Splitting Hives

There are a number of reasons for making splits and a number of ways of making them. The main reasons for making splits are:

  1. to increase the number of producing hives either in the current year or in the following year
  2. To reduce the size of colonies to discourage swarming and to put off 'peaking' until the expected flow.
  3. Control of mites
  4. To produce income from sale of nucs.

There are many ways to make splits, but most ways are variations on the following:

  1. Splitting a two storey hive in half and
  2. selecting brood and feed from a colony (or colonies) and making up nucs or full size splits.

The term 'nuc' refers to a split or small colony that does not yet fill a standard 10 frame or 8 frame brood chamber. Nucs generally are designated as 1 frame, 2 frame, etc., with 3 frame being the minimum viable size if the temperatures are expected to approach freezing. One frame nucs can work, but are risky and often have poor results.

The time of year and size of the splits will determine how much honey the splits will make in the first year, if any. It will also determine whether they will be trouble free or a waste of time, effort and bees. Generally the earlier and the larger the split, the more they will produce and the easier they will be to manage, assuming that pollen and nectar are available in the field at time of splitting. A minimum of six weeks before a target flow is considered minimum lead time.


Adequate feed - both pollen and syrup or honey - must be available at all times in copious amounts in splits for them to be successful. Dry, hard capped combs of old feed may possibly be okay for a full strength colony, but nucs need liquid feed open, and near the brood. Honey in the hive is not the same as honey in the bee. If there is no nectar in open cells around the brood, your bees are starving, no matter that there may be a flow in progress, or that the hive is heavy. Nucs often need feeding during a flow, if best results are desired. We try to feed splits until they are ready to super.

Warmth is essential. Use entrance reducers until June, and don't expect overly small splits to amount to anything. Remember - you can always go back and split again and again, but not if the colony doesn't prosper. Ideally, bees seem to do best when they occupy about 80 or 100% of their hive space without crowding and burr comb building (when observed on a 72 degree day), and they have a little empty comb to work in. The challenge in beekeeping is that this condition is not at all stable, and the colony size often doubles almost overnight.

This 'exploding' happens when a large hatch of brood comes out. (See discussion of queens and laying cycles). Being able to anticipate when a hatch or a flow will demand more space is an art. Figure about three weeks after the first warm spell (80 degree F days and 40 degree F nights) when pollen is available that there will be a large hatch. This is because the queen will lay strongly and the bees will feed a lot of brood during the warm spell. All that worker brood begins hatching 21 days later.

Assessing Hives
for Splitting or Reversing

Brood must be available in all stages in both brood boxes of a two storey hive for the first two types of splits to work well. One way of ensuring this is to reverse at least a week before splitting.

Hives for side by side and takeway splits should be selected by tipping the two boxes forward and looking on the bottom bars and floor. If on a 72 degree day there are not bees covering the bottoms of at least six frames, the hive is not ready to split.

Reversing: This is advisable only if there are bees covering at least several bottom bars, indicating some brood in the lower box. This is a general guide-line and some latitude may be appropriate, depending on date and climate. We keep bees in Southern Alberta, Canada. Apple trees bloom May 15th here, and early May is our best splitting time. We may have occasional frost right into June, although May 24th is generally considered the time to safely plant a garden.

Reversing ensures brood will be raised in both boxes and expands the brood area - particularly with older queens, which are less inclined to lay throughout the hive . It also encourages reorganizing of feed in the hive and is thus stimulative. Moreover it ensures that the lower parts of all frames are used by the bees, reduces the honey barrier at the top of the hive, and makes the beekeeper realise when a hive is too light (starving) or too heavy (honey bound).

Be very careful about reversing too early in the season, hives that are not covering combs in both boxes because a very real danger of damage to the brood and colony exists if the weather is at all cool.

I am no longer recommending reversing in most cases.  One thing that keeps queens from going down is the excessive scraping of top and bottom bars.   The gap that results discourages the queen from going down and since we have stopped scraping the ladder comb from these wooden parts, we have less burr comb (sideways between frames), and have less need to reverse.


Side by Side Splits
Take-away Splits
Progressive Splits

The first two types of splits are best done in mid-May. In our country (Central Alberta) splits made before May 24th seem to produce as well or better than other similar colonies which are not split, provided that the hives are good and strong when split (See feeding protein supplement).

We almost always place a made-up empty brood chamber under each half of these two types of splits to allow for expansion and to allow room in case the split is made from the heavy half of the overwintered hive (unless we split a bit later and super, i.e. for comb honey). This way, the extra space is below, and does not cause much loss of heat. We then reverse and feed again as soon as the queen is laying and weather and flow conditions warrant.

Frame feeders are used both top and bottom and we feed liberally. We aim to keep our doubles at about 45 to 50 kg total weight all spring. This breaks down to 10 kg + 10 kg for boxes and combs, 2-4 kg for bees, 5 kg for lid and floor, and the balance - 20 kg or so, for pollen and honey. This is about 8 frames of feed. On all our splits, we use entrance reducers until June. Interestingly enough, our ideal weight going into winter is only 10 or 15 kg heavier -- 60 kg, measured in October.

Side by side splits

Side by side splits are splits made by placing two floors close together directly in front of a two storey existing wintered hive and placing one empty brood box on each new floor. One half of the old colony then goes on top of each. See diagram below. For cells, the other methods detailed below are usually superior.

In the case of a four pack palletized operation, splits can be made on the ground in front. Of necessity, the new hives will form a close-spaced row of four in front of the pallet. In the case that one hive is not strong enough to split, the other can still be split with no serious drifting resulting. The extra hives can later be removed from the yard and the remaining hives lifted onto the pallet.

We also have found that simply placing a floor on the ground beside each of the hives on the pallet and splitting onto it -- while leaving the one half on the original stand -- works just fine.  This reduces the lifting and the splits can be removed to another location later, on a cool day when they are not flying much.

It doesn't matter on what kind of day these splits are actually made because even if the bees are flying, they will divide fairly evenly between the halves of the splits .

The queenless half should be given a queen, although, given 14 days, they will have their own - usually a pretty good one if there are eggs in the split, populations and stores are good and the weather is co-operative. (Around swarming season this method works well).

Walk-Away Splits

It is possible to just split a hive and walk away.  Usually bees will raise a queen.

It takes 16 days to raise a queen from an egg.

If the hive begins immediately from a 1 day old larva (4 days old from the egg), the queen should hatch in another 12 or so.

It takes a week more for the new queen to get properly mated and laying enough that the results are obvious. 

Compare that to a mated queen in a cage that can take 5 -- or more -- days to get out of the cage and another 5 to get laying well. 

It is clear that under ideal conditions the use of a mated queen can have about a one week advantage over the split method described here.  

However, since it takes ideal conditions to de-queen and introduce a mated queen successfully, and the side-by-side method can even be done in the rain, conditions will determine if the mated queen has a significant time advantage in real life.

Moreover, a ripe queen cell can be introduced to each half at time of splitting and reduce the time required under his method to about 11 days.   11 days is very comparable to the time that it takes a mated queen to get going.

Success under this method is also comparable to use of mated queens and runs over 80% --  typically up to about 95%.

This method can work very well  with the right timing and conditions, under the hand of an observant beekeeper.

Here is a link to a sci.agriculture.beekeeping discussion on the matter

The major problem with this method is the 21-day broodless period (14 days queenless + 7 days to mate and start laying), so they have to be made early to make to reasonable strength in time for for the flow.

(This 21 day period might offer a good opportunity to use ApistanŽ to best effect).

Popping in (protected) cells at time of splitting reduces this 21-day delay to as little as 11, which is not a whole lot worse than the five or so that is average for mated queen introductions -- plus whatever time it takes her to get laying.

Moreover, there is a pent-up effect from the queenless period. The nurse bees get a rest and are really ready to go when the first eggs are laid and the hive really broods up fast when that new queen comes on-stream. In the more normal queenright half, the hive and queen may not be quite as enthusiastic. We have observed that established queens tend to lay in fits and starts during the spring.

From my memory of years when this was the only method of splitting we used, the splits that raised a new queen usually overtook the half with the old queen by July 1st.

If we pop in grafted cells, there also is the advantage of improving the stock -- assuming we picked a good mother...

One thing about the walk-away splits that people may not appreciate is that it can be done anytime you happen to be in the yard, with no requirement for timing, waiting for queens, etc. If you are there and a hive needs splitting, you just split it.  If you don't have a floor, use a lid for a floor. If you don't have a lid, use whatever you can find. If you are fast enough, you may not even need a veil (How fast can you run?). Fix things later when you come back.

This one advantage often puts these splits a week to ten days ahead of other splits at the start, if the other method means ordering and waiting for a queen. That makes the final outcome close.

It is also an ideal solution to hives  with swarm cells started. If you bust such hives in half, they are already on the way and you will have new queens in a shorter time than if they have to start from scratch. If you give each half a second brood box at the time of splitting, you will seldom see any more indication of swarming in either half.

Introducing Queens into Splits

There are several recommended methods of introducing a queen to the new splits:

  • The most obvious is to simply look for the old queen, then insert a new mated queen or ripe cell into the queenless half which is right next to it. This is slow, frustrating work, unsuited to the scheduling of a commercial operation.
  • Another method is to wait until the fourth day and then look for eggs and add a queen to each queenless half. This does leave one split queenless for about a week, including introduction time. Moreover it requires two visits and the second one may be in the rain.
  • If ripe cells are abundantly available, the simplest solution is to just immediately (or when convenient within several days) stick a cell -- in a cell protector -- between the top bars of each split without checking for queens. The half that requires a queen will have one laying by about eleven days, and the other will likely reject the emerging virgin, but will sometimes allow the new queen to supersede the original. Acceptance rates with ripe cells is, on average, comparable to mated queens and the cost and labour is much less. Moreover you can easily raise cells from your own stock.

The main advantage of side by side splits is that if one is inserting mated queens, the work of identifying the queenless half is simplified greatly. The other is that this can be done on hot days when bees could not be transported without a mess. Extra hives can be moved out when convenient - possibly by another crew and truck when yards are available for them. Splitting can then proceed more quickly. The disadvantage is messy looking yards (temporarily).

Two queening can also be accomplished by stacking the splits back up when the new queen is laying, or some people use a special manifold box to combine the hives under a single stack of supers and excluder.

Takeaway splits

Takeaway splits are splits made where one of the two boxes of an over wintered hive is removed and taken to another yard and established as a colony there, either to fill empty spaces in another established yard, or to start a new yard.

If executed when you are sure the bees have not been flying for several days (rainy or cool weather), the splits can even be left in the same yard without problems. Bees forget and re-orient after as little as one day without flight during off-flow periods. Be careful with this though, if there are any significant flows on, allow three days. During major flows, virtually every bee in the hive flies and will return to the original stand - this must be true or the abandonment method of honey pulling simply couldn't work - and we know it does.

The only real problem with the takeaway method is that the second half of the hive is not readily available for comparison in queen searches when mated queens are to be used , and requeening is much slower. However, it is much neater as far as yard layout is concerned, is superior in the case where ripe queen cells are plentiful - plentiful enough to stick one (in a cell protector) into each half without searching for queens. All the lifting and moving are completed in one operation, but it may also be slower, because transport to new yards takes time. The additional (bottom) brood chamber may be given to the takeaway half after transport to the new yard - especially if manual loading is used.

If early morning or a rainy day is chosen for the task, or if all hives in the yard to be split are smoked lightly at the entrance and repeatedly smoked so that foraging stops, all the bees will all be home and splits will be fairly even. However, if a flow is on and it's warm, and it's later in the day, it will be hard to keep the bees on the truck until you leave the yard, unless you are quick, have a good smoker, and have a helper or two. This type of splitting is best done when it is cooler, but not cold. Early morning is good. Showery weather is fine too. The bees are often lazy, if not always exactly friendly, when the humidity is high.

This method is good where there are enough ripe cells available to stick one cell into each of half of all spits without bothering to look for queens. One cell is likely wasted, but it usually takes much more time to find queens than to raise cells. Moreover requeening can take place at the time of splitting or any convenient time within days after if cell protectors are used. If the hives start their own cells, they do not have to be torn down, and they offer back-up in case the cell introduced by the beekeeper is defective.

You can tell if your cell worked because the queen will be laying in 11 days. If your cell malfunctioned, then a queen should be obviously laying in 21 days. That ten day difference is a huge difference in the spring when you are trying to build up for a flow. It is half a generation.

The advantages of takeway spits are that the yard layout is not disrupted and new yards can be started with the splits.

The disadvantages are

  1. that both halves are not available for reference to speed queen locating (if necessary), and that
  2. transporting hives may slow this method of splitting which must ideally be accomplished within the first two weeks of May for best results.
  3. transporting hives on hot, sunny days and/or when a flow is in progress may result in many lost bees, drifting, uneven splits and uncomfortable working conditions.

Side by side and takeway splits are 'quick and dirty', usually work well, and avoid having to work through brood chambers frame by frame. They allow a lot of splitting in a short time with unskilled and/or clumsy help. They do not allow the same flexibility in adjusting feed and brood as progressive splits. Disease checks are usually omitted.

Progressive (Top) Splits

Progressive (Top) Splits are a different approach altogether to splitting. Using this method, splitting progresses all spring, and even into the summer. There is no rush to complete splitting in Early May, or even before supers go on. Hives are worked through frame by frame. Scraping excess burr comb, requeening, disease checks, changing frames and other adjustments may suggest themselves to the beekeeper as he works. Superior stock can be spotted for potential breeding selection. Earlier splits will be producers, later splits will allow for increase. All splits must be fed liberally until they weigh 50kg and are into thirds. We are assuming hives here have been overwintered in two standard Langstroth brood boxes.

This form of splitting can be accomplished while working through yards and doing other spring tasks. Only the hives strongest in bees and brood contribute to splits. Some equalizing (giving brood and bees to weaker hives) may be done, but in my experience, it is almost always a waste of time, brood and bees.

Poor colonies are poor for some good reason and therefore should be shaken out. The hardware and brood can be used in making new splits. Even if a queen seems to have a good pattern and look good, the real proof is her colony: If it is poor, then she is best lost in the grass or crushed. She has had her opportunity to prove herself and sadly -- for no visible reason -- has failed to measure up. Perhaps it was chance, but likely not. We do not want her drones in our yards mating our good queens. Sentimentality and false economy in trying to use a poor queen cost money, and maybe (later) the hive.

On the first round, hives have not yet been reversed, but there are usually some ready for splitting. Here's how it goes:

  • Hives not yet ready to split are reversed as soon assuming they are strong enough - bees covering some bottom bars - and the weather is settled.
  • The hives from which splits are made may or may not be reversed at this time because, in the act of splitting, brood and feed is manually adjusted and empty comb is provided for the queen in the top box.
  • Weak hives are either shaken out into the grass a few yards away or (if you don't mind taking a chance on wasting resources) boosted a bit with brood and bees. They may not be ready for reversing even then. They should be marked for destruction if they haven't shaped up by the next visit.


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