Monday, June 8, 2015

Peter Borst: More than One Way to Split a Hive

At my last club meeting, Peter Borst spoke about swarming. He also gave a fantastic talk on ways to split a hive. I wanted to share my notes since swarm season is in full swing for us here in the Northeast. I also found this video on YouTube. Though I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, it appears to be the same/a similar talk to the one I heard today.

He also has a PDF with the visuals from this presentation on his website if you're interested in looking at that.

BTW, Peter's presentation is geared toward people with Langs, so as you read them, keep that in mind. However, there is no reason why the same techniques (or similar ones) can't be used with horizontal hives.

More than One Way to Split a Hive

  • The African honey bee is unlike the European honey bee in that it migrates when the nectar flow ends, so it doesn't build up the same way that the European honey bee, which builds up and hunkers down during bad weather. When the European honey bee colony gets too large, it swarms.
  • Well before frame hives were invented, people started adding stories to skeps. Storied hives opened the door for making divides.
  • Even before Langstroth invented his famous hive, Thomas Miner (sp?) proposed the idea of starting new hives with a small comb that contained eggs and bees. He called it a nucleus, and it was the bare minimum required for starting a new hive.
  • Divides became a common method for increasing stock. In 1860, a man named Harbison established beekeeping in California. The original hives came from Pennsylvania and had to be shipped down to the isthmus of Panama and then travel by train up to California. At that time, people would get a couple of hives, divide them, sell the newly made hives, and keep just a few hives to keep making divides.

Method 1: Walk-away Splits
  • One way to make a divide is to take a two-story hive with bees and set an empty hive next to it. Smoke the two-story hive so that most of the bees and queen go up to the second box. Take the second box and put it on top of the empty hive. Put an empty super on the hive that was just smoked. Having the queen in the new box helps to anchor the bees in the new hive. Older bees in the original hive can switch roles to being nurse bees. The original hive can also make queen cells from eggs.

    To take the concept of walk-away splits one step further, put a circle of 10 empty hives around the hive that is going to be split. Put 2-3 frames of brood and a frame of honey in each empty hive. Three days later, check the hives for eggs. The hive that has eggs is the one with the queen. Add a queen to all the other hives.
  • Splits should be done early in the season. The minimum number of bees for a split depends on how the split will be requeened.
  • If purchasing queens, splits should be on the week side to minimize the danger of the bees rejecting her. By waiting three days to requeen, the beek stacks the deck in his favor because the bees are desirous of a queen. However the risk is that the bees may already have started to build queen cells. Peter recommends using 3 frames of brood (must be covered in bees and brood). Nucs are great for this kind of split because they can be stacked to help keep each other warm.
  • If using queen cells, you need about 4 frames of bees for queen cells. One can use swarm cells or purchased cells. Queen cells are generally $7-$10, but they put the gamble in the buyer's court. 50% of queens don't make it back from their mating flights. Also, they don't guarantee that the buyer will get they type of stock they desire since the donor drones can't be controlled/selected. Acceptance can also be iffy. If buying queen cells, they should be nearly ripe (i.e., ready to emerge in a day or two.) 
  • If forcing bees to raise their own queen, Peter recommends 4 frames of brood and 1 frame of honey. Definitely, it's good to have a stronger hive to do this. Research shows that a very small group (a handful) of bees can raise a queen, but not many queens. In any case, the point is to raise a colony, not just a queen, so a stronger colony is recommended.
  • This method helps control swarming. Also, the original hive (the one that lost its queen), will make bees much faster than they ever would if they'd been left alone.
Tips for getting walkaway splits to stay in their new hives.
  • Not everyone has multiple beeyards, but if one does, it's better to move the split far away. This helps keep field bees with the split.
  • Give each hive a distinctive look. Bees can recognize their own hives using visual cues and odor, but making each hive look different can help. One beek places all his hives so that they are 6' apart and all facing different directions.
  • For a walk-away split, the original hive could be moved away from it's original spot so that returning foragers come back to an empty space half way between the old hive and split. This forces foragers to choose between the old and new hives. (See image below.)
  • Peter mentioned one beek who makes the entire beeyard look different after a split so that returning foragers will be more likely to pick any available hive. Though they may try to find their queen, their willingness to enter any hive is increased. Colonies are generally willing to accept foragers from other hives since they're bringing stores in.
  • All these techniques rely on the law of averages, and no split ever works out perfectly. So may be necessary do some remedial balancing afterward. 
  • Do splits early in the season when weather is good and nectar is abundant because bees are less likely to fight. If you wait until late in the season, bad weather leads to increased robbing and defensiveness, so bees are more likely to fight.
Are there any issues with using purchased queens that have been produced in queen-rearing nucs?
  • Queen producers use the same basic principles that bees use to produce queens. They have to select larvae that are they correct age, make sure they get lots of royal jelly, and handle them with kid gloves.
Use healthy hives for splits
  • It's important to inspect the colony that will be used for splits and to be sure it's healthy. Splits also need to be inspectable.
  • Everyone has mites, but diseases like American foulbrood (AFB) are a different organism altogether. If you have this disease in the main hive, splitting will only propagate the disease.
  • Swarms are the best way to make an increase. Also, it's rare for swarms to bring AFB with them.  (Peter says he's never heard of it happening, though he supposes it's not impossible.) As soon as a swarm enters a hive, they clean everything. Also, they're not bringing any honey with them other than what they've consumed. This is used immediately to start making comb, and then new honey is brought in.
Method 2: "Equalize the Brood" (The Easiest Split Approach) 
  • Step 1: In the spring, go through the hives to find a strong one. Shake bees off the frames with brood.
  • Step 2: Put brood frames in an empty box over the super. Use an excluder to separate the boxes. 
  • Step 3: Wait a couple of hours for nurse bees to come up to the top box to tend the brood. Then put the whole box with bees in a weak hive. 
  • [Author's note: The way this was described, it seemed more of a way to boost a weak colony than to make a new one. However, I think it would work to make a new colony, too. Just skip step 3 and put the box on its own hive stand. If the frames contain eggs, the bees can make a new queen, or a queen could be added.]
Tips for making this method work
  • This method works better if you can wait overnight to attract more nurse bees.
  • Lean heavily on using sealed brood because they require the least care, but include a bit of brood at all stages so that you can raise a queen. Young brood also holds bees to the comb and hatches out over time.
  • Recommends using 1 frame of young larvae & eggs, 2 frames of middle aged larvae, 2 frames of sealed brood.
Some notes on package bees
  • If you are installing package bees, add brood because the bees are steadily declining in numbers for about 3 weeks. Adding brood helps them pick up faster and helps anchor the bees.
  • Package bees have the capacity to build up very quickly if a steady supply of syrup is provided. As long as the bees feel they have resources coming in, they'll build like gangbusters.
  • In Canada, for many years, most of their honey was produced using packages (averaging 200-300 lbs of honey per hive started from a package). This was possible because of 3 factors. 1) Packages were given all drawn comb instead of just foundation. 2) The extremely long days during (up to 20 hours of daylight in the summer). 3) Fantastic foraging.
  • A 4-frame nuc begun in May can have honey in 6 weeks. Packages can also build up extremely fast. If they don't, there are 3 possible reasons. The first is that the queen is no good. Secondly, foraging conditions might be poor, but this can be offset by feeding. Thirdly, ... well, sorry I missed that one. But hopefully it's in the video link. (Hey, Don, See? Even I fudge my notes. ;-)
Splits from Swarm Cells
  • If the bees start swarming, you can definitely make splits from them. You can even make 3 or 4 splits, but Peter recommends against cutting out the cells and inserting them into the new hive. Instead, he recommends using the entire frame with the swarm cell(s).
  • Some people advise against splits from swarm cells because they say that using them will breed swarmy bees. Peter's reply is, "That's nuts! All bees want to swarm... It's like saying don't make babies with women 'cause they'll make babies that want babies." [Author's note: HAHAHAHAHA!]
Splits with Division Boards
Ok, sorry, I really fell down on the job again because there were photos and a long explanation that I didn't attend to closely enough because I have TBHs. But I'm sure it will be in his presentation. Also, I'm pretty sure I've heard Mike Palmer describe how to do something similar in his talk on queen rearing.

  • I asked Peter if there is an ideal time to split, i.e., a time when the split has the best opportunity to build up, but the original colony is least impacted in terms of honey-making. He said the ideal time to split is when one sees the bees starting to make swarm preparations such as making drones, building queen cells, etc. If desired, one could get a jump on splits 1-2 weeks before the natural swarming period occurs. (In CT, this might be early May, but every location and year is different. So look for cues from the bees.) However, he recommended against making splits too early because the weather could take a turn for the worse, chilling brood, making queen flights impossible, etc.
  • I also mentioned my recent experience in which I made a split because I saw eggs being laid in swarm cells. Even though I'd accidentally moved the queen, the bees still got swarmy, and I had to make a second split. So I asked if there was a cut-off time for making splits. If I were to look at the bees, how would I know how late is too late? Peter's response was so honest and beautiful I could have kissed him. Basically, he said, "That's a great question. I don't know." He didn't think anyone could answer that. In my case, he thought it possible that moving the queen might have actually triggered the swarming because the bees felt that even with the queen gone, they still had too many bees. However, "If we didn't have bees that swarmed, we'd have a different story, and we wouldn't be having this conversation... It'd be a different story, but it would also be a less interesting story."
  • On late season swarms -- Why do bees swarm in the fall? What's happening there? Peter hypothesized that late swarms happen because environmental cues are very similar to spring cues. Day length is the same, nectar is abundant, and there is a lot of honey in the hive.
  • Late season splits -- Peter didn't recommend them, but he mentioned that Mike Palmer does them and has written the book on them. Mike overwinters them to boost weak hives/replace lost stock in the spring.
Favorite part of this talk
Peter told a story about how he and his wife spent an entire day making splits. The next day or so, he realized that the splits were too weak, and he and his wife had to spend another day putting them all back. "Sometimes you mess up. If it happens, it's better to admit defeat and just try another way." 

Of course, he told this story more eloquently and in a more interesting manner, but I loved the practicality, humility, and honesty of this story. Now that I'm into Year 3, I feel like I'm just starting to get my feet under me beekeeping-wise (though I am in no way a wise beekeeper, yet). However, I remember the total neuroses that plagued my first two years, especially that first one. Egads! I was terrified of screwing up -- partly because I loved my bees so much, and partly because they were so hard to find (TF, local, overwintered TBH nuc!) I didn't think I could replace him if I tried. They weren't cheap either. However, as I've learned, mistakes are frequently the best teachers, and the bees -- bless them -- somehow make things work despite my "help." It's comforting to hear that these great beeks have their share of mess-ups, too. Of course they do. That's how they got that way. :-)

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