Buying Bees: Nucs vs. Packages

buying bees nucs vs packages

If you are just getting into beekeeping, or looking to increase your apiary, now is the time to start debating nucs vs. packages. There are only so many ways to acquire bees: nucs, packages, catching a swarm, or making a split from someone else’s hive. There are pros and cons to each and questions around nucs vs. packages seem to be some of the most common among new keepers, so here are MY thoughts, on the matter.

Packages

When I use the phrase “package of bees,” I quite literally, mean a box full of bees.  Most packages are a side effect of the commercial beekeeping industry. Commercial keepers pollinate almond trees late February to early March. They leave these fields with huge hives, full of bees just around the same time Northern beekeepers are interested in starting their hives. So you can order a package of bees for around $100 from various southern states.

The bees are shipped in little screen houses that look like this:

D with package bees

Inside each package is a can of sugar water, a queen, in a queen cage, and 10’s of thousands of bees in a cluster. They can be shipped through the mail, but usually you order from a local supplier and they have a pick-up day, and everyone picks up their packages at once.

Pros

Conveince is the major pro of ordering a package. You can order as many as you want by phone or online. You can prepay and pick up in the spring. Packages are cheaper than nucs and they are pretty easy to install.  Additionally, package availability typically does not fluctuate based on the type of winter we had (since they come from down south) and you can sometimes order them as late as early March and still find some availibility.

Cons

There are some logistical cons to buying and starting with packages and some philosophical ones. Logistically, you need to be able to get your packages. One year we ordered from a supplier in Flint and had to drive there to pick up and another year we picked up in Holland. This meant being kind of “on call” until we heard pick-up dates. Once they were available, we had to be ready to pick-up and install, and sometimes this means you’re installing in crummy weather (you know how spring can be). Additionally, packages usually come in pretty early and we are not always out of the spring cold snaps, so that can be a concern.

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Last year we ordered three packages with the intent to re-queen (more on that later). We installed all three and found, a day later, that one queen had died (in the queen cage) within the first 24 hours. Then one of the packages drifted into the hive of the third. Obviously transporting bees across the country is going to yield some die-off, but it’s kind of a big deal when it’s the queen. I did not look into getting a refund or new queen, so I’m not sure if you have any recourse when this happens.

Now, philosophically, you’ll also have to decide how you feel about packages. Buying the by-product of commercial pollination has its own drawbacks: poor nutrition (they don’t eat a varied diet when they live on almond fields), liklihood of disease and mites, and stress from travel. I think it’s fair to say you are not buying the strongest, healthiest bees. Additionally, you are perpetuating the commercial industry and how you feel about that, is personal. Here’s how I feel about it (incase you wondered).

Another drawback to relying on packages is they are doing nothing to improve the genetics of local bees. Michigan beekeepers need a unique type of bee these days. We’ve seen a pattern of later, colder winters and bees from a southern climate are not conditioned for our cold temperatures. Can packages survive the winter? Yes. Do they? Not very often, but that’s based on anecdotal experience.

So why does anyone buy packages, then? Well, as mentioned earlier, there is a lot more availability. Years ago we had a winter that decimated everyone’s hives and everyone was buying packages out of necessity. Additionally, they are cheaper by about $25-$50 and if you’re interested in buying several at once, that can add up quickly.

Here is a list of reputable sources for packages.

Nucs

Ok, so what’s a better alternative? Nuc is short for nucleaus hive and if you buy a nuc you are basically buying a mini-hive. A nuc will include 5-8 frames of drawn comb, a laying queen, a little honey, and tens of thousands of bees. To install a nuc you just lift each frame out and place it into a hive box.

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Pros

Nucs are a better investment because the beginnings of the hive are already established. The bees have accepted the queen, she’s alive and laying, and they already have some drawn comb to work with. Ideally, you’d find a local nuc and if you can get a queen from survivor stock (has survived a Michigan winter) even better. You also get the benefit of installing an established colony, so in that regard, you begin bee season a bit ahead of the game.

When nuc-shopping, you can now find beekeepers who are raising different varieties an crosses locally and you have a chance to meet the beekeeper you’re buying from and ask questions. You can find out if the beekeeper treated with chemicals, how he/she managed mites, did he/she feed, etc. The very first bees I ever purchased were from a beekeeper in the Lowell area. We went to his house to pick them up, sat at his dining room table and chatted awhile. He gave us some advice and tips and I still keep in contact with him. This opportunity to connect with a local, experienced beekeeper would have been lost if I ordered packages.

Cons

Well, nucs are expensive and as demand goes up, supply stays flat, and beekeepers are breeding better quality bees, prices will go up. Most local nucs were between $125-$150 last year.  Will they survive the winter? Who knows. It’s always a gamble, but your chances are better with bees that have acclimated to the local climate. 

Availability can also be a frustration. Local beekeepers sell a limited number of nucs each year (based on their own population), so some years they are hard to get. Usually you need to order nucs earlier than packages. I’ve heard some people have already sold out of nucs for the spring and it’s only January 4!

If you are interested in ordering nucs here are a couple of great resources:

For SW Michigan beekeepers (Kalamazoo Bee Club)

Beekeepers around the state (Northern Bee Network)

Other Options?

Two or three years ago I saw Meghan Milbrath speak at the Kalamazoo Bee Club’s bee school and she showed data to suggest that nucleus hives survived winters the best, packages the worst, and package bees re-queen with local queens did only slightly worse than nucs. This provides you with another option: buy packages and re-queen with a local queen.  In the end, this might cost as much as a nuc: $100 for the package and $20-$25 for a queen, but you can do it hive by hive. Some beekeepers will sell queen cells for much cheaper, so you can go that route and let the bees raise the queen.

Catch a swarm

If you put your name out there and keep an eye on beekeeping Facebook pages, you might be able to catch a swarm. Anyone who has ever met and spoke with me for more than 5 minutes knows I’m a beekeeper and last year my Facebook inbox was flooded with friends asking me if the flying pests on their back porch were bees or wasps. Most the time they were wasps, but twice they were honeybees and one of the times we were able to capture the swarm!

Nuc vs. Package: A Side-by-Side Comparison

Nuc

Package

$125-$150

Availability may be limited

Order early

Survivor stock / local stock

Ability to find concious breeders (mite-resitance, variety, hardiness, etc)

Supports a local beekeeper

Form a connection with an experienced keeper

$100-$125

Easy to find and easy to order

Easy to order large quantities

Pick-up may require travel

Southern bees

Commercial bees (may carry stress, disease or mites)

Supports commercial pollination

 

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Winter: An Update

We have not had a lot of success in keeping bees alive these past winters. We’ve had struggles with nosema, starvation, and weather beyond our control.  Every year we vow to do something different, and we do, but then something else seems to kill them.

This year we were fairly aggressive in keeping the mite population in check as one of our theories was the bees were weaker than they looked going into the winter months.  We also only took 2-3 frames of honey total (from our then 6 hives), so there would be plenty of honey for the winter months.  Finally, we revamped our wind-block system.

In years past, we’ve seen record colds. One year there were too many cold days in a row for the bees to get out for cleansing flights. One year the well-below zero temps didn’t come until mid-February and the weak cluster just couldn’t sustain. So this year, we upgraded our plan of attack:

winterized hives

  • We moved all of the hives together onto a platform.
  • We surrounded the hives with insulation, leaving holes for entering/ventilation.
  • The platform is sitting on bricks, and through the bricks we ran a piece of heating cable. This way, if the temperature of the brick falls below 34 degrees, the cable will kick on and heat up. Brick is a good conductor of heat, so we’re hoping it will produce enough radiant heat to just take the edge off.

Of course, the year we OVER prepare for frigid temperatures, is the year we have an unseasonably warm winter! So in the middle of December, when the temp is usually in the 30’s, it was in the 50’s and the bees were flying like crazy. This is great for hive hygiene, but more flying means less clustering which means the bees are burning more energy. Naturally, then, they’ll eat more honey.  We need those honey stores to last until at least April, May ideally, so we made some giant fondant cakes and put them out near the hives.

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In the fall we started with 4 hives and a nuc. We lost the nuc pretty early on and one of the weaker hives, so we currently have three really strong hives. You can see the entrances to each hive below:

winterized hives enterances

Today it’s a balmy 29 degrees and what little snow we have has completely frozen into a hard, slippery ice carpet, if you will. This means that when I went out to feed the chickens and check on the hives, I was able to see evidence of hive cleaning. All those little black dots on the ground are dead bees.

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While you might think this is a bad thing, it’s actually a good sign as it tells us the hives are alive and active. When bees die inside the hive (which happens much more in the winter than summer because they are all cooped up), worker bees toss the bodies out the front door.  Sounds disrepectful, I know, but it used to make our chickens happen when they roamed by the bee hives!

So I will cautiously end this post with a “so far, so good.” As I’ve learned you can never be too careful when wintering bees. Last year we thought it was smooth sailing when we had a living hive in February and then it died out near the end of the month after a cold snap!

Happy Beekeeping!

Preparing for Winter: Part One

Preparing Hives for Winter

Well it’s that time of year. The leaves are changing, the nights are cooler, and the bees are preparing for winter.  Here is an overview of first round of winterizing. In another month or so we will attach insulation and probably change our feeding system, but that’s a discussion for another, colder, day!

We started this process about two weeks ago (I’m running a little behind in the blog-o-sphere).

  • About two months ago we treated the hives with food grade mineral oil as a mite treatment. We’ve been using the powdered sugar method all summer, but wanted to do one last “big” push. The husband has been reading about a method to use a diffuser that basically sprays a fine mist of oil over the bees. It doesn’t hurt them and the mites fall off and die.  After our first attempt, the bottom boards were COVERED with mites. I was worried about the health of the bees, but we’ve treated twice and they seem to be just fine. Some people don’t like this method because mineral oil is a petroleum-based product, but I figure if we’re only doing it once or twice a year it’s still better than those chemical treatments on the market.
  • Most recently we headed out to evaluate each hive. We lifted the corner slightly to determine weight (heavier means more honey) and, since we were out on a sunny, but cool day, we opened the hives only to do a quick inspection of honey stores and general health. Hive populations start to slow down this time of year because the workers kick out the drones (who then freeze and die). I know that sounds harsh, but consider that drones only hang out, eat all summer, and carry mites AND they only really have their sperm to offer the world, so hit the road, boys! As we evaluated each hive, we made notes of which seemed weak, too small, or lacking in honey. We’ll probably feed all the hives all winter, but we want to be especially vigilant with the weaker ones.
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  •  Speaking of weaker ones, we had two nuc hives that we combined to make one larger one. We did this with the newspaper method. This method is pretty simple: combine a small/weak hive with (ideally) a larger/stronger one by killing (or relocating) the queen in the small hive, then stacking the weaker hive on top of the stronger one with only 1-2 sheets of newspaper between the two. Over the course of the next few days the moisture will soften and tear the newspaper and the bees will work their way through and merge in an harmonious fashion.  We’ve never had any problems with this method, so we did this with two of our weaker nucs.

Another benefit of merging small hives with large hives is the more bees, the larger the cluster that forms in the winter and more bee bodies means more heat. We were also able to pool honey resources this way.

  • During this time we moved one of the hives that’s in a shaded part of the property into full sun. This time of year makes for warm days and cold nights, but we were worried that a hive in the shade all day wouldn’t warm up and dry out during the day.
  • Additionally we made sure everyone had food. This time of year we feed a 2:1 ratio (sugar to water), so the consistency is thick and syrup-like (like honey). This time of year flowers are few and far between and EVERYONE (bees, wasps, yellow jackets, etc) is in the market for food. Thus it is primetime for robbing. When we worked the hives we found all sorts of evidence of these food battles: beheaded wasps, bees fighting bees from other hives… Food supplies away from the hives can help keep other pollinators away from your bees and feeders INSIDE the hives will help keep your bees in their own place.
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This is my husband and 6-year-old headed out to feed the bees. The little one in the red jacket is my 2-year-old who thinks he’s going too, but we don’t have a tiny bee suit for him… yet!

  • Finally, we have one hive that we got when a friend’s neighbor cut down a tree. We’re going to attempt to overwinter this hive in the log, so we covered the top entrance and filled the two side entrances with straw. The bees can still fit in and out, but it keeps the entry point smaller which (1) reduces robbing and (2) helps insulate the vulnerable hive.
This is Shawn inspecting his hive. He is the one who called to tell us he had found the swarm!

This is Shawn inspecting his hive. He is the one who called to tell us he had found the swarm!

We have a few things on the to-do list before we can consider the hives officially winterized. As I mentioned earlier, we will insulate the hives and continue feeding. This year we are heading into winter with 8 hives, so we’re thinking about doing some experimenting. We are thinking of moving all of the hives close together and next to the chicken coop (sheltered from the wind) and I would like to try and overwinter one INSIDE the coop, taking advantage of the heat the chickens give off.

So that’s the state of the apiary this week, things are winding down. In the meantime, enjoy the most recent bee-related artwork from my little one:

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That’s One Way to Catch a Swarm…

catching a swarm in a log

About a month or two ago, I got a call from a friend (we’ll call him Shawn) who said he was sitting on his deck and realized there were bees swarming overhead. He sent me a video and the activity definitely looked like honey bees, so we headed over to see if we could find where the swarm landed.

After a few minutes of scanning the trees, we found it:

swarm in tree

Unfortunately, this is the swarm in relation to the ground!

swarm from ground

We weren’t desperate enough to rent a lift (yes, we’ve done this before), so we put two hives (one on the garage roof and one on the house roof). We put some drawn comb and honey in the boxes and a little lemon grass oil to sweeten the deal. The next day Shawn told us that the swarm was gone from the tree and he had seen a bit of activity in the hive above the garage.  We were so excited and I’m sure I prematurely celebrated on Facebook. When we went to retrieve said swarm, we found the box empty. Oh there had been activity alright, they robbed out all the honey!

So fast-forward to last Wednesday evening when Shawn messages me again to say, “I think I found your bees.”  The tree in the photo had been cut down by the neighbors and, currently lying in Shawn’s yard, was a log that seemed to be full of honey bees. I was in a meeting all evening, so I texted my husband who said he literally stopped what he was doing (dinner prep), threw the kids in the car and headed out.

It seemed like most of the traffic was coming in and out of the hole on the side of the log…

swarm log

In fact, this was the view when my husband looked closely inside, so he knew for sure they were living here!

inside swarm log

Once my husband figured out which part of the hive contained the actual hive, he used a chainsaw the cut the log a bit smaller so that it could be moved. He also nailed some mesh screen around both openings to keep the bees inside while in transit:

log ready to move

Then the tough part was getting the thing into my husband’s truck. I wasn’t there, so the men were left to do this without my incredible strength (ha!). They use a dolly to get it to the truck, then old-fashioned elbow grease to hoist it inside. (Hernia while beekeeping, anyone?)

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They managed it, somehow. If you look at the picture above, you can see how thick the tree trunk is. I’m not sure there would be any way to move the comb out of the trunk without damaging all of it and we are currently out of unused drawn comb to help sustain them, so, since it’s so close to winter, we decided to leave the bees in the tree trunk and attempt to overwinter them that way. We’ll fill in all the holes except one for extra insulation.

For now, all entrances are still screened except for a small one in the side hole. We also used a piece of lumber underneath to level it as best we could.  Bees will build comb perpendicular to the horizon line, so a crooked hive yields crooked comb!

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Things brings our apiary up to 11 hives!

Yes, You Can Raise Queens!

Queen Rearing Title

Man, oh man, things have been busy on the homestead. I’ve been up to my eyeballs in peaches, cucumbers, and tomatoes that need canning. We also picked a wheelbarrow full of apples to start our first batch of hard cider. We’ve taken turkeys to butcher, cut back some of the garden… it’s starting to feel like fall is coming. It’s pretty much been business-as-usual in the beeyard, however, but I wanted to share this queen-rearing technique that we’ve been playing around with.

First of all, it seems to me that everyone panics when their queen dies or isn’t laying. Certianly, if your hive is missing a queen and there are no eggs laid, you’re in a bit of a bind, but if you have eggs, the bees will make a queen. This summer we’ve been watching the hives weekly and really learning a lot about the business of raising queens.

As you may rememember, we installed four packages in the spring and two of the packages drifted into the third almost immediately after intallation. It resulted in what we call Mega Hive. We ended up splitting Mega Hive several times this summer, but also watched it like a hawk for swarming. We noticed that they built a lot of queen cups in that hive and then they started actually growing queens in the upper boxes. The queen was still alive and well and laying the most beautiful brood pattern in the brood boxes, so we decided to experiment and cut the queen cells out. We experimented with them by putting them in queen-less splits, or keeping them in queen cages to hatch. Pretty much all of them hatched. A few in the queen-less hives hatched, then the bees killed her, then raised their own. So it’s been an interesting summer, in that regard.

My husband even built this adorable tiny hive with tiny little frames and we’ve been using that has a holding tank for extra queens (one at a time, of course) with a few workers thrown in.

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About two months ago my husband found a free ebook called I.M.N. System Of Queen Rearing by Mel Disselkoen. This is a variation of The Hopkins Method of Queen-RearingWe thought this method was interesting, so we decided to give it a try.

In order for this to work, you have to use a hive that does not have a queen and you have to remove any eggs that are in there (and save one frame for the process outlined below). If you don’t, the bees will just build comb on the horizontal frame (see below) and raise their own queen from one of the eggs (we speak from experience).
So the first thing to do is fashion a cover that will allow you to install a frame horizontally in the hive:

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In order to do this, you need to use a frame of eggs in comb that is not built off of plasticell. The reason for this (as we learned the hard way) is that it is easier to cut the queen cells off when you aren’t trying to saw through plasticell.  The next thing you want to do is plug the same number of cells as you’d like queens (we went for 14 on attempt #1). My husband made bullet-shaped “plugs” out of wooden dowels, but anything that’s the right size will work (q-tips are another option):

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Then you sprinkle the entire frame with flour. It needs to be heavily coated. (The photo below was taken mid-sprinkle). The reason you’re doing this is to kill all of the eggs except the ones you want turned into queens.

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Shake off the excess flour, then remove the plugs, place the cover on, comb-side down, and go about your business.

12 days later, we came back to check our progress and found 10 queens! They are kind of in the frame all over the place (probably because we didn’t do an amazing job of flour-sprinkling), but they are there!

queens

Now, getting them out was a bit tricky because the comb was built on plasticell (live and learn).  First we tried cutting them out with a knife, but that was a mess, so then we used queen cups to kind of cut out circles around each one and then scoop each one out. We did squish a few in the process, but overall it was pretty much a success.

cutting queen cells

So it wasn’t perfect and we lost a few, but it was seriously pretty darn easy. One thing that frustrates me whenever we go to beekeeping workshops and conferences is that it seems like many treat queen-rearing like some advanced skill that newbies better not try and do. Maybe because the people running the sessions sell queens too and your ignorance is their gain! You do need to know that it takes 16 days for a queen cell to hatch and, as a result, you really need to keep an eye on things, otherwise she’ll hatch before you have a chance to move the cell!

If nothing else, one thing we learned is that you might as well try! You never know what you might learn, and if you accidentally squish one, then cut it open and have a mini-dissection! Might as well make it a worthwhile death.

Other Resources to Check Out:

Bush Bees, Queen Rearing

The Hopkins Method of Queen Rearing, Bush Bees

The Hopkins Method of Queen-Rearing, Khalil Hamdan

New Additions to the Apiary!

Transporting Honeybees

On one of the many beekeeping forums I’m a part of on facebook, I happened to stumble across a post from a woman who was having to sell off all of her beekeeping supplies and two hives due to a severe allergy she had developed.  She and I touched base and almost exactly 24 hours later, my husband and I were on a two hour road trip to collect our new hives!

It worked out because it happened to be our wedding anniversary (9 years!), so the grandparents were already planning to babysit. We just finagled an overnight for the boys, threw our equipment in the car, and were on our way!

Now, you have maybe never wondered about when the best time of day is to pick up a beehive and move it, so I’ll tell you! During the day, many of to the bees are out foraging, so it is ideal to wait until dark, then seal up the entrance. This way you gain the maximum number of bees. With the entrance sealed you can transport without fear of losing any. The owner of these bees did not feel comfortable closing them up due to her allergy (and I don’t blame her), so our plan was to arrive at hive #1 around dusk. We knew there may still be a few bees hanging out on the outside of the hive, but most would be inside. The second hive was about 40 minutes from the owner’s home, so we’d grab that one last.

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I happen to know that bees are kind of cranky around dusk. I know this because I have two small children and sometimes beekeeping needs to happen after they go to bed: around 8:30. We have often joked about hives becoming Africanized after dinnertime (Africanized honeybees are incredibly aggressive).

As suspected, there were many bees hanging out on the outside of the hive. We smoked many in, but we had to just resign to the fact that a few would be outside. The problem with these bees outside of the hive was that they were the first ones to be severely annoyed by our presence. My husband was wearing only jeans, boots, his bee jacket, veil, and gloves and was lucky enough to sustain (earned?) about 15 stings over the course of moving the first hive (mostly through his jeans). I only sustained one sting because, well, I wasn’t the one drilling into the hive! In addition to the time of day, a couple other things ticked them off: (1) the entrance reducer was stuck kind of half in and half out and we really had to yank and pry and jostle to get that out. That seemed to be the first offense (in their opinion). (2) Drilling a covering over the entrance also ticked those few exterior bees off.

hive entrance

Once we got our hands on a bottle of sugar water, and were able to spray them, things calmed down considerably. When misted with sugar water, the bees become much more interested in licking that up than stinging my husband.

We then used ratchet straps to secure the three boxes together:

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And then we just lifted it up and carried it to the truck…

Moving Hive

We then we headed out to hive #2. This one was in a field and we used our headlamps (set on red light) and the light of car headlights to make the move, so I don’t have pictures.

I can tell you that my husband did include a special anniversary “gift” while we were preparing hive #2. Inside the hive on top of the frames the owner had a feeder. We lifted the top of the feeder off (the jug that contained the sugar water), but the tray that the water drips into was stuck to the hive because bees cover everything with propolis. My husband scooted his hive tool underneath to pry it up and the whole thing flung up, out of the hive, and hit me right in the face. I mean, not really because I had my veil on, but it was full of bees and then my veil was full of bees. That’s what 9 years of marriage will get ya… a face full of bees! haha!

Anyway, in addition, we added additional boxes, frames, feeders, a smoker and many other beekeeping odds and ends to our collection! It was a late night, but definitely a great addition to our growing business.  The apiary is now up to 9 hives in total: 5 complete hives and 4 nucs (mini-hives).

State of the Apiary

State of the Apiary

It’s the beginning of August and this has been a pretty good summer for beekeeping around here. We’ve been busy in the bee yard and here is an overview of our current hives.

(click to enlarge:)

Mini-Hive

Package #1

Mega Hive

Split #1

Queen Rearing Hive

Green Lid

Walk-Away Split

What’s next?

Well, we will probably make another split today. We need to get those eggs out of the queen-rearing box. More splits might come in the future if our queen-rearing experiment is successful. It looks like we will have enough honey to extract one more round in the fall.  We also have a back log of boxes and frames to build. Lots of work to do!

We are also reading and reading about the many different overwintering approaches. Our plan was initially to overwinter several nucs, but now we are considering some different options. More on this to come and also an overview of the queen-rearing, once I get some pictures of how it worked out (IF it works out!)