Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Splitting our native bee hive - for the first time!

One year for my birthday I received a hive of Trigona Carbonari - Australian native bee's! They are so much fun to watch zooming in and out, arriving in with their bags of pollen and leaving to find more. It can be quite meditative and calming to sit and watch them with a cup of tea.

Australia has about 1500 species of native bee's. Of them, only two types swarm and live in a colony. The rest appear to be solitary and only hang out with each other to mate. They lay their eggs in a hole, river bank, under a leaf, and then they buzz of their mortal coil and die. Many native bee's only live for a year or so. There are some really cool native Australian bees - the teddy bear  bee, the blue banded bee, carpenter bee's and many more. Have a look at the Aussie bee website for lots of pictures and videos.

Our first hive died. We have no idea why. When we opened it up it was like the Mary Celeste. Brood, honey and fortifications but no bee's. The supplier replaced them and this lot of bee's managed to stay alive for the last 18 months and thrive! Out of the blue some friends asked if we would like to split and swap hives. (Which just goes to show, you just never know which of your friends are clandestine bee keepers). We have Trigona Carbonaria and they have a hive of Trigiona Hockingsii and so we were super keen to get a hive of the only other native swarming stingless bee's in Australia.


*Warning - bit of a long technical post. If you are not into bee's this may not be your cup of tea - but check out the pictures anyway!

Here's what I did...

First weigh you hive. They are meant to be over 3kg in order to split them. Ours was 2.7kg so we decided to take the risk.

Prepare you spare hive. We poured boiling water over our spare hive several times in order to get the gums and resins to melt, scrubbed it a lot (no detergents, just water and elbow grease) and then left it in the sun to dry and disinfect naturally.


Then we taped up the bottom with masking tape that had been stuck together, sticky sides together. We didn't want to have any bee's get stuck on the tape and die. What you are doing is preparing the box so that the top half that will be filled has a structure to sit on when you put it on the bottom half. What we are going to do is put the top half of the full hive on to the bottom of the empty hive. And then the bottom of the full hive under the top of the empty hive. Thus each half of the two new hives will be half empty and half full.



About 4pm is the best time to split the hive. You want them to have the maximum amount of pollen on board, most of their foragers back and all night to settle and figure out what happened. With long sleeves and a calm manner, slice open the hive with a large knife. We had to use a hammer on the back of the knife to get it started. It was a LOT tougher than we had imagined it would be.


The hive just cracked in half one we got the knife a third of the way in. Moving quickly, place the top half of the full hive on to the bottom half of the empty hive. The bee's will be buzzing everywhere. Remember they don't sting and as long as you don't panic and start slapping at them they wont bite either. Of the three of us there for the operation only one of us got bitten. They certainly know who to blame and even when we walked off down the garden, they followed.

The bottom of both hives - see the pools of honey? The brood stucture in the middle grows as a sprial up the hive.



The bit hanging down is the brood where they have the eggs and raise their babies. The honey is the dark pools of sticky-ness and the yellow we think is pollen storage. We didnt spend much time looking, the bee's were not happy with us!

The hives are quite small as you can see and the wood really thick. Its all about insulation from the heat and cold and maintaining an even tempreture inside no matter what tempreture it is outside.


Then carefully place the empty half on top of the full bottom. Then put them back where they came from, on top of each other and retire inside for 20 minutes until they settle down.

Top full half on empty bottom half. Full bottom half awaiting its empty top half.

They seem to put resins in any gaps to seal up the hive. Much easier to see whats what in the photo than it was at the time!

The idea of putting them back where they were for the rest of the day is that the bee's all have natural GPS's and go back to the hive automatically. If you move it more than a metre, they will hover where the hive was until they die. They rely heavily on their inbuilt GPS and not thier eyes and common sense.
Tape up the hives to make them ant protected - the ants will come for the spilt honey and if you are transporting the hive any distance, use a wire strap around it to keep it tight. Transport the half with the full bottom so that you minimise the damage to the brood (egg structure) inside. There is a chance that if you transport the full top half that you may unsettle the structure and it may crash to the bottom and with only half the amount of bee's they may not be able to repair it quickly enough and replace themselves before they die. I have an idea these little fella's only live for a few months.

The masking tape was used to seal the hive temporaily from an ant invasion. The bee's seem to be able to keep them out of the entrance but not through all the cracks and gaps in the wood. The lure of spilt honey will be too much for the local ant population
 Use a piece of gauze taped to the outside of the entrance hole once it is dark and all the foragers have returned to block up the hole. If you use masking tape, stick it sticky side to sticky side so that the bee's trying to get out don't get stuck to it and die. Poke a few holes in it with a needle so they have air.

Get them to where they need to be over night and have them set up so that they have a new home first thing in the morning. Bee wisdom says that their entrance needs to be facing between the north and east quadrant of the compass. They shouldn't have sun on the hive after 10am or it can melt their internal structures.
They need shelter from the worst of the weather and so pergola's and verandas are perfect. Not too close to the door though, unsuspecting visitors may swat and kill many of your curious bees while waiting for you to answer the door! We have ours in the pergola and they often fly down and read a book and have a cuppa with me. We have never been bitten by them.

The new hive is a totally different shape and we ended up putting it on the side of the new chicken coop where we will see it every morning, it will be protected from the weather and I can see it every morning when I collect the eggs. The T. Hockingsii seem to have blue heads and be slightly bigger than our T. Carbonaria.
The half on the left is the new half. The door on the right has been blocked up so that they have to  go through the new half to get in and out. That should encourage them to build in there as well.
 The original hive seems to be buzzing away. Lots of coming and going - a good sign I think. And there is activity in the new hive which is also a good sign. We don't know how active the Hockingsii's were in the first place so its hard for us to judge whether the comings and goings are normal or not. But we live in hope. There are lots of native flowers around. The weather is good and they came from a good, un-diseased healthy nest - so all we can do is wait.


The first bee's braving my paparazzi imatation and coming out to have a look at their new home lands! The hole on the left is the screw hole that held their travelling entrance cover in place, nothing more sinister!.
 Next year instead of splitting them, we will put honey supers on them and see if we can get honey from them! We will only get a kilo a year from each hive - but if the taste we got off the knife when we cut up the hive is anything to go by, it will be wonderful!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for encouraging the proliferation of native bees!
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for getting another hive for nix!
Time cost: About 10 minutes to split it plus drive time to deliver and pick up the new hive. An hour to argue about where the new hive should go and 10 minutes to install it!
Skill level: More confidence and the right conditions than skill.
Fun-ness: Awesome amount of fun to see whats in a hive!

5 comments:

Kathryn Ray said...

Oh wow. I didn't know you could do that.

I hope it all works out.

It looks like your bees are all black. Ours are black and yellow.

africanaussie said...

How lovely - I saw Costa installing a new hive on Gardening Australia, and thought what a good idea that was. I had no idea there were different kinds - I am sure the honey will be magnificent.

Practical Frog said...

Hi guys!We have the usual Italian honey bee here as well... but the natives seem to be very small and very black - although if you have a look at the aussie bee site you can see pictures of native bees with colour - they are just a lot more subtle and small than other bee species! Both hives still doing well - lots of activity. So we see that as a good sign! - K xx

Juggler said...

I had no idea there were stingless varities of Bees. Might have to check out the Aussie Bee Site for a possible project in 2014.

Practical Frog said...

Oh absolutely - I went to collect the chickens eggs just now and spent 15 minutes mesmerized by the comings and goings of the new hive above the chook nesting boxes! There was lots of pollen on legs but they also seemed to be bringing in seeds of some sort... they also seemed to be bringing out the old cells and possibly the dead bodies. they are so quick its hard to tell sometimes! They dont sting, but they do bite. Its no where near as bad as a ant bite but not like a mosquito bite either. As long as you dont swat or swipe at them you wont get bitten. I often have them land on me with no problems. I havent been bitten by them. The husband got bitten when we split the hive and said it was no big deal. Let me know how you go! I'd love to hear about it! - K xx

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