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It is difficult to believe that we’re already embarking on our second year of beekeeping!

Despite struggling with Varroa mites last fall, and losing two weaker colonies in our apiary over fall and winter, one to robbers, and the other to a Queen that abdicated, the last few weeks it’s been apparent that our two surviving colonies of bees are building up FAST.

This was the view under the inner cover on Friday, at the top of the sixth hive body in the Salvia hive (click any image to enlarge)

Our weather has been so mild and warm for most of the year so far, reaching well into the 70s some afternoons, that hive activity is surging. Standing in the garden during a warm spell last week, all we could smell was the sweet aroma of honey, and beeswax.  Pure heaven!

With all the comings and goings at the hive entrances though, coupled with our faux-spring weather, we’ve been a little nervous about our largest colony, Salvia, initiating an early season swarm.  This feral-source colony has done so well for us since the minute we housed them, after rescuing them from our neighbor’s plum tree, that we’d hate to lose this Queen to a swarm.

The entrance to the Salvia hive has been bustling with activity in recent weeks

Of all the bees in a colony, the only bee that can reproduce is the Queen.  New colonies are created in the spring when healthy, and robust, honey bee colonies cast swarms.

This is where the Salvia colony started out last March, in our neighbor's plum tree

A swarm consists of a large pool of worker bees from the colony, a few scout bees, and the colony’s Queen.  The swarm leaves the colony together in search of a new home.  Meanwhile, the bees remaining in the parent colony raise a replacement heir to the throne.

If a colony becomes overcrowded, multiple swarms may be cast during a season to reduce the colony size, making room in the hive, until the population becomes more manageable.  This is how we acquired the Lavender colony last year, as a secondary swarm from the same hive that the Salvia colony came from.  Swarming is simply a sign that a honey bee colony is doing well, and has outgrown its accommodation.  Weak colonies typically don’t swarm.

Recently it’s been challenging for us to find time to do anything that isn’t to do with preparing for the arrival of goats this spring, but the weather Friday was perfect for opening the hive.  Keeping an eye on extended forecasts, we decided to chance dividing the Salvia colony with an early season split.  Splitting a colony can be thought of as an artificial ‘controlled’ swarm.

By moving some of the bees from the Salvia hive (left), into the empty Rosemary hive (right), we decrease the crowding pressure in the hive, and decrease the chance that Salvia will swarm

In theory it achieves the same end as allowing the colony to swarm naturally, except that the beekeeper decreases the likelihood of losing the bees into the environment.  It helps to free up space in a crowded hive, and has the benefit of increasing the number of colonies in the apiary.  This spring our hope is that by dividing our strong surviving colonies we will be able to replace the two colonies we lost this last winter.  Also, by dividing these colonies, we hope that we are also selecting for stronger, more robust bees.  These colonies clearly were much MUCH stronger than either of our package hives last year, and perfectly capable of producing enough hardy bees to make it through winter.

So, with the weather in our favor, we rounded up plenty of empty hive bodies, and drawn combs, grabbed the smoker, and headed out to the apiary.

To split the Salvia hive we first had to find which level of the hive the brood nest was located in, and then to split the brood nest more or less equally between Salvia, and the empty Rosemary hive (which was vacated in January when the Queen flew off).

We essentially did what is termed a ‘walk-away’ split.  There are many methods of splitting honey bee colonies, but with as hectic as things are here at the moment, we chose to keep it simple, and ‘walk-away’ splits are perhaps the most straightforward, as you simply strive to divide the colony equally between two hives.  The most important thing was to ensure that we ended up with eggs, young larvae, and capped brood, along with plenty of nurse bees, in BOTH colonies at the end of the split.  Providing there are (female) eggs within a hive, and enough worker bees to tend them, a colony can raise a new Queen.

Eggs are required for the new colony to raise a new Queen, but all lifestages of brood must be present in the hive before performing a split

We pulled the Vivaldi board off the top of Salvia, and were immediately surprised to find the uppermost hive body completely crowded with bees.

The Salvia hive was almost completely full from floor to ceiling

As we worked our way down into the start of the brood nest we found plenty of honey stores, lots of vibrant colored pollen, and plenty of brood.

There was plenty of capped honey at the top of the hive

We transferred a couple of frames of capped brood to the new colony, so that newly emerging bees will join the new colony as extra nurse bees, along with frames with larvae, eggs, pollen, and honey.  Our goal was to split Salvia in half, although at the end of the day, I think we more realistically split about a third of the colony into the empty Rosemary hive.  It was somewhat challenging juggling Salvia’s six hive bodies during the split, and transferring frames, as this colony was so large to start with.

The brood nest frames had capped honey (left), pollen (middle), and plenty of capped and uncapped brood (right)

The bottom hive body, where the bees would have overwintered, was mostly empty, as the colony has moved up inside the hive with the recent warm weather.  We reversed the bottom hive body as those empty frames provide valuable space for the Queen to lay more eggs.

We checkerboarded some of those empty combs in to part of the brood nest, as well as in between the honey frames.  Some beekeepers say to never checkerboard empty combs in the brood nest, but we’ve done it before, and if the brood nest is crowded, it immediately provides extra space for the Queen to lay eggs, without worrying whether or not she’ll move up to an empty super.  We wouldn’t divide the brood nest in the fall, or in cold weather, but at the moment our temperatures are quite mild.

The bees were so crowded, that the bottom of almost every frame had burr comb built up underneath, most of which was packed with drone larvae

We found a row of empty Queen cups at the bottom of one of Salvia’s frames, so we moved those Queen cups into the new (Queenless) Rosemary hive.

Queen cups are larger cells on the frames that are used to raise new Queens in

We had somewhat hoped to find capped Queen cells, with as active as Salvia is, as we could have transferred those to the Queenless Rosemary colony, and decreased the amount of time it will take for them to raise a new Queen.  However, providing we transferred enough bees, and brood, to the new colony, they should have no difficulty raising a new Queen of their own over the next couple of weeks.

Working with a hive as large as Salvia was somewhat intimidating, at least in so far as not having any idea where the Salvia Queen was during this split.  I think all beekeepers live in fear of inadvertently harming the Queen when they work their hives, especially good Queens like Salvia.  The entire point of this exercise was not only to replace one of our lost hives in the apiary, but also to preserve the Salvia Queen.  However, we have never found the Queen in the Salvia colony, which is somewhat embarrassing, due to the sheer size of the population in this hive, and despite our best efforts we still didn’t sight her on Friday.  We’re fairly certain she’s still in the hive, but it’s not impossible we moved her accidentally.  If by some unfortunate chance we managed to drop, crush, transfer, or otherwise lose the Queen during our rather invasive hive manipulations on Friday though (perish the thought), we’ve made sure that Salvia could still raise an emergency Queen if needed, just as Rosemary 2.0 will now need to raise a Queen for that colony to survive.

The Rosemary hive has now been repopulated with bees from Salvia. We're crossing our fingers they can raise a new Queen in a few weeks

If all goes well, the new Rosemary colony will transform one or more eggs into Queen cells, and raise a new Queen (which takes up to 16 days).  Providing the weather holds, soon thereafter she will then embark on her mating flight (and there is NO shortage of drones here at the moment for her to mate with), and then we will check, in about three to four weeks, to see if there is any evidence of egg laying in the new colony.  We’ll wait a couple of weeks for Salvia to recover from our intrusion, and make sure that worker brood is still being produced in that hive as well.

Salvia had plenty of drones, and drone larvae. These larvae were in burr comb between the frames, and as you can see, where there are drones, there's Varroa

If per chance no Queen is produced in the new Rosemary colony, or she is not well mated, we do have the option of either transferring more eggs and larvae to that colony in a few weeks, or recombining the bees back with Salvia if necessary.  However, if all goes well, Rosemary 2.0 will be off to a good start by the end of March, and it’s much more likely, as Salvia is still a large colony, that we’ll need to divide that hive again by late March to prevent that colony from swarming.

Next time we check on Salvia, we’ll also likely be taking some honey, as they seem to be hoarding more than enough at the moment.  We’ll need to remove some of the existing honey so the bees will have room to store honey from the upcoming Spring nectar flows.

Curbstone Valley Farm's first jar of honey!

This jar was taken from the original Rosemary colony after the Queen flew off in January (the rest was divided among the other hives), and tastes divine!  We’re looking forward to our first real honey harvest though!  Looks like it’s time to locate a honey extractor, and stock up on jars!

**VIDEO UPDATE**

One week after the split, the Rosemary hive (second from left) is showing significant activity.  We’ll recheck this hive in a few weeks to check for a Queen, but so far this split looks promising.