In an ideal situation bee hives will survive the winter, staying dry and warm and feeding on plenty of honey or sugar solution. However, this is often not the case these days and beekeepers need to replace lost hives in the spring. Around 90% of managed bees in the U.S. are used in California to pollinate the insanely huge amounts of almond orchards. After this is done, some are packaged up in boxes and sold throughout the country. If you buy honey bees, they are called package bees and come in a box with mesh sides, a can of food (sugar or corn syrup water) and a queen. There are usually about 20,000 – 30, 000 bees per box, which is about 3 pounds of bees. The queen is separated in a small box. This gives the bees time to get used to her and hopefully to accept her as their queen.
I just observed the process of installing packages into hives and learned quite a bit. First the queen is taken out (still in her little cage) and set aside. It is clear whether she has been accepted or not, by the behavior of the bees that are on her cage. If they are calm and not acting aggressively towards the cage, all should be good.
Installing the Bees into Their New Home
In order to install the bees, you take out a few frames to make space in the hive and basically just dump the bees in, shaking the box until most are out. Then leave the box open next to the hive and the remaining bees will follow suit. Then it’s time to get the queen in there. The beekeeper I was observing, carefully removed the cork on her cage and replaced it with marshmallow. This buys a little time for the hive to get used to her as she spreads her scent throughout the hive. The worker bees get to work eating through the marshmallow to free her.
There are two other ways to get bees for a hive. One is to buy a nuc or nucleus. This is basically a small, fully functioning hive, with usually 5 frames and a queen. It was formed from another honey bee colony. These are often sold out in the spring, so it’s best to plan ahead and reserve your nucs. The two main advantages of a nuc are that 1) The queen and hive already are a functioning unit and there is no risk of the queen not being accepted and, 2) This is a way to get a hive that is local to your area and hasn’t been subjected to the chemicals from treatment for disease and/or mites and deadly pesticides used on almond orchards and other crops. This is a huge advantage and is a reason that some beekeepers replace their queens during the summer when locally (non-toxically) raised queens are available.
Another way to get your beehive populated is to catch or attract a swarm. Swarming is the natural way that bees find new homes and can be seen from spring to summer. The queen and about half the bees in a hive just take off in search of a new space. There are ways to attract swarms to your hive by using honey and pheromones. You can also see if a local swarm removal operation keeps a list of people interested in a swarm. If you are flexible, this could be an inexpensive way to get your beehive going.
I hope this was informative for those of you thinking or dreaming of beekeeping. Please let me know what you are finding out! Did I miss anything about the ways to buy honey bees and get that hive buzzing?