Splitting Hives – by Stephanie

As I drove up to the driveway of Tom’s house at Oak Hill Farm, I saw him loading bee hives onto a truck. He was parked in front of a large barn, and when I peeked inside, I saw it was full of the wooden boxes that make up the traditional langstroff hive. “Did you bring any equipment?” he asked. I proudly whipped out my beekeeping face net and hat that my friend Scooter had lent me for the occasion. “Oh no, those won’t do,” declared Tom. He went into the barn and reappeared with a full body white suit, which I slipped into even though it was twelve sizes too big for me. The finishing flourish was a hat and face net that actually zipped onto the suit at the collar, so once I had the outfit on I was completely impermeable. Now we were ready.

Tom, Tom’s son, my boyfriend Taik, and I all piled into the truck with the hives and set off down the long Manchester country road, pulling into a well-kept apple orchard. After kicking the truck into full wheel drive, we made our way to the back of the orchard, where a line of hives stood against the forest tree line, facing south toward the sun. Behind the orchard is all conservation land that in the summer will provide alternative wild flower pollen for the bees when the orchard blossoms have passed. Tom rents his hives out to fruit growers in the area, who use the bees to pollinate their trees. He told me how last year, they had to call in a crew to thin the fruit because too many of the blossoms had become pollinated and there was too much fruit. It was weighing down the trees and stopping the apples from growing as large as they otherwise would mature.

I have heard that in some villages in China, they have used so many pesticides on their orchards that all the bees have died. Now, these villagers employ humans to do the work that bees once did, pollinating the flowers by hand with a paint brush. Tom told us that for this orchard, his bees had done the job in three days.

Today we were “splitting” the hives, a process of taking apart an overly full hive and removing some of the bees to make a second colony. If the hives get too large, they will swarm and you will lose your colony.  I gingerly approached the first one as Tom removed the top. Suddenly, what had been a quiet hive exploded with angry bees that flew out of the newly opened top. His son quickly stepped forward and sprayed smoke to calm the bees. I then saw the tops of twelve or so square frames, which slide into the hive side by side to define the area on which the honey bees build their comb. Looking down, I could only see the top bar of each square, and all of them lined up next to each other created a striped pattern. They were covered in a flurry of activity as the bees went about their business.

Tom used a chisel to pry the boards loose and removed one of the frames near the center. Actually, he explained that it’s important to be careful which frame you remove first. An outside frame may not have any bees at all, while the center frame has the most bees and may even contain the queen, which you should avoid at first so as not to hurt her.  If you could see inside the hive, the range of bee activity would look something like the shape of a basketball. The comb that we had just pulled out had some capped cells and some open ones with small white dots inside, which Tom explained were eggs. The bees would soon cap them as well to protect the larvae until they emerge as full grown adults, ready to take on full adult responsibilities. Bees instinctively assume different jobs in the colony throughout their lives. These include cleaning, feeding larvae, manipulating wax, processing honey, guard duty and air conditioning the hive by fanning their wings. Only the last twenty days of their lives are spent gathering pollen and food for the hive.

Since the frame we had just pulled contained eggs and bees, we wanted it for our new hive. It would give a strong start to the building of another colony. On the next frame we pulled, Taik pointed to a bee with a longer body and asked if it was the queen. You can tell because it’s much bigger than the workers and has a ring of attendants about it at all times, which feed her, clear away her waste, and groom her. Her job is to simply lay eggs. In each cell she will lay one egg that will become a female worker bee. Males, or drones, are uncommon and are only useful for fertilizing the queen. If a hives senses that more drones are needed, the queen will lay male eggs which are fed differently and take a different amount of time to develop. In fact, if her abdomen touches the sides of the comb, she will lay a worker bee, but if it doesn’t touch the sides, she will know to lay a drone. Males are larger and need larger cells in which to develop.

We kept the frame with the queen inside the original hive, but removed two more that had ample amounts of eggs and bees for our new one. We replaced the frames we had taken with ones of empty comb. Then, we moved on to the next hive and repeated the process.

Surprisingly, I hadn’t yet been stung. Some of the hives had only a few bees, and we left these alone. Colonies can become diminished for many reasons, and it’s not good to take from a weakened hive. To prevent some common diseases, Tom uses fumagillin in the fall, a powder that is designed to cure nosema, a kind of bee diarrhea. In the spring, he places two strips of Apistan inside, which are designed to rid the hive of mites. If a hive is empty, sometimes he will leave it so the living colonies will have an extra source of honey.

Finally, we had collected all the bees we could and had created starts for nine new hives. None of them had queens, yet. I was so excited when Tom gave me the job of getting the new queen ready for her colony. There are experts who breed queens, and bee keepers like Tom order them each year from special companies. I was given a bunch of small boxes, each with a single queen bee inside. A hive may only have one queen. If there is more than one, they will fight until one dies, and the survivor becomes the one and only queen. Actually, each queen bee has her own unique pheromone, or scent, which she gives of, that all bees identify with her particular hive. A different hive, and a different queen, will have a different scent.

The boxes I had been given had a tube emerging from the box, which was stuffed with wax and a kind of bee food. It was my job to push a nail through the tube to make a hole to the inside of the box, giving the queen a more easy way out. Tom called for a queen, and I brought the box over to him. He put it inside the hive, between the frames. Then we placed the lid on top and moved on to the next. Easy as pie. If all goes well, she will start laying soon and we will have a new colony.

Our job done for the day, we happily rode down the bumpy road out of the orchard and back to Tom’s house. His wife had made lunch and we ate on the porch, Tom and his son comparing stories of their worst stings and reminiscing about past bee experiences. As I was leaving Tom, ever giving, pulled an old hive box from his barn and passed it to me to take back to my own farm. Now I was to take my new knowledge and put it to use.

Taik and I have ordered bees for one hive this summer. I wanted to order more but am waiting to see how this one goes. After all, Tom started out with only one hive, and all the ones he has now came from splits off his original. Funny how some things work out.


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