On Monday, April 11, the early afternoon turned into a rather sunny day. Not very warm, but sunny and the bees were flying. I had a 5-hour flight to California in just over four hours, in fact I still had to pack my bags. I had been sick over the weekend, diagnosed with strep throat that very morning, and was taking antibiotics to get better. I figured I had an hour to spare. Clearly, time for my first split.
As I mentioned in my prior post, my goal was to allow our hive Jupiter to prepare for a swarm, catch it with larva-filled queen cups inside, and do a couple splits to create some new hives. Life and weather being what it was, the timing just didn’t work. I was about to leave town for over a week and was pretty sure the hive could swarm while I was away.
As 2015 was my first year with bees, I was both determined and intimidated by the idea of dividing up a hive. On Sunday I peeked in Jupiter and found the picture shown here, with queen cells well established. Based on my vast experience, I suspect cold weather and rain was the only reason the hive had not yet swarmed.
My choices were to leave town and hope for the best, or do what I can in an hour. One lesson from my first year was that you only get a few chances each beekeeping season for certain activities, so I was worried this might be my only chance this year for an early split. I figured I may as well give this a try. What’s the worst that could happen?
New Hive Stand
Two days earlier, on Saturday, I had added my new top bar hive to the bee yard. No bees inside, just made a spot for it. A bit of a process as I needed the two supports previously under the existing top bar hive Venus. I managed to create a makeshift stand (shown here) from two wooden stools and the new hive. I slid a four-foot board under Venus, and was able to slide the board and Venus on top of my stack. This freed up the supports to create the new stand.
I screwed 2×6 boards to each support and created a long stand behind the existing Langstroth hives. The boards are 18 inches apart and almost 6 inches wide, so a full 2.5 feet of support. Venus is 4 feet long with a narrow base, which is why I placed it on top of a four-foot board. The new hive is 3.5 feet long with a wider base, and sat on the stand just fine. I spent some time getting everything level as I know from last year this is critical. Bees follow the course of gravity, and since a top bar hive is just open space with wooden bars at the top, a level hive encourages the bees to build vertical comb.
The best laid plans
As I laid out in my goals for the year, my original plans for a split were to do the following
- Create two single deep hives from my existing two Langstroth hives. Both hives have a deep with mediums on top, so this would change these hives to use only medium boxes, something I wanted to try. I am secretly hoping to sell the new hives to someone interested in having deep boxes.
- Start my new top bar hive with frames from Venus. The challenge here is that Venus has 14 inch bars, while the new hive uses 19 inch bars. The new 19 inch size matches the Langstroth frame size. Not that I want to interchange frames and comb on a regular basis, but having the option would be nice.
With my limited time, I decided to aim for breaking up Jupiter, since I was fairly certain there were a number of queen cells inside, and leave my other Langstroth hive Mars intact. I had a slotted rack and a brand new medium box with frames ready for Jupiter as well. I also had a new solid bottom board, inner cover, and top cover for the new hive.
A local top bar hive beekeeper (Lisa) suggested using cotton string and paper towel rolls to move comb onto the new bars. The cardboard rolls (cut lengthwise) support the comb, and the string wraps around the comb and cardboard to hold it in place. Hopefully I could make this work as a way to move comb from the old hive to the new one.
Divide and conquer
I seem to be getting more comfortable moving bees around. Jupiter was one deep and one medium, so I set the medium aside and moved the deep box onto the new bottom board, which was already on the new hive stand.
I rebuilt Jupiter to consist of the new slotted rack (painted blue), the existing medium box, and the new medium box. There were queen cells in the medium the day before, so this hive should be good even if the queen is not present. I hadn’t thought to bring an entrance reducer with me, so I took the one from Jupiter and used it for the new hive. With a good nectar flow coming, robbing was unlikely and they might just appreciate the extra entrance space.
With Jupiter re-established, I turned my attention to the new hive. It doesn’t get a name until I know it will survive. A quick look at the frames found both brood and queen cells available. I had no idea which box had the existing queen, and given I hadn’t found a queen in over six months, no time to find her. Both boxes had queen cells, so that was the best I could do.
The bottom board is 22 inches, so the hive has 2 inches to spare on each end over the 18-inch gap on the stand. A little tight; hopefully it won’t fall off while I’m gone. The foragers likely returned to the original hive, and there seemed to be enough young bees in the new box to keep the brood warm.
Top Bar Hive
For the top bar hive Venus, I was able to tie an empty comb and a partial honey comb onto the new bars. When I tried to attach a brood comb, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the bees. Should I brush them all off? Attach the comb with bees crawling around? After a couple attempts I was running out of time.
It finally occurred to me that I could simply tie the ends of the shorter bar to the longer bar. I ran back to the house to grab a couple strips of wood with no bars, and this approach worked much better. Unfortunately I didn’t think to take any pictures, as at this point I was feeling rather rushed. I’m also not sure what I will do if the hive survives and builds comb all around these tied-on bars. Still, it worked.
I bravely carved two queen cells from the deep box with a hive tool and pressed them into a comb in the new TBH. I dumped some bees off a brood frame from Venus; these bees are more likely to be younger and therefore had never left the hive. As a result, they should stay with the new hive. I was completely comfortable with this new set up, but my time was up. I cleaned up the yard, snapped a couple pictures, and left.
In retrospect, I could have done better. I should have pressed the queen cells into the brood frame, should probably have tied on two brood frames instead of one. I’m also not sure there is enough bees to keep the hive warm on cold nights, or honey to feed them since there are likely few if any foragers. So I’m not sure this new top bar hive will make it.
In the end, kind of a whirlwind experience. I think the new deep hive will make it, and the top bar hive has a good chance of failing. I will let you know.
A house divided against itself cannot stand
After at least three minutes of looking, this was the most apropos proverb based the word “split” or “divide” in my book The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs. If members of a group do not remain united, then the group may break apart and cease to exist.
While hoping to become a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Abraham Lincoln used this phrase in his famous House Divided speech on June 16, 1858. As Lincoln knew, the proverb comes from the Christian bible, in both Mathew 12:25 and Mark 3:25. The New International Version of Mark 3:25 reads “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
For my purposes, the proverb captures both sides of my hurried splits. A hive divided, especially in a hurry, may not last at all. On the other hand, a hive divided cannot stand as a single hive; hopefully it becomes two hives. Or perhaps three. We’ll see what actually happens.