Dividing colonies

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Dividing colonies

Dividing a honey bee colony means taking a strong colony and making it into two smaller colonies. Dividing (also known as splitting) is a way of increasing the colonisation of hives without having to wait for swarms to colonise the hives naturally. This helps to avoid the uncertainty of natural colonisation, especially in areas where colonisation rates are low. Dividing bees always carries some risk of damage to the bees so should only be done if the beekeeper is willing to take this risk.

Dividing colonies is easiest when hives with standard dimensions are used e.g. Langstroth hives or top-bar hives of a standard size. This is because in the process of dividing colonies it is necessary to move combs and bees from one hive to another, and if they are different sizes, then they will not easily fit. When dividing a colony it is important that the combs are straight and regular - that is one comb on one top-bar. If this is not the case then this needs to be corrected before dividing starts.

Dividing should only be done with strong hives with plenty of sealed brood, young brood and eggs. You need make the split when the bees are at their strongest and are most likely to be rearing queen cells. The basic idea is to share the brood and bees between two hives and then force the one without a queen to make a new one. Eggs are necessary for the divided part of the colony that has been left without the queen to be able to make a new queen so it is essential that eggs are present in the colony. Success is most likely when unsealed queen cells are already present in the colony as this means that they were going to divide naturally (that is, they are about to swarm).  If no queen cells are present the bees will make a new queen as long as there are eggs present.

You will need two hives - the parent hive and an empty hive to receive the divided bees.   

The position of the two hives should be about 2-4 metres apart. This means the combs can be quickly and easily transferred between the colonies but they are far enough apart so the two colonies will not interfere with each other. If necessary, clear a path between the two hives so walking between them is easy and safe. The width of the two hives needs to be the same so that the top-bars can be transferred between the hives. Two people are needed to carry out the procedure. Work as a team quickly, methodically & carefully. There are many methods of dividing hives. The one described below is one of the more reliable methods. Using this method means it is not necessary to find the queen.

These are the instructions for one method of dividing hives:

Step 1

Select a strong colony for division. 2 or 3 days before starting, inspect the colony to ensure it has eggs. EGGS ARE ESSENTIAL FOR THE NEW COLONY TO BE ABLE TO MAKE A NEW QUEEN. If no eggs are present the procedure should not be carried out. Wait until eggs are present.

Step 2

The procedure needs to be carried out in the cool of the morning. Start time should be no later than dawn.

Step 3

Smoke the parent hive well for two to three minutes. Two people should very carefully, carry the parent hive that is going to be divided and move it into its new position. PUT THE EMPTY HIVE IN THE POSITION THAT WAS OCCUPIED BY THE PARENT HIVE. You will notice the flying bees from the parent will quickly start moving into the empty hive. This will also make working with the parent hive easier.

Step 4

  • The parent hive is now placed on a stand in its new position.
  • Continue smoking the bees well.
  • Go through the colony and select the combs to be transferred to the new hive.
  • First select one comb with honey and pollen.
  • Gently brush ALL the bees off the comb and back inside the parent hive.
  • Then transfer the comb from the parent hive to the new hive.
  • Next find the brood combs. Inspect each brood comb and if it is suitable (it should contain plenty of eggs, larvae and brood) brush off the ALL the bees into the hive and transfer the comb to the new hive.
  • Repeat this for each comb until enough good brood combs have been transferred into the new hive.
  • Transfer the combs carefully one at a time. Transfer 3-5 of the best brood combs from the parent hive to the new hive.
  • The selected combs are taken over to the new hive one at a time and put into the hive starting from the entrance.
  • All the brood combs must be placed next to each other when they are placed in the new hive.
  • Some combs must be left in the parent hive for the queen to lay in.
  • The bees will build queen cells around a few cells with eggs, and begin to rear the larva in those queen cells as queens


Sometimes queen cells will already be present in the parent colony. If this is the case - good! If queen cells are already present, at least one brood comb with queen cells on it should be very carefully transferred into the new hive.

Step 5

Replace each brood comb that is removed, with a new top-bar. If possible the top-bars should be primed with wax so the bees will build new comb in the correct position - one comb to one top-bar.

Step 6

Fill up all the empty spaces with new top-bars (or frames if you are using a frame hive) so both hives are complete and replace the lids.

Step 7

After a period of time, check the new queen has been successfully reared and is laying eggs. This can take up to four weeks.


Pam Gregory Oct 2007

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  • Published Date October 2016
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