How to Split a Hive
In Michigan in late April, May or June a strong hive will be preparing to swarm. This is the natural method of colony reproduction. You can tell that a hive is preparing to swarm because it will be crowded with bees, there will be a large number of adult drones and drone brood, and most of the combs will be full of brood or honey. In preparation for swarming, the bees will make many queen cells on the bottom edges of the frames. These are called swarm cells and can be distinguished from supersedure cells by their location and quantity. Once the bees start making swarm cells, it’s very difficult to keep them from swarming.
Some beekeepers just set up swarm traps near their hives to catch any swarms that may issue and don’t manage for swarming at all. If this method is used, the swarm traps must be checked every day during swarming season. In order for a swarm trap to be effective, it must have a pheromone lure to attract the bees. You can buy commercially available swarm traps or make your own from empty equipment. Once a swarm is caught, it must be transferred to a movable frame hive immediately. To keep the swarm from leaving a new hive, place one frame of brood in it. The biggest problem with this method is that you may not catch every swarm of bees.
Most beekeepers prefer to split their hives rather than let them swarm. In order for this method to be effective, it must be done before the bees make swarm cells. As soon as you notice a hive becoming strong and producing a lot of drones, it’s time to split. As in everything else in beekeeping, there are many ways to split a hive, but the method outlined here is one of the easiest and most effective methods.
It’s best to locate the queen before you split the hive. She is usually in the box with the most eggs. The less smoke you use, the less you will disturb the queen. Once the queen is located, set the box that she’s in at an angle on an upturned top cover in case she’s on the bottom of a frame. You don’t want to mush your queen! Usually there are two brood boxes full of brood. If there are eggs or very young larvae in the box without the queen, you can go ahead and leave the two boxes intact. If there are no eggs in the other box but only capped brood, you will have to take one frame with eggs in it from the box with the queen and replace it with a frame from the other box. Examine both sides of the frame very carefully to make sure the queen stays where she’s supposed to be.
In the box without the queen, take a frame with eggs and make a small notch on the cell wall with the hive tool near the bottom of a cell with an egg or very young (less than three days old) larva in it. This will make the bees raise this larva to be a queen. Notch three or four cells to make sure of success. Once the cell is notched, put it back in the hive, put that box directly on the bottom board, put a brood box with empty frames above that box, put on the lid, and leave that half of the hive alone for about a month. If you try to check it before the new queen gets mated the bees will be very aggressive. The bees almost always will raise their own queen using this method. If for some reason there isn’t a queen a month later, get a new frame of eggs from another hive and try it again.
Put the brood box with the queen on another bottom board in a different location, put a brood box with empty frames on top of that, and cover the hive. It’s not necessary to move the hive three miles from the parent hive. Most of the forager bees will go back to the parent hive, but enough nurse bees will stay to take care of the brood and the hive without the queen will need the extra bees to keep going until their new queen emerges. Check this hive a few weeks later to make sure the queen is still alive and is laying.