Beekeeping has been on the rise in recent years, and Ross Conrad’s book Natural Beekeeping has become a must read for enterprising apiculturalists who want to learn how to care for bees holistically and organically.
This is the second of two adaptions from the revised and expanded edition of Conrad’s book, which examines different ways to start your hive and offers some bee buying tips. The previous post offered beginners some key tips on what to do long before they buy their first bees.
OPTIONS FOR OBTAINING BEES
The easiest way to successfully get a hive of bees off to a good start is to purchase a complete hive that is already thriving. Many beekeepers are downsizing or giving up on the business, and complete hives have become more commonly available in many areas. The purchase of a complete hive eliminates risks and challenges associated with package and queen introduction, getting brood comb drawn out from foundation, and having to protect a weak and unorganized colony from being robbed. The downside is that a complete hive is heavy to lift and is one of the most expensive honey bee procurement options. There is also the risk of inheriting problems such as bee pathogens, antibiotic and pesticide contamination, varroa mites, tracheal mites, and small hive beetles.
When purchasing established colonies, it’s wise to inspect the hive(s) prior to completing the transaction. “Buyer beware” should definitely be your guiding principle here. Be on the lookout for worn-out equipment, old combs, and disease and pest problems. How are varroa mites and foulbrood kept under control? How has the hive been managed during the past year or two? Answers to questions such as these can give you a hint as to how well the hive may fare in the coming year. If you don’t feel qualified to assess hive condition yourself, ask your local bee inspector to give them a once over.
Compared to purchasing established colonies, buying nucleus colonies offers many of the same benefits, but nucs are easier on your back and are available at a much lower price. For many beginners, buying a nuc from a local bee supplier will be the best way to get started with bees. As with full hives, a nuc should not need feeding if purchased when a honey flow is on, nor does it require queen introduction. Simply transfer the frames into full-sized equipment, add additional frames for growth, and you’re off and running. It is important to have your additional equipment ready to go before you pick up your nuc. Otherwise the bees may become overcrowded and decide to swarm.
The most common way to obtain bees is to purchase a package of bees. Packages are usually sold by the pound. A pound of bees is typically composed of 3,000 to 3,500 workers, and the standard package of bees available from bee supply companies weighs in at 3 pounds, for a total of about 10,000 bees. Reputable companies will err on the high side and provide extra to make up for bees that may die during transport, as well as to account for the honey and nectar in the stomachs of the bees when they are initially packaged and weighed. Please note that a package of bees may not contain a queen and will contain only workers, unless a queen has been ordered at the same time as the package. Be sure to ask your supplier whether a queen is included. Either way, prepare your hive equipment and location before the package arrives in the mail.
Packaged bees are less expensive than nucs or complete hives and easier to ship. And while package bees may still carry diseases and pests, they are likely to be less infested or contaminated than nucs or established hives that are filled with comb simply because there are fewer places for pathogens, chemical residues, mites, or small hive beetles to hide in a package of bees.
Getting a package of bees started, however, is much more challenging than when starting with a nucleus colony. The package of bees must be transferred into your equipment; the queen and the bees are typically unrelated and must be “introduced” to each other before they will work together in unison; and then there is the need to provide feed to keep the nascent hive from starving, while at the same time stimulating bees to build comb if drawn-out frames of comb from a previous hive cannot be provided. [For complete details on how to introduce a nucleus colony to your equipment, see Chapter 2 of Natural Beekeeping, Revised and Expanded Edition.]
Making your own nucleus colonies from bees you have successfully overwintered is less expensive than buying packaged bees. Rather than spend money on obtaining bees, your money need only be spent on equipment to accept the nuc. By timing your nuc making with the natural swarming season in your area, you help to increase the chances of success and reduce the need to feed the nascent colony.
If you don’t already have access to bees and don’t want to shell out a bunch of money in order to obtain bees, swarm catching is the way to go. There are no worries about queen introductions here; all you have to do is get the swarm into your hive body, but that can be a challenge. Swarms are primed to build new comb fast, and you should always take advantage of the opportunity to have a newly hived swarm draw out new frames of foundation, foundation strips, or naturally built combs. If captured early enough in the season they may be able to store enough honey on their own so that autumn and winter feeding will not be necessary.
With swarms, however, you have little control over the quality of the bees. Some swarms are composed of wonderful bees; some swarms are lousy. While you will save cash, you must invest the time to chase them down—and hope that they don’t fly off before you arrive.
One way to avoid being led on a wild bee chase is to make use of baited hives to lure in a swarm. Drawn-out beeswax combs make any empty box with a cover more noticeable and attractive to scouts seeking a new home for the colony. If no comb is available, a few drops of lemongrass oil on a cotton ball can take the place of a drawn frame as bait since this essential oil is very attractive to bees. For those with an added sense of adventure, you may want to try your hand at some old-fashioned bee lining and track down a feral hive in a bee tree. Just be sure to bring along someone with logging skills if you are not handy with a chain saw, an ax, and splitting wedges.