Uniting and Splitting Colonies

The Queen is dead, long live the queen

Queen Bees are not immortal, they will eventually die and have to be replaced. A hive with a queen is known as “Queenright”, a hive without a queen is called “Queenless”.

Usually, the replacement process (known as Supersedure) begins when the Queen is still alive, but begins to fail. This gives the colony time to rear a new Queen before the original Queen dies, so the colony isn't Queenless at any point. Sometimes things don't go to plan and the Hive can end up Queenless with no preparations.

Signs that a colony is "Queenless" include:-

  1. Lack of Eggs & Brood - The Queen is the only Bee in the hive who can lay fertilized Worker Bee eggs. So, a Queenless colony’s first symptom will be a lack of eggs followed by a lack of young brood and then finally the absence of brood entirely. This is the reason why Beekeepers must check for fresh eggs during inspections.

  2. A drop in population - Worker Bees die every day of natural or unnatural causes, but in a Queenless colony they cannot be replaced. This means the population will start to drop. Normally, by the time this symptom is noticeable, the colony has been Queenless for many weeks.

  3. An increase in Honey & Pollen - Worker Bees who were previously occupied with the task of caring for Brood will soon be out of the job because there will be no more Brood. This creates a job imbalance in the Hive and may result in increased foraging and food stores.

  4. A change in temperament - Queenless bees are often irritated or nervous. They sometimes also make a high pitched whine combined with a low roar, but even experienced beekeepers cannot always identify this.

How to test for queenlessness

There are several ways to test if a Colony is Queenless, two of which are shown below:-

An open Brood Test Frame

This test involves providing the Bees a marked frame of open brood from a Queenright colony.

As Queenlessness can be caused by lack of young Brood for emergency Queens, this provides the colony with the means to make them.

After several days, check to see if they are attempting to make emergency Queens on that frame. If the colony has started to build emergency Queen cells, then the colony is Queenless.

a Caged queen test

This test involves placing a Caged Queen on the top bars of the Brood Box being tested. The reaction of the Worker Bees to the Queen will show whether the colony is Queenless or not.

If the colony is Queenless, the Worker Bees will react positively to the Caged Queen, gathering around her and fanning or flitting their wings.

If the colony was Queenright, the Worker Bees will act very aggressively, trying to bite and sting the Queen through the cage. It's a good idea to rescue the caged Queen as soon as possible to prevent the other Hive losing their Queen!

Getting a colony Queenright

If the tests discussed above show that the colony is in fact Queenless, then for the colony to survive, the Beekeeper needs to get it Queenright. This can be done in one of two ways:-

  1. Transfer a new Queen into the colony - This can be either a Queen from another Hive if the Beekeeper has been rearing Queens, or could be purchased from another Beekeeper. Queen Rearing is actually a lucrative business, with Queens costing ~£40 each and being sent via parcel delivery or first class mail. This is obviously the fast method of getting Queenright as the adult Queen will be able to start laying very quickly.

  2. Transfer open brood into the colony - If the test used was the open frame test, then the process of making the colony Queenright has already started. By allowing these Queen cells to mature, the colony will gain a virgin Queen, making the colony Queenright. This will take longer than transferring an adult Queen as it will take around two weeks for the Virgin Queen to become an adult, then she will have to go on her mating flight before she can lay any new Workers.

Commercial Queen rearing

Queen ready to ship

Introducing a new queen

Usually a Queenless colony will accept a new Queen very quickly, but sometimes it can take some time for the colony to stop viewing her as an intruder. Therefore in order to introduce a new Queen into a Queenless colony, care has to be taken so that she survives long enough to gain control.

The use of a Queen Cage is recommended when introducing a new Queen. The cage is meant to delay the Queen’s release into the colony and to protect her while the colony gets used to her smell.

One end of the Cage will have a candy plug which, over a period of several days the Bees will chew through allowing for the Queen to escape the cage. The idea is that by the time the candy is gone, the bees have adjusted to the new Queen’s smell and will readily accept her. The Queen Cage can then be removed.

The Queen cage should be placed in the middle of the Hive somewhere where the Worker's can access the screen of the cage in order to feed the Queen.

Queen being introduced

Uniting the Colonies

Uniting Bee colonies together is a really useful way to prevent weak colonies both dying over the Winter, as individually they are too small to keep warm, but together they can survive. If a small colony loses its Queen, the Queenless Bees can also be united with a Queenright colony.

However, if Bees from two separate colonies are combined together directly, they will fight each other, as each will recognise the other as an invader. However, there are methods that will allow Bees to change allegiance to a new Hive, without conflict.

The most commonly used method in Scotland is the "Newspaper" method.

In this method, two separate colonies are combined together by being placing the two separate Brood Boxes on top of each other, with a sheet of newspaper between them. The sheet of newspaper gives the two colonies time to get used to each others scents as they slowly chew their way through the newspaper barrier between them. Once they make it through the paper, they will usually unite peacefully.

Note - This can only work if one of the colonies is Queenless. If two Queens are present, they will continue to see the other colony as invaders and act accordingly. Therefore, if the Queen in the weaker colony is still present, she must be destroyed before the uniting can be done.

Newspaper between broods

Remains after chewing

Splitting a colony

Splitting a colony can have two uses for a Beekeeper:-

  1. To prevent swarming (see Swarming for more information).

  2. To increase the number of colonies in their Apiary.

The standard method to increase the number of colonies is the "artificial swarm" method.

In this method, a strong colony can be split into several smaller colonies, each raising their own Queen. The timing of when this can be done is decided by the Bees, as it is their swarm preparations that allow the splitting to happen.

When swarming preparations occur (more details in - Swarming) within the colony, the workers will start to build Queen Cups. When eggs are laid within these, the Beekeeper has approximately a week before the colony will begin to swarm. It is during this week that the Splitting can occur.

The following is a guide to splitting a colony:-


When Splitting colonies, each division will require a frame of brood with at least one Queen Cell on it. It is this which decides how many divisions can be done, usually two but three at most.

When the Beekeeper decides to perform a splitting, they will require an Nuc Hive for each division to begin with, then as these expand they can be moved to a full Hive. Alternatively, if there is enough drawn comb, the splits can be done straight into full Hives.

The aim would be to have 4 frames of Brood for each of the split colonies, so to split a colony into two, 8 frames of Brood are required.

The open Nuc(s) or full Hive(s) should be placed near to the Hive being split, with no frames within them.

Stage Two - find the queen

When splitting a colony it is vital that you locate the Queen before moving any frames. The Beekeeper needs to ensure that they don't accidentally leave a colony Queenless when splitting the colony. It is common for Beekeepers to capture the Queen within a Queen Pipe so they know where she is and that she is safe throughout the process.

Stage Three - Moving frames

To split the colony, frames of Brood are removed and used as the starter of the new colony. The Hive that is being split should have at least four frames of Brood left within it, with four frames of Brood (with at least one Queen Cell) moved to each new Hive or Nuc.

Any remaining space within the Hives can be filled with Drawn Comb frames, or a Dummy Board and newspaper (see - Swarming for more information on new Hive set-ups).

The diagram below shows how the frames should be divided and positioned when splitting a colony in two:-

As the new colonies are within the original Apiary, any foraging Worker Bees will usually leave the new Hives and return the original Hive. All new colonies should therefore be provided with a feeder containing Sugar Syrup to ensure that they have enough food to until they can produce their own foragers.

Stage four - find the queen again

Before closing up the original Hive, it is a good idea to locate the original Queen again to make sure she is definitely still within the original Hive. If the Queen was captured within a Queen Pipe she should be released again to resume her laying duties within the original Hive.

Stage five - the following weeks

The original Hive should continue on as normal, but may require feeding depending on how much Honey Stores were transferred to the new Hives.

Over the next few weeks, the Queen cells in the new colonies should hatch and the Virgin Queens should take their mating flights and return to begin laying. This means that the number of Bees in the new colonies will drop through natural losses, until the new Queens can raise new Brood.