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Divide and conquer: Creating new queendoms

What’s a beekeeper to do when fall is around the corner, winter mortality is unnervingly high, and you’ve got just one hive? Make new queens, of course! (Right … just like that!)

I’ve been helping Chad Franer, Director of Horticulture, keep bees at the IMA for six years and every season we both learn something new. This year, we tried our hands at splitting the hive – our one and only hive that we purchased in the spring. Did we know what we were doing? Of course not!

Assistant horticulturist Gwyn Rager examines a hive to determine which frame to use when splitting the hive. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Assistant horticulturist Gwyn Rager examines a hive to determine which frame to use when splitting the hive. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Splitting the hive to force the production of queen cells felt a lot like moving from the freshmen level course to somewhere with the upperclassmen. It was one of those moments where we felt the training wheels coming off and it was time to ride or fall. After much instruction from our mentor, Brian Shattuck, we took on the challenge.

A healthy honeybee hive is composed of the queen, worker bees (female), drones (male) and brood (future bees). The queen will lay an average of 1,000 to 1,500 eggs per day, all the while producing a pheromone that communicates to the rest of the hive that she is present and thriving. The daily egg laying, referred to as the brood cycle, ensures a constant and strong colony. When a hive becomes robust, the beekeeper may have the option to split it.

Splitting the hive means moving the queen, along with a few handfuls of workers and brood, to another hive box and leaving the majority of the original hive intact and in need of a queen.

What happens next is pretty fascinating! The colony notices the absence of the queen and begins to prep several of the recently hatched eggs to potentially become the next queen. These select larvae are fed royal jelly and larger cells are constructed for them each to develop within. Then it’s a race to see who will emerge first and survive. A new queen, in her due diligence, will systematically kill off the other potential queens as they emerge. Once her position is secured, she takes her mating flight and returns to the hive to pick up where the last queen left off. Voila! The beekeeper now has two hives!

Laura Dulin, the IMA HortSoc fellow, looks for a new queen in one of the newly split hives. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Laura Dulin, the IMA HortSoc fellow, looks for a new queen in one of the newly split hives. Photo courtesy IMA Horticulture Department.

Brian encouraged us to also create a nuc (short for nucleus) around this time. A nuc is a mini version of an official hive. Midway through the splitting process, we opened up the original hive and removed a frame that contained a few queen cells, dropped it into a nuc box along with a starter kit, frames of honey, brood and room to start laying eggs, for the soon-to-emerge queen. We beekeepers now have three hives!

So, why go through this effort when we’ve got a strong, healthy hive? I guess I could argue that it’s part of proper beekeeping. We’re making certain that we go into winter with more bees and two new, fresh queens. Winters can be long and hard in Indiana and our honeybees need all the resources we can offer to ensure survival – survival into the next spring and for years and generations to come.

The training wheels are long gone and we’re a little bit wiser. Can we claim now that we know what we’re doing? Probably not! I’ll always be a gardener first and beekeeping is a bonus. But I couldn’t be a gardener without the bees. Each day that I work in the gardens of the IMA and I see my tiny worker friends, I thank them for their diligent pollination … and their sweet honey!

Filed under: Art and Nature Park, Greenhouse, Horticulture, IMA Staff

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