How to Split a Beehive (With or Without a Queen) and Prevent Swarming

Spring is in the air, flowers are blooming, and your bees are preparing to swarm. Before you wind up like Winnie the Pooh, wondering how you can get those bees out of that tree, it’s time to learn how to split a beehive. 

Splitting a hive is easier than you think, and it doesn’t involve climbing trees like a bear. With our method, you don’t even need to identify the queen. 

So let’s get started.

What You’ll Need

  • Mature hive with two brooder boxes
  • Bottom board
  • Top board
  • Outside cover
  • Entrance reducer 
  • Smoker
  • Beekeeping suit 
  • Hive tool
  • Bee feeder
  • Sugar water

How To Split A Beehive: 5 Beginner-Friendly Apiarist Steps 

It can be intimidating to decide to split your beehive, especially when there are different beehive designs or bee types. But don’t get a bee in your bonnet. We’ll explain the easiest way for you to split your hive using the walk-away method. This method is excellent if you are a new beekeeper and aren’t confident with bee identification. 

1. Set A Date With Your Bees

First things first, decide which hive you will split and when you will split it. These two factors go hand and hand. 

For a successful walk-away split, your hive needs to have two brooder boxes. We will separate these two boxes to make two hives out of one. However, if the hive is young or weak, the two new hives will struggle to survive.

Always select a mature hive that has successfully overwintered. What does it mean to “overwinter?” It just means that the hive was strong enough to survive the harsh weather (1). But you can’t split an overwintered hive any time of year. 

If you want to avoid bees from swarming, always conduct your hive split during spring.

Why spring? It is when larger colonies grow and prepare to swarm (2). Also, there are several advantages to splitting your hive during this season.  

By removing a significant portion of your honey bee colony at the right time, you can prevent your bees from swarming (3). And you get a second hive of bees, essentially for free. Not too shabby.  

Don’t wait too late into the season before splitting your hive because they need to build colony strength to overwinter the following season. Early hive splitting is equally as bad, though. The split colony may not have enough bees to cover the brood nest, making the entire colony susceptible to the cold. 

So, what is the best time for splits? 

The exact time, of course, depends on your location. But you should plan to split your hive about 6-8 weeks before the peak flower season in your area (4). 

Pick a nice day when the bees are buzzing about. Your colony will be calmer. And the young bees that aren’t out and about will move to the new hive. Plus, it means that the weather is warmer, and you don’t need to worry so much about your smaller brood getting a chill.

2. Inspect Your Hive

As we said, overwintering alone isn’t enough to know that your hive is ready to split. You need to understand what those bees are up to inside your brood boxes. It’s time to put on your best beekeeping suit and break out the smoker.

Open the top brooder and begin inspecting your frames. Don’t use too much smoke when preparing to do a split. 

inspecting bee hive frames with bees hanging out; ready to split the beehive

Then, using your hive tools, gently loosen the frames. The bees should be hanging out in the frames when you split your brood boxes.

You will need to inspect both brood boxes to ensure you will have enough resources to support two new hives (2). 

“For each split, you need three to five frames of brood and a couple of food frames with pollen and honey.”

If the top super contains a balance of food and brood, you can move on to inspecting the lower brood box. Don’t worry if you can’t find the queen amongst all those busy bees. 

You don’t need to locate or buy a queen to split your hive with the walk-away method. You’re going to let the bees do all the work and hatch a new queen in the hive that does not have one. To do that, you need to ensure both brood supers have eggs, larvae, and brood (5).

“New colonies will require either a new queen or queen cell, or you can simply let the colony rear a new queen by ensuring that there are sufficient eggs or young larvae.”

Keep in mind. It will take longer for the new hive to establish itself if you let the bees rear a new queen. It takes sixteen days to hatch and another 5-6 days before she will mate for the first time (6). If all goes well, you’ll find eggs within a month.  

3. Split Your Brood Boxes

If you have unbalanced brood boxes, you can shift frames between the two to create two balanced hives. Each hive should have a minimum of three to five brood frames (2). The rest of the space can be a mix of pollen and honey.

For a successful split hive, you want balanced brood boxes with minimum amounts of brood and food.

Now is the time to set up the new hive. Make sure you gather all your materials. You will need a new bottom board, a new top board, and an outside cover for the new hive. You will also want to add entrance reducers to the smaller hives. Reducers will help prevent robber bees. 

Make sure your colonies have plenty to eat. You can give them sugar water from a feeder.

Place the brooder box that will contain the new colony on the new bottom board. Then add the top boards and close up the hives. 

4. Set The New Hive In The New Location 

Should you want to move the hive to a new location, choose an area with dappled sunlight and near a food source. However, if the current spot has enough food, you shouldn’t move it.

Place the new hive right next to the mother colony. It is best if the bees can share part of the same base with the entrances orientated at a 45-degree angle. That way, the foragers will visit both hives. 

If the two colonies can not exist side by side for some reason, you should relocate your colony two miles away from the original location (4). The distance will prevent the forager from returning to the old site. 

5. Walk Away

Once you have closed up your hives, you’re done. The bees will do the rest. They will get busy making a new queen in the new hive. But, wait at least a month before checking (4). 

At that point, you’ll have a new queen and her mating flight. If you see eggs, then you know that the colony has successfully hatched its queen.  

Now you have a new hive without having to buy bees. 

You will want to monitor your hive throughout the season to make sure that it gets strong enough. If you are worried that it won’t survive winter, you can combine the hive with another weak hive or add it to a strong hive.

Hive Splitting With Purchased Queens

If you want to introduce a purchased queen to your new colony, make sure your new queen has arrived before you begin your split. 

While much of the process will be the same as a walk away split, a few details are different when you have a queen. 

First, you will need to identify which brooder box has the old queen. So while inspecting your frames, keep an eye out for her. The easiest way to determine your queen is by her size. She will be larger than your other bees. Once you have identified your queen, you can carefully place her in a queen cage.

Watch this video to learn more about how to identify the queen bee

Now that you have isolated the queen, you will want to divide the frames between the two brood boxes. Make sure you give more capped brood to the hive that will have the new queen. When these new bees hatch, they will immediately be loyal to the new queen rather than the old (2). 

You will want to leave the old hive with the queen in its original location and place the new hive someplace different. To prevent the forager bees from going back to the old hive, keep the new hive at least two miles away from the original location (4).

You should wait a day before you place the new queen into your colony. You want the old queen’s pheromones to dissipate. By doing so, you can make it easier for worker bees to accept the new queen (6). 

Place the new queen, in her cage, between two brood frames. Make sure you remember to take the cork out of the candy end of the cage so the queen can get out! 

Check back in a few days to make sure she has successfully escaped from the cage. If everything looks good, you should leave the hive alone for a few weeks before checking to make sure she is laying eggs (2).

Pro tip: Have a queen excluder to prevent the queen from laying her eggs in the honey supers. 
Final Thoughts 

The Verdict

Splitting your hive is an easy way to expand your colonies without spending a lot of money on more bees. Plus, it helps prevent your bees from swarming and starting a new colony on their own. 

While some methods are more complicated, using the walk-away method for your hive split is an excellent option for beginner beekeepers who don’t have much experience finding the queen. 

FAQs

No, you cannot split a first year hive because it’s not strong enough to create two new hives. If you do, there is a risk of losing both hives during the winter because they lack resources. The first year of a hive should be spent growing.

If you feel that the bees in your first year hive are crowded, you can add another brood box. You can tell if there is overcrowding by the presence of queen cells. Adding another brooder box will give the bees more space to establish a more robust colony. Then after the colony has successfully overwintered, you can consider doing a split hive.

You can split a beehive and prevent swarming by removing 3-5 brood frames with clinging bees. Then, place them in a new hive with a new queen. You can replace these frames with a drawn comb. 

You want to ensure the original colony has enough space that it no longer feels crowded. Otherwise, the colony may still swarm. You will also want to remove any swarm cells that have formed in the original colony.

If you are concerned about multiple hives, you can remove a few frames from each hive to create a new hive. However, you should do this removal early in the season to prevent a swarm. These young honey bees in the new hive shouldn’t fight too much, but you may want to keep it heavily smoked until the bees are calmer if they are aggressive.

The number of times you can split a hive will vary based on the strength of your hive. It can be as few as zero up to five times per year. As a general rule, you should never split a first year hive. 

However, an overwintered hive is not always a go-signal for splitting. Ideally, you should at least have a minimum of 10 frames of brood before splitting a beehive. 

Now, if your hive is very healthy and robust, you can split multiple times a season. Never split a beehive late in the season. Bees should have ample time to gather resources to overwinter. 

Another option for a strong hive is to create three hives rather than two. Just make sure each hive has three to five brood frames.

A hive split is important because swarming can take place, especially when the hive becomes too big. Hive splitting is also crucial for ample hive space. Many beekeepers conduct a beehive split primarily for mite control. Some do it to expand their colonies and increase their honey production.

  1. Radicalize The Hive. Retrieved from: http://openbooks.library.umass.edu/radicalizethehive/back-matter/glossary-of-terms/
  2. Dividing A Colony. Retrieved from: https://bee-health.extension.org/dividing-a-colony/
  3. Residential Beekeeping: Best-practice guidelines for nuisance-free beekeeping in Oregon. Retrieved from: https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/em9186/html
  4. Dividing Honey Bee Colonies. Retrieved from: https://canr.udel.edu/maarec/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2010/03/DIVIDING.pdf
  5. Bees in the Neighborhood: Best Practices for Urban Beekeepers. Retrieved from: https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8596.pdf
  6. Honey Bee Queens: Evaluating the Most Important Colony Member. Retrieved from: https://bee-health.extension.org/honey-bee-queens:-evaluating-the-most-important-colony-member/

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