Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Splitting the hive

We have a country block and it was always our intention to put a hive there someday. In December 2016, as a method of swarm control for our backyard hive, we split it and started a new hive.

We purchased a mated queen for the new hive. While we could have let the bees make a new queen from a day old egg we decided not to, for one main reason.  It seems possible that the drones in our area are not the most congenial, to put it mildly. Over several seasons of swarming our hive became progressively more and more aggressive....until it reached a point where things were no longer manageable.  Re-queening was our only option. We purchased a mated queen and to cut a long story short - with some assistance, re-queened the hive.  That was a couple of years ago and things have been great since then.  It was a real beekeeping lesson learnt the hard way - don't let small problems become big ones. Anyway, to avoid a potentially similar experience we decided against letting the hive raise it's own queen.  

Our queen arrived in the mail in a queen cage with some attendants and a candy plug  sealing the cage closed (how amazing is it to get bees in the mail?!!). We kept her in a dark undisturbed spot in the house, giving the bees a a drop of water twice a day for a couple of days until we were ready to do the split.  

Here's a picture of the empty queen cage after it was removed from the hive:

Queen cage - originally contained queen and 5 other bees

Looking straight into cage opening. This was originally blocked with candy.
Splitting the hive requires a strong colony and some stored honey. The process involves removing half the brood and some of the stores so your hive must be strong enough to be able to cope with this.

Here is how we made the split:

Day 1
Materials used:
- a spare 8 frame hive box 
- a queen excluder

Our hive consisted of 2 full size boxes. We opened the hive and took out 3 frames of brood, one frame of honey and one frame of drawn comb, replacing them with new frames with starter strips. Checking first that the queen was not on any of the frames we'd removed, we shook the bees off the frames back into the hive. The remaining brood was centred in the box with the new frames placed on the outside edges of the box.  The queen excluder was placed on top of the hive, and then the empty box placed on top of that. The brood and honey frames we'd removed were put into the empty box and the hive was closed back up. Overnight the nurse bees should move up the hive to tend to the brood in the top box. These frames of bees will be used to create the new colony.

Day 2
Materials used: 
- a nucleus hive ('nuc') to start the new colony in.  Our nuc is a 5 frame box.
- the queen in a queen cage

We opened the hive and looked in the top box.  The brood frames were covered in bees - yay! We gently removed the frames with the bees on them and put them into the nuc.  The honey frame and the drawn out frame were placed in positions 1 and 5 in the nuc. The empty top box was then removed from the main hive and that hive was closed up.

The nuc was positioned so that the back of the hive was higher than the front. This is important to allow any moisture to drain out but also for the placement of the queen cage.  The queen cage was placed on the top of the frames so that the end with the candy plug faced upwards. That way if a bee happens to die in the cage, the entrance won't be blocked and the queen can still get out. The hive was then closed up and left undisturbed for a week. During this time the bees in the hive will chew through the candy plug to release the queen. This can take a few days and by the time the queen is released the bees will be used to her smell and there is a good chance they will accept her. (Note that if you are re-queening an aggressive hive then additional steps may be required in order to enhance the chances that the bees will accept the new queen).  

Nuc in foreground, rear view

One important thing to note is that the nuc now contains mainly very young bees and a queen. There may be no foragers.  Hence it's important to ensure that the hive has access to sufficient food until it can forage for itself.  We used an external feeder to feed the bees a 1:1 sugar solution and kept feeding until the hive was populated with older bees.  Even then we still fed to see how quickly the bees took up the sugar solution - our thoughts were if it was emptied quickly they were obviously still hungry so it couldn't hurt to feed them.

After 1 week we inspected the hive, and saw the new queen and plenty of eggs. All was well. Over time the hive built up nicely until it was ready for a bigger box. That was the trigger to relocate it to our country block.... but that's a story for another time.

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