New beekeepers face a myriad choices when they decide to get started. What type of hive? Screened bottoms? Which foundation? Where to locate the apiary? How many colonies? It can feel quite overwhelming.
The question of where and how to buy bees is one of those initial problems for new beekeepers. One aspect of buying bees that gives beginners trouble is the jargon we use to describe bees, and how that jargon is often misapplied to bees that should be sold for a steep discount, or not at all.
We’ve all heard the terms, and their meanings are specific. A swarm is (usually) a reproductive division of a colony, whether feral or managed. A swarm arrives with nothing other than bees. Bee sellers usually don’t sell “swarms,” but they do sell “packages,” which are man-made swarms.
A removal colony is one that has been removed from a place where the bees were a pest or nuisance. This is sometimes called a rescue colony.
A split, or divide, is a brand new colony that’s made by a beekeeper from a managed colony.
A Nucleus (a nuc) colony is the gold standard of buying bees. A nuc is a small, queen-right colony that contains the resources to begin a new production colony. The difference between a nuc and other starter methods is sometimes subtle, but a beekeeper can build a nuc from any method. A nuc for sale should contain emerging brood from the queen in the box!
Let’s examine each of these colony options in detail, and along the way, we can take a close look at what makes quality bees in each option. All specific advice in this article is aimed at beginner beekeepers who are just getting started and it may not apply equally to all beekeepers. My goal was to point new beekeepers in the direction of best practices and ensure them the greatest chance of a successful and rewarding beginning in the craft of beekeeping.
Swarms come in three varieties: reproductive, abscond, and package.
When a colony grows beyond a critical mass, it will naturally divide itself. This division could be because the bees lack the physical space to expand further, or because the colony is simply too big (generally around 60,000 bees). When a colony divides itself, the initial, or primary swarm, leaves the colony with the mother queen. The primary swarm is usually strong and arrives with a queen that is ready to go to work. If the old colony has sufficient bees, it may issue a second, third, or more swarms. these swarms will be accompanied by one or more virgin queens. The unmated queens in these after-swarms go on mating flights after their swarm colony arrives at their new home.
Obviously, a swarm headed by a mated queen is preferable to an after swarm headed by an unmated queen. Virgin queens carry the added risk of mating failure (approximately 20% according to accepted queen rearing wisdom), and so these swarms may fail at higher rates than primary swarms. Experienced beekeepers can usually tell a virgin from a mated queen by looking.
After swarms will eventually reflect the genetic profile of feral bees in the local area. In some parts of Texas, this can be quite good, but in other parts of the state, that profile may make the bees unsuitable for beginners or for back yard beekeeping.
What makes a quality swarm? A primary swarm with a mated queen is the best bet. However, many beekeepers observe that swarm queens are often replaced within several weeks of arrival. This replacement is handled by the colony, but may pose difficulties for a new beekeeper. Handling queen cells often causes damage to the developing queens, and so a beekeeper should avoid handling frames with queen cells. The timing of queen development, hardening, mating, and final development difficult to pin down with uncontrolled queen production. For this reason, a beekeeper should be patient with the colony and intervene only after the developing queen is definitely beyond hope according to the calendar. In the alternative, the beekeeper may replace the queen before the colony decides to do so. Clearly, there’s a little beekeeper skill involved in managing swarms.
One great advantage of swarm collecting is that it can be (more or less) free. A beginner beekeeper, thus, could easily make several attempts at swarm collection per season and accumulate the experience needed to be successful at it. But understand that a swarm is the most risky of all methods of acquiring bees. Bee swarms must be convinced to stay in the hive chosen by the beekeeper, and they regularly decide otherwise. The bottom line, as a beginner beekeeper, you can collect swarms and take your chances, but you should not pay for a swarm, ever.
A common method of buying bees, however, is the 3-pound package of bees. In a package, you get worker bees (3 pounds, as the name implies), and a mated queen. A package is basically a man-made swarm, but differs from a natural swarm in important ways. First, a package is usually shipped with a mated queen (though you may also order queenless packages). This mated queen is unrelated to the workers, but the time the workers and the queen spend together in transit generally bonds them into a cohesive unit, with all the workers clustering around the only queen they’ve know for many hours.
Package bees are fraught with trouble too. Shipping is hard on bees, and so some mortality is expected. Packages ship with liquid feed (usually), but it’s common for bees to arrive with an empty feed container (especially when producers use marshmallows instead of liquid feed). Temperature is a critical factor in the movement of any colony of bees, and packages are no different. Exposure to high temperatures stresses the bees and raises the mortality rates. Nevertheless, package bees are a popular method of acquiring bees, and most packages produce success for new beekeepers. If you buy package bees, talk to your supplier for support and guidance.
When honey bees make their home where they’re a nuisance or a pest, people will sometimes call upon a live bee remover to collect the colony, their combs, and their queen. This is often difficult work, requiring skills not common to general beekeeping. A colony situated in the soffit of a home or in the cavity of a wall is ideally arranged as a cohesive unit. This is an ideal condition for bees. They are confident in their strength. They possess some food stores, perhaps. They may be defensive of their home. They may have access to vast areas in which to flee and re-establish their colony after removal.
Many beekeepers consider bee removal an entirely separate skill set and barely related to beekeeping. Some bee removers do not keep bees at all, instead selling what they remove quickly (flipping them). No matter your view on this, removing bees from structures requires a significant level of skill in construction trades and handling of bee colonies as a unit.
When a colony is removed from a structure, the brood combs are cut to fit in hive frames. The combs are temporarily held in place by rubber bands, until the colony can build the combs into the frames. This is a critical point to evaluating the quality of a removal job, and the resulting colony success (and value). We’ll return to this subject.
A bee colony that’s established in a cavity, going about its business will necessarily be greatly stressed by having their home disturbed, removed, cut to pieces, and taken away. The stress imposed upon them can not be over stated. We tend to focus on the stress placed on the adult worker bees, the most numerous and visible of the colony. We also take note of stress placed upon the all-important queen bee, but stress is also placed upon the silent members of the colony, the brood.
Brood is important to a colony because it is one of the primary missions of a colony, and it is the most delicate part of a colony. While adult bees can tolerate wide variations in temperature, brood must be maintained in a narrow temperature range, and must not dry out. These are simply not the conditions during a removal. Brood can be chilled (below about 70*F) or overheated (above about 95*F). Desiccation can occur at any temperature when the humidity falls below 80% RH. Time is critical during a removal. The brood must be protected from environmental conditions and rough handling.
Less than ideal brood conditions are a serious problem for removal colonies that are ultimately left without a queen. Let’s talk a little about the difficulties that queens pose to removal work.
According to Laidlaw and other researchers, the conditions under which a queen develops is critical. Very large numbers of bees are required. The term “boiling with bees” describes a condition in which frames are sometimes difficult to remove or replace in a hive because of the congestion of so many bees. Colonies raising queens must be well fed and provisioned. Larva selection is critical. Each of these requirements must be met in order to produce high quality queens.
A removal colony must never be asked to raise a queen. If the colony’s queen is lost for any reason, the colony should be provided a queen from another source that meets the best practices of queen rearing. A quality removal job is incomplete without a quality, mated queen in the hive at the end of the job.
Evaluating a removal colony is similar to any other colony, but care must be taken to verify the quality of the removal work. The ordinary features of a colony must be present. A laying queen that is fully accepted by the colony, whether the colony’s own queen or one provided by the remover or beekeeper. The “bee math” of the colony must be acceptable. Generally, the popular advice to “keep strong bees” applies to removal colonies. Let’s take a moment and review what it means to “keep strong bees.”
A strong colony does not necessarily mean a large colony. Generally, strong bees are able to completely cover both sides of each frame in a hive. This condition provides for sufficient defense of the colony from pests or robbing. But this is not the only measure of strong bees. A colony must also possess the strength to build, weather a dearth, forage for themselves, and raise additional brood when conditions warrant. This critical mass of bees is generally considered 2 or 3 pounds of bees (the size of a reproductive swarm or package). Each of these conditions must be present in a removal colony in order to consider it strong and viable. Colonies that do not meet these conditions should be used for purposes other than sale.
Removal colonies feature a reliable tell-tale measure of colony strength: the degree to which the cut combs have been fixed and attached to the frames. A fresh removal will have no attachments between the combs and the wooden frames at all. A strong colony may attach them completely in just a few days. A weak colony will take much longer, or may abandon some comb sections entirely. Abandoned comb sections is a sign of a poor quality removal colony, and should be removed for safety.
Regardless of a colony’s strength, combs should be attached to the frames prior to sale. Before combs are attached, a colony’s stress may still be high, and unattached frames carry the risk of damage from displacement from the frame. A good solid warning sign is the condition of the comb attachment compared to the condition of the rubber bands. If the rubber bands are chewed or broken before the combs are attached, then beware of the quality of the colony. If rubber bands are buried in wax and the combs attached to the frames, this is a sign of a quality colony that is functioning well.
A key component of a removal colony is the compete absence of queen cells. Removals should not be asked to raise queens, and so these cells should be destroyed and regarded as sub-standard for producing high quality queens, and concomitant high quality, robust colonies. Never purchase any colony that already has queen cells. This is particularly important for removal colonies for one additional reason – queen cells are delicate. Queen cells of unknown age must be treated with extreme care. The colony with these cells should not be inspected (and therefore not sold) because handling cells can damage the developing queen. The colony must not be moved for the same reason. Any queen cells of unknown age should be destroyed and a properly made queen provided by the beekeeper.
To review, consider these items as deal-breakers for purchasing removal colonies.
- The presence of queen cells.
- Insufficient numbers of bees to completely cover both sides of all frames.
- Combs that are not attached to the frames.
- The absence of a laying queen, or a queen that is sequestered in any way.
If your inspection of a removal colony discovers any of these conditions, look for a better colony. To be sure, each of these conditions may be remedied by an experienced beekeeper, but if you’re just starting out in beekeeping, avoid these troubles at all costs.
When a colony reaches the capacity of a hive (no more space) or becomes too large, it will swarm. This is bad for production colonies, and so beekeepers try to avoid swarms by splitting a colony into smaller colonies or nucleus colonies.
Beekeepers have developed many, many methods of splitting, or “dividing” colonies. Some are conservative, some are more aggressive, and some are just crazy. But whatever the method, the results should be nearly the same – a few frames of brood, a frame of food stores, a laying queen, and some room to grow.
In the next section, I will describe the nucleus colony as the gold standard of bee buying. It’s safe. The colony is established. The queen is accepted and working. Brood production is underway. The colony can forage for itself. A split is not yet like that.
When a colony is divided, there is always a question of getting the right bees in the right box. A split must be provisioned with enough nurse bees to carry on with brood rearing. It needs enough foragers to collect the resources needed for the new colony. It needs bees ready to build combs. It takes time to establish that all these needs are in balance, and so, fresh splits are not necessarily the same as an established nucleus colony.
Splits are often provided an unrelated queen, and in certain situations newly introduced queens may be “balled” by a fresh split. Exactly why this happens isn’t perfectly understood, but it can cause the loss of a new queen.
When buying nucs, you may encounter a split instead. Ask your vendor to explain the history of your nuc. When was it made? By what method? How long has the queen been laying in this colony? There’s no hard and fast answers to these questions, but the general trend is obvious. A split made last week clearly has not had time to build a cohesive colony around the new queen (none of the workers are related to her).
Observe the workers returning to the colony. They should be bringing pollen in the door. You should see at least some fresh nectar in the combs inside. You should never, ever buy any colony in which the queen is in a cage or clip (or sequestered in any other way).
The “nuc”, pronounced “nuke”, is the product that delivers the greatest chance of success to a beginner beekeeper. While the configuration of a nuc may vary slightly, the condition of the colony should not.
One variable is the number of brood frames. The more the merrier, right? A quality nuc will have at least three frames of brood. These frames should be covered in bees, and the brood area should cover 70-80% of the frames. Brood should be in all stages of development, not just eggs (an indication of a recent split). Encircling the brood should be pollen and nectar or honey. You may observe some nectar being stored in the brood area. This condition may be a warning that the bees are running short on space, but it also indicates good foraging behavior. If you buy a nuc like this, provide additional space as soon as you’re able.
Some suppliers provide different configurations.
The frames with foundation or food stores are highly variable from one supplier to the next. Other frame count configurations are offered too, and these may have a place in the apiaries of experienced beekeepers, it’s best to stick to the ordinary configurations of 4- or 5-frame nucs.
The common features of quality nucs are these:
- A laying queen, not a confined queen, not a recently released queen
- Workers that reflect the genetic profile of their queen. That is, at least some portion of the worker population should be the daughters of their queen.
- Enough bees to completely cover both sides of all combs in the nuc.
- Enough young bees to tend to brood (look for royal jelly in brand new larva cells) and build wax (look for white combs being built.
- Enough foragers or enough food stores to carry the colony.
- All combs permanently fixed in place by some mechanism (build onto the frames by the bees or on foundation/wire).
The buyer has some responsibilities too. The buyer accepts responsibility for the colony’s care when (s)he takes it from the seller. The seller should take the time to inspect the colony with the buyer if asked. This practice reduces the chance of a dispute over a viable queen or replacement(s).
Ask your seller if they will provide replacement queens if asked, or what their policy is.
The buyer MUST take care of the colony. It must be protected from heat. It must not roll over in the truck (this is a common mistake). The queen is the responsibility of the beekeeper. If the seller verified the queen at pick-up, the buyer should not expect her to be replaced afterwards.
Unfortunately, definitions vary from one supplier to another. The important thing is that the buyer and seller agree in advance on what is to be delivered. Every product described above has a market. An experienced beekeeper may readily buy rubber banded combs all day long, but that product is inappropriate for the beginner. I hope this examination of bee-starter products will help you determine the correct product for your beekeeping project, and I hope it enables you to ask the right questions and get what you expect!
Good luck, and happy beekeeping!