By Ed Dane
Is buying bees better than catching bee swarms? It is if you buy nucs.
There are several ways to start beekeeping. Most beginners start buying bees via packages because they are the most readily available. Another way is to catch a swarm. I believe catching bee swarms is preferable to a package. But the best way to get started is buying bees in existing hives, be they nuclei (nucs) or one- or two-story complete hives. Now let’s consider what the differences are and I think you will see why one is preferable to the other.
Option 1: The Package
Are you wondering how to start a honey bee farm? The package is without a doubt the most popular way to start, but is buying bees best? Well, consider how a package is made up. Generally, bees are shaken from several different hives into a package or cage setting on a scale. When the proper weight is achieved, a queen in her own small cage is added, then a can of sugar water and the package is sealed. The worker bees are from several different hives and the queen may be from another hive in a completely different yard. This means they are all unrelated. We don’t know all there is to know about this yet, but research shows that the relationship of the bees in a hive has an effect on the equilibrium of the hive.
Option 2: The Swarm
In a swarm, usually the mother queen leaves with the first swarm. The worker bees in the swarm may have different fathers, but they all have the same mother, so they are all half-sisters. They have this advantage from the start.
They have also gorged themselves on honey before leaving the hive. If they are put on foundation comb they can begin to draw wax immediately. In fact, I have captured many swarms that have only been on a branch for a couple hours and there is burr comb on the branch. This is because when they gorge themselves on honey their body starts making wax. A swarm that is put in a hive with only foundation wax can sometimes draw that whole super of foundation (10 frames) in a matter of three or four days. What an advantage for the beginner beekeeper who doesn’t usually have access to drawn comb but has to start with foundation. A package is sometimes referred to as an artificial swarm, but I think you can see that there is a big difference between buying bees and a real swarm.
Option 3: The Existing Hive
You should know what a “nuc” is by now, and if it is made up properly, it has the same advantages as a full-sized hive. The hive is balanced; this is the key. What do I mean by “balanced”? Well, there are many factors involved and we are still learning how they all interplay, but every hive strives to achieve its own equilibrium or balance. If it doesn’t reach that point or if it loses its balance for some reason and can’t recover, it will die.
Some things that help make a hive balanced are the relationship of all bees in the hive, as we’ve already discussed. These include the stages of developing brood in the brood nest, be it eggs, larva, or sealed brood, the number of bees and the space available in the hive, the amount of stores (honey and pollen), the amount of open space in the brood nest for the queen to lay, the amount of queen pheromone, and more. All these have an impact on how balanced the hive is. Even a small nuc can be balanced if all these things are in place. That is why a nuc can be over-wintered successfully, even in Michigan where I live. All these factors relate to one another and if one of them gets out of balance it can affect the whole. So that’s why it is important to get a new hive to the point of balance as soon as possible and work to keep it that way. The success of the hive depends on it.
Many things can impact the balance in a hive after buying bees. For instance, predators or disease may weaken the bees. Pesticides may build up in the hive and affect the reproduction of the queen. This can happen from an outside source (agricultural spray) or from the use of miticide in the hive by the beekeeper to control varroa and avoid bee population decline. The queen may fail and the workers are unable to replace her. The beekeeper may injure the queen or split the brood during manipulation or inspection of the hive. There are many ways this imbalance can occur. This is where the experience of a mentor comes in handy.
Okay, So What is a Nuc?
A nuc consists of two or three frames of brood, a frame or two of honey, pollen, and possibly one empty frame of drawn comb or foundation. It has roughly two or three pounds of bees to cover the brood and a queen or queen cell. Basically it is a miniature hive.
These are all things to consider when starting out with bees. I know it’s harder to find nucs and existing hives, but I see more nucs advertised now than before, so they are becoming more available. Buying bees already in balance helps ensure success.
One way to find and obtain bees is to contact a commercial beekeeper in your area and volunteer to help him or her. They may be happy to have help lifting all those heavy supers of honey and you might learn something in the process. You may also be able to start buying bees from them.
That’s kind of how I got started. I was 14 years old and interested in bees. I knew a man in our church who was a beekeeper and I started asking him questions. He invited me to go with him while he worked his bees. One afternoon he called me to ask if I would like to accompany him while he captured a swarm. I was delighted. So he picked me up at my home and we went out and shook this nice swarm out of an old apple tree. When he dropped me off at home, he asked me where I wanted to put the hive. I asked him what he meant and he said he was giving me the hive because he wanted to help me with starting beekeeping. That was 51 years ago and I’m still in love with bees.
Did you get started by buying bees or catching bee swarms? Which do you think is best?
Originally published in Countryside July/August 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.