Where to get bees for your first hive

W.W.B.D. (What would Bill do?)
By: Bill Mondjack, Master Beekeeper, Lehigh Valley, PA.

(Originally appeared in the February, 2011 newsletter of the PA State Beekeepers Association. Reprinted with permission from the author.)

As one of our 18 EAS Certified Master Beekeepers in Pennsylvania I was approached by President Warren Miller, to write a column in the P.S.B.A. monthly newsletter with the topic being a timely issue of concern or any question that may arise in beekeeping. The idea being to help fellow beekeepers become more proficient in our craft.

First let me say, I am NOT a scientist, I am a beekeeper just like you. As all of us know if you ask 3 beekeepers the same question you will most probably get 5 different answers, so I would like to approach this matter as a Q & A posting, as I do with many of our members in the Lehigh Valley Beekeepers Assn., unless I decide to write about a timely issue.

If you have a question you would to like to send in please email it to me at: billzbeez@mondjackapiaries.com and I will respond with my opinion as 'what I would do' if the problem or situation was mine.

Bill Mondjack, Master Beekeeper

Whitehall, PA.

Here's a question that I received by email.

"I want to get started keeping bees this spring. I've seen many ads selling packaged bees brought up from the south and I've read about 'nucs' but have not seen anyone advertising nucs for sale." My question is: "What should I start with, a package or a nuc?"

My reply:

This is a question many are thinking, if not asking; and a darn good one. Many are starting beekeeping for the first time this spring and have to acquire bees for their first hive. I suppose the most popular source for this need is to buy a package of bees from one of the big bee suppliers down south. Well there’s another answer. Actually you have several ways to acquire bees if you are just starting. 1. Buy a package, 2. Buy a nuc, 3. Buy an established hive, 4. Catch a swarm, 5. Remove a honey bee colony from a building.

Let’s discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of the above choices.

1. Buying a package. Advantages: A) Probably the most common method of acquiring bees to start. It may be easier to find a package bee supplier than someone who produces and sells nucs. B) If ordered early (Jan./Feb.) you can receive them earlier than a local nuc. C) Many times you can find a local beekeeper making the trip down south to bring them up north to a delivery point near your home instead of relying on the U.S. Postal Service. D) Pkgs. will come with a young queen. E) Pkgs. are inspected by the state inspector. Disadvantages: A) A package of bees will start much slower than a nucleus colony as it only contains bees. B) You must feed them constantly after placing them on foundation so they can produce the much needed wax to draw foundation into comb so the queen (after being released and accepted) can proceed to lay eggs. C) During the first 21 days a package of bees will experience about a 35% loss in population. This occurs because new adult workers require 21 days to develop, during this time the older bees are dying. D) When hiving a package you must wait a few days till the queen is released and accepted by the population, this is all unproductive time. E) Sometime you may experience a dead queen in the package or the bees in the package do not accept her, this can mean another delay till you receive a new queen and she is accepted.

2. Buying a Nucleus colony. Advantages: A) A nucleus colony is a smaller version of a complete colony, consisting of 4 to 5 frames of drawn comb with food, a laying queen, brood in all stages and room for the queen to lay eggs. When you bring it home just place the frames into your hive body and fill the remaining space with frames of foundation or drawn comb. B) A nucleus colony will not decline in population like a package but will increase from day one. C) The nuc has a queen that is already accepted by the body of bees and is in the process of laying eggs, there is no wasted time waiting for the queen to be released and accepted. D) There is a better chance the nuc will produce a surplus crop of honey the first year versus a package. Disadvantages: A) When obtaining drawn comb from another source other than your own hives you must be concerned about transfer of disease. Know your source well. Ask questions of your supplier. B) If obtained from a local source your nucs may not be available as early as packages brought up from the south. C) The nuc may have an old queen. Ask your supplier. D) The cost of a nuc is usually higher than a package.

3. Buying an established hive. Advantages: A) You have the jump on time. No waiting for queen acceptance, no feeding gallons of sugar syrup to draw foundation. The colony is full strength. B) A surplus honey crop the first year. Disadvantages: A) You may be buying a diseased colony! Know your supplier. Only buy if you or an experienced beekeeper can inspect the hive before your buy it. B) You may be purchasing a colony with an old queen and/or bad combs. Do a thorough inspection before purchasing.

4. Catch a swarm. Advantages: A) No purchase cost to you. You may even be able to charge for the collection of the swarm. B) Swarms can be larger than a 3 lb. package. C) The swarm most probably issued from a local hive. Disadvantages: A) The swarm may have a disease. Always hive a swarm on foundation, making them use up the honey in their stomachs to produce wax, therefore not storing any AFB spores in honey. B) Swarms usually aren’t available as early as other sources. Swarms usually issue right before the nectar flow. C) Primary swarms usually have the old queen with them and should be re-queened.

5. Remove a colony from a building. Advantages: A) Free, like catching swarms, you can even charge for the service. Disadvantages: A) Labor intensive! Make sure you have the proper equipment, (bee vacuum, ladders, scaffolding, ropes, buckets, temp. sensors, saws, liability insurance, etc.) and a helper! B) Disease! Be able to diagnose disease symptoms.

So....What would Bill do? If I was just starting out this spring I would want to get an early start and most probably buy two packages. But if I could find a local beekeeper who is willing to sell a nuc I'd buy a local nuc and only one package of bees. With this choice I could compare the two and if for some reason the package queen failed I would have fresh brood from the nuc to give the package bees so they could raise a new queen.


Scriptpunk said...

Really interesting post. Thank you for answering your readers questions. It is good to know what to look for when sourcing bee hives for sale. Some information I read said that even though most new beekeepers get new hives, the bees that they buy - be they package bees or swarms that they are homing - may still have varroe. Is this true?

Billzbeez said...

Yes,unfortunately I believe this to be true. I don't think it is possible to acquire bees, at least in our part of the U.S.A., with absolutely no Varroa mites.
I see after checking your post name you are from London, U.K. Have you seen any beekeepers in the U.K. that claim to have bees with no Varroa? I see you are a writer. What are you writing?
Thank you for your comment, I hope you enjoyed my article.

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