A better way to split your hives
In a reverse split, the queen moves to the new hive location along with almost all of the nurse bees. The foragers will remain in the parent, or original location. Many beekeepers currently are doing 50/50 splits, which of course only stay 50/50 if you move the colony 5 miles away immediately. Otherwise, the foragers will all return to the original location, even if the queen is moved. They will abandon her. If left in the same apiary, the new hive in a 50/50 will become more like a 20/80 split when the foragers return to the original location. Many backyard beekeepers do not have the luxury or the time to move splits away.
Keeping both parts of a split strong
Splitting a hive in the traditional way inherently introduces weaknesses to both parts. One will be weak because it does not have a queen or foragers, and thus cannot build up until a new queen emerges and mates. The other will be weak because it has too few bees. The reverse split keeps both sides strong by moving all of the nurses, rather than only 50% of them as in a 50/50, and allows the hive with the most bees do the raising of the new queen. It is called a Doolittle (after them man who invented it) because you do not need to find the queen.
How do we move the queen without finding her…
And, how do we move all of the nurses? This is the simplest split you will ever do, and the most effective. First set up a bottom board and a hive body in the new location. Open the parent hive and remove the sheet of honey nearest the wall. Move this and the bees that are on it to the new location, right next to the wall like it was. The next frame should contain bee bread and honey, move that one, too, and put it next to the first one. Now go through the frames one by one. Any that contain open brood get moved to the new hive along with the bees that are on it (nurse bees are on open brood, right?) Just set them in place in the order they came out in. Any frames that contain capped brood get shaken out over the new colony, and then replaced in the center of the parent hive. You do not need to shake every single bee off, just enough that you can confidently know that you did not move the queen back into the parent hive. You can look for the queen before you shake as well, if you like. It might be nice not to shake her if you can help it. When you finish going all the way through the hive, the open brood, the queen, and all of the bees will be in the new hive, and the capped brood will be in the parent hive, with a few bees that were left after a good shake or two. Obviously, you need to leave some eggs in the parent hive so that it can make a new queen, but it would be practically impossible not to. Many of the frames will have a mixture of open and capped brood, we are just choosing where they go based on what the majority of the brood is. The foragers will return to the parent hive. The capped brood will begin emerging, and the parent hive will return to a nice balance of nurses and foragers. The new hive will contain enough nurses to support the queen, and they will begin maturing into foragers, so that this hive also returns to a balance of nurses and foragers. The queen ends up with about 30% of the total bees that were in the hive, vs. only 15% that would remain with her in a 50/50 split. She can begin building the hive numbers rapidly with plenty of nurses to cover brood. In this way we have overcome the weakness of the new colony, too few bees. We have also overcome the weakness of the colony that needs to raise a queen by leaving it with a very good population to defend it while the new queen is emerging and mating.
Putting it all back together
The new colony needs to be very well apportioned with honey and bee bread from the parent, since they will have no foragers for a few days. Be sure you leave some honey in both colonies, however. As you put them both back together, remember the basic order that bees want the frames in….honey next to the walls, then bee bread, brood uninterrupted in the middle. Frames with foundation can go between the bee bread and brood on one side, for the bees to draw out.
Make sure it worked
One week after the split, open both colonies. The new colony should have the queen and eggs. The parent colony should have capped queen cells. If it does, close it up and leave it alone for 3 more weeks so the queen has time to mate without being disturbed. If not, add eggs from another colony so that they can start a new queen. Remember that the queen cells won’t be on the bottom like swarm cells, since they are actually emergency cells. They will be in the middle of the frame, usually.
What if you have capped swarm cells already when you do the split? Be sure to leave ALL of the queen cells in the parent, and to move the queen. Brush, don’t shake, the frames that have queen cells and put them back where you found them, shaking queen cells can cause the larval queen to fall out of the royal jelly and starve. Sometimes the existing queen will have already left with the swarm, and you can’t tell because there are so many bees. Or, she will still leave the new colony with a swarm because you did this too late. This is why you need to check to make sure she is still there. The beauty of this split is that even if she still goes with a swarm, she only takes a quarter of your bees, instead of half or more. If the new colony is queenless after a week, and it is strong enough, give it eggs to start a new queen, or re-combine it with the old colony.
A reverse split helps us do what we always should do…help the bees do what they want to do rather than making them do something else. In the spring, the bees want to send the old queen away with some of the bees to start a new colony, exactly what we have just helped them do. Happy Beekeeping! T