How to Make a Walkaway Split

I created a walkaway split this summer and it worked. I got a second colony out of it.

I divided a well-populated, strong honey bee colony — one that was on the verge of swarming — into halves, each half with an identical assortment of frames: Frames of honey; pollen; capped brood; frames of open brood packed with nurse bees; empty drawn comb; and maybe a frame or two of bare foundation. Open brood between 1 and 4 days old was the crucial part.

Queen cells torn apart. Observed on DAY 20, though it probably happened around DAY 16.

One of the halves stayed in the original location of the hive. The other half was set up probably about 10 feet away from the hive, but the exact location in the beeyard didn’t make any difference.
The only difference between the two halves was that one had the queen and the other didn’t. The half without the queen made its own queen from the open brood.

Fresh brood from newly-mated queen. Observed on DAY 33, though laying probably began by DAY 28.

And that’s how a second honey bee colony was created — by basically splitting a hive in half.

Here’s an 8-minute video that shows the entire process from beginning to end, starting on Day 4, the day I split the colony in half, and ending on Day 42 when I did a final check to make sure the queen wasn’t only laying well, but that she was also accepted by the colony that created her.

A breakdown of the video…

00:00 — Part 1: Here’s the situation. DAY 4
00:45 — Open brood.
01:35 — Fresh eggs.
01:53 — Part 2: Capped queen cells. DAY 13.
02:25 — Discovering emergency queen cells.
02:55 — Big queen cell.
03:25 — Detailed dates for the queen’s development.
04:19 — Part 3: The virgin queen. DAY 20.
04:40 — Torn open queen cells.
05:15 — Spotting the small stubby virgin queen.
05:55 — Part 4: Fresh brood. DAY 33.
06:10 — The enlarged mated queen.
06:50 — Fresh open brood from the new queen.
07:25 — Part 5: Queen acceptance and frames of capped brood. DAY 42.
07:35 — Fresh brood.
07:54 — Capped brood.


The only thing I would do differently is, if I knew which half of the split didn’t have a queen, I probably would have moved it closer to a larger beeyard where there are more drones of greater genetic diversity for the virgin queen to mate with. Apparently, severe inbreeding even within her own beeyard is less likely than I originally thought. But still, I don’t think it hurts to add more diversity to the genetic pool if possible.

(Public domain image.)

The following is already partially explained in the video at the 03:25 mark. (It’s all old news for most beekeepers, but I always like to go through it for people who just showed up.)

The development of a queen bee begins with an egg just like every other honey bee on Day 1. The difference is, the worker bees build a protective wall around the specially selected eggs — what’s usually referred to as a queen cell. It kind of looks like a peanut shell.

Around Day 3 or 4, the larva of the queen-to-be is fed an exclusive diet of royal jelly — a milky excretion super food produced by worker bees — whereas the other bees are weaned over to a less nutrient-rich diet. That’s why it’s called Royal Jelly, not worker or proletariat jelly.

On Day 8, a wax cap is built over the cell and the queen pupa inside develops for another 8 days until it emerges on Day 16 as a fully formed queen, albeit a short stubby virgin queen. (I’ve seen virgin queens emerge from their cells looking a lot like regular queens with elongated abdomens, but they quickly turn stubby once their soft exoskeletons harden.)

Any other queens still in their cells — and there are usually many queen cells at once — are stung to death by the first queen to emerge. If two queens emerge at the same time, they fight and bite and sting each other until one of them is dead (sometimes they both die). The single virgin queen left standing will eventually go out on one or more mating flights and within 12 days, if all goes well, she’ll be laying eggs all over the place.

The entire process, beginning when the egg destined to become a queen is laid to when the mated queen starts laying, takes about 28 days. These numbers aren’t always exact, but it’s the best guess humans have been able to come up with.

This is how the whole process probably played out for the new queen that was created in my walkaway split:

Day 1 — Egg. (June 20.)
Day 4 — Larva. Diet of royal jelly begins. (June 24, the hive is split).
Day 8 — Pupa. Queen cell is capped. (June 28.)
Day 16 — Virgin queen emerges. (July 6.)
Day 28 — Queen, about 12 days later, has mated and is laying eggs like a champ. (July 18.)

That’s 4 weeks.

Virgin queen.

Mated queen.

It doesn’t take much to throw a young queen totally off her game during the first few weeks of her life, so it’s better to leave the bees alone with her as much as possible for as long as possible to let her settle in and let the colony get used to her.

But about two weeks after Day 28, I personally like to take one more look to make sure she’s still laying well and the colony has accepted her. Because just when it looks like the queen is off to the races, that’s usually when she drives straight into a brick wall and the race is over.

Weird things can happen during the queen’s early days, especially if the colony is regularly disturbed by humans for any reason. The queen’s laying might become inconsistent. Even if mated, she may have been injured from the beginning after fighting with another virgin queen. She can become stressed. Her pheromones may not be to the colony’s liking, especially if she mated with a different breed of honey bee than most of the bees in the colony. Russian queens are not easily accepted by Italian colonies, for instance. Supersedure in this case (replacing the queen) is not unheard of. Sometimes the queen doesn’t mate well because of bad weather or inbreeding. Her fertile eggs can dry up. And so on. Everything about new queens seems like a crap shoot to me.

If there’s one area of beekeeping that’s likely not to go as planned, it’s queen rearing. It’s such a delicate matter on every level. It’s why I’ve never gotten into grafting queens. I don’t need it. My day job provides me enough aggravation. I make walkaway splits for colonies that are on the verge of swarming, and if they’re not, I leave them alone.

In any case, I think it’s a good idea to check around Day 42, or about two weeks after a new queen starts laying, to make sure the she’s been accepted by the colony and has continued to lay well. If everything goes by the book (the bees often haven’t read the same book as the beekeeper), there should be no shortage of fresh and capped brood. {Sigh of relief.}

Generally, though, for me, a walkaway split is the easiest way to create a new colony. As long as it’s a strong colony to begin with, there’s plenty of fresh brood with a steady flow of nectar and pollen coming into the hive, chances of success are pretty high.

For the truly dedicated, here’s another version of the above 8-minute video, but with an extra 24 minutes of footage: