Imagine you’re sitting at a four-way intersection, a red stop light hanging above you, while the hum of buzzing comes from a pair of rectangular wooden boxes strapped into the passenger’s seat next to you. The Nuc boxes–or nucleus colonies–contain more than 10,000 bees each. Bees cling to, and crawl across the wire mesh stapled over the openings that prevents the insects from flying in and out of the boxes. You can tell by the sound of their buzzing that they are agitated, frustrated that they are contained, unable to come and go as they please.
You can’t help but wonder what the drivers of the cars and trucks surrounding you would think if they knew that 20,000 bees or more sat so close at hand. You imagine what the scene might look like if the unthinkable happened and there was an accident. These thoughts are immediately followed by wondering if the wire mesh covering the entrances on the Nuc boxes is secure. The light changes to green, and you gently edge the car out into traffic.
Driving down the road with thousands of stinging insects is one of life’s greatest thrills, I can’t even begin to imagine why everyone wouldn’t want to try it! But before you can bring your bees home, there are a number of things you need to do to prepare for their arrival.
Select Your Apiary Location
When you’re trying to decide where to locate your apiary, consider the following carefully:
Nectar and pollen sources: While honeybees will travel up to 3 miles or more in search of food, they prefer to have it easily accessible, within 300-500 yards of the hive. There should be forage available to them in one form or another throughout the entire season–from early spring, through the fall.
Bees need water: Just like every other living creature on the planet, bees need water to survive. Not only do they drink water, but they also use it to reconstitute crystallized honey, and to make bee-bread–the mixture of honey and pollen which they feed their developing larvae. If you don’t have a natural source of water nearby, such as a pond, or stream, consider placing a bird bath, or a 2-gallon dog waterer near the hives.
Exposure to sunlight: Ideally your hives should be facing south, with a fair amount of southern exposure. Yet at the same time, partial shade, or dappled sunlight can be a benefit to the hive during the height of the summer sun and heat.
Protection from wind: Nestle hives up against shrubs, or at the edge of a forest; place them alongside a shed, garage, or other outbuilding so that colonies are protected from strong prevailing winds–this is especially important if you live in a climate where winter can send frigid gusting winds barreling down on your hives.
Keep hives dry: Bees are susceptible to a number of fungal diseases which are promoted in wet conditions, so choose a spot for your apiary that is dry and offers good drainage during the spring thaw and prolonged periods of rain. Also consider tilting the hives forward slightly so that condensation that builds up inside the hives runs out of the hive, rather than dripping down on the bees and brood nest.
Protect colonies from harmful pesticides: Industrial farmers use insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides that all affect the health of honeybees in one way or another. Even golf courses can pose a problem for your colonies. If you live near such a threat, consider seeking an alternative location for your apiary, there are many landowners, homesteaders, or small farmers that would be more than happy to have you set up your apiary on their property.
Ease of access: This is more for your benefit than that of your bees. When you have your gear, tools, and equipment in tow, and you’re going to take honey off your hives in the heat of summer, you’ll appreciate being able to drive your truck to the apiary location.
Prepare your hives
Before you bring home your bees, your hives should be completely assembled and set up at the location you have chosen for your apiary. All the frames should be put together, foundation inserted (if you’re using it), the exterior of your boxes should be painted (or not–depending upon your principles), and you should have settled the hive components in place upon the foundation of your choice.
A note about hive foundations: Beekeepers use hive foundations to raise hives up off the ground to keep them dry. You can use just about anything to serve as your foundation–from the commercially prepared types available from suppliers like Brushy Mountain, to cement blocks, logs, wooden pallets, or tires.
Also note that you will begin your hive with only one deep brood box, since bees grow their hives from the bottom up, and you will not add the second box until the bees have drawn and filled at least three-quarters of the frames in that first box. The same goes for the honey supers–you will not add a super until the second box has been almost completely filled. This prevents the bees from creating misshapen combs.
Packaged Bees vs. Nucs
Typically packaged bees are imported from the south (unless, of course, you’re in the south-lol), and come in 2, 3, or 5 pound packages. You can get them with or without a Queen–beekeepers sometimes invest in a Queenless package of bees to strengthen weak hives in the spring. Basically, these are the bees and that’s it. Packages are ideal for beekeepers who have lost bees during the winter, and have drawn combs leftover from previous hives.
Nucleus colonies, or Nucs, are essentially a colony in miniature. A box–either waxed cardboard or wooden–containing 3, 4, or 5 frames filled with brood (the bee larvae in all stages), worker bees and their egg-laying Queen, along with pollen and honey to sustain the tiny colony. Often these are colonies that are started late in the previous summer, are overwintered, and are ready for a rapid population increase to build up into a new hive with the start of the spring nectar flow.
Nucs are relatively easy to establish. The downside is that it’s easier to transfer pests and diseases from one apiary to another this way–partly because there’s no way for you to inspect your Nuc when you go to pick it up (and often new beekeepers will not know what to be looking for anyway), but partly because the sale of Nucs is not regulated by officials. Also, beekeepers who sell Nucs often use them as a way to unload their old combs, which should be swapped out every 5 years. And finally, Nuc strength can vary from one to the next, and there’s no way for you to know what you’re getting when you take a Nuc home.
Installing Packaged Bees
When you pick up your packaged bees you should first inspect the package. While some mortality is normal, half-an-inch of dead bees or more at the bottom of the package is not normal. Protect the package from direct sunlight, and store them in a cool dry place until you’re ready to install them. Be sure to feed your bees–a simple solution of sugar-syrup (a 1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water), in a spray bottle works well–mist the sides of the package and allow the bees to clean it off. Install your packaged bees later in the day to prevent them from flying away from an unfamiliar hive, and do so within 48 hours of bringing them home.
There are 2 methods for installing packaged bees:
Allow the bees to exit on their own: Firstly, plug the entrance with grass to prevent bees from flying away, then open the package. Take out the Queen cage, remove the cork on the cage and pierce the candy blocking her exit using a toothpick. Affix the Queen cage to the face of your drawn comb if you have it; if you’re beginning your packaged bees on foundation, simply place the Queen cage next to a frame containing the wax foundation. In either case you should shake a couple of handfuls of bees onto the Queen cage so that she has plenty of attendants to tend her, and free her from the cage, then settle the package inside the hive in the center and close up the hive.
Install by shaking: Spray the bees in the package with sugar-syrup to prevent them from being able to fly away, then remove the feeder can to open the package. Take out the Queen cage, and tend to her in the same manner as described in method A, then gently shake all of the bees into the hive.
In either case, you should feed your bees sugar-syrup–especially so if you are installing your bees on foundation. Bees need a strong nectar flow underway, along with lots of new, young bees (since it is at this stage of their lives that bees are able to produce wax), to build their combs. And because drawn comb is necessary both for the Queen to lay eggs in, and for the foragers to store nectar and pollen in, your new colony cannot sufficiently increase in numbers until they have combs to work with.
Installation of Nucs
When you get your nucleus colony home, place the Nuc box directly on top of your assembled hive and immediately remove the screens covering the entrances. The bees will begin to emerge from the box and you will see them alight, circling the air above the hive in what is known as an “orientation flight”, which allows the bees to determine the location of the hive in accordance with the position of the sun. This enables the bees to find the hive when they are returning from the field with nectar and pollen.
You can leave the Nuc for 24 to 48 hours, or longer if the weather does not cooperate, and they will be perfectly fine coming and going from their miniature colony. Keep in mind though, that some nucleus colonies are going to be stronger than others, and if you should see the bees “bearding” or hanging off the front of the box, you should take action to move the bees into their new home to give them more space to expand.
To transfer the bees from the Nuc box to the hive you’ve prepared, remove 3-5 frames from the center of the hive, open the Nuc box (wearing appropriate gear, and using your smoker as you would in any beekeeping situation), and carefully transfer the frames from the Nuc to the new hive.
Take this opportunity to inspect the condition of the Nuc you’ve received–does it contain larvae in all stages of development? (eggs, grubs, and capped pupa) Do the bees have frames containing both pollen and honey? If you see anything out of the ordinary, or suspect a problem, you should contact your bee-supplier immediately.
Otherwise, place the frames from the Nuc box into the hive in the same order in which you found them–directly in the center of the hive. Depending on the number of frames of brood your Nuc contains (ie – 3 or more) you may be able to insert an empty frame–or a frame of foundation–in between the brood, or between a frame of honey/pollen and the brood nest, to encourage your bees to begin building comb there. However if you have less than 3 frames of brood, it is best not to break them up, to allow the worker bees to maintain the temperatures needed for the baby bees to mature.
When you’ve transferred the frames into the hive, check the inside of the Nuc box to make sure the Queen has not been left behind. If you do not see her hanging out in the box, go ahead and close up the hive, but leave the Nuc box either on top of the hive, or on the ground in front it for another 24 hours so that any stragglers can join the rest of their colony.
Installation Follow Up
Once you’ve moved your bees into their new home, you can leave them alone for 5-9 days, with the exception of feeding. At that point go examine them briefly. Mainly you’re looking to see that the Queen is alive and well, and doing what she’s supposed to be doing–laying lots of new eggs.
If you installed packaged bees, with a Queen in a cage, make sure that she has been released from that cage, and if she has not, go ahead and remove the screen at this time, and let her crawl out of the cage onto a frame so that she can get to work.
In the case of nucleus colonies, simply look for new eggs, and you will know that your Queen is alive and thriving, offer the colony more space and frames as needed to fill up their first and second brood boxes.
This can be a controversial topic at the meeting of your local beekeepers’ group (I know it is at ours!). Some beekeepers have sugar available to their colonies throughout the year in one form or another, while other beekeepers refuse to put sugar on their hives at all, even if it means starvation for the colony.
Personally, I try to avoid using sugar if I can, even if it means that I will get less honey. However, if my bees are at risk of starving to death, I will feed them organic cane sugar to see them through til the nectar begins to flow again.
And at the same time, feeding is especially critical for packaged bees on foundation who cannot begin to even build up their population until combs are established.
If you should decide to feed your bees there are a variety of methods available. I suggest that beekeepers do their homework, and make the choice that best suits them, their principles, and the needs of their bees.
Go get your bees!
You’ll suddenly be filled with excited anticipation–and probably no small amount of trepidation–when you finally get the call from your bee-supplier that your bees are ready for you to pick up. Take a deep breath! Go over all your preparations one last time to ensure that everything is in order, and then go get your bees.
I truly believe that the growing numbers of backyard and homesteading beekeepers is vital to the survival of pollinators. The relationship between plant and pollinator has made our planet what it is today, and that relationship is at risk. By taking up the art of beekeeping, more and more people are coming to realize that these are more than mere stinging insects. There is a world of marvel that most of us never notice because they are small and we are big, because society has deemed insects “icky” and many of us shudder at the thought of getting close to a “bug”. But beekeeping opens our eyes to the beauty of pollination, we begin to see insects in a new light–suddenly we see the magnificent color, shape, and characteristics of the beneficial insects all around us. We realize that we are part of this intimate relationship that plants have with their pollinators.
Good luck on your beekeeping journey! The world is a beautiful place!