How big should my packages bee?

Its early January and the package orders are rolling in. I was going to say the phone has been ringing off the hook, but in reality most of my orders now come from the net. I resisted setting up a web site for years, mostly because I didn’t know what to do. I got some help to start and then took over the reigns. While I admit that this site is amateurish, it draws from an immense audience and my established customers can just send an email and I can respond on my schedule. If there are changes in the delivery dates, ( as  usually seems to happen), I can put up a notice and keep hundreds of customers instantly updated. Think of all those calls I don’t need to make. One thing is for sure, if you have a simple question or need to order bees, you can send an email. On the other hand, if you need a more detailed answer or just want to talk bees, you can always call me on the phone.

A lot of beekeepers email me with questions about what type of bees I sell and then there are the ones who want to know what size packages to order. Last week, someone asked about ordering extra queen less packages to augment the populations of the other two packages he ordered. He felt that adding bees would speed things up and increase the chances of his colony surviving.  While this will be an initial boost, I feel that, depending upon what he wanted to accomplish with his bees, he would be wasting his money. Let me explain. He was ordering bees for early April. If he needed a large population of bees to pollinate apple trees on May 5th then this would help. Six pounds of bees would give him an initial population of about 18,000 – 20,000 bees. This would result in more rapid drawing of comb and brood development. By the end of four weeks, he would have new bees hatching and the queen would start laying a second brood cycle in the oldest cells. This in turn would create additional demand for pollen and there would still be possibly  3000-5000 field bees available to collect pollen. This would be a great pollinator!

Now lets assume that he just wanted to start a new colony for honey production. A three lb package would give him about 10,000 bees to begin with. At the end of four weeks, the colony would have drawn out about eight frames and like the six lb package, new bees would be hatching. Unlike the large package, there would be just 1500 to 2500 bees available to forage. This is not a real problem. Here in southern New England, our spring honey flow can begin by the tenth of May and will be over by the end of June. Neither of these colonies would be built up sufficientlyto store a surplus honey crop on the early flow. The large package would probably have drawn its second hive body and the smaller package would still have some work to do but would be catching up rapidly. By the end of July, assuming that the both hives had some natural nectar or supplemental feeding, they probably would be similar in size and population and getting ready for the fall flow. Around here, this starts between the second and third week in August. If the summer dearth was pronounced, both hives would have required feeding just to feed the existing bees and keep the queen laying so there are young healthy bees available to raise new workers for the fall. The small 3lb package would need to finish filling its second box and the 6 lb package, well, you would need to feed all those bees you raised on the Spring flow and you still would have to raise bees for the fall. If there is a strong fall flow, both hives could produce a couple supers of honey and both hives would be strong enough to overwinter. The end result is that my customer would have spent an extra $75.00 to get to the same place at the same time.

Last summer, I set up a demonstration in the yard where our bee club does its workshops. I had one overwintered colony that was too weak for pollination but was building nicely. I added one that was started on drawn comb on March 27th but had been split on May 19th, one on foundation on March 27, one on April 25th, one from a five frame nuc on April 10th, one from a swarm in mid May and lastly one from the final load of packages on June 5th. I told the class that with the exception of the over wintered colony, all of these hives would be the same on September 15th. On September 15th, the overwintered hive had four supers of honey and all of the other hives looked exactly the same, two boxes of bees ready for fall feeding. Once again, if there had been a fall flow, they all would have had a couple boxes of honey.

This year, I plan on starting some 2lb packages for expansion. I am confident that they will  be plenty strong in time for the fall flow. So to summarize, The best hives are the ones that overwinter. If you have a young queen and prevent swarming then you have a good chance of a honey crop. The second best would be a package or nuc installed in late March on drawn comb. This hive has a chance at the end of the spring flow. Every thing else will have to wait until Fall. Naturally, this depends upon plenty of resources for the bees to build up with, either natural or provided by the Beekeeper. I will talk about starting new colonies in my next post. Right now I have 18″ of new snow on the ground to deal with.   Keep on Beein’   Adam

A new year

Today is the first day of my  beekeeping year. During bee school,  I am often asked when does the year start? This of coarse depends upon your point of view. I tell people to start spring feeding on September 15th, and from my view this is sort of the start for me. If my bees are not all fed to refusal then I have no right to expect them to be alive in March. As I have said many times before, fall feeding is not just to keep their bellies full, it also is to stimulate the queen to lay a final brood cycle into October. These young healthy bees will be the ones who go into the winter cluster and ultimately raise the brood in late winter. Healthy bees raise healthy bees! I have been able to take relatively week colonies in the fall and by feeding sugar syrup and a pollen substitute, I have been able to save colonies that would have died without my intervention. So sometimes September can represent the start of next year.

Today, the temperatures climed to 54 degrees and the bees were flying like crazy! The December weather had been cold and the bees hadn’t had a cleansing flight since sometime in mid November. I had moved some single story colonies into a winter yard down in Franklin in late November. The day got late and I never was  able to install the mouse gaurds and insulation boards between the inner and outer covers. Today was the first day that was warm enough to finish up. Off I went! I was suprised that mice hadn’t snuck in and ruined about 30 colonies. I checked what was going on in a few hives. Low and behold, I saw eggs in one hive! Not a lot, but a few none the less. Another thing that goes against common belief is that there were  drones left in many colonies. Conventional wisdom says that they should have been dead a long time ago. It also says that there should be no brood between November and February. Any way I closed things up and declared my bees ready for winter!

I keep thinking that this winter brood and the  drones in January could be some adaptation to the varroa mites. Maybe the bees that have late brood are more able to survive the winter. The continued addition of young workers would certainly help with the winter populations and ultimately the survival of the colony. I have no theory about the drones other than perhaps I never was looking for them in the past.

I plan to put an indoor/outdoor thermometer in a large colony to discover when the colony raises the temperature in order to keep the brood warm. I have done this before and it is amazing to see the cluster temperatures go from about 65 to 96 in a matter of one day. Usually I can find brood by early February in the larger hives and by March in most of them. This dovetails with my policy of feeding my bees heavily in the fall. Bees will  regulate the queens diet in order to keep her from laying eggs or as the days get longer and if they have enough food stores they will invest in more bees by increasing her diet of royal jelly. Raising brood accounts for most of the food used in the winter and especially in early spring. Years ago, Al Avitable from the University of Connecticut studied the winter consumption of stores by honey bees. While the numbers have escaped my memory, the long and short of it is that they need a surprisingly small amount  of honey for themselves and most of the stores to feed and keep the brood warm. Early brood = early buildup in the spring. Early buildup = strong colonies that can exploit early nectar flows. Here in Connecticut, some of our  major nectar plants have changed from Sumac that blossoms in late June and early July to Autumn Olive that can bloom in early May. Without early buildup from either natural stores or supplemental feeding, your bees will build up on the early nectar flow instead of storing a few boxes of nice light honey from it! It’s simple math. One medium super has thirty five lbs of honey. At a wholesale price of $3.00/lb that equals about $100.00. Not too shabby!

Working with bees today in the warm winter thaw gave me a large dose of Spring Feaver! I am sure that in a few days winter  will come back with a vengence! I have a lot of equipment to make and assemble in the next two months so the cold weather will help keep me focused on winter projects. I have lots of plans for this New Year, especially swarm control. Last year, I fell and bruised several ribs on the last of March. This laid me up for two months and while I was healing, my bees were swarming! This cost me a lot of early honey. In many yards here in Connecticut, this amounted to all the years crop. I may also move more colonies arround for nectar flow. My New York bees had a good summer and fall flow. I discovered this too late to move bees and I could have made thousands of lbs of additional honey if I had responded by August 1st. I also plan to put out pallets in each yard to store empty supers when the nectar flow ends in late June. So often I end up leaving supers on hives while waiting for the fall flow. This may seem easier but then I am not able to evaluate what is going on and if the dearth is drawn out, the bees hollow out the full supers. Another bunch of lost honey! Sugar is a whole lot cheaper than honey and when you have a lot of hives, this can add up fast.

January 1st begins a New Year, but my bees usually won’t start spring buildup for several weeks. It behooves all beekeepers to take the winter to get any new equipment ready while the snow flies because when it gets warm the bees will go full speed ahead and you need to be ready. That means plenty of empty honey supers and a few empty hives ready for swarms or splits. Make sure that you put a good paint job on the wooden ware NOW! Beehives are expensive and once put out with no paint they will warp. split and eventually rot.