When a beekeeper wants to expand the number of hives they manage, there are many different options. The more pricey routes include buying package bees or established colonies from other beekeepers that can run anywhere from $100-$200 per colony. The more cost effective routes include catching swarms, doing a cutout of a feral colony, or splitting existing hives. Of all these, the most common and efficient is making splits from existing colonies. While we have used nearly every one of these options in the past, this year we are relying on making splits to reach our goal of 20 hives by the beginning of Summer.
Honeybees naturally reproduce colonies through a process called swarming. A typical swarm is when a colony of bees make new queen cells within the hive. Then right before the first new queen emerges, the old queen will leave the hive, taking half of the colony with her. They will cluster on a branch while scout bees look for a good place to establish a new colony. Shortly after the old queen leaves, a new queen will emerge in the old hive, and inherit the job of populating the original colony. Swarming typically takes place when a colony is strong and their numbers are outgrowing their hive space.
When beekeepers split hives, they are manipulating the bees to start a new colony. Splits are made both to control swarming and to expand hives. There are many different methods to making splits and none of them are necessarily right or wrong. A beekeeper can simply split a box of bees in two, whichever one doesn’t have the queen will raise a new queen as long as they have young larva in the box. Another method is to place a purchased queen or queen cell in the split so that the colony doesn’t have to wait about three weeks while they are raising a new queen.
We already split our two strongest hives last week by taking the queen, three frames of brood, two frames of pollen and honey, then putting them into a nucleus box, which is a half size hive body, and moving them to a different location. The original colonies are still very strong and they shouldn’t skip a beat in raising new queens. We checked on all of them today and the nucleus hives are bursting and ready to put in full size hive boxes. The original colonies have drawn many nice queen cells. The first queen to emerge in each hive will immediately begin chewing out the sides of the other queen cells in order to kill the other queens before they emerge. There can only be one queen per colony. She will then go on mating flights for a few days and a week or so later begin laying eggs if all goes well.
Later in the Spring when we have a lot of hives to split at once we will graft queen cells in order to get a bunch of queens ready at the same time to put into the new splits. Grafting queens is an interesting process that we will share more about on the next post.
Besides on Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, I never gave much thought to flowers; that is until I started beekeeping. Now I find myself constantly noticing what flowers are blooming as I drive around town. I have come to learn what time of month each flower that provides a significant nectar flow in my neighborhood is supposed to bloom. I get excited when I see the jacaranda trees bloom in April, when the palm trees bloom in July and when the Brazilian pepper trees begin to bloom at the end of September. But from December through February there isn’t much to get excited about besides a few Spanish needles here and there.
During these winter months our bees go from thrive to survive mode. The queens slow down their laying and the populations shrink in the hive. It is during this time that bees are most susceptible to pests, disease and starvation. Most beekeepers are used to the fact that at least a percentage of hives will be lost during the Winter. We have been very fortunate so far this Winter. We have not lost a single hive and I was actually able to make an early split from a hive that is unusually strong coming out of the Winter.
Even though we are only half way through February, I am already starting to see the first blooms of Spring on trees around my neighborhood and the large honeysuckle vine at the end of my alley is erupting in orange flowers that are buzzing with our bees. The Queens seem to know Spring is coming early as they have picked up their egg laying. I am starting to see drones bees once again in the hives that can mate with the new queens of Spring. With the nectar flow of March and April just around the corner and the explosion in bee population that follows, I have been busy putting together new boxes and frames with the help of my son Judah who loves to pull the trigger as I hold the nail gun.
With just a few gallons of honey left from the Fall harvest I am anxious to bring in a good Spring harvest come May. But with more demand for our honey than we can supply I am faced with a catch 22. With beekeeping you either have to focus on bringing in lots of honey or expanding hives because you can’t do both at the same time. Big strong hives bring in a lot of surplus honey but when you are expanding hives you are splitting up those big strong hives to make more hives. One large hive will bring in more honey than 3-5 small hives so you are definitely sacrificing honey to split hives. But the earlier I do my splits the sooner they will get strong and become honey producing hives. Therefore my plan is to make as many splits as I can this Spring and build them up for the Summer and Fall nectar flows. That will mean a smaller honey harvest this Spring but a lot more honey this Summer and Fall.
Even so, we will still get a harvest this Spring and it can’t come soon enough for us! In our next post we’ll give an update on our Spring splits and explain the process in more detail.