Splitting a TBH

In my area, there have been fairly constant showers recently and poor forage opportunities, so swarming preparations  seem to have been a little delayed this year for my hives. But both my TBH’s are bursting with bees and last weekend I noted queen cups were beginning to be made in one hive, though they seemed empty. However, I knew I needed to check them again this weekend, because a week is about as long as you can leave them  as they can go from empty to sealed and thus ready for swarming in about 8 days. If on a second inspection there was evidence of imminent swarming, then I planned to split the colony to pre-empt them, and make the colony feel it had swarmed.

On Saturday 12th May I checked Hive 2, the slower-developing hive, during the OBKA visit. It had lots of drones but just a couple of small, empty “practice” queen cups. But on Sunday 13th, as soon as I checked Hive 1’s brood nest I saw full queen cells a good inch long, with sealed pointy ends – quite distinct from the stubby open ones I’d seen last week. And presumably this means the ones I saw last week must have had eggs or tiny larvae in which I didn’t spot – they weren’t empty!

Queen cells along edge of comb

Queen cells along edge of comb

I had read up on splits beforehand and been puzzled by Phil Chandler’s description, where he makes a point that you must locate the queen and rotate the hive. Eventually I realised this was because Phil’s technique aims to position the queen on the side which returning flying workers do not return to, so that these experienced workers help the newly emerged queen while the old one lays eggs without interruption in the other half-colony, i.e. each half has an advantage.

Gareth has developed a splitting technique which does not depend on knowing which half the queen ends up in, but this technique applies to a slightly different situation, where you do not yet have capped queen cells but need to get the workers to make the best possible emergency queen using an egg laid in normal comb. But this made me question why one needs to rotate the hive at all.

Here I knew exactly where the queen cells were, and these would be good queens raised exclusively on royal jelly for their entire life cycle, in appropriately sized cells. So:

  • No need to locate the queen, it doesn’t matter which side she’s on as both sides can be given queen cells.
  • I decided there was no need to rotate the hive because I would probably not know which side the queen was on, and Gareth seems to have successfully raised colonies with emergency queens, so I wasn’t too bothered about one side lacking both laying queen and returning workers for a while.

Looking back though, I realise there is a hidden assumption in my reasoning: that reducing the colony size will reduce population pressure to a point where they will not swarm. However, I now have a situation where there will shortly be some virgin queens emerging in the half with the queen. Will they swarm? Or simply supercede the old queen? Guess we’ll find out within 3 weeks or so.

This picture explains what I did –

TBH after split

TBH after split

It’s worth mentioning that all this disturbance to their nest really agitated the bees. It was my first time making a split and there was a lot of lifting and rearranging of combs as I tried to identify which ones were brood with queen cells, trying to get them sandwiched between combs of stores at each end of the sub-colonies, equalising the number of queen cells on each side, shuffling the dividers along etc. See how many bees are on top of the hive in the picture.

So, what did I learn?

  • Always inspect within 7 days after spotting ’empty’ queen cups if you want to avoid a swarm – they may well not be empty.
  • Write on top of the bars which have the queen cups/cells, and plan which bars to move where, then do an orderly split quickly and all in one go to minimize disruption time for the bees.
  • A neighbour getting her washing in got stung three times (yet yesterday, the OBKA visitors commented on how calm the sister colony was) -so I was reminded you should always warn neighbours when you’re going to manipulate your hives and I was stupid not to.
  • And in retrospect, while I was trying to give the new sub-colony a boost with syrup, the right-hand side may not have foragers who know what to do with it, as the flying bees will return to their regular entrance on the left-hand side. So perhaps I should have rotated the hive to split the returning foragers OR instead I think I should have put the feeder in the left-hand side and an extra comb of stores in the right. But as you know, sometimes you make errors when dealing with thousands of anxious bees and one anxious beek.

I have no idea which side the existing queen is on. If they do not swarm, I may have stumbled upon a slightly easier splitting technique (no rotation of hive) in my ignorance. Or I may just be lucky. If they do swarm because I left queen cells on the same side as the queen, and I do not catch them, I hope they find a nice hollow tree.

Now we wait and see what happens.

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2 Responses to Splitting a TBH

  1. simplebees says:

    A small comment. The technique I use can avoid what are sometimes called emergency queen cells – ie cells made from old comb where the larvae have to be floated to the top of the cell – by ensuring that both sides of the split have eggs in new comb. Bees will modify new comb to create downward hanging queen cells. This becomes increasingly difficult as the comb gets older. That said, the very best queens will always come from situations where the bees have decided to make queen cells from scratch. Just as Paul’s have.


  2. Pingback: Swarming from split and multiple casts | Oxfordshire Natural Beekeeping Group

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