Is It Too Late to Split A Hive

Capped honey comb

When is it too late to split a hive? In other words, when is it too late to rear a new queen? In either case, what you're actually asking is, "Will there be any drones available for mating once my new queen emerges?"

Every autumn, the bees evict the drone population. Once that happens there will be no drones to mate with any queens until the spring. If you have a new queen emerge after the annual drone kill she is doomed. She can't mate so she's as good as dead.

And no, she can't just wait until spring to go on her mating flight. She can postpone her mating flight(s) for a few days, e.g. due to inclement weather, but she simply can not postpone for months. She must mate within a very short window of opportunity.

So every year, as the summer's end nears, beekeepers start asking themselves, "Is it too late to do a split?" It's like an annual game of "apiarists' chicken." So how can you know if there's time left or not?

Simply put, you can tell by watching the drone brood in your hives.

There's a cycle to the drone brood and you should keep an eye on it if you split hives or rear queens. In the spring there is a surge in drone population. This is reflected in your hives as a surge in drone brood. Once the new drone population is established, the drone brood decreases to a level sufficient to maintain that population. It will continue at that reduced level until the end of the season (late summer or early fall) when there will be a spike in drone brood to support any late season swarms.

If you are conscious of your drone brood population throughout the season, you will notice those two brood surges. They are your indicators.

In the spring, once you see that initial spike in drone brood, you know it's time to start splitting hives and rearing queens. In fact, the rule of thumb is that the drone brood that has been capped for one week are the drones that will just be sexually mature when your new queens are going on their mating flight(s). So in the spring, make your plans and be ready to split your hives, or graft larvae, a week after you see the first drone brood capped.

Similarly, once you see that season-end surge in drone brood, it's time to do your final splits, or start your final batch of queens, for the year. After that, you start running a significant risk of sending out virgin queens with no drones for mating.