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