Questions From a Beekeeper in Connecticut

I received a kind email from a beekeeper in the northeast with several questions. I thought I would include it and my responses as a post this morning. Name and location is removed. Feel free to drop related questions into the comments below.

―John
Cleveland, OH

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"Hi John, I am happy I found your website! I am a fairly new beekeeper, entering my third year. I live in [Connecticut] ... I believe, like you, I live on the 41st parallel."

Hi Bob, great to meet you :) I'll comment on your questions/notes below...
 

"I've lost my  (package) hives  both years to varroa. Great buildup in spring, but crash by fall or winter."

This would be classic sign of varroa buildup and overload.
 

"Each year I have had 1 hive that could have been a cell builder, had I known about OTS."

Yes! You got it... every beekeeper should understand this so that they can become self-sustaining.
 

"I am thinking I need to change course if I am to keep bees alive (without chemicals)."

This is good thinking, and for most, requires some hard knocks and a couple years of losing hives to sink in. One must deal with varroa and pesticides these days ― those are our main enemies. With varroa, one must either outbreed and mitigate some varroa's lifecycle (OTS), use Oxalic or Formic acid (I do sometimes), or both (that is my current plan). I personally have got by with 60-70% survival *just* with OTS and for most that's enough. But, I'd like to see 90% and think I can do so by oxalic acid vapor at the proper time in conjunction with OTS.
 

"Do you think using packages to start it is possible to do OTS? I'm thinking so long as I have enough brood frames (4+) it should be possible."

Yes, when I moved from the west coast to Ohio about six years ago, that's how I started over again. I prefer to buy nucs to get started, but I didn't know anyone and went with two packages. I sourced some Carniolan packages and started from there. They will build up enough by the end of June to put them through the OTS plan. Two packages could easily be increased to six colonies 30 some days later. You'll want to feed them heavily.
 

"If so, do you think overwintering nucs is viable or is it better to combine starts to over-winter?"

Yes, I have overwintered 5-over-5 nucs successfully for some years. Stacking them together with good top insulation (foam, etc) does nicely. I personally am working to standardize more and just overwinter single deeps with a sugar rim (creating space to feed sugar blocks on top). Mel Disselkoen states his success over many years overwintering single deeps successfully with OTS if there is 4 frames of brood and 6 of honey by Fall. My own experience bears this out as well.
 

"I use Layens hives, whose comb surface is roughly 30% larger than a Langstroth deep frame. I have a lot of comb and honey frames from last year."

Interesting. I've not heard of that before. I've read about Brother Adam's findings some time back that suggested larger brood areas were beneficial (in U.K. climate). But, alas, we've standardized on Langstroth here in North America and they do well enough, in my humble opinion.
 

"Do you have a dearth where you live?"

In the Cleveland, Ohio area here, we have highly fluctuating conditions year-to-year. Some years I pull in nectar all year long, but more often we'll have an August dearth (broadly speaking) until Goldenrod bloom kicks in until first frost.
 

"Thank you for your time"

You're welcome :)

Nucleus (Nuc) vs. Package Bees ― What's Best For A Beginner?

A lively discussion was had today on one of the many Facebook beekeeping groups. I try to limit my time with those rabbit holes, but it is fun and worth it to help newer beekeepers when I can. The discussion this afternoon revolved around a topic posted by the moderator: "Explain the difference between Nucs, Swarms, and Packages and which is better."

Definitions

First, some definitions are in order to ensure we're talking about the same thing. The following definitions are good and taken from Michael Bush:

Swarm ― A temporary collection of bees, containing at least one queen that split apart from the mother colony to establish a new one; a natural method of propagation of honey bee colonies.
Nucleus ("Nuc") ― A small colony of bees often used in queen rearing or the box in which the small colony of bees resides. The term refers to the fact that the essentials, bees, brood, food, a queen or the means to make one, are there for it to grow into a colony, but it is not a full sized colony.
Package Bees ― A quantity of adult bees (2 to 5 pounds), with or without a queen, contained in a screened shipping cage.

For purposes of this blog post, I'm going to focus on nucleus vs. package as swarms are not typically the beginning point for a new beekeeper. That said, new beekeeper, if you can get your hands on a swarm in spring, don't pass it up! Free bees are great gift in Spring or early Summer.

The reality is that most beekeepers start out their journey with package bees, some even unaware of what a nucleus colony ("nuc") is and what it offers. As a side note: This is a great item to cover with beginners in winter and early spring during bee club meetings before purchasing of hives and bees begin. A good club should be helping their new initiates clearly understand the pros and cons of both nucs and packages.

Following is a brief comparison (not definitive by any stretch) of both.

Package Bees ― Pros and Cons

Pros

A package of bees from  bees-bees-bees.com .

A package of bees from bees-bees-bees.com.

  • Package bees are significantly cheaper than nucleus colonies
  • They can be shipped long distances and still survive; in fact, this really is the only way you can ship a colony of bees via mail/postal services
  • Package bees come with a young queen, hopefully laying for at least a week or two to determine they are a quality layer
  • Purchasing packages is the most common method so you are more likely to find and purchase them (if you don't wait too long) and find help installing them 

Cons

  • Bees in a package are mostly unrelated to each other and the queen ― they are pulled from many hives, pooled together and sorted into packages, with a new queen added into the box inside a cage
  • This method puts stress on the bees due to shipping, handling and absence of a colony environment
  • It is a well-known fact now that queens will fail more often than not and are superseded with a new queen, further weakening the outlook of the colony
  • Poor weather and delayed shipping time can play a significant factor

Nucleus Colonies ― Pros and Cons

Pros

A nucleus hive from  boobeehoney.com .

A nucleus hive from boobeehoney.com.

  • A nuc is an actual small functioning colony with a laying queen, ready to grow quickly with a good nectar flow
  • A nuc colony will contain some brood in various stages, nurse bees and foragers ― there will be little-to-no delay in brood rearing
  • A solid nuc will consist of at least one frame of honey and pollen stores to sustain the colony as it adjusts to its new surroundings
  • 4-5 frames of comb will be included with a nucleus colony
  • A nuc, in a normal year, will likely grow fast enough to allow an average harvest honey that same season
  • Nucleus bees are related genetically, with offspring hatching from the laying queen
  • Typically, there will be little stress to a nucleus colony being moved (carefully) from one location to another
  • A nucleus colony assuredly has a higher chance of success of establishing itself the first season and surviving through winter

Cons

  • Nucs are more expensive
  • Not all nucs "are created equally" ― there isn't necessarily a defined qualitative standard for a Nuc from region to region
  • Its possible to see adverse variables with regard to the frames provided for the nuc and their quality/age
  • It is possible disease can be carried with a nuc to your apiary
  • Nucs can't be shipped ― one usually must travel to pick the colony up or have frames transferred to your box

So Which Is Better For The Beginner?

So, what's the verdict? ― It might be more costly and possibly inconvenient, but I would highly recommend buying a nucleus colony as a new beekeeper. The pros simply outweigh the cons in this case. To ensure success, find a mentor who's experienced with setting up a nuc (and keeping bees alive) and bring them along. Ask lots of questions and don't be intimidated. The art of keeping bees will take several years to begin to fully grasp. Read books (lots of them) about nucs such as "Increase Essentials" by Larry Connor and watch videos online about nucs such as Mike Palmer's here

Now that I think about it, don't just buy one nuc ― buy two! You will have much better chance of success with multiple colonies than you will with one. You will be able to contrast and compare two hives, see differences in behavior and laying ability of your queens, spot differences in behavior and problems that will arise. If one hive dies, you have more resources with which to continue on, recoup your losses, and protect your initial investment. Bees aren't cheap!

Well... that is unless you raise your own bees... but that's for another day and another blog post. :)