One of the recurrent themes at the Marathon County Beekeepers seminar in Wausau was the aim to get away from buying packages every spring. The downside of packages are three fold: a) The expense, now $100 plus per package, b) package queens are southern or California raised and are genetically programed to raise brood in December and c) They are also not acclimatized to our northern winters.
Two of the speakers were advocates of making your own replacement “packages”. The downside is that you need to plan a year ahead and need more equipment. Basically they recommend you double the size of your apiary. Half of the hives will be devoted to honey production and the other half to starting new hives to replace your upcoming winter losses.
Although the details of the two speaker’s talks were slightly different what they were advocating was essentially the same. First you need to select one of your strong hives that has overwintered. So in essence you are selecting for a northern winter survival trait. If you have more than one survivor hive you can consult your records (I hope you track your hive performance) and further refine your selection for high honey yield or demeanor or mite loads.
Then in mid May you use your selected hive and plan to split it up into 4 or 5 nucs. In theory these nucs have time to raise a queen, get installed in a full size hive and build up sufficiently to make it through winter. If you delay to late May or early June there is not enough build up time and you will end up having to overwinter the nuc itself. Both speakers spoke of a drop dead date of June 21st; the summer solstice. NEVER try splitting or starting a new hive after then.
First remove the queen from the hive about 5 days prior to the planned split. A strong hive will start a multitude of queen cells on its own. Then when you do the split you will have ready-made queen cells (Note: they will still be uncapped) and will just need to distribute them among the nucs. A strong hive can better handle starting queen cells than a weaker nuc.
You have now 16/20 frames in a 2 brood chamber hive and also a large number of queen cells. Each nuc gets two frames of honey and 2 frames of brood. One brood frame should primarily be capped brood which will soon emerge and give you a strong nuc. The 2nd brood frame should have 1 or preferably 2 queen cells. Try to distribute the bees evenly amongst the many nucs.
Two tricks of the trade. One, take you hive tool and scrape off some cappings from the honey frames. This ensures the bees have readily available food while they are raising the new queen. Place the frame with the scratched capping opposite the area where you installed the frame with queen cells. Two, they recommended the trick of “notching” the area with one day old brood. Locate the one day old brood. Take your hive tool and poke it carefully half way down into the cell. Then drag the tool downwards. This exposes a row of one day old larvae and tends to promote queen cell raising.
There are downsides to this approach. One, you are sacrificing the honey crop from the hive you split. But with luck you will have 4 or 5 new hives next year. Two, your operation needs to be big enough to have the equipment; 4/5 nucs and 4/5 extra hives.
There are upsides also: One, you break the tie with package bee sellers. Two, you are propagating survivor bees that can live in our northern climate.
More information can be seen at Parkerbees.com