Deciding How to Expand Your Beehives

Reader Contribution by Julia Miller and Five Feline Farm
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I look outside my window on this cold January day watching the snow fall and thinking of the bees. They should be clustered tightly, conserving warmth and moving only as necessary to access food. My attention turns to apiary planning.

Apiary Tasks in January?

Yes, there are things to consider for the apiary in the dead of winter. As I mentioned in a previous post, The Beekeeping Year Starts Now, this is the time to order honeybees for spring arrival. If you wait until it is time to install the bees, it is too late. Now is the time to pour a cup of tea (sweetened with honey of course) and outline apiary goals for the year.

Here at Five Feline Farm, we plan to more than double our existing three hives. One of the existing hives is quite weak going into winter. Although we are trying to support these bees with additional food, it is not expected to survive the winter. Which leaves us with two viable hives.

We need a plan to increase.

Historically Speaking

In our first four seasons as beekeepers, we have ordered packages from one supplier. The packages are produced in Florida and Georgia, then shipped in late April or early May. We pick up 3 lb. packages, drive them home and install in our empty hives. Having bees shipped from warmer states is the only way to obtain packages of honeybees. Over the past couple of years, we have had some difficulty getting these packages to thrive. Maybe the travel is too much of a shock for the colony or perhaps, just not good queens.

It was a good way to get started, but we are ready to diversify our sources hoping for better long term viability.

2016 Plan

To diversify our sources, we are taking a three pronged approach. Remember the goal is to reach six hives.


We will again purchase 3 lb. packages of bees, this time through Rural King. Rural King is a popular farm supply store in the midwest, although since honeybees are available through their online store, anyone should have access. One thing I like about this store for ordering bees is the ability to choose the breed of bee. Unfortunately, when I placed my order the Carnolians were on back order, so I ordered Italians. The packages will be shipped in April from California. A longer trip than the ones we previously got from Georgia and Florida but they are shipped overnight air, so should be fine.

Two new colonies will be established from packages.


Next we are buying nucs (short for nucleus hives) from a member of the local beekeeping club. Nucs consist of five frames of brood, honey, pollen stores, worker bees and a mated queen. These five frames are placed in the middle of a hive body, flanked by additional empty frames with foundation to fill out the ten in a standard hive box.

The advantage to nucs is the honeybees have a head start. They already know the queen, she is laying eggs and the miniature sized colony is on drawn comb. The disadvantages are the risk of transferring mites or other disease since you are also purchasing drawn comb with brood. Purchasing from a reputable source helps mitigate these risks.

Another potential disadvantage is cost. Not only is the supplier providing the bees, but also five frames of foundation. Interestingly, the price I am paying for the nucs is about $25 cheaper than the packages. Shipping is no doubt the difference.


For the final two hives in the expansion plan, we will do a walk away split of the two existing strong hives. In an earlier post I discussed walkaway splits.(The Walk-Away Split, Pros and Cons) Simply put, the two hive body boxes will be split, each becoming a foundation for a new colony. One box from the split will have the queen. The other will quickly discover they are queen-less and raise up a new queen. Hopefully this will also delay any swarm impulse.


There you have it: from three hives to eight or maybe nine if the weak hive survives winter. If by chance the weak hive survives winter, we will have seven. Our goal is to increase both honey production and wax for our other hive based products. This diversification plan mitigates some of the risks involved in increasing the apiary by choosing different sources and methods. I’ll report on progress with each of the sources over the season.

Photo credits: Honeybees on Brood by C. Birkhead, Installing Package Bees by J. Miller.

Julia Miller is a co-founder of Five Feline Farm, a Central Illinois hobby farm. In addition to beekeeping and writing, you’ll find her catering to the every whim of the resident cats. Follow Five Feline Farm on Facebook,Twitterand nowInstagramplus Five Feline Farm. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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