Saturday, December 29, 2012

Winter Solstice and Buying Bees

Seems like the winter solstice got swept under the rug this year with all the hype about the Mayan end of the world.  The bees however did notice the switch to longer days and should start raising brood again if only a few cells initially.  Temps are averaging around 40F during the day and activity is usually non-existent with the exception of two nucs that are breaking cluster to fly a little.  Many of the winter flowers I noted on my previous blogs are still in bloom and there is food out there to be found if any of the girls dare to venture out for it.

This is a Mahonia variety that blooms in December that is likely from Asia (relative of the native Oregon Grape).

Another variety of Winter Camellia that is blooming now.

While there aren't many pollen sources available in January there are a few non natives planted in abundance around the city to provide food for the girls on those occasional nice days.  Hellebore is one of these plants that will provide long lasting blooms full of pollen.  This European native is hardy here in the Northwest and some varieties keep their foliage year round.  They also grow well in shady locations with little to no care which makes them appealing to gardeners.

Hellebore blooms winter through early spring.

There isn't much to say about the hives this time of year other being aware that they know the days are getting slightly longer and will start to raise brood.  However without some nicer weather it's not worth disturbing the cluster to see what they are doing.  In the mean time I wanted to talk a little about buying bees and the advice I would offer new beekeepers or even existing beekeepers replacing lost hives.  This is biased for the northwest but can be easily generalized for any location.

Are You Ready To Order Bees?

A few years ago after a winter of reading beekeeping books and watching videos of beekeepers working their hives I was ready to get a hive and order bees.  Eagerly waiting for the first club meeting of the year I arrived to find answers to the questions I thought were important but left with even more questions and terms I didn't know.  As with everything in life decisions had to be made relatively quickly and everyone seemed to have a different opinion on what to do.  How was I supposed to order bees with so many questions before the beginner class had even started?

There are several ways to get bees and typically the cheapest way is to order a 3lb package (yes you order bees by the pound!) that come with a newly mated queen.  These typically come from CA in our area and are made up after the Almond pollination.  The bees you get in the package will come from multiple hives with an unrelated queen.  These bees are usually from commercial operations and the quality can vary from package to package (it may seem hard to tell but you don't want a lot of dead bees on the bottom of the box).  If you aspire for a treatment free beekeeping approach it would be best to replace the queen that comes with the package with a queen from a supplier that breeds for treatment free or low treatment qualities.  Of course going this route with a local queen will add to the total cost and will have to be well timed with package arrivals.

Another slightly more expensive option for purchasing bees is called a Nuc or nucleolus hive.  The advantage of a Nuc is that you are getting a functioning hive and will have young bees emerging in days rather than waiting for a package to build comb and a queen to lay in the cells which will then take 21 days to emerge.  Typically a Nuc is a half deep box (5 frames) with brood, honey and a young queen.  Some nucs are made with new queens and frames of brood from different hives put together in spring or even from packages started a few months before someplace warmer and brought to the area.  Things to be aware of with Nucs is old frames (very dark colored) more than 2-3 years old.  A highly desirable Nuc would be one that was put together in the fall and overwintered in the area.    

Another way to get bees is to find a local beekeeper that will split their hive.  This helps control swarming and if timed right can help with mite control for the existing hive.  This is not overly complex to do and is a great way to spread local genetics.  There is some risk that the new queen(s) may not mate well if it's too early in the season so this is also weather dependent.  The race of bee (Italian, Carniolian, etc) really doesn't matter and what's most desirable is to find local bees that do well in the cold & wet northwest.  There is also an advantage to having 2 hives so that you can fix problems if they arise and from a learning perspective to see how different hives behave (yes they are all a little different).  There is often very little agreement among beekeepers on any given topic, but most seem to agree on the benefits of having locally adapted stock.  

Back to the bees,

- Jeff


  1. Enjoyed this, Jeff. This was my first year in beekeeping. I started with a package. I am going to get a Nuc this spring.

    I see you are on G+; will follow you there as well.

    1. Thank you! How is your package doing, do you think it will survive the winter? Have you considered doing a split on them in spring?