Spring is when honey bees come out of their long winter retreat and get busy raising baby bees, making honey, keeping the hive in good repair, and foraging for nectar and pollen.
Winter takes a toll on many beehive colonies, especially in cold regions, with bee losses hovering around 25%. This means some colonies start spring down by one out of every four bees, which puts pressure on the three surviving bees. Hives are very structured, and bees have specific jobs based on their life cycles.
When all goes well, spring sees new colonies expanding and thriving, so beekeepers need to recover their lost bees, and there are three main ways this can be done.
First, and easiest, is to locate a legitimate authorized bee vendor. Buying a ‘nuc’ from such a dealer means you buy a local nucleus colony which usually includes food, a laying queen and five frames of brood. This is the best way to replenish the hive. It can be costly but is usually worth the investment. High demand can lead to being placed on a waiting list. In a post-pandemic world, there are supply and demand issues and import and export problems in many places, so some beekeepers have been unable to replenish their winter losses this year.
Second, you can try to capture a swarm that left its previous colony and is looking for a new home. This option can include contacting bee removal services that go to the scenes of swarms to remove them. They often keep the rescued bees in their own apiary or sell or give them to beekeepers in need. If you are experienced, you can try to capture a swarm yourself, but there is no guarantee you’ll find out about a swarm and be able to act fast. It can be a risky situation where much is beyond your control.
This unrelated 7:23-minute video by Bee Built is about how to get bees for your hive:
A third, and popular, way to increase your bee count is by starting a new colony. You buy a “package” of commercially produced honeybees which usually contains about 10,000 worker bees clustered, and a queen that was bred by a queen producer and has been recently mated. These are housed in a screened wooden box for safe travel. These packages have no frames of brood or food, so they are cheaper. These units are sold to US beekeepers every spring to help replenish the bees lost during winter.
Nuc bees have an easier time because they have frames, brood, and food. Bee colonies started from packages have a harder time getting established in season one, since they must focus their efforts on making wax comb and baby bees, so they rarely make surplus honey in the first year.
Another potential problem with packaged bees is that the caged queen may be rejected. Packages that originate from commercial beekeepers in the southern part of the US contain adult worker bees from one or several colonies being literally shook into the screened box, and the caged queen is taken from a completely different colony. Since the worker bees are unrelated to the queen, it can take time for the worker bees to accept her. This can create a timing setback and stress the colony, and it happens more often that you’d think. Anywhere from 20-50% of new colonies that start from packages either outright fail or reject their queen, causing a new queen to be raised in her place.
If some of your colonies survived winter but you are establishing colonies with packaged bees, consider taking one frame of open brood, without the queen, brush all the bees back into their original hive, and place the frame into the empty hive just before installing the packaged bees.
If you are a first-time beekeeper, consider asking another beekeeper for a frame of brood. Maybe you know a beekeeper, otherwise you can find one through a local beekeeping association. Remember that young larvae must be kept warm and they will only survive outside their colony for 20-30 minutes. It may help to transfer frames of brood in a nuc box.
It is disruptive for bees and frustrating for beekeepers when the queen is lost just as the colony is getting established. Do whatever you can think of to keep this from happening.
Beekeeping is a vocation where there are always new lessons to be learned, and things don’t always go the way you'd expect, or happen the same way twice. It helps to have a beekeeping friend willing to share their knowledge. Beekeeping helps you develop patience, be dedicated, and to have a great love of bees.