Learn when and how to make a split, and how to install a mated queen as part of your spring management of your honeybees through the use of flow charts.
If you need to brush up on our other articles related to Beekeeping, please check out our posts:
- Terminology you should know about beekeeping
- Terminology you should know about beekeeping – Part 2
- How to start beekeeping
- How to start beekeeping for beginners
If you’re just starting beekeeping, you may want to check out our post on Logistics you must know in order to start beekeeping
How and when to make a honeybee split in the spring
There are always a lot of “it depends” scenarios dealing with any type of livestock. You’ll want to play this by ear. Really pay attention to how your bees are acting and how the queen in each hive is doing. Generally speaking though, once your queen is laying and has more than four frames of capped brood, eggs or larva, in a good pattern, you’ll want to pay attention to how many bees appear to be in the hive.
Now, I’m not saying go out and count the bees. Just by looking at the box when you have opened it up…What can you tell? Are the bees falling off of each other? Is there really no space between frames? Are there bees completely filling the brood boxes? And my favorite-pulling out a few frames and you see the start of some queen cells (sarcasm). Now, sometimes the bees just practice, but sometimes when they are starting to build out queen cells it means they are running out of room and getting ready to swarm. They mean business!
If your hive seems to be pretty full of bees, your queen is laying in a good pattern, it may be time to start thinking about splitting your bees. You can start rearranging frames, if you’d like to give your queen some more space in the middle. You can move the capped brood towards the outside. Young larva and eggs need to be in the middle of the box to be fed regularly, and to keep them warm enough.
By rearranging the boxes a bit, and shuffling things around this gives you a day or two to figure out what you need to make a split. Here are some things to think about
How to decide what kind of split to make
How to put together a split
Here’s my formula or “ingredients” for how to put together a new brood box to make a split
1 deep box
1 lid/outer cover
1 bottom board
2-4 (ideally 4) frames of capped brood, larva, and/or eggs
2-4 (ideally 3) frames of drawn out wax with empty cells
2-4 (ideally 3) frames of resources-pollen, pollen and honey, or just honey
How to physically make a split without a queen excluder
You’ll want to set up the “ingredients” to make a split. You’ll want to make sure you have the bottom board, deep hive box, and the outer six frames (of honey and/or pollen). Leave the middle four frames out for the time being. Carefully inspecting each frame, you’ll want to make sure the queen isn’t on the frame. Then you’ll want to carefully move the frame full of bees into the new box that you’re creating. The idea is that you’re taking roughly half of the bees away from the original hive. You’ll put them into the new split, and create a new hive from those bees.
How to put together a walk away split easily
Another way you can do this, is a little less intense. You can do this with less flying bees, and is called a “walk away split.” You can do what we talked about adding in the “recipe” of how to make a split into a new box.
Here’s my formula or “ingredients” for how to put together a new brood box to make a walkaway split
- Ideally 2 frames of capped brood
- Ideally 2 frames of eggs and/or larva
- Ideally 2 frames of semi-filled brood, or drawn comb, without resources or brood in them
- Ideally 4 frames of resources-pollen, pollen and honey, or just honey
You can shake all of the bees off into the bottom box (the original hive) just to make sure your queen isn’t going into your new box. You’ll end up putting the new split on top of the existing hive WITH a queen excluder between them. This means, ideally, your queen will be left in the bottom box(es) and stay with the original hive.
You’ll move the top box away from the original hive a far enough distance away. I like to hedge my bets and move them more than five miles apart, if possible. If you can get the queen to stay in the original hive. The queen below the queen excluder, it’s just a lot easier to keep track of things, in my opinion. Either way, you’re going to end up with one box that has a queen in it (what is called a “queen right” hive). The other box will be without a queen, or “queenless.”
Next, you’ll add a queen excluder between the original hive and the newly created box. Allow this set up to get comfy for about 12 hours. I like to do this overnight. Come back right away in the morning before many forager bees start to take off. Literally take the top box off and “walk away.” Take only the box that is above the queen excluder. Now what is left in this new hive is mostly nurse bees (the youngest bees), eggs, larva and capped brood.
This will give you a variety of ages, which will be important for later in the summer when the honey flow is on, to make sure they are bringing in the good gold stuff for you, but also are able to put enough back into the hive for the winter.
Put this new hive at least 300 feet away from the existing hive, or further away. Further away is better so that way the bees cannot smell the queen in the original hive and want to go back to mommy! They will ideally stay in this new box, and start to wonder, “where is my queen?”
This is when you’ll want to install a mated queen into the new split … BEFORE you start having worker bees lay eggs, which is extremely difficult to correct once it is going (IYKYK) OR…or you can see if your walk away split creates their own queen. You can use this Walk Away Split Calculator by Bell Farm to figure out when the mating flights should occur, and when you should start seeing eggs, and when you should combine with a queen right hive if your split didn’t make a new queen.
If you can time it right so you have 1-2 day old larva in the frames that you put into your new split this will give you the best chance at making the healthiest new queen. The younger the larva is, the more royal jelly that baby can have, and more eggs will be laid by that queen over her lifespan.
How to install a mated queen
If you’ve decided to make a split, or if you have found that your hive is queenless you’ll want to know how to install a mated queen. You can likely buy mated queens all over from different beekeepers. It just depends on who has the right aged queen for you to buy, and if they’re looking to sell. That being said, I’ve always lucked out calling and asking for a queen from local beekeepers.
A mated queen is likely going to come in a queen cage. A queen cage is a little cage that the beekeeper puts the queen in (and sometimes a few of the queen’s attendants if traveling a long distance), and inserts a candy plug, or mini marshmallow into the open end, or has placed a plastic cap on the end. You’ll treat the candy plug/mini marshmallow caged queen a little differently than the queen cage with a plastic plug.
How to install a mated queen that comes in a cage with a candy plug
Like I mentioned previously, some beekeepers will use a “candy plug,” which is usually fondant or a mini marshmallow to block the hole of the queen cage so the queen cannot escape right away. The beauty of using an edible plug is that the worker bees will determine how quickly they want to release this new queen. They will start eating at the candy plug/marshmallow to release the queen.
Sometimes this can happen as early as 3-4 days, but sometimes it takes closer to 7-10 days. During this time I would suggest staying out of the hive. The worker bees need time to work on getting the queen out of the cage, and the queen needs to get used to being in there. Don’t be interrupting their hard work and bonding process!
When you have a queen in a cage that you’re installing, I would recommend that you point the exit down toward the rest of the hive. Put the cage about two inches from the top of the frame so the opening of the queen cage is about in the middle of the frame. Place the cage between the middle frames of the brood box. If you have two deep brood boxes, put the queen cage in the bottom box.
Queens like to work up, not down so much. By putting her in the lowest box, she’s more likely to fill the bottom box, and then work her way up. You may even choose to take out a frame of this box for about ten days, or until the queen is out of the cage. This will give you a little extra room to gently squeeze the queen cage between two frames without completely pushing drawn wax through the holes into the queen cage. This just slows the process of the bees smelling her, feeling her, feeding her, and getting her out of the cage.
How to install a mated queen that comes with a plastic, or non-edible plug
Some beekeepers will give you a queen cage that comes with a plastic cap, a cork or something else blocking the hole so the queen cannot escape. In this case you’ll want to follow the instructions for installing the queen cage just as if there was a candy plug. Wait for five days, then go back into the hive. You’ll want to make sure you’re giving yourself plenty of time to watch and witness what is going on in the hive. Sometimes this isn’t a super quick, open the cage and be done scenario.
You will physically remove the plug/plastic cap and let the queen crawl out onto a frame of bees, right in the middle of the frame. There are a couple of things that can happen when you do this:
- The queen will run out of there and sprint as fast as she can all over the frame or
- The queen will walk out like royalty, be greeted by a friendly “halo” of bees that want to take care of her and she’ll strut around checking out her new home.
- The queen will come out of the cage and be greeted by a ball of angry bees that want to try to take her down like it’s the opening day of the last Saturday before Christmas.
- The queen will get scared, run, and FLY.AWAY.
Ideally, you want the second scenario. You want the queen to casually come out and own.the.place. Then you know the bees have accepted her and all is well. You can watch for a few more minutes to make sure she’ll settle in nicely. Put the hive back together, with ten frames again, if you took a frame out. Leave it be. Check back in a week for progress.
Here’s what to do for the other three scenarios:
- Running queen. Wait and watch. See if she slows down. If she slows down and is greeted by friendly bees that are just checking her out, touching the queen with their antae, and being nice. Then you should be good to go. Keep watching to see if she continues to walk around, or run. If she runs you may want to try to put her back in the cage for a few more days, then repeat the process.
- Royalty. You’re good to go. Observe your queen and her magic!
- Balling the queen. If this reminds you of a scene from a busy shopping season where people are breaking down doors, pulling hair and pushing others to get to that beloved object this is NOT good. If you let the queen out and she is immediately balled by the worker bees in the hive, you need to act immediately. Gently get the bees off of the queen by using the corner of your hive tool, your finger, a paint brush/bee brush, or the cage itself. Get the queen back into the cage, put her back in the hive to acclimate for 2-3 more days. Try again after the 2-3 days are up. Keep repeating the process until day ten. At day ten I would suggest you let the queen out, and let her fend for herself. Check back in the hive after a week to see if she’s laying eggs, or not. Either they killed her, or she’s doing what she’s supposed to.
- The queen flies away. *hand held radio noise* Houston, we have a problem. This is definitely not the ideal scenario. Try not to freak out. It’s hard, I know. I’ve BEEN there-see my video here! Before you go walking off…CHECK THE GRASS! Look in the grass around the hive to see if she just flew a bit and landed close to the hive. Next, check close by trees and shrubs 4-6 feet off of the ground. It’s possible she just needed to stretch her wings. Don’t kill yourself trying to get her out of the tree, but you know…kind of watch her to see if she’s hanging out there, and if other bees followed her. If other bees follow her, just wait, and let a small cluster form. Then try to catch the “swarm” as a whole. If more bees don’t follow the queen, and you see her sitting in a tree/shrub try to catch her. If you can’t catch her, put the hive back together and walk away. Also, if you cannot find her, put the hive back together and walk away. She’ll likely come back to that hive, but she needs YOU to get out of her way. Check back in three days. If there are eggs, you know she’s inside, if not….work on getting a new queen established-she was probably tasty bird food, and you’re probably better off not having her in your apiary.
Thank you for coming to learn more about making splits and installing queens in the spring.
Coming up next – varroa mite treatment. These pesky little buggers are ones you’re going to want to be sure you have a handle on, and understand different treatment options.
You’ve got this. I’m cheering you on!
This is the start of something GOOD! (I can tell!)