Splitting Colonies & Making Nucs in the Spring

If your colony survived the winter, the first thing you should do is celebrate.  It can be difficult to get bees through their first winter in your location because it can take the bees a year or two to get accustomed to the local nectar, pollen, propolis, and fungal sources (yes, the bees need mushrooms).  And as always, varroa mites and the diseases they vector kill their fair share of colonies, although it may not be very apparent.  Varroa mites and the diseases they pass on to the bees weaken colonies throughout the year and come wintertime, your hive may have weakened and dwindled to a point where they can no longer keep themselves warm.  So if your hive survived, it is cause for celebration.

The second thing you should do is start thinking about splitting your colony if it is strong enough.  Splitting a strong colony in spring has many advantages:

  1. New queen/colony with genes for winter survival
    Good genetics is what you want in your apiary and the best trait to have in a colony is one that actually survives year after year in your area.  If you don’t treat your hives with chemical miticides, I would argue that you are better off producing queens from your winter survivors than buying “hygienic”, artificially-inseminated queens from across the country or across the border.  If you do treat your hives with chemicals, then you could just be propping up a weak colony and so their genes may be suspect.  In any case, your winter survivors are proven to a certain extent and it would be a shame not to spread those genes.  If you don’t want another hive – you can always sell your split as a nuc to another beekeeper.

    queen cup, queen cells, capped queen cells, splitting colonies and making nucs
    An example of a queen cup. Here is some terminology related to queen cups and queen cells. Queen cup = early queen cell that is empty with no larvae or royal jelly in it. Charged queen cell = queen cell with larvae and royal jelly in it. Capped queen cell = fully enclosed queen cell with a queen growing in it. Usually, if your bees are producing queen cells to swarm, they will swarm 1-2 days after the queen cells are capped.
  2. Preventing a swarm
    If you have a strong hive bursting with bees in the spring, you will most likely see queen cups being built on the comb.  Queen cups can be a warning sign that they may be thinking of swarming.  Some colonies build queen cups just for fun, but never have any intention of placing a larvae in it and filling it with royal jelly.  Beekeepers have a term for these innocuous queen cups – they call them “play cups.”  However, if you look into those queen cups and see the creamy royal jelly in it, the queen cup has now become a “charged queen cell.”  If the queen is still in the hive, your next job will be determining whether the bees are planning to supercede (replace the queen with a new one) the queen or swarm.  Generally, if the bees are about to swarm they will build out well over a dozen queen cells.  For supercedures, they just build out 5-10 queen cells.  Of course, there are plenty of other variable to take into account and trying to determine if your hive is going to swarm or not when there are charged queen cells in your hive is risky.  If there are charged queen cells in a strong hive and the queen is still laying at a good rate and in a normal brood pattern, I assume they are planning to swarm.  So I preempt the swarm by taking the queen with 5 top bars (1-3 top bars of brood, 1-3 top bars of pollen and honey) and place them in another hive or nuc box.  This simulates a mini-swarm and the bees left in the older, larger colony will stay put because they are now queenless.
  3. Early mite control
    Spring should be a season considered just as critical to mite control as Summer and Fall.  Mite reproduction rates stay the same when there is brood in your colony.  We just see a spike in infestation rates in July-August because that is the time the queen’s laying begins to slow, but mites continue growing at a steady rate. Reducing mite numbers in the Spring has been shown to increase honey production.  Taking care of mites earl on can also save you from having to take extreme measures in late Summer.  Splitting a colony will slow the mites down because they will no longer have brood in which to lay their eggs.  However, you can do more during this broodless period to remove more mites.  Here’s how:

    1. Split a strong colony in spring and let the colony raise their own queen (e.g. do a split where you take the old queen away)
    2. Do one powdered sugar blasting after 4-6 days of the hive being queenless
    3. Do another powdered sugar blasting after 12-14 days of the hive being queenless (If you can only manage to do one powdered sugar blasting – do it later than earlier before the queen emerges)50-70% of mites are hidden under capped brood cells and powdered sugar blasting won’t remove them.  Powdered sugar blasting, which is great for chemical-free beekeepers, only removes the phoretic mites walking around the frames or the mites on the bees themselves.  After splitting a colony, as more and more bees come out of their cells, those cells remained uncapped because there is no queen to lay eggs into them.  The mites can no longer hide and you can go in and powdered sugar blast them with great effectiveness.Here is a mite count analysis of two of my strong hives that I split and then powdered sugar blasted when they had less brood.Hive 1March 30 – Powdered Sugar Blasting before split of colony ; mite drop = 5
      April 11 – Split colony
      April 24 – Powdered Sugar Blasting (13 days after being queenless) ; mite drop = 300+
      *Yes, you read that correct.  There were so many mites, I couldn’t really count after reaching 300.Hive 2March 30 – Powdered Sugar Blasting before split of colony / mite drop = 10
      April 11 – Split Colony
      April 22 – Powdered Sugar Blasting (11 days after being queenless) / mite drop = 25
      April 24 – Powdered Sugar Blasting (13 days after being queenless) / mite drop = 110

      That’s pretty intense.  In the past, when I have powdered sugar blasted in Spring, I mostly saw low numbers in the 20s.  That lead me to believe I was doing okay, but now I see that most of the mites are already hidden in the capped brood in Spring.  If you can knock out 100-300 mites in your colony in Spring without using chemical treatments, then you should really consider doing it.

Splitting Colonies and its effect on honey production

For those worried about maximizing honey production, splitting a colony can have a minimal impact on your honey harvest.  In some cases, a beekeeper has to split a hive no matter what in order to prevent a swarm.  If your hive swarms, then your honey harvest will definitely be impacted and most cases, you won’t get a harvest at all.

If you want to maximize honey production, reduce your mite load, and produce another nuc (e.g. Have your cake, eat it, and save some for later), then you can:

  1. Split your colony, taking the old queen to a new hive body or nuc box or kill her.  (I prefer putting the old queen into a nuc box as insurance just in case for whatever reason the new queen fails – you still have the old queen as a reserve)
  2. Do a powdered sugar blasting 12-14 days after the split when the most amount of mites are phoretic and exposed
  3. Virgin queens will hatch on the 16th day.  So after your last powdered sugar blasting, you can introduce a mated queen that you buy or produced yourself.  Then put 2-3 tops bars with queen cells in another nuc. You should then remove the rest of the queen cells in the hive.  Now you will have two nucs (one with capped queen cells and one with the old queen) and one main hive with the newly introduced mated queen.  By introducing a mated queen, your main hive will not have to wait for the virgin queen to bulk up, go out and mate, and then return to lay her eggs.  This 1-2 week delay can cut into honey production.

Conclusion

Splitting colonies is something that all beekeepers will have to do at one time or another mainly to prevent swarming.  But as reviewed, it is very beneficial for mite control. Choosing the best way and time to split a colony for your situation is key.

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