How do you get your first bees?
The Intolerance of Humans
Newcomers to beekeeping will soon discover that there are rival factions in our ranks. One might expect that we should all be friends, us lovers of honey bees. Sadly, humans are not always the most tolerant of creatures; we seem to be able to fight about almost anything. People will argue about the tiniest little thing, like whether or not to feed bees, or control swarming, or what types of hive we use, and so on.
There is a big divide when it comes to the type of bee that you keep. Many of us can be blissfully unaware of this for years, but others will run into it almost immediately. Essentially, from what I’ve experienced, there are those who just want good bees, and there are those who want to conserve a particular type of bee.
UK Honey Bees
Thousands of years ago, through a combination of climate change and topography, honey bees in different locations evolved into sub-species. The one that adapted in Western Europe, including the UK & Ireland, was the so called ‘black bee’ (Apis mellifera mellifera). There is no denying that conditions in North Wales are not the same as those in Italy. The Romans soon found that out when they invaded our lands two thousand years ago.
Over time, and particularly after very bad years, humans have moved bees around from area to area. Over many centuries, especially the last one, the typical ‘local bee’ has become a mixture of multiple sub-species. However, the degree of hybridisation does depend on where you are. The bees are still very close to pure blacks in a small number of places, often where conditions are harshest. In many areas we have highly mixed-up bee genetics, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Conserving The Black Bee
There are groups of beekeepers who strongly advocate for the preservation of the black bee. There is the B4 Project on the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall, which is a nature reserve dedicated to the preservation of Apis mellifera mellifera. On Colonsay in West Scotland there is another such reserve. I’m certainly in favour of conserving all honey bee sub-species, but I’m happy to leave that to others. In my area such a project would be impossible.
What Bees To Get
In areas like mine, where there are no pure sub-species of honey bee, there is little point in trying to source such bees. If I were to somehow get my hands on a pure type of bee, such as a pure Italian or pure black bee, they would revert to hybrids within a couple of generations. Bees mate on the wing and nature seems keen on diversification, so the daughter queens of any pure bred queen will mate with drones of all types. Their offspring will be hybrids.
I don’t care about what type of bees I keep. My goal is to have productive, gentle, disease resistant bees which over-winter well. Some are black, some are lighter coloured and many are half and half. All I can do is raise new queens from the best that I have, and hope for the best. Some turn out great, some not. This is the way, as Mando might say. If I lived anywhere near a reserve dedicated to the preservation of a particular bee I would try to respect their goals and get that bee type.
My advice to people looking for their first bees is to get them from a beekeeper that you know, who’s bees you have handled, or from a local beekeeper with a good reputation. Whatever they call their bees, the chances are they will be hybrids of some sort, and that’s ok.
In the UK many new beekeepers start off with a ‘nuc’ (pronounced ‘nuke’). A nuc is a small colony of bees on frames of drawn comb. It’s a great way to start because you have a functioning balanced colony, with a laying queen, brood at all stages and food stores. All you have to do is pop the frames from the nuc into the brood box of your hive and fill out the rest of the space with frames of foundation. They might need to be fed sugar syrup for a week.
One downside of starting off this way is that nucs typically cost at least £200 each. Last year I took some to an auction so the price was set by bidders. Some people were happy to pay £250 for one of my nucleus colonies. I was pleased with that, but it does seem expensive.
The other big downside is that nearly all nucs sold here are on National sized frames. If you have National hives, that’s great, but otherwise the frames won’t fit. If you chose a Langstroth hive you may be lucky enough to find somebody who will sell a nuc on those frames, but probably not.
Package bees are very common in the USA and are becoming more available in the UK. It’s simply a box of bees with a caged queen. There are no frames, no comb and the food stores are a can of sugar syrup. The important thing with package bees is their age. Ideally you want bees that were shaken into their box very recently. The longer they have been left, the older the bees and the more problems you may have down the line.
You can shake package bees into your new hive and feed them syrup so that they rapidly draw out comb. It doesn’t matter what sized frames you have. In my opinion, it’s a good idea to add a frame of sealed brood after about a week. You may not be able to do this; if you are a beginner you’d have to scrounge the brood frame from another beekeeper. That brood will emerge soon and provide young nurse bees for the colony. Sometimes with just ageing bees they can supersede their queen after a few weeks, which can mess things up.
Even if you don’t want to set up bait hives to try to catch a swarm of your own you can probably find a beekeeper who has caught swarms and wants to offload one. This would probably be in May or June in my area. Like package bees a swarm can be shaken into a hive of any type. It’s best to leave them for a day or two after catching them before feeding syrup.
My experience of swarms with virgin queens is not good, so hopefully if you start this way you will get one with a mated queen. If you catch a swarm it’s ‘free bees’ which sounds great, but you don’t know where they came from. Maybe they are riddled with varroa mites and viruses; it’s a risk.
The Help of a Mentor
However you get your bees my suggestion to newcomers is to find a mentor; somebody with a little experience of beekeeping, to help out. It is reassuring to be able to ask questions and receive advice from somebody who has some knowledge of beekeeping. Installing your first bees and the first few inspections are something that a mentor will be happy to help with. Many beekeeping associations offer a mentor scheme to beginners.