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Can I Split Yet? Top 3 Signs for When to Split Your Beehives

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Close up photo of 4 queen cells. Two are capped and two are still open and show the larvae inside.

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Your bees made it through the winter. Congratulations! It’s a rewarding and exciting time for beekeepers! One question that I keep hearing once spring time approaches:

Can I split my beehives now? Can I do it now? How about now? When can I split my bees?!? 

Sunshine, warmer weather, and bee activity may make you feel anxious to get out there and split your bees. It’s been a long winter, and you’ve missed them! But, you don’t want to rush into it before the honeybees are ready! You need to understand the signs that will tell you it is the right time to split.

Understanding Beehive Splitting

Splitting a hive is the process of dividing a bee colony into two or more parts. If left to their own devices, a strong colony of bees will naturally split themselves by swarming. 

When a colony swarms, the original queen and a large group of her worker bees will leave the hive to find a new home. The bees that are left behind will grow a new queen. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the bee population.

Photo of a frame of bees with many charged queen cells.

Beekeepers don’t want to lose half of their bee population to a swarm, which is one reason why you may feel anxious to split your bees during the spring season. However, be patient and wait for the signs.

Why Beekeepers Split Hives

Beekeepers may want to split a hive for various reasons such as:

  • Prevent swarming: Swarming is a natural process where the bees leave the hive to form a new colony. Splitting the hive before they decide to swarm can prevent the bees from leaving. This prevents bees from becoming someone’s nuisance. A swarm of bees could potentially decide to move into a crevice of a house or building, becoming a potential problem.
  • Preferred genetics: Perhaps you bought a queen bee for certain genetics, and you want to continue that line. You may have bought a queen with VSH (varroa sensitive hygiene) traits and you want more. Splitting them will allow you to have more bees with the genetic traits that you like. 
  • Create new colonies: Splitting a hive is a great way to create new colonies and to expand your apiary without having to purchase new bees. 

Spring is an excellent time for beekeepers to consider splitting a beehive. The timing of hive splitting is crucial since it can affect the health and productivity of the colony. 

For new beekeepers, it is unlikely that you will need to split your colony in the first year. However, it is not impossible. If you don’t give your bees enough room, they can become honey bound and decide they need to swarm.

A colony is honey bound when the hive is overflowing with honey and resources to the point that the queen does not have adequate space to lay her eggs. 

If you purchased package bees, then it is highly unlikely that you will be able to split the colony during the first year. It will take the entire first summer and fall for a package of bees to build up.

An overeager new beekeeper could overfeed a new colony. If you feed them too much sugar syrup, then the bees will run out of room for brood and decide to swarm.

A nuc (nucleus) colony will also likely be small enough that a first-time beekeeper will not need to worry about splitting. I won’t say it’s impossible, though, because it did happen to us when we were given a nucleus colony the first year. We found charged swarm cells and realized the colony was determined to swarm unless we intervened. So it can happen.

Do you need to know more about nuc colonies vs package bees? Read more here.

Top 3 Signs to Know When You Can Split Your Beehive

There are several factors to look for when determining if you can split your hive. However, there are 3 major signs to look for when you are trying to decide if you can split your colony: drones, available resources, and population.

1. Drones

By far, the most important factor in deciding if you can split your hives is if there are drones (male bees) available. If drones haven’t saturated the environment, then you cannot make successful splits! Without drones, your new queen will not be able to be mated, and then you will simply have a drone laying queen.

How do you know if there are drones available? You will need to inspect your hives. If you see that your colony is deliberately raising drones, then it is a good indicator that other colonies will also be raising drones. 

The key word here is “deliberate.” You want the honey bees to be intentionally raising drones because this indicates that they have enough resources to do so. 

A close up picture of a drone or male bee.
A Drone Honey Bee

Drones are born from unfertilized eggs, but the queen doesn’t choose what kind of egg she lays; the size of the cell does that. When the queen lays in a larger cell, the egg does not come into contact with the spermathecal. Eggs without sperm will be drones. 

Coming out of winter, the bees want to raise as much worker brood as possible to prepare for the coming nectar and pollen flow. They will not choose to raise drones until they feel the colony is prepared.

If a beekeeper leaves a green drone frame in the beehive over winter, then the queen may lay on this frame. Or if foundationless frames are left in the hive from the prior season, they may have drone cells from the boom of summer. The queen doesn’t care where or what she lays; she just simply goes to any available cell. In the case of a foundationless frame, drone brood may be raised because the drone cells are leftover from last summer.

Look at the foundation frames. When the bees are ready for drones, they will add drone cells at the bottom of the frame. 

Photo of a frame of capped brood, there are some popcorn drone brood at the bottom.
Drone cells at the bottom of a foundation frame.

And even if you do see drone cells, remember they take the longest to hatch: 24 days. So if you’re just beginning to see drone cells, it’s not quite yet a go sign for splits. Remember, you want enough drones to saturate the environment. And if you begin a split, it only takes 16 days to raise a queen. 

Queens aren’t meant to mate with drones from within their own colony. A queen may fly up to six to ten miles away to mate, which is why you must first determine whether or not it looks like the colonies are raising drones. You want a saturation of drones in the environment to ensure a well-mated queen. A queen will look to mate with 8 to 20 drones during her mating flight. The more drones available means the more diverse genetics available. 

Don’t be anxious to split and do it too early, or you will have a failed split.

2. Available Resources

Another important factor in splitting your colony is the availability of resources. You need a strong pollen and nectar flow to help have a successful split. The time of year for this varies depending on the region.

For us in the upper midwest, we know there are ample resources when the apple trees are blooming. Dandelions are also another great indicator. When the dandelions are going strong, it is a good indication of available resources in the environment. Dandelions are a good source of both nectar and pollen for honey bees. When we see an abundance of dandelions, then we know we know the bees will be able to build quickly. It is a good indicator that we may be able to split—as long as there are drones! 

Photo of a honeybee on a dandelion.

3. Size of the Colony

Keep in mind that splitting a colony weakens it. So you want to make sure you have a strong hive with enough bees to handle it. If you don’t have the population, but you have the above two factors, then give it time. Let your colony have the chance to build up. With the resources flowing in the environment, a strong colony will build up quickly.

If your colony isn’t at full strength yet, just keep checking. It may only take 1 week to 10 days for the colony to build up and be ready for a split. This is why regular inspections are a good idea.

If your colony is booming and the queen is laying and quickly using up the available space, then it may be time to split so that they don’t run out of room. Don’t wait so long that they get the idea that they need more space, because then they will begin to think about swarming.

I Found a Swarm Cell. Is it Time to Split?

Swarm cells are typically found at the bottom of the frames. Bees sometimes make queen cups as a “practice.” However, if it is “charged,” then this means the cup has an egg/larvae in it.  

Photo of several swarm cells at the bottom of a frame.

Once you have a charged swarm cell, it is too late. The bees have sensed that they are running out of room and want to swarm. Unfortunately, once they’ve decided to swarm, they are going to swarm. 

At this point, you will want to split them in a way that fulfills their desire to swarm. There are several different types of split that have been developed. Each has its pros and cons. 

If you don’t pre-empt their desire to swarm, you risk them becoming someone else’s bees. If you live in an urban area, they could become a nuisance for someone else, and they may, unfortunately, be exterminated elsewhere. 

Try different methods to split the colony and see what works best for you!

My New Split Hive Failed

So you tried to split the hive, but it didn’t work out. Splits can fail for various reasons. The new queen could have succumbed to predators during her mating flight. Now what do you do?

If your split is unsuccessful, then you can do a paper combine. You want to place the failed colony back with the parent hive.

To do this, spray a sugar syrup drench over the bees. Hopefully, by the time they lick up all the sugar syrup, they will be friends again! Place a piece of newspaper on top of the original hive. Then stack the hive boxes from the failed split on top. By the time they chew through the paper, they will likely accept the bees into their colony.

Conclusion

Beekeepers are often eager and excited to split their hives in the early spring! Splitting a hive provides more bees to produce honey, or maybe you want to sell or give a nuc to someone. 

After a long winter, we feel eager to work with our bees, and we’re anxious to do a split and enjoy our bee colonies! That warm air, spring fever, and busy bees make you want to split. But be patient and look for the signs that tell you it’s the best time!

Look for drones in your hives, abundant resources in the environment, and a booming colony. When these important factors come together, then it’s time to split! 

Close up photo of 4 queen cells. Two are capped and two are still open and show the larvae inside.
Charged Queen Cells

You may see people talking about splits on social media, but each region will have a different time. Every year is different, too, depending on the weather and when everything blooms.

If you need to make a split before the time is right in your area, you could potentially order a mated queen from another region. For example, in the northern region, we can order a mated queen from the south.  

However, if you are depending on the bees to raise their own queens, then you need a good population of drones on hand, and a decent flow going to kick the girls into gear.

Good luck with your splits! A successful split is exciting and rewarding. Get out and enjoy your apiary!

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