Starting your hive - Package, Nucleus Hive, or Swarm? January 30 2019

Honey bee swarmNucleus hive

It's time to decide how you're going to acquire your bees for this year. Yes, it's still January, but time is already running out. Crazy, right? For most of us, there are three ways that we can get bees: We can catch a swarm, or we can purchase either a package or a nucleus hive. If you happen to have a friend that wants to give you bees, that's a fourth way (and good for you), but you'll still probably be acquiring them as either a package or a nuc. And be sure to thank them profusely, because bees are expensive!

Swarms

Easy swarm catchThere's an old beekeeper saying: A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; a swarm in July isn't worth a fly. Swarms are a great way to start a new hive...if you can find one early enough in the year. Ideally, that would be March through May. If you catch a swarm after that, there's a good chance that we will have passed some or all of the blackberry bloom, and you will be stuck feeding sugar syrup to your new swarm constantly just to keep them alive. If it's particularly late in the year, the swarm may be reluctant to draw much comb, which is a problem if it's your first year and you don't have any comb to give them.

Difficult swarm catchMy opinion is that the possibility of starting a new hive with a swarm is highly dependent on where you live. If you see swarms every year, go ahead and catch one. If you've never seen a honey bee swarm in your life...you're probably not going to be successful. You can look for swarm lists to get on with your local fire department, pest control companies, and beekeepers' association, but such lists are often long and sometimes require you to have prior experience keeping bees. Also, trying to remove a swarm from a complete stranger's yard, when it may be your first time ever being in close proximity to tens of thousands of honey bees at the same time is, at best, an iffy prospect. It doesn't get better when you're 10 feet up on a shaky ladder, leaning against a branch that you THINK will probably hold your weight, and barely able to see the swarm above you. Which describes every single swarm that I was called out to pick up in 2018.

Do you see the swarm in the image to the right? It's about two thirds of the way up the image, just a light brown spot far above the top of my ladder. Catching a swarm is rarely easy work.

Packages

Honey bee packagePurchasing a package of bees is one of the most popular ways to get your first hive going, and packages can be used with all hive equipment styles. When buying a package of bees, you will order it through a beekeeper who is traveling south to where the majority of commercial bee breeders are. On the west coast, that's California. For 2019, I've seen package prices between $140 and $160.

The package producer will fill a screened box with bees, by weight. Most packages are 3 lbs (roughly 10,000 bees). You can also get 4 lb packages for a little bit extra, which will draw out the comb a little bit faster than their 3 lb brethren. The package producer will then add a new, mated queen and a can of (usually medicated) sugar syrup for the bees to eat while in transit. All of the packages are loaded onto your local beekeeper's vehicle, and he/she drives the packages back up to wherever you live. You will be contacted to let you know what day to pick up the bees.

One of the big dangers with packages is that the bees are on a clock as soon as they are put into the package. Within 6 weeks, every single bee in the package, other than the queen, will be dead of old age. It will take a few days for the package to get to you. Then it will take (at least) a few days for the bees to release the queen and build enough comb for her to start laying. Once the queen starts laying, it will take 21 days for the first egg to become an adult bee. Altogether, if everything goes right, you will have your first new bee about a month after the package was made.  If anything goes wrong, it's easy to see how you could lose the entire package.

Also, it is very important to feed packages heavily with sugar syrup. The bees have to draw a lot of comb very quickly so that the queen can start laying, and that requires a lot of carbohydrates. Nectar is not usually available in our area when the packages arrive, and even if it were, you'd be dividing the work force between foraging and building comb. All new hives will do best if they are fed, but this is especially true for packages. If you want your package to survive, feed the bees.

Shaking a honey bee packageSwarms and packages are hived the same way: Once you have them home, open your hive and remove four frames or top bars. If hiving a package, remove the queen cage and set her aside (a loose pocket works well. Don't leave her in direct sunlight, especially if it's a warm day. Don't let her get rained on or too cold, if it's a normal Seattle spring day). Open the container that the bees are in, and shake the bees into the body of the hive. Add the queen if she was in a separate cage, put the frames/top bars back in, and close the hive up. 

Confused? We'll do a more thorough walkthrough a little later in the year, using pictures of me installing bees into my first hive. So you'll also get to laugh at me a little. Stay tuned.

Nucleus Hives

5 frame nucleus hive

Using a nucleus hive, or nuc, is the premium method of starting a new colony. They are most commonly made for langstroth hives, because a nuc requires standardized equipment, but you can sometimes find top bar nucs, or buy one from a friend who designed their top bars to the same width as yours.

A nucleus hive is simply a miniature honey bee hive. Langstroth nucs generally contain 5 deep frames with bees, brood in all stages of development, honey, pollen, and an accepted, laying queen. The bees will not necessarily be related to the queen, as it is possible to make very good nucs with splits from other hives and then add a new queen. The critical things are that the bees have accepted the new queen as their own, that she is actively laying, and there is brood in all stages of development (egg, larva, pupa/capped).

Because they have an accepted queen and large amounts of brood, nucleus hives start off much faster than packages or swarms. They also start with a significant amount of drawn comb, so as soon as one bee emerges from its pupa, the queen can lay another egg. The bees' numbers will start growing immediately, and quickly. That rate of growth can be too quick for some people, so think about whether you want to have training wheels for your first hive (a package or swarm).

If you want to be able to harvest honey in a colony's first year, a nucleus hive is 100% the best way to go, though it's not guaranteed. Swarms and packages don't even come close, especially in warm springs where the blackberry bloom can start in May.

Installing a nucleus hive is as simple as moving the frames from the nuc box into your hive. The bees will do the rest.

If you've decided on a nucleus hive, we can help you get your bees!  Click here to be taken to our nucleus hive ordering page.  We offer spring and summer nucs, in both deep and medium frame size configurations.

Check back in a week to learn about beekeeping tools and protective equipment.