How and why to make your own apiary splits & nucs

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Swarming is a natural tendency for bees in the spring and early summer, and making splits and nucs is just another part of good management of your hives.  Whether you want to grow your apiary, or just insure against winter hive losses, making your own splits and nucs is an ideal way to grow or maintain your apiary.  It’s easy and reliable, and doing it yourself, rather than purchasing nucs from another beekeeper, can save you hundreds of dollars, but there are a few things to keep in mind.how to make your own apiary splits and nucs

What are splits and nucs?

A split is simply dividing the two hive bodies of a colony, making two separate colonies, and providing a Queen for the Queen-less portion.  While a nuc–short for “nucleus colony” is a colony in miniature, it has everything a full-sized hive would have, just on a smaller scale.

Why do bees swarm?

making splits and nucs for swarm prevention

Photo courtesy: Flickr.com

Once upon a time swarms were looked on as a sign of a healthy hive.  Today though swarming is seen more as poor management–not that it can’t happen even if you’ve done everything possible to prevent it–but more often than not, a hive will put off swarms when they’ve been neglected or mismanaged.

  • Congestion – a hive will swarm when the colony begins to feel too crowded, with the population build-up in the spring there are a lot of young bees who hang out in the hive because they cannot yet fly to forage in the field.  If adequate space is not provided for the colony it will likely result in a swarm.
  • Lack of ventilation – if the colony is bearding off the front of the hive it’s a good indication that it’s too hot, and this may induce a swarm as well.
  • Older Queen – as she ages the Queen’s pheromones will begin to weaken, and at some point the workers will decide that she has reached the age of retirement.  They will raise a new Queen from one of the fertilized eggs of their old Queen, and either they will superceed or they will swarm.

 Read more about swarming here.

Why divide a colony at all?

Dividing a colony to make splits and nucleus colonies is a good way for beekeepers to replace colonies lost during the winter.  In fact, many beekeepers overwinter nucs exclusively for this purpose.  This is also a good way to increase the number of hives in your apiary.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that breaking up the brood nest is an effective way to reduce the mite populations in your hives without having to resort to treatments.

When do you make your splits & nucs?

Generally the best time to make splits or nucs is in the late-spring or early summer during the spring nectar flow.

Nuc

Waxed nuc-box which temporarily houses a 4-5 frame nucleus colony.

That being said, however, you can make nucs in the early spring if you have a Queen available, and if you use a double-screened board.  Using the screened board allows you to situate the nucleus colony directly atop the parent hive, which allows the heat from the parent colony to rise into the nucleus colony to keep them warm while building their population.

Nucs can also be put together in the late-summer and early fall for overwintering.  Many Maine beekeepers use this method to overwinter the nucs they prepare for their spring bee sales.

How does it work?

Beekeepers utilize normal honeybee biology when making apiary increases.  By playing on bees’ natural inclination to swarm in the spring, and by using nurse bees from the brood nest who are not likely to fight amongst themselves when mixed with workers from other hives, who are also less loyal to their original Queen, beekeepers can mix and match frames from various hives to create starter hives.

What equipment do you need?

You will need all of your regular beekeeping gear and tools, with the addition of whatever boxes you plan to use to house your nucleus colony.  You can move your nuc right into another hive set-up, or house them temporarily in a 4 or 5-frame nuc box.  You could even choose to use a double screened board and move the nuc into a brood box directly above it’s parent colony.

However you decide to do it, you will also need extra frames–as many frames as you plan on removing from the parent colony or colonies.  And maybe even a few extras in case you come across any frames that look old and need to be replaced.

A spray bottle filled with sugar-water is a nice addition that will allow you to mist the bees to prevent them from flying while you are gathering your frames into the nucs.

Some guidelines

There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re gearing up to make splits and nucs.  The main thing is that you want to do it at mid-day when most of the field bees are out foraging, because you want to fill your nucs with nurse bees and not a bunch of field bees who might fight or attack the nuc’s Queen.

Keep your in-progress nucs covered while you’re hunting for frames to put into them to prevent bees from flying out, and to protect the brood and Queen.

Avoid using too much smoke–this is where your spray bottle comes in handy.

Close up the entrances on your nucs while you’re assembling them, moving them, and once you’ve relocated them, keep entrance reducers on them so that these weak little colonies only have to defend a small entrance while they’re growing their population.

A note about genetics:  It is important to remember that the Queen is the mother of all the bees in the hive.  Just as in any other livestock breeding situation, it is crucial that new genetic material be introduced on occasion to prevent in-breeding and maintain the vitality of your hive.

What’s more, does this hive have traits and characteristics that you want to promote?  is it strong and healthy?  is it weak or aggressive? all Queens are not created equal, and that should be taken into consideration before splits are made.

How do you make splits?

Making splits is simply breaking apart the two hive bodies of a colony, and setting up each brood box as it’s own hive, effectively turning one hive into two.  To do this you should first locate the Queen, so that you’ll know which hive has a Queen, and which does not.

You’ll want to move your Queen-less hive to a new location to prevent bees from leaving and returning to the parent hive.

Then introduce a Queen to that Queen-less hive, either buy purchasing a new Queen and installing her, or by installing a frame bearing a swarm cell, or by ensuring that the Queen-less hive has a frame containing eggs that are less than three days old so that the workers can raise themselves a new Queen.

Which method you choose will dictate the difficulty of the task.  Obviously installing a new Queen is the quickest and simplest method.  Leaving the Queen-less hive with a swarm cell involves going back to check that the nucleus colony has accepted their new Queen, and that she is indeed laying as she should be.

While leaving only eggs in the hive is a bit more time-intensive, generally speaking the bees know what to do, and you should only have to go back to check that they are doing just that.  Check that they’ve built up a Queen-cell, but take extra care not to damage the cell when taking frames in and out of the hive.  Patience is a virtue when waiting for new Queens–gestation takes approximately 16 days.  After that it can be between 4 and 7 days before she takes her mating flight–longer if the weather does not cooperate.  But once she has been successfully mated, laying will commence soon thereafter.

drawn comb

Drawn comb.

Provide your split colonies with a second brood box, and drawn comb if you have it, or foundation if you do not, and they will proceed to fill the second box with comb, honey, and brood.

To make a nuc

brood frame

Frame of capped brood.

There are a couple of ways you can make your nucs.  By installing a new Queen or by setting the nuc up with a swarm-cell.  And you can either set your new colony up in a nuc-box or an 8 or 10-frame brood box.

uncapped brood

Frame of uncapped brood: eggs & larvae.

Either way the formula is the same.  Nucs require everything that a full-sized colony has:

  • capped & uncapped honey

    Capped & uncapped honey.

    Honey or nectar to eat–nectar is preferable since nurse bees eat nectar.

  • Pollen to feed the larvae.
  • A mix of brood in all stages:  eggs, larvae, and sealed brood–2-3 frames per nuc.
  • Drawn comb or foundation.
  • A Queen or a swarm-cell for the potential of a Queen.

 

Basically you’re going to mix and match frames from your various hives to fill your nuc or brood boxes.  Go through your hives looking for frames that fill the above criteria and looking for the Queen at the same time.  You’ll want to know where she is so that you can leave her in the parent hive.

Position the brood in the center of the box, with your frame of comb or foundation next to it, and the food on the outside.

Add a Queen–or a frame bearing your swarm-cell–and you’re good to go!  Load up your nucs and move them either to a temporary location while the new colony adapts to it’s new members and conditions, to be moved back to the apiary in a few weeks, or move them to their permanent location at a separate apiary location altogether.

That’s it!

That’s all there is to it.  Making splits and nucs might seem overwhelming at first, but just remember the formula and guidelines for assembling a new colony and you’ll be all set.

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