Options for Getting a Honey Bee Hive Started This Spring

With spring around the corner, a question we are often asked is, “What is the best way to start a hive?” Most hives will be started in one of 3 ways: A Package, A Nuc (nucleus hive), or a swarm. Here are some of the pros and cons of each, and some information about what we have found works best for us here in Southern Idaho.

Package Bees are simply a man made swarm in which workers are weighed out (generally 2, 3, or 4 lbs) and placed in a shoe box sized screened cage with a caged young, mated queen, and a feed can. Packages are taken to the hive, the queen is placed between 2 frames, and the remaining bees are added to the hive. It is actually pretty simple, see our hiving demonstration video for details.

Pros: they are easily transported (can even ride in the front seat of a car), they are easy to install into a hive. Because no brood (baby bees) or wax (from frames) is moved with the bees, they are relatively disease free, and the break in brood rearing assists with keeping mites low on a starting colony. The colony starts relatively small, our experience assisting new beekeepers has been that as the colony grows, so does the confidence of the beekeeper. We have found that in our area they get to work really fast and start to grow quickly.

Cons: Bees are starting with nothing so must build out wax in order to store food and for the queen to start laying. You must feed them, there is not food in the hive. They must be hived soon after getting them, bees can’t survive in packages more than a day or two. Old bees start dying off and it is critical for the queen to start laying as soon as possible.

Nucs or Nucleus Colonies: These are mini colonies generally made by taking frames of brood, some worker bees, and some frames with food (pollen, nectar, and honey). A queen is added, and you have a hive in miniature. Generally the frames from the nuc are put into a new hive box, taking the place of empty frames in the middle. The remaining bees are dumped in and the hive grows and expands.

Pros: You have bees of all life cycle stages and food already in the hive. The beeswax is already drawn out so the queen should already be laying.

Cons: You are bringing in equipment and bees on frames from another colony. If they carry disease in the wax it has been introduced into your colony. Know where they are coming from, there are some reputable suppliers, there are also beekeepers that use nucs as a way to get rid of their old frames and make a quick buck after almond pollination. (If I was giving away frames would I give away my best ones?) This is not an option for top bar hives unless you can find someone with the same size bars.

Swarms: The natural reproductive method for honeybees, they send out the queen and a cloud of bees to locate and build a new colony. In the process they may cluster on trees or other objects as they wait for scouts to find a new home. Bees generally swarm because they run out of room in their existing home, they can also swarm if there is a problem. Generally beekeepers brush or shake the bees into a box and move them to a new home.

Pros: Free Bees!

Cons: Some years there are lots of swarms, some years not many so it isn’t guaranteed. One year we had a friend tell us they were just going to get swarms to fill their colonies so they didn’t have to buy bees. That year there were almost no swarms. Sometimes there is an unmated queen in the swarm and she doesn’t survive and the swarm ends up queenless. Swarms that are captured later in the year may not build up enough to survive winter. Some new beekeepers aren’t comfortable cutting or shaking bees off of objects in order to collect them.

Here at Tubbs Berry Farm in Twin Falls, Idaho, we have tried all of these methods and have found that packages actually work the best for us. We have found that generally they come in strong and get to work much faster than nucs in our area. We are guessing that packages realize they have to get to work or they are going to starve whereas nucs don’t have as much to lose. I don’t know if that is true but we have found that packages build up much faster in the spring for us than nucs do. In addition, the only time we have seen evidence of any brood diseases in our colonies is in those that we have used frames from other apiaries. This is why we discourage people from using used frames unless they know they are clean, even though the wax is valuable to the bees. It is better to have them build new wax then to start out with a brood disease. We love to catch swarms when we can as well, there is a bit of a thrill. They are a mixed bag, sometimes we get colonies that do amazing things, and often we get swarms that struggle, and sometimes we don’t see any swarms at all! Packages have been a great way for us to get bees into our empty hives early enough to get built up for winter and produce a honey crop in our area.

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