Artificial Swarm – Splitting a Bee Colony

Things have been fairly quiet on the beekeeping front so far this year. With only one viable colony at the bottom of the garden there has been little to do. I’ve been inspecting them regularly and they have been gradually building up. Other than that, I’ve had lots of phone calls about bees nests but they have all been bumble bees. I had hoped to catch at least one swarm but so far I haven’t heard of any. It was looking as though my best chance of making increase this year would be to split the colony that we had by performing and artificial swarm.

Hives

Hives

Artificial Swarming

I checked in on them earlier in the week and I was beginning to think that they might be thinking about swarming. The number of bees had suddenly increased significantly and the brood box was nearly full. There were quite a few drones in there and they had started storing honey in the super. There were also a few practise queen cups. None of them had larvae of royal jelly in but it looked as though it was time for some swarming.

Rather than wait too long I decided to split them this week. Hopefully this intervention will prevent them from swarming and will give them time to raise a new queen and build up resources ready for the winter. It turned out to be quite an undertaking though. The whole procedure wasn’t helped by the fact that I wanted to replace the double stand that two hives were on. I had expected the second hive on this stand to be empty, but no, despite not having had a queen since last autumn there were still a few bees hanging on in this hive. It wasn’t too big a job to move the hive off the stand temporarily though and then re-site it on top of a new stand later.

Hive 3 which had the colony I wanted to split in it was also on the double stand. That too was moved onto a stand of it’s own later in the proceedings

Performing the Split

Performing a split should be a fairly simple task but today it was hampered by the fact that the bees have decided to use a small gap at the back of the hive as their entrance. They come and go from between the brood box and the floor and completely ignore then proper entrance block at the front of the hive. Because of this I didn’t want to move the brood box or the floor and wanted to keep the components of this hive intact. I therefore had to manipulate the frames within it.

The Wrong Entrance

The Wrong Entrance

First job was to prepare a hive not far from Hive 3 (the one I was about to split). We already had one set up so I just had to open it up, take out the empty frames in the brood box and open up the entrance block. It all looked clean and tidy in there so that was soon ready to go. Next I had to find the queen in Hive 3. This took a bit of time with quite so many bees in there but I eventually found her and placed the frame that she was on into a nuc box temporarily.

With the queen safely houses in the nuc box I could carefully move all of the other frames from Hive 3 into the empty Hive 1. This means that the new hive now housed pretty much everything from the original hive.

I then placed the frame with the queen on back into Hive 3. I checked that she was still there and had a thourough check for signs of formative queen cells on the frame. There were two small cups but I destroyed them and they were empty. With the queen back in her hive I filled the brood box with empty frames and closed the hive back up. Hive 3 now contained just a single frame of eggs, brood and a small amount of stores. A single frame of bees and most importantly the queen. She was a new queen last year.

The new Hive (Hive 1) had everythign else. All of the eggs, brood, bees, and stores. Any formative queen cells. All that was missing was a queen.

What Next

Well, who knows? These are honey bees we are dealing with and they’ll no doubt do all sorts of unexpected and unhelpful things. However, if they could do the following that would be great.

In theory, all of the flying bees should return to Hive 3 where the queen is. The flying bees should be able to collect lots of honey and pollen to keep this colony going and build up stores. There won’t be too much brood to feed for a couple of weeks so they should be able to fill their frames with honey. The queen should be able to continue laying and numbers will start swelling again soon. Hopefully the fact that they suddenly have empty frames to draw out, very little brood and very few nurse bees will make them think they have swarmed. If they are well behaved that may even stop them from trying to swarm. They don’t have much food though so I want to check on them early next week and maybe feed them if necessary. I also want to check that they haven’t built any queen cells and that the queen is still there and laying.

Meanwhile, Hive 1 should have all of the eggs, brood and nurse bees but no flying bees and no queen. The lack of flying bees will mean that there will be no food coming in for a while. I’ve given them all of the stores and the super from the original hive though so they should have enough to feed the brood and keep them going. They are in a slightly new location but that shouldn’t matter. Any bees that are currently flying will return to Hive 3, but as new bees start to fly they will orientate themselves on their first flights and then return to this new hive. Hopefully the lack of a queen will become apparent to them fairly soon. If they already have a queen cell they can continue to nurture that. If not they can build some emergency queen cells from the eggs that are there. All being well they can’t swarm as they don’t have a queen and they will raise a new queen. Once again I’ll check on them early next week to make sure that they do indeed have enough food and that they have built some queen cells. I might leave them with just one queen cell so as to prevent the risk of them swarming later down the line. It will then be a matter of waiting about 6 weeks for the queen to hatch, mate and start laying. Hopefully by the end of July all will be looking good in there!

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.

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