I recently took an advanced beekeeping class from Dean Stiglitz of Bee Unto Others and the book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping. It was a great class, and I came away with lots of questions answered, and as with any good teacher, my mind was full of follow-up questions well after the class.
One topic Dean covered extensively was raising your own queens. This seemed to me to be a mythical task, but Dean explained the various methods, and got me thinking “I can do this”. And so, with a bit of trepidation, I plan on trying this year.
While there are many ways of raising queens, most of them focus on the sale of queens by professional beekeepers, and thus focus on raising the most queens at once, even if the method is more difficult. For my uses, I’m interested in just raising a single queen, or two if I get gutsy, so the method I’ll be choosing is a much simpler one – a walk-away split.
A walk-away split involves splitting a colony in two and letting the new part without a queen raise a new queen on its own. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s filled with risk to both the new colony as well as the old. By splitting the existing colony, you are halving its resources. What was a healthy hive before the split now has half the workers, half the brood, etc. So the trick here is to pick a healthy hive to split and do it in the spring when they have the summer to recover. If it’s a good summer, both the old colony the new will recover, building up the resources they need to both be strong enough to survive the upcoming winter. Bees do this all the time on their own – they swarm – splitting the colony into two.
And now the bad news. It is possible with a walk-away split to kill both the new colony and the old by weakening them both. Time the split wrong and you kill both, ending up with one less colony instead of one more.
But, if I pull it off, I will have a locally mated, organically raised queen, which is about as strong of a stock as you can come by. And these days, the bees need to be as genetically healthy as they can.