The winter of 2017/2018 seems to have seen larger than normal losses across the UK, with forum and social media reports of up to 80% losses for some beekeepers. Colonies fail for many reasons; Disease, queen failure, starvation, lack of forage and cold wet weather restricting foraging activities and forage availability, amongst others. Luckily, I did not lose any of my colonies over the winter.

Honey bee Survival

In winter, worker bees can live for up to five or six months, But in the summer, worker bees only live for around six weeks having to work much harder foraging. Honey bee queens live for three to four years but cannot survive without worker bees. In some other species of bees or wasps only the queen survives by hibernating through the winter months.

The honey bee is the only bee to maintain a colony throughout the winter. The colony reduces its size in autumn, as the queen either stops laying or dramatically reduces laying, and relies on it’s stores of honey to last it through the winter months, when it is too cold for foraging or there is no forage available. The loss of honey bee colonies impacts the available pollination resources as well as reducing honey crops, so it is essential that beekeepers rebuild stocks.

‘Splitting’ Colonies

One method of making up losses, or to make increase, is by ‘splitting’ colonies and building honey bee numbers back up to strength over the season. So if, for example, a beekeeper takes 10 hives into the winter but loses two colonies by the spring, a further two colonies must be ‘split’ to get back up to 10 colonies by the end of the season. The net effect being that the beekeeper has effectively only 6 hives running at full strength during that season.

The best time to make a split is about a month before the first major nectar flow. To make a split, follow these steps in the order they are given:

    • Check your existing colony (colonies) to determine whether you have one that’s strong enough to split. The chosen colony (colonies) must be disease free.
    • Look for lots of bees, and lots of capped brood (7 – 8 frames of capped brood and/or larvae are ideal). The frames should look crowded.
    • Get the equipment for the new hive ready; You will need a stand, floor, brood box, frames with foundation, crown board and roof.
    • Order a new queen from your bee supplier, or better still, rear your own queens. Alternatively, you can allow the new colony to raise its own queen.
    • Put your new hive equipment where you plan to locate the new colony.
    • Place the brood box and floor on the stand, and remove five of the eleven foundation frames and set them aside. You’ll need them later.
    • Smoke and open your existing colony as usual.
    • Find the frame with the queen and set it aside in a safe place. Alternatively, cage the queen and put the cage on top of the frames.
    • Now remove three frames of capped brood (frames with cells of developing pupae) plus all the bees that are on each of them.Place these three brood frames and bees in the center of the new hive. That still leaves an empty space because your removed five frames of foundation. The empty space should be filled with a frame of stores – pollen and nectar/honey.
    • If you are introducing a new queen, place the queen cage (candy side up) and hang the cage between brood frames in the middle of the new hive. Make sure you have removed any tape or tab covering the candy plug.
    • Put a hive-top feeder on your new colony and fill it with 1:1 sugar syrup.
    • Close up the hive.

Turn your attention back to the original hive.

  • Carefully put the frame or cage containing the queen back into the colony.
  • Move all the remaining frames into the centre of the hive
  • Add new foundation frames (to replace the brood and food frames that you removed earlier). Place these frames closest to the outer walls of the hive, on either side of the original frames.
  • Add a hive-top feeder to your original hive and fill it with 1:1 sugar syrup.
  • Close up the hive.

You could shake more bees into the new split if required, but remember that both hives must be viable.

The reason for adding feed is that you now have two weak colonies instead of one strong one, and they need to be able to feed the brood and build new wax while building up their numbers. It may also be prudent to reduce the hive entrances to give the guard bees a smaller entrance to guard, and help prevent robbing.

All being well, both colonies should thrive, and be large enough to produce a crop of honey by the end of the season.

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