October 11, 2016

Collecting Swarms

One way of acquiring bees whether to replace winter losses, strengthen weak colonies or start new ones, is to collect a swarm. Primary swarms are valuable especially in late Spring as they may contain as many as 25,000 bees plus the queen. In comparison, a purchased 3-pound package will contain only about 10,500 bees. However a swarm is not usually recommended as a way for new beekeepers to get started, for several reasons. The main problem with a swarm especially for a new beekeeper is that there is no way of knowing if the bees are carrying diseases or what  temperament the bees are going to have.

Going out and collecting a swarm also requires some experience of bee behavior and handling. There are three main things to consider about a swarm, these are: how long has the swarm been there, where is the swarm located, e.g is it high up in a tree  and the size of the swarm. Swarms normally cluster on a tree limb, shrub, fence post, lamp post or on the side of a building. You will need to consider health and safety issues before proceeding to remove a swarm.

Try always to remove the swarm gently, disturbing the cluster as little as possible and put it directly into a hive or enclosed container (a cardboard box with a tight-fitting lid is a good solution) to transport it to a new hive or location. If the swarm cannot be cut down, either shake or scrape the bees into a lightweight box, remember the swarm can be heavy, so the box needs to be quite robust.

When a swarm settles in a very high tree or on any other inaccessible structure, it is best to leave it there. Such swarms may be an after-swarm with one or more virgin queens and their successful capture can be very difficult. Sometimes you can knock these high swarms into a bucket at the end of a long pole and then lower it to a collecting box, but this is not for the faint hearted.

Once you have successfully captured a swarm, you can introduce the swarm into your own equipment by either shaking or dumping the bees into an open hive with several frames removed or simply by shaking it in front of the hive.  If you were successful in getting the queen with the rest of the swarm once she is inside the bees will adopt the hive. Using drawn combs is better than foundation when introducing swarms to an empty hive, but one or two drawn combs, preferably with pollen, brood and/or honey (from a disease-free colony), combined with foundation also works.

Some new beekeepers set up their hives and hope a passing swarm moves in; you would have to be really lucky for this to happen. However it is possible instead of waiting for swarms to simply appear to try to bait a swarm. Pheromone lures (available from beekeeping supply stores) placed in special light-weight bait hives or empty hive bodies (with or without drawn comb) can be used to lure swarms, with some success. This is probably however not a good idea if you are looking to start beekeeping and get your first colonies going, but is worth a try down the line, as one way of trying to cheaply expand your operation.

More about Acquiring and Installing Bees

Buying and Installing a Nuc of Bees

Most new beekeepers now start with a nucleus colony, or nuc, of bees. A nuc is essentially a small hive in a specially designed smaller box. A nuc of bees will consist of  bees in all stages of development, as well as food, a laying queen and enough workers to cover from three to five combs or frames. When placed into a full-sized hive body and given some supplemental feeding, the nuc will usually expand rapidly into a strong colony, depending of course on the time of year.

When started in early spring, these hives may produce surplus honey in their first year if the weather is favourable and nectar flow conditions are right. The advantages of starting with a nuc rather than a package includes faster colony development due to the presence of brood and the fact that there is no break in the queen’s laying cycle. It is also easy to add the contents of the nuc straight into your own equipment. In addition you will also have the chance to inspect the nuc before purchasing it and since you are likely to be purchasing and collecting the nuc locally, you will be sure that you are buying bees which are adapted to the local conditions. However make sure that you purchase your nuc of bees from a supplier at least three miles from where you intend to keep them, otherwise you may find that a large number of them may fly back to their original site.

While nucleus colonies are initially more expensive than packages, their potential financial returns at the season’s end more than makes up for the increased purchase price. The biggest disadvantage however in purchasing a nuc is the potential of disease and mite transmission. Inspection and certification of nucs for sale is not required and depending on how they were handled before sale, disease may occur among some nucleus colonies after they are purchased. Therefore you should only purchase nucs from reputable beekeepers. Check with your local or state beekeeping association to identify beekeepers that have a good reputation for producing high-quality, disease-free nucs.

The strength of nucs varies a great deal from source to source based partly on number of frames, bee stock, and environmental conditions during the time the nuc was made up. One beekeeper may provide one frame of brood in a five-frame nuc box, while another will provide five. Before purchasing nucs, be sure the price reflects the strength of the nucleus colony.

Installing a Nuc of Bees into your Hives

Before ordering, check that the frames in the nucleus hive are compatible with your hive. You should receive instructions with your bees which should include the following:

On receipt of your nucleus colony you should position the box and most importantly, the entrance exactly where you wish your hive to be. Next remove the entrance block and allow the bees to fly freely and orientate themselves. After a day move the nucleus to one side and move your hive with the entrance positioned to as near as possible to where the nucleus was, as the bees have orientated themselves to find it there. Open your hive up, then carefully remove the frames from the nucleus, ensuring the queen is present and place into the brood box of your hive. Add some more empty frames with foundation to fill up the brood box. Check on how much honey stores are on the frames you received and feed accordingly. You should check the hive after a couple of days to ensure that the bees are drawing out the new foundation and the queen has started laying.

More Information on Acquiring and Installing New Bees

Buying an Established Bee Colony

Buying established colonies is not recommended for beginners, but experienced beekeepers may find this a practical means to increase their number of bee colonies. There are a few problems associated with buying used equipment and bees, that is why it is best left to those with a bit of beekeeping experience.

Some of the difficulties associated with purchasing an established colony are calculating a market value, the potential of acquiring disease and also getting equipment that is highly variable in condition and possibly not of standard dimensions. Often established colonies are available when a beekeeper retires from beekeeping or decides that it is not after all the hobby for them. Maybe the colony has been neglected or the equipment is really old and passed its useful life.

While financial returns from an established colony can be realised in the first season, beginners usually are not adequately experienced to manage a full-strength colony. Purchasing smaller units such as packages or nucs in the spring allows a beginner to grow in confidence and managerial skills as the colony size increases during the season.

If you do decide to purchase an established colony try to find one through your local beekeeper’s association, they may know of someone selling and be able to vouch for the quality of the bees and the equipment.

More Information about Acquiring and Installing Bees

Buying and Installing Packaged Bees

Packages are sold in units that contain from one to five pounds of bees, where there are about four thousand bees in a pound. For a beginner, a three-pound package with a queen is a good starting point. Packages are shipped by mail or rail freight and are usually two to three days in transit and if the supplier knows what they are doing they will not suffer from their journey.

The package contains a small can of sugar syrup the bees use as feed.  The queen is held separately in a queen cage within the package and this contains sugar candy on which the five or six worker bees in attendance in the queen cage may feed and feed the queen.

You must ensure that you have the bees new hive ready for them on delivery, as the bees should be placed in their new hive on the day they arrive, certainly no longer than 48 hours after arrival. As soon as the package of bees is delivered, you should spray the wire surface with a 1:1 mixture of sugar water, you can use a plant sprayer for this as long as it is new or never had anything but water in it before. Alternatively you can paint the solution onto the wire, but spraying with a fine mist is the quickest way to ensure that the bees get a quick pick me up after their long journey. Usually a three pound package of bees will consume a pint or more of feed which should be given to them in four or five doses over a period of an hour or more. The bees in the package will be much more docile and easy to handle when placed in a hive if they are well fed. The package should be placed in a darkened room with an ideal temperature of 70 degrees Fahrenheit to settle them until you organise their new home.

The bees in the package should be placed into the new hive in the late afternoon, ideally about half an hour to an hour before dusk. The reason for this is that in a strange location the bees that take wing without orientation can become lost or drift to another hive. If more than one package is being installed at the same time, the hives should be several feet apart and ideally the front entrances facing in different directions. In the event of cool or rainy weather it is better to go ahead with the installation of the package than it is to delay the matter. It is most important that the bees recognise the queen and begin brood rearing as soon as possible so that there are replacements for the old and dead bees in the pipe line.

Package bees should  be put on frames with new foundation, not old comb. In this way, if the package bees are carrying any honey with disease spores, the honey will be used in the construction of new wax and the disease spores will be lost. If package bees are installed on old combs, there is always the possibility of the bees’ depositing any honey they carry in the cells; such honey, if it contains disease spores, can later infect the colony. Obviously, installing package bees on foundation delays the development of the colony; brood rearing starts sooner if the queen has old combs in which to lay eggs. For this reason many beekeepers install their packages on old combs, watch the developing packages for disease and hope they did not buy bees infected with American foulbrood. We would suggest using new foundation but spray it well with your sugar mix to help the bees get started.

Installing the Package of Bees

Once you have your hive ready with your hive body open, remove a few frames or push them back if you do not have a full set in place to leave a space to easier tip the bees into. The actual steps in the installation of a package are as follows: feed the package, remove the wooden cover over the feeder can and remove the feeder can, shaking any bees that cling to it into the ready hive.

Now carefully remove the queen cage and make certain that the queen is alive, carefully pierce a hole part way through the candy to help the bees get started. The bees will release the queen from her cage usually within twelve hours by eating through to her. It is essential that they do not do this too quickly as it needs a few hours for them to gradually become used to her. Placed the queen cage candy end up between two frames so that the screen face of the cage is exposed to the bees, i.e facing into the middle of the two frames. Now shake the remaining bees from the package into the hive. It may be difficult to shake the last hundred or two hundred bees from the package. If the empty package is placed in front of the hive with the hole in the cage facing the hive, the bees will crawl into the hive if the weather is not too cold.

You should be wearing your bee suit and veil but you will not need any smoke if you have fed the bees as we suggested. As the package of bees, should be well fed  and well-fed bees are gentle bees and should cause no difficulty.

After the bees have been shaken into their home, one or preferably two feeders of sugar syrup should be placed on top of the frames, this can rest on the crown board and inside an empty super placed on top of the new hive. A newly installed three-pound package of bees will consume two ten-pound feeders of sugar syrup within a week or ten days and should be fed again when the containers are emptied the first time. Whether or not a third feeding is required depends upon how much natural nectar is available. In some areas packages may need a third feeding and may consume twenty to thirty pounds of sugar in total.

The entrance of the colony should be reduced to an opening of three-eighths by three inches. The colony should not beinspected for at least ten days, although the feeders should be checked after five to seven days. The purpose of the first inspection of a package of bees is merely to determine if the queen is alive and laying. If on inspection the queen is not present and laying, the only alternative is to combine the package with another package or colony. To make identification of the queen easier you should ask your bee package supplier for a marked queen. That is, she will have a coloured dot on her thorax.

More Information on Acquiring and Settling in New Bees