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Backyard beekeeping – splitting a hive

Energy & Sustainability Photography & Video Science
Backyard beekeeping – splitting a hive

This is my second year as an amateur beekeeper, and this last weekend we split our first hive, creating a second colony which will be relocated to a new home in the suburbs. In nature, bees will swarm to start a new hive. Half the colony wakes up one morning and decides it’s too crowded, they’ve had it with the place, and they pick up their stuff and split. For the beekeeper, this isn’t considered a good thing. Most of the work in beekeeping revolves around keeping swarms from happening. So when you want to make two hives from a single parent, you do it artificially.

The process involves removing one of the 3 hive bodies that doesn’t contain the queen, moving it to its new home, and then introducing a new queen. Finding a queen in a hive is not at all like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s like finding a slightly elongated needle in a boiling rage of 20,000 pissed-off, flying venom needles that hate you. I’m partially kidding when I say this. Until you get accustomed to it, this is exactly the perception. The reality is that, assuming you don’t panic and freak them out, there’s usually only a couple angry bees that you’ll deal with when you open the hive up. Everyone else is just going about their business or gorging on honey (the bee’s natural reflex to smelling smoke).

Luckily I was able to convince my friend Chris that it would be a great idea to photograph the whole process. His work turned out incredible, but I feel kind of bad about his recollection of the experience:

But later, when the queen was found and the hive splitting was a success, the bees weren’t done being pissed off. I was just standing there minding my own business and one mean bastard worker bee flew right directly into my right ear. DEEP! And it started trying to get deeper! I completely lost my shit. I started dancing all around making all kinds of girly noises. My heart rate was probably 200. The buzzing was unbelievable, it sounded and felt like it was almost into my brain before I finally got a grip on the little shit and yanked him out and threw him. Incredibly I didn’t get stung.

My takeaways from the evening: Beehives are awesome. It’s hard to find a queen. Don’t go near a beehive when it’s being split without protection. Having a bee in your ear is about the most terrifying thing that can happen to you.

Words paint a thousand pictures. I’ve linked to his account of the day below, which is a great read. Hopefully Chris will bring his camera again. Next time I’ll make sure to have an extra veil for him.

If you can live with the occasional sting while working the hive, the average backyard makes a really nice place for a beehive. From the bees’ perspective, there’s a huge source of pollen and nectar within a 3-mile radius of most homes: vegetable and flower gardens, fruit trees, and even common weeds like dandelions and clover. For the beekeeper, the honey from an urban beehive tastes delicious, with all the complexities of flavor that are missing in single-source honey that you buy at the store. Aside from growing a vegetable garden (tomatoes: also awesome), it’s one of the few agricultural hobbies that you can enjoy from your backyard.

If you’re interested in beekeeping, you should check with your local university’s agriculture department and see if they provide any classes, groups, or resources for amateur beekeepers. As with anything else, a guru is invaluable. Find and befriend one. The University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab is a great resource for links and articles on the subject.

You’ll also want to check to see what the local ordinances and licensing rules are regarding bee husbandry. Most importantly you should talk with your neighbors and make sure no one has a bee allergy or is particularly opposed to having the occasional bee pollinating their yard. Usually, you’ll find that people are fascinated about the whole concept, and excited about the promise of a big jar of honey in the fall.

Splitting the Hive
Splitting the Hive: Photo Gallery
University of Minnesota Bee Lab

18 thoughts on “Backyard beekeeping – splitting a hive

  1. Aud1073cH says:

    I’m happy to see that bee keeping is still alive.

    Back when I was in the Boy Scouts (before much of the scandal) I earned the Bee Keeping merit badge which has since been discontinued.

  2. BigD145 says:

    Bee keeping has to be kept alive if people want their fruits and such. If anyone is interested, come to Washington. We need you. There’s openings aplenty.

  3. clownfish says:

    But where does the second queen come from?

  4. Jason Striegel says:

    We ordered our new queen from a supplier, which is pretty common. They take care of raising and seperating them before they hatch (so the first one to hatch doesn’t kill the rest). Then they are mated with the drones. All this happens before you receive the queen.

    She comes to you in a tiny container that has a little hole sealed up by a lump of sugar. Some attendants ship with her and they take care of feeding her, etc. You put this container in the new hive and it takes her 4 or 5 days to eat her way through the candy and escape. She’s protected inside the little package, which gives her ample time to fill the hive with her own pheromones so the entire colony will accept her as their own queen and not reject her as a foreigner.

    If anyone is interested, I can post a photo or two of this later this week.

    You can, of course, learn to raise your own queens for this purpose, but I haven’t yet learned the ropes. When you order them, they are a bit expensive, but you can get the particular strain of honeybee you like, and you know that she will arrive ready to start laying eggs, so it kind of removes some of the complexity of the whole process, which is nice for a newb.

  5. monkeyboy says:

    I got stung in the ear canal when I was about 10. Now when I get a hair cut & they break out the electric clippers to trim around my ears, I’m 6’1/225lbs of quivering little girl.

  6. KurtRoedeger says:

    You have to be careful which urban areas you put bee hives in. Some places have ordinances against it or require a certain minimum amount of land to allow it. Check out local codes before jumping into it. It would suck jumping into it and having an annoying neighbor complain and shut it down. I have a neighbor who put one in and some neighbors with little kids started complaining. That’s 5 plus years ago and I’ve never been stung by a honey bee, plenty of hornets, wasps and yellow jackets have gotten me though. Because of that one busybody neighbor, there’s now an ordinance about beehives where I live.

  7. Verious says:

    I almost fell out of my chair laughing at Chris’ recollection of the event.

  8. Mann Fairbanks says:

    When I was about 18 I had a moth fly in my ear, and I bet a bee is a lot scarier.

    I couldn’t get the moth out, and it was in so deep that no one could even see it. My family thought I was crazy, but I could hear it flapping away and the deeper it got the more it hurt. To make matters worse, this happened at about midnight and I was in the middle of Australia about 2 hours from the nearest hospital, which closes at night.

    We called their version of 911 and they told us to pour vegetable oil into my ear to at least kill it so it would stop flapping. Then I had to sleep with the dang thing in my ear before going to the hospital the next morning.

    I always tell people that about 2 months later several more moths flew out of my ear.

  9. memory foam mattress says:

    Wow, amazing! You are doing a wonderful project.

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