There are at least three ways of obtaining bees and the best time, for the first two options anyway, would be late spring – April:
- An established colony in a full sized hive;
- A nucleus in a nuc box or on 5 or 6 frames;
- A captured swarm – this would be later in the season – from late May to July.
But read on…
If an established colony or a nuc are to be considered then they should come from a reputable person. Failing that, a knowledgeable person should be persuaded to ensure the colony is free of disease and that the queen is present and laying. Ideally two colonies should be purchased as this gives some means of comparison and insurance against losses.
The established colony purchased along with the hive has some advantages and some disadvantages.
The advantages are that :
- the bees are already in their hive;
- being established there would be a good chance of honey that same year;
- the beekeeper who is selling them should be able to provide information about the nature and provenance of the bees e.g. did he breed them or catch them, are they docile or savage, swarmy or steady and of course – did he import them or are they native?
Possible disadvantages are that :
- the bees may be on the point of swarming in which case you will need to know what to do about that;
- the hive might be a non-standard whimsy in which case there could be problems later when spare parts or new frames are needed.
- If the established colony consists of a full brood box, it could be an intimidating sight for the beginner.
The advantages to the beginner of a nucleus are:
- if the nuc is bought early in the year, the bees must have made it through the winter – if there was anything very wrong with them they would have died;
- if the nuc is bought later in the year it should contain a brand new queen;
- a smaller box of bees is less intimidating to the beginner, who could then become accustomed to handling the smaller quantity of bees and gradually build confidence.
The main disadvantages are:
- if the nuc is bought later in the year – it may contain an old queen;
- if it contains a very young queen – she will have no track record;
- a nuc may not produce any honey until the following year;
- it may turn out be weak and need to be nursed along;
- sooner or later a full size hive will need to be bought or made.
A captured swarm has one big advantage over previous sources – you get it for free!
However, you only ever get what you pay for and there are a few snags with swarms:
- the first one is that there is a strong possibility that they are a strain of bees prone to swarming and may prove difficult to manage next year – swarming is a trait that a serious beekeeper would attempt to breed out of his bees;
- the second also relates to their unknown provenance – they could prove to be ‘savage’ and difficult to handle. This would be more of a problem to the beginner;
- the third is that they could be carrying disease;
- the fourth is that the queen may be a virgin which is fine so long as she manages to get mated but they can fail in that department;
- all that said, if the bees are truly ‘wild’ (unlikely since the introduction of Varroa) it is possible (but unlikely) that they possess special survival qualities that might be of use to the beekeeper;
Don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth but forewarned is forearmed.
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