to bring ourselves to kill queen cells to prevent swarming. I tend to agree with Terry that if the bees have mad cup their mind to swarm, they’ll probably find a way to do it. And besides, I hate to second guess their choice.

      We did destroy quite a few queen cells by accident because they were anchored in-between boxes and ripped open when we lifted the top box off. Instincts seem to be quite valuable in beekeeping, and it does seem that no matter how hard one might try, we will always be disregarding the advice of at least one more expert beekeeper. Opinions and theories abound!

  2. Sarah, second guessing bees is nigh on impossible so yes, go with your instincts. This year, if it ever warms up enough to encourage the bees to expand, I will give mine extra room by adding a super as a half brood box in one hive. The other colony that was requeened late last year due to their anti social behaviour has already got a 2nd brood box so that should keep them busy! Terry tended to remove all but one queen cell even though he assumed they’d probably swarm so I’ll continue along those lines. Meanwhile I’m still feeding sugar candy in the hopes they don’t die during our unseasonally cold spring and can only dream of balmy summer days and bee inspections!

    • Maybe we’ll try cutting out queen cells in the future. Like you say, I hate second guessing the bees, and sometimes this gets in the way of actively managing them (for better or worse).

      What kind of sugar candy do you feed? We have occasionally fed sugar water, though we backed off significantly last year, and it seemed (at least in our climate) that the bees did fine without it. We didn’t feed at all this past winter.

  3. When I first took up beekeeping and was doing my rounds in the community before retiring I collected a variety of wonderful stories about bees kept in the past, something most people seemed to do. One lady gave me her late husband’s recipe for bee candy.

    Bring 3/4 pint of water to boil
    5 lbs granulated sugar (cane only) poured in slowly
    1/2 tsp cream of tartar
    1 tsp salt

    Bring back to boil for 3.5 minutes then turn down and simmer for further 10 minutes.
    Swim the saucepan in a bowl of cold water for 15 minutes stirring rapidly with a wooden spoon until the liquid becomes doughy.
    Pour into receptacle

    Cooling before stirring results in a fine grain but stirring too long makes it difficult to get out of pan. The first batch I made a couple of years ago resulted in a broken wooden spoon it was so stiff and you need a strong hand to continue stirring so I’d recommend getting it out of pan before it gets too thick otherwise it’s impossible! It’s a good way of feeding bees an emergency supply without them getting over excited.

    If we extract the honey at the end of the season there’s little in the way of plants to forage as winter soon sets in and they hunker down until Spring so we have to feed up to 20 lbs sugar syrup per hive in the autumn. Candy is an emergency feed if we feel they are struggling, which can be often in our climate!!

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