Hive Splitting: Why, When, and How (A Beginner’s Guide)


So at the bee association meetings I keep hearing beekeepers talk about splitting their hives but the reasons and timing of splitting hives was not clear to me.

My curiosity got the better of me so I did some research and this is what I learned:

Why Would a Beekeeper Want to Split a Hive?

  • To increase the total number of hives.
  • To make up for hive losses over the winter.
  • To prevent a hive from swarming.
  • To expand the beekeeper’s colonies in anticipation of upcoming winter losses.
  • To generate more income.

Once the new beekeeper has mastered the survival skills to help the beehives in the apiary successfully over-winter, thoughts can turn to other-than survival thoughts, such as maybe making some cash from all that time spent helping the bees reach this stage in hive development!

Splitting beehives is the serious beekeeper’s way of maintaining the apiary size.
It is also a good way of generating additional income through the sale of complete hives, nucs, Queen bees, and packaged bees.

Splitting hives can double the beekeeper’s work force of foraging bees.
More honey to sell!

When Would a Beekeeper Want to Split a Hive?

The best time for a beekeeper to consider splitting a beehive is just before swarming season, the spring.
Splitting a beehive can be done anytime the hive is strong enough to withstand the stress of being split.
It would be unusual to be able to do a split on a new first-year beehive.

Learn more about swarming and prevention…

How Can a Beekeeper Split a Beehive?

There are four common ways a beekeeper can split a beehive.
Sequenced from novice to seasoned beekeeper preferences:

  • “Walk Away” split
  • “All At One Time” split
  • “Add A Second Story” Split
  • “Divide Two Brood Box” Split

“Walk Away” Hive Split

What is a “Walk Away” Beehive Split?

A walk away beehive split requires two stacked brood boxes .
The top brood box is removed from the tower and placed entrances facing about three feet apart.
Replace the lids.
The bees do everything else; the Queenless box will quickly rear a new Queen by instinct.

The walk away beehive split is the safest, easiest beehive split techniques that is very well suited for the beginning beekeeper not yet confident with handling the bees, spotting the Queen, or simply not having enough time to do the other type of beehive splits.

Woah!!!
Did you get that?
You don’t need to see the Queen!

In fact, I’m told, you don’t even have to be able to identify an egg in the honeycomb, and still be successful over 90% of the time.

A couple weeks or so after the split, look in each brood box of the split and look for eggs.
It takes 16 days for a hive to produce a new Queen, so give her enough time to start laying before taking the next action.

If, after the appropriate amount of time has passed, and there still is no evidence of a Queen laying eggs, it’s time for the beekeeper to take some action.

Return to the other brood box and remove a frame of brood with newly laid eggs and swap it with a frame from the Queenless hive.
Again, the bees will take over and do the rest.

And the best part is the beekeeper STILL does not need to know where the Queen is, because if she was on the frame transplanted into the Queenless hive, the bees in the hive robbed of their Queen has eggs to raise a new Queen.

“All At One Time” Split

The All At One Time split is done entirely from start to finish in one session.

This is a method of splitting one brood box hive into two hives using an empty deep super to establish a completely new hive.

The All At One Time split requires only one brood box in the hive tower to make this split.

The All At One Time split does require the beekeeper to find and identify the Queen bee.

The All At One Time Split Step By Step Instructions:

  • Remove the hive lid.
  • Remove the inner cover.
  • Remove the honey supers all the way down to the Queen excluder.
  • Smoke the bees to keep them calm.
  • Remove the Queen excluder.
  • Identify the Queen bee. The beekeeper works their way through the brood box frame by frame, looking for the Queen bee.
  • Keep the bees smoked to keep them calm.

Once the Queen is located, gently pick up the Queen and put her in a Queen cage. Be very careful not to damage her.

This step requires sensation and dexterity to prevent injuring the Queen, so this step is best done bare-handed. Queen bees are not known to sting humans, so the beekeeper should be safe to do this step bare-handed.

A new beekeeper can practice catching a Queen bee bare-handed without injury by practicing capturing drone bees bare handed. It will give the new beekeeper the correct “feel” for handling a Queen bee, and the new beekeeper doesn’t have to worry about being stung, drones don’t sting. If fact, they don’t even have a stinger!

Once the Queen is captured, the beekeeper needs to decide if the captured Queen is going to be placed back into her original hive or transplanted to the newly “split” hive.

Whichever hive is left Queenless will receive a new Queen bee.

The new “split” hive will not be as strong as the original hive, therefore some say the new split hive will be more accepting of a new Queen than the older, stronger hive.

The “All At One Time” Split Frame Transfer Sequence:

  • The beekeeper places a bottom board on the ground next to the hive being split.
  • The beekeeper places an empty deep brood box on top of the bottom board.
  • Be sure the new brood box is sitting on a bottom board secured to the empty brood box so the bees, especially the Queen, does not end up on the ground.
  • Two new empty frames are placed at each end of the empty brood box.
  • Remove three or four capped brood frames from the original hive and transfer them into the new split brood box in the middle of the box.

The capped brood frames added to the split brood box will be covered with bees, but many of these bees will abandon the new split brood box and return to their old hive.

Because of this anticipated loss of bees over the night, and knowing the newly added brood frames to the split will need to be kept warm overnight, the beekeeper will shake the bees off another two to four brood frames into the new split brood box using the gap created by the still absent frames of the split brood box.

How many bees are shaken into the new split is the product of the beekeeper’s assessment of the hive strength of the hive being split.

The brood frames that provided the “shaken” bees for the split brood box is replaced in the original hive near the center of the brood box.

Bees always build out brood boxes from the center, the brood is just much easier to keep warm in the center of the brood box.

  • Replace the transplanted brood frames from the original hive with new frames containing either foundation or built-out comb, making it easier for the original hive to recover quickly. The original hive should now have a full complement of 10 frames.
  • Release the Queen back into her original hive.
  • Replace the Queen excluder.
  • Reinstall the honey supers.
  • Reinstall the inner cover.
  • Return the hive lid to the top of the hive tower.

CONGRATULATIONS!
The first hive of this split is complete.

  • Place the newly transferred brood frames in the middle of the new brood box.
  • Place an empty frame of drawn comb on both sides of the transplanted brood comb.
  • Add a frame of honey between the brood frames and one of the empty frames of drawn comb. (the bees will need a little extra energy reserves to get started).
  • The remaining empty slots are filled with new frames.
  • Smoke the bees to get them off the top of the frames and than place the inner cover over the top of the split brood box.
  • Replace the lid.

It is best to move the new split hive to a different location away from the original hive and orient the hive entrance in a new direction. Two miles from its original location is preferable to keep the bees coming back to the split hive instead of the original hive.

The bees in the split moved two miles away will reorient themselves and there will be far less trouble keeping the bees in the new split hive.

If the split hive cannot be moved 2 miles away from the original location, the beekeeper can expect a lot of the older bees will return to the original hive but the newer, younger bees will likely stay with the split hive.

Special Tip:
If the beekeeper shakes the bees into a big plastic container, the older foraging bees will fly away almost immediately, leaving only the younger, hive bees behind.
The hive bees are what the beekeeper wants in this new split, that is what the nurse bees are, hive bees.
Hive bees are much more likely to stay than foraging bees.

Using an entrance reducer will also help the bees adapt to their new split hive and location.
So now the beekeeper has a Queenless split.

Introducing A New Queen In The “All At One Time” Split

It now is time to introduce a new mated Queen to the hive or transplant a Queen cell into the split hive.

Some beekeepers will leave the split Queenless for a day or two on the premise that a hive Queenless for a while will more readily accept a new mated Queen.

A newly mated Queen will come in a Queen cage with a coulpe “attendent” bees. All the bees will be contained in this screened cage with a sugar plug in one end which will have to be chewed through to be released from the Queen cage.

A mated Queen in a cage can be placed on top of the frames of the split to get an idea of how accepting the hive will be of this new mated Queen.

  • If the cage is covered by bees trying to groom and take care of the Queen, that is a sign of acceptance.
  • If the cage is covered with buzzing angry bees trying to chew through the wire screen to get to the Queen, that Queen is not being accepted and they are trying to kill her.
  • Some say a Queen under attack will let out little “squeals” in this scenario.
  • This test is done quickly, the bees respond almost immediately.

When the beekeeper is ready to place the new mated Queen in the hive, a couple frames are separated the Queen cage is inserted, screen down, between two frame and held in place with friction force by squeezing the two frame tops together, pinching the Queen cage between them.

The hive is then closed up and left alone for about a week before re-checking the hive to be sure the Queen is alive and laying.

If there is a laying Queen in both brood boxes, congratulation!
The hive split was a success!

“Add A Second Story” Split

This method does not require the beekeeper to find and identify the Queen bee, but it does require a more drawn out process, not competed all at one session.

“Add A Second Story” is a method of splitting a one-brood-box hive into two hives using an empty deep super to establish a completely new hive:

  • Remove the hive lid.
  • Remover the hive inner cover.
  • Remove all honey supers
  • Remove the Queen excluder.

The beekeeper will check the brood frames for capped brood, larvae, and eggs making sure there is still an active Queen in the hive.
Evidence of eggs standing on end, one to a cell, will confirm the Queen has laid that egg within the past three days.

  • Set a bottom board next to the hive being split.
  • Put deep box with frames on the bottom board next to the hive being split.
  • Remove the four middle frames of the new empty brood box.
  • Remove three frames of brood from the original hive and shake the bees off the frames back into the original hive.
  • Take the three newly shakened nearly bee-free brood frames and place them in the middle of the new split brood box.
  • The beekeeper will place the transplanted brood frames into the middle of the new brood box and place an empty frame of drawn comb on both sides of the transplanted brood comb.
  • Add a frame of honey between the brood frames and one of the empty frames of drawn comb (the bees will need a little extra energy reserves to get started).
  • Move the brood frames of the original hive into the middle of the brood box.
  • Replace the frames that were taken from the original hive, preferably with frames of drawn comb.
  • Replace the Queen excluder on top of the original brood box.
  • Place the new split brood box on top of the Queen excluder on the top of the original hive.
  • Add the honey supers back to the hive.
  • Close up the hive top.
  • Come back the next day and remove the split brood box on top of the Queen excluder.

The brood box of the original hive still contains the Queen.

We know the Queen is in the bottom brood box because the beekeeper shook all the bees into the original hive’s brood box before placing the beeless brood frames into the new split brood box.

This “split brood box on top of the Queen excluder” step is best done in early morning before the bees have all left the hive. The beekeeper wants the bees to return to this new split brood box at the end of the day instead of returning to the original hive.

Once the bees leave this new split hive, now in a different location than the original hive, they are more likely to return to the split brood box, and they will be needed to help keep the brood warm.

When the Queen excluder was added between the two brood boxes, the worker bees divided the work of keeping the brood warm in both the original and the split brood boxes so that when the split brood box is removed from the original brood box, the bees taking care of the split box brood will stay in place and continue to take care of the split box brood.

  • The split brood box is removed from the hive tower and is placed on a bottom board.
  • The beekeeper is now ready to place the new mated Queen in the split hive. A couple frames are separated and the Queen cage is inserted, screen down between frames, and held in place with friction force by squeezing the two frame tops together, pinching the Queen cage between them.
  • Place an inner cover on the split brood box and replace the lid.

The “Add A Second Story” split is now complete!

The “Divide Two Brood Box” Split

The “Divide Two Brood Box” split is a method of splitting a two-brood box hive into two seperate hives. It requires a two-brood-box hive tower configuration.

The “Divide Two Brood Box” split method does not require the beekeeper to find and identify the Queen bee.

The beekeeper will need two Queen excluders to make this two brood box hive split.

The “Divide Two Brood Box” split sequential steps:

  • Remove the lid and honey supers from the hive tower.
  • Remove the top brood box with its Queen excluder.
  • Place a Queen excluder on the lower brood box, leaving the top brood box still covered with its own Queen excluder.
  • Replace the honey supers and the lid.
  • Leave the colony alone for a week with this dual Queen excluder configuration.
  • Upon returning in a week, remove the lid and honey supers.
  • Remove the Queen excluder from the top brood box and look for the Queen or evidence of the Queen laying eggs.

If there are eggs in brood cells, standing on end at attention, the Queen is in this brood box.

After three days, eggs the Queen has laid will curl over and lay on the bottom of the cell as they metamorphosis from egg to larvae, so if the are eggs standing on end, we know the Queen laid that egg within the past three day, therefore she is in that brood box.

What ever brood box contains the Queen, that brood box will be left on that hive tower. The Queenless brood box will become the split.

  • Take the Queenless brood box off the hive tower and set it on a bottom board.
  • The beekeeper is now ready to place the new mated Queen in the split hive. A couple frames are separated and the Queen cage is inserted, screen down between frames, and held in place with friction force by squeezing the two frame tops together, pinching the Queen cage between them.
  • Replace the inner hive cover and lid.
  • Leave the new split alone for a week as the new split adapts to the new Queen, then come back and look for the Queen or evidence of the Queen to be sure the split was successful.

Final Thoughts

Most of these techniques can be adapted to nucs but the consensus is that one full-size split is better than splitting a full-sized brood box into two nucs, although there are good reasons to consider using the two-nuc receptacles for a full hive split.

Happy Beekeeping

Paying It Forward

Recent Posts