Expanding the Apiary by splitting colonies

Apart from a new swarm that has just gone into a fresh home, all wild colonies are full size. There are no small colonies or nuclei (nucs) as we get in a managed system, even though it might be argued that a swarmed colony is smaller than normal. In fact it is simply a full colony that has reproduced. There is still the same amount of comb, food and brood.

One good thing about bees is they will allow us to divide or split a colony, often into several smaller colonies that we call nucs. The size of a colony can be managed by the beekeeper to suit their purpose. They can be built up into larger colonies, split again or left roughly as they are.

Making colony increase is a regular and important part of beekeeping, but there seems to be a view, especially among newer beekeepers, that it is difficult and expensive. In fact it is neither. I don’t know where this idea comes from, but I find it so simple that I often have surplus colonies at the end of the season.

I often see or hear of beekeepers with 2, 3 or more colonies who want an extra colony or two, but instead of increasing from their own bees they buy from elsewhere, often commercially. Why do beekeepers do this when they can learn so much by making increase, producing their own queens or perhaps uniting later to bring the numbers down again, if they have been more enthusiastic than they intended?

There is a huge amount to learn when increasing (and decreasing) colony numbers.

When accessing information here please accept that methods are written in general terms only. Adjustments will have to be made depending on where your bees are kept. If you live in A warm climate your timing will be different than someone who lives in A colder area.

Reasons for making colony increase aremany, some may include:-

Replacing winter losses.
Producing nucs for sale.
Queen mating nucs.
For Breeders to supply beginners.
Increase the number of colonies for the individual beekeeper.
Swarm prevention.
For demonstration purposes.
Temporary increase, e.g. for holding a queen.
As part of a management system.

The colony should have enough food or be fed.
There should be enough flying bees to defend it.
It should be healthy.
It should have room to expand.
It should have enough bees to cover the brood it has.
The well organised beekeeper will plan much of the increase they wish to make in advance, but of course there is always the odd occasion when an extra colony needs to be made up quickly. This could be for a specific purpose, such as to create a holding colony for a valuable queen when you have nowhere else to put her, or perhaps to make use of a situation that presents itself unexpectedly, such as a good colony where the queen has “disappeared”. On many occasions I have inspected a colony, only to find emergency cells and the queen has gone, leaving no larvae young enough to raise future queens from. If the queen was exceptional I don’t want to lose her influence, so if I have no nucs to put the Q/Cs in, I may decide to split the colony into several nucs and give each one a Q/C.

It annoys me when I keep hearing that in the United States there is a shortage of bees and that we can’t produce enough bees to supply the large number of beginners that have appeared in the early years of the 21st century. I come across many Breeders who have a waiting list for bees, some buying nucs commercially to satisfy the demand.

I’m sure that with a bit of planning by Breeders they can produce good colonies of bees at little cost.

What do you need to know?

Although making an increase is easy, there are a few things you need to know, but quite frankly even the newest beekeeper should know them. These include:-

Be able to recognise Foul Brood and deal with it.
If bees are moved in an apiary or closer than about 3 miles they may fly home.
Bees from 2 colonies will probably fight, those from 3 or more probably won’t.
A frame of brood becomes about 3 frames of bees when it emerges.
Non-flying bees can’t defend themselves very well.
Feeding bees that have recently been moved from within flying distance may cause robbing when they fly home.
The smaller the colony, the quicker the food situation can change.
Methods of producing queens.
Methods of introducing queens.
The adult bee population of colonies can be varied by swapping positions to increase or reduce the number of flying bees.(managed drift)
If a colony is moved to the position of another colony to accept flying bees, it is advisable to cage the queen for 24 hours to prevent her possibly becoming overwhelmed.
In general a large colony will build up quicker overall than two smaller ones.
Sealed brood needs less bees to look after it than unsealed brood does.
In General.

As stated earlier there are many reasons for making increase, some temporary, some permanent. What you are really looking for is something that is fit for purpose. Taking extremes, there is little point in making a queen mating nuc that is too strong or a colony you wish to overwinter too weak. There is a waste in both.

In most cases queens will be needed. I always discourage beekeepers from buying queens commercially, especially as they are so easy to raise, or queen cells can be sourced from good local colonies. When making increase there is an excellent opportunity to improve your bees by using queen cells from selected colonies.

If you only want the odd colony or two, it is quite easy to make increase from your own bees at any time during the summer. I think that taking in swarms is a good way of making increase, providing the normal precautions are taken. You may have to requeen them later, but that doesn’t often present a problem.

If you want to expand rapidly I think it is quite easy to do. If everything goes well, in Western Massachusetts from one colony that is strong in spring, I can get around 6 colonies strong enough to have a good chance of surviving the following winter. This is by raising queens or queen cells on a fairly organised basis and using drawn brood comb instead of foundation. I realise that in cooler parts of the country the number of colonies made will be less, but you can still increase by a significant factor.

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