There are lots of approaches to dividing honey bee colonies. Our favorite is walk away splits. This method is cheaper and less complicated than purchasing or raising a queen to introduce. But the real reason we believe in walk away splits is that the bees get to select and raise their own queen.
In all aspects of our beekeeping, we attempt to meddle as little as possible in the life of the colonies, and we endeavor to cultivate locally adapted bees that are better at taking care of themselves without treatment or other human support/interference.
Walk away splits are simple (in theory) and give the bees a break in the reproductive cycle, and thus also a break from varroa mites.
The beekeeper’s only role in a walk away split is to transfer frames from the original hive into new boxes. The bees do the rest of the work. The key to this type of hive division is timing and ‘ingredients.’ In the ten minutes it takes the beekeeper to transfer frames from a strong hive into a new box, she must choose frames that contain key components and arrange them in such a way as to make it easier, not harder, for the new colony to raise a strong queen.
So what do bees need to raise a good queen?
Bees need eggs from which to raise a queen. The difference between a worker bee and a queen bee is a matter of nutritional variation early in development. All young larvae are fed royal jelly, but worker bee larvae are fed less royal jelly for a shorter period of time than larvae being raised for queens. It is safest to select frames containing eggs for the bees to rear a queen, rather than try to gauge the age of the larvae you see (since very young larvae can also be raised into queens with the right nutrition). By making sure the frames you choose for the split contain eggs, you guarantee that the bees will be able to select larvae of the correct age from which to raise queens.
Phew—what a mouthful!
A new split doesn’t need very many eggs for the bees to raise a queen. In fact, avoid including frames with lots of eggs or open brood, as this will force the bees to feed and care for many babies. Ideally, they should put most of their energy into caring for the developing queen or queens they are raising.
One frame of capped brood with a small patch of eggs is perfect for a walk away split.
Excellent nutrition is critical to the survival of a young split. Because most of the bees on frames of brood are young nurse bees, the new split will not have a strong group of foragers for some time, and it’s important that there is food in the split for the bees to survive on in the beginning. Nectar is an important nutritional component, so make sure it is plentiful in the split. Although honey works too, I have heard that including frames with curing nectar is even better where raising baby bees is concerned.
Two or three frames containing a combination of nectar and pollen should be sufficient for a walk away split. These important frames of food should be placed facing the frame with eggs, so that food sources for the young queen and her attendants are close at hand.
Pollen contributes protein to a bee’s diet. Again, nutrition is key. If it’s possible to find frames with both nectar and pollen together, this is best.
Think of capped brood as future workers. Capped brood doesn’t need to be fed and tended to like bees in the larval (uncapped) stage of development. Capped brood is less labor and resource intensive for the nurse bees in the new colony. At the same time, it ensures that there will be an influx of young bees to the colony’s workforce within 13 days.
One or two frames of capped brood should be sufficient for a walk away split. All the brood should be together in the middle of the box. More capped brood can be added to make a stronger split.
Hive divisions need lots of nurse bees. Again, the developing queen should have all the attention and care she requires, and the capped brood must be kept warm. Nurse bees are also more likely to stay in the new hive, rather than returning to the mother colony (which is often only a few feet away). No matter how many older foragers you add to a new split, they will find their way back to the original hive if it is close by. This is because, unlike nurse bees, foragers have already gone out into the world and oriented to the original hive’s location.
Select nurse bees by adding frames of capped brood (and a few eggs!) that are covered in bees. The bees in the brood nest should primarily be nurse bees. Because they are younger than foragers, nurse bees tend to be smaller.
We generally prefer not to supply our bees with sugar syrup feed, though this is often recommended for new splits. Instead, you can include an extra frame of honey to feed the bees until nurse bees have graduated to foragers.
How many frames to include in a split
We generally aim for at least five frames total in a walk away split (including a few frames of brood, and a few of pollen, nectar, and honey). We aim to include enough bees to cover these frames, keeping in mind that bees on frames of food stores may not be nurse bees and will probably return to the original colony.
If you want to add additional nurse bees, you can remove extra frames of brood from the mother hive and shake the attending bees into the new split. You can also always add extra frames of capped brood (covered in bees) to bolster the split’s population down the line.