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American Bee Journal

Beekeeping Basics – April 2024: Fail-safe Splits

By May 20, 2024No Comments

Around this time of year, I have the most glorious recurring dreams about swarms. Usually, the dream starts out like any run-of-the-mill dream about working for hire on Taylor Swift’s rainforest unicorn farm. I’m usually crawling around on the soft fragrant ground, trimming iridescent fringed aphids from a coral reef tree, when my knees begin to glow with agony. I’m kneeling on bunches of bees. (Have you ever accidentally kneeled on bees? It really gets your attention!)
But my stinging pain shifts to mesmerized awe as a crescendoing hum makes me look up. Before my eyes, a marvelous swarm hangs from a golden grapevine. I retract my scissor claws, leap over an elephant, and fly to my bee shed to gather my swarm gear. From a bird’s eye view, I spy another swarm hanging from a peony tree — and another from the eaves of the Taj Mahal. Swarms are everywhere, and the rest of my dream is spent trying to turn any and all impossible objects into swarm capture containers.
It’s both a relief and a disappointment to wake up from these dreams. I usually don’t wake up until I’ve secured at least five out of the thirty-eight illusory swarms. So I begin my day a little crestfallen that I haven’t magically replaced my winter deadouts with free bees gathered from mystical settings, but also relieved. As fun and thrilling as it might be, chasing swarms isn’t a significant part of my beekeeping operation and not an activity I look forward to.
For new beekeepers, swarms are nature’s bountiful upstart gift, but for beekeepers with a few years under their belt, and especially those living in urban and suburban settings, letting bees swarm is an irresponsible gamble. A swarm in the air can easily get away, causing a loss to the originating hive — a total loss if the colony doesn’t requeen. Swarms can also end up a nuisance for a neighbor if bees take up residence in the roof or walls of a home.
Instead of letting hives swarm out, why not cut a swarm off at the pass before any of these probable downsides occur? Keep your queen and all your bees! A healthy overwintered hive should be split!
The benefits of making splits far outweigh the fun of catching swarms. Splitting is much easier and less time-consuming. When timed right, early splits can do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to colony buildup, saving you sugar and trips to the apiary. Once you get into a habit of making early annual splits, you’ll find you have more time to maximize the honey flow, as well as an opportunity to sell quality nucs.

Annual splits are a sign of beekeeping achievement
These days, it’s hard to pull ourselves away from “scrolling” — the act of “looking things up” on the internet, or simply, moving down a list of posts or shopping options. I think this is one reason why there has been such a lasting boom in beekeeping. Beekeeping is highly shoppable and extremely visible on social media. It represents a change of lifestyle for the better — a conquering of one’s fears and a return to nature. It’s not uncommon for social media-inspired beekeepers to experience steep winter losses, but most continue in their pursuit, giving it at least another season, if not two or three. The compelling intelligence of the hive mind keeps us beekeepers coming back, as does the ease and relative affordability of reinvesting in nucs and packages.
From my perspective as an apiary inspector, I witness most new beekeepers trying again and again until they prevail. And being someone who writes permits for colonies to cross county and state lines, I see a need for locally sourced nucs and I encourage all newer beekeepers with three or more years of experience to consider selling their healthy splits. Healthy local nucs on grade A comb will always sell, and beekeepers providing these nucs should feel proud for contributing to their beekeeping community. Also, once a beekeeper learns what it takes to get a colony through the winter, they deserve to recoup some of the cost they’ve incurred along the way to becoming a sustainable beekeeper. Anyone capable of raising healthy bees on sound frames can be an eligible source of spring nucs.
Of course, beekeepers seeking to expand their own apiaries should keep their splits — but how much of an increase is sensible? How many splits should you make from one colony? It all depends on… (end of excerpt)

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