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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Beware Where You Get Your Packages of Bees


The garlic is coming up in our garden and the rhubarb wont be far behind. Naturally the temperatures remain quite cool, like today when its overcast and only 39 degrees at noon. But the bees are definitely preparing for spring and you should be too.

In the last week we had three days that were either at 70 or within a degree or two. Equally important was the fact there was no wind, so I took advantage of those days to do a full hive inspection of each and every hive. It's important to know the condition of your hives as soon as the weather allows so you know if your bees need any kind of help to make it to the nectar flow.

So the results are in and I was very pleased. Tickled really, as this is the best winter survival I have ever had if the package bees I purchased last year are not counted. More on that in a moment.

All of my own hives that have been here a year or more and all of my own splits with the exception of one made it through the winter with flying colors. The queens have begun laying and there is capped brood in every hive. In fact three of the hives are so full of bees you would think it was mid-season. Fortunately those hives also have a good amount of stores, though I did add one frame of honey from the dead out hive, to one hive absolutely packed with bees. These hives are from splits made last year and it should tell you something about what a split does for hive health. For the end of January a Beek (beekeeper) can't ask for more than high bee numbers and solid stores. These are all very healthy hives!

Lets compare them to the 9 packages of bees I purchased last season. First off let me say that I have purchased and installed packaged bees for many years and I have never even come close to the disastrous results I had this last season. I purchased 9 packages because I can't keep up with the demand for my honey, so I decided to expand my business. Unfortunately it was nearly all wasted money.

Virtually from the start the queens in these packages struggled and all but two hives began a constant progression of requeening themselves, a process called supercedure. Essentially as soon as a new queen would take over the hive they would soon replace her. One of the hives came with a dead queen, yet even the replacement queen provided by the supplier was weak and the bees did a number of supercedures. The bees know when a queen is in poor health or failing and will replace her. They tell us all we need to know about the condition of the queens that came with these packages.

A search of the web has turned up numerous discussions of this problem. In other words it was common and not specific to my own operation. There is speculation that a new fungicide being sprayed in the orchards in California led to the problem. Some blame it on the drought and others simply say that the commercial stock the package bees come from, in addition to being exposed to various chemicals is getting inbred and weak queens are the result. Most likely it is a combination of all those factors.

So what's the bottom line here? I lost 6 of the nine packages and lost only one of the 11 hives I managed and that hive was nothing more than a weak split made late in the season. So unless you like throwing your money away I would suggest that you avoid buying any bee packages that come from California. Sorry, but that is just what the facts are telling us. Your alternative is to purchase bees from a local source. Get to know the beekeeper and learn about his practices. And if you already have bees then learn to make splits. We will be covering splits later this spring.

For now, make sure your equipment is in order and ready for the busy spring season. Then take the time on a nice calm day to sit in your beeyard and enjoy your bees. Watch the activity in the front of the hive. See what pollen is being brought in and if you can identify the source. In my neck of the woods the pussywillow is beginning to open and it will soon be followed by aspen and poplar. If you have beehives as full of bees as mine, you will soon need to create more room in the hive to prevent them from swarming. More on that later. For now enjoy your bees before we reach the busy part of the season.

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