The Fresno Experiment – Exponential hive increase

Although I live in the Tehachapi Mountains of Kern County, I have to travel to Fresno California a few days a week due to my “real” job (engineer). Coincidentally, for my “side” job (beekeeper), our Almond pollination contract is also in Fresno California. After the 2017 almond pollination season was over, Steve, my co-worker from Fresno asked if he could buy a beehive for his dad who wanted to have bees around to pollinate his fruit trees. We kicked around the idea for a while and finally decided to take two hives to Steve’s house in Fresno after we pulled the hives from the almond orchard (Steve decided that he wanted a beehive as well). The plan was to split those two hives so Steve and his dad could each keep a split. However, when we inspected the hives a few weeks later, we found that the queen in one hive had died and the hive had a laying worker(s). So to start out with, we really only had one good (queen-right) hive as the one with the drone layer(s) was very likely going to fail.

Out of curiosity I suppose, Steve asked how often you can split a beehive in one year. In other words, if you start with one beehive, what is the maximum amount of queen-right beehives that you can have by the end of the year? I answered that I didn’t know, as I’ve never tried it before and there are so many variables to consider. But it did leave me wondering how many hives a person could make if their only goal was to make more beehives (not honey production), and so the Fresno Experiment was born.

The premise of the experiment was to find out how many hives we could make that would be able to overwinter on their own stores of honey (or very limited feeding).

The experiment started in mid-March and the good beehive consisted of 8 frames of bees and the bad hive had about 10 frames of bees (and a lot of drone brood). The first two moves we made were:

  • Put a frame of eggs and young larvae from our good hive into our failing hive to see if they would raise a queen (Although it was unlikely to work). In exchange the good hive received a frame of pollen/honey from the bad hive.
  • Split the good hive by removing the queen and two frames of bees and one frame of honey/pollen into a nuc box. The remaining bees (5 frames) in the original good hive went to work raising a new queen.

In mid-April we checked all three hives again. The original hive with 5 frames of bees had raised a new queen that was already laying eggs in a very good solid pattern. The nuc box with the original queen was also doing great raising bees and collecting resources. The failing hive failed to raise a good queen, so we combined it with the original queen, which we moved from the nuc box to the single 10 frame box.

In mid-May we checked the two hives and they were doing great. They were growing very fast so we decided to put a deep super on each hive.

In mid-June we checked the two hives and they had filled most of the second super with honey, pollen, and some brood. At this point, we picked the strongest one (the new queen from March) and moved her to a new hive with 2 frames of bees and left the remaining bees to raise new queens.

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Figure 1: The bees were very crowded so they started building comb around the queen cells.

We made a frame to hold queen cell cups and grafted 14 queen cells, using the eggs from the original queen. All 14 queen cells were accepted and the hive went to work raising 14 new queens. Crowded bees make good queen cells, but if you leave too much room they will build wax around the queen cells as shown in figure 1.

Ten days later we made up 12 nuc colonies and inserted a ripe queen cell into each nuc. We only did 12 colonies because we were only able to pull enough resources from both hives to make 12 – 3 frame nucs. The goal was to get at least two frames of bees and one frame of resources for each nuc.

Three weeks later in early July, we inspected the nuc’s and found 10 laying queens. However, since the nuc’s were in the same yard as the original colonies, we experienced some drift back issues where some bees migrated back to their original hive location (we left a nuc in the original location of the source hives to catch the drifters). The drift left  some nuc’s seriously debilitated, so we decided to combine the weak nucs and keep the best queens. After combining, we had eight new queens in new colonies. One brood cycle later, we moved all of the nuc colonies into 10 frame boxes.

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Figure 2:  Steve holding a frame of new wax and capped brood.  Picture taken in July.

In early September we checked the hives again and all but two of them were overflowing with bees. We also noticed that most of them had 2-3 frames of honey. The strong hives got an additional deep super. Due to the location of Steve’s house in a residential area with plenty of mature trees and shrubs, we expect to get a solid fall flow. This should allow most of the hives to fill the top super with honey by mid-November. If they don’t, then we may have to feed them some syrup so they have enough to last them through our coldest months (Mid-November to Mid-February), but this should be minimal.

Although the colonies still have to overwinter, I think it’s safe to say that we got the answer we were after. In Fresno California, if you start with one good beehive, you can end up with ten good hives by the end of the year (1 original queen + 1 March queen + 8 July queens). Also, if we had moved our July nucs to a different location to eliminate drift back to the original hives, we would have been able to keep 2 additional colonies (although they would all be a bit weaker). The biggest key to success in this type of experiment (exponential increase) is to have a location with decent year round forage (especially pollen).

Overall, Steve and I had fun conducting this experiment (and he even got a beekeeping 101 class in the process). I have to admit that I was impressed by our results. You sure can reproduce bees quickly if you get a few fundamentals right. I warn anyone that tries to reproduce these experiment results that buying all that new bee equipment can get time consuming and expensive. But if you sacrifice 1 years’ worth of honey from one hive, you can get 10 times the amount the following year!

5 thoughts on “The Fresno Experiment – Exponential hive increase

    1. You’re welcome. Tinkering is how one learns. We are curious by nature and experiment often with our bees. Hence our beekeeping approach deviates quite a bit from conventional wisdom. I’ll try to post more of these “tinkerings” in the future now that I know some people find them interesting.

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  1. We often tinker, too, and our ouside-the-box thinking often has good results. I’m looking forward to emulating your process next spring. It would eliminate much of the queenless time we have doing walkaway splits.

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    1. Walkaway splits have their place too. Especially for swarm prevention of strong hives in early spring. In this case, a good hybrid approach would be to create a cell builder colony 2 weeks after the walkaway splits are made. Any hives that don’t make a good queen can get a queen cell right away. Any leftover cells can be used for creating small nucs. If timed right with the spring nectar flow, this should yield Great results (we use this approach ourselves)

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