Bee Supply

By | November 22, 2015

I’ve been noodling on how to write this post for a while, knowing there was an opinionated idea in my head I wanted to get out, but not knowing very well how to articulate it.  Here is my attempt.

It occurs to me the reader may need a bit of background regarding the topic to come.  In the Northeast US we perceive there to be a tight bee supply every spring.  This has nothing to do directly with hives dying over the winter.  This is the supply of bees available for purchase by new and seasoned beekeepers alike.

This supply comes in two forms.  The first form is the “package” of bees.  A package is nothing but a three pound box of bees, screened on two sides, which includes a caged queen.  The purchaser must provide all hive equipment and simply transfers the bees and queen to that equipment.  The screened box is just for transport.  The second form is the nucleus hive, or nuc.  A nuc is 4-5 frames of comb covered in bees including a queen.  It is, for all intents and purposes, a working hive.  The purchaser buys these frames and they are transferred, bees and all, into the purchasers equipment.

Buying a nuc is of course more expensive because the hive is already established whereas a package is simply bees, nothing more.  In PA, the cost of a nuc is approaching double that of a package.

Most nucs and all packages that are available each spring come from out of state, way out of state.  Most packages come from Georgia, some from California.  Nucs that are available here rarely contain bees that were raised or spent a winter here.  The nuc producer is trying to ensure the supply so most are either from bees wintered in the south (ie Florida) or are simply packages brought to PA and grown into a nuc.  The person doing this takes on the task of hiving the package and building it into a nuc so a few weeks later can sell it at a premium.  If the nuc was in fact wintered in PA, that nuc is worth a very large premium indeed because the perception is that those bees have shown they can survive a cold winter.

The limited supply of both of these forms of bees drives up prices much to the chagrin of seasoned beekeepers who see the prices climb year after year.  I’ve heard more than once from more than one local beekeeper that if only we could locally raise and winter enough nucs we could supply everyone who wants bees in the spring.  Then we wouldn’t have to import so many from outside the area and prices would fall.  More often than not, this is coupled with the idea that locally bred northern bees that survive the winter are far superior to those purchased in packages or those nucs simply made from packages.

While I don’t refute this, it seems the underlying thought is that somehow local bees survive while imported bees do not.  I’ll concede that local bees have a better chance at survival than do those from out of the area, but I have yet to see bees that we can simply give to a new beekeeper, they can hive those bees, do a few inspections throughout the year, and then just magically have bees next year.  I do think that’s close to how it was once.  In speaking to someone who’s been keeping bees for 30+ years, so prior to mites, he said (paraphrase), “We used to show up in April, put our supers on, come back in August and take off our honey, and that was beekeeping.”  I don’t think we’ll be there again.  If we do get there, I don’t think we’ll get there even within the next 20-30 years.  So the idea of breeding a bee that’s so easy to manage that new beekeepers have an incredibly high winter success rate without much management isn’t really practical.  Mites have changed the game, and local land use has changed the game.

My next thought is that beekeepers fall into one of three categories.

The first category are beekeepers who experience the 30-40% losses or higher every year, but these beekeepers have so many hives that their chance of being beeless is very low, they’re almost certain to still have bees around come spring.  They then spend the spring and summer months splitting their hives to go into another winter with enough hives to sustain those losses yet again and still come out with “some” bees.  These beekeepers contribute very little to the demand for bees.  Their apiary is sustainable through quantity.

The second category of beekeepers who always seem to have bees come spring are those who have that coveted <10%-15% loss rate, so even if they have 2-4 hives, the chance of them being beeless (and therefore requiring packages/nucs) is very low.  I have yet to meet someone locally in this category who does not manage their bees very carefully, and in fact they also manage mites very carefully, which includes treating when necessary.  Managing queen-rightness through the summer, then managing fall weight, feeding when necessary, ensuring winter moisture is not a problem along with checking weight throughout the winter and into spring…these are all priorities for these beekeepers.  In short, these beekeepers are successful not because they have some awesomely bred strain of local super bee, but because they manage their hives extremely well.  I’d wager that these beekeepers could buy a package from just about anywhere and that hive would almost certainly be alive the following spring.  This careful management often includes having at least a nuc or two around as a management technique, the nucs being a source of queens, bees, brood, etc to be given to any full size hive that may have issues.

The third category is really the focus.  These are the beekeepers who would fall into category one except they keep a very small number of hives.  They have the 30-40% loss rate and if we do the math on each of the hives as an independent trial, these small hive numbers mean that this category of beekeeper has a very real chance of being completely beeless come spring.  I don’t want to completely pigeonhole this group, but they’re often the beekeepers who blame their losses on the farm next door for some mystery spray, or who have no idea why their bees absconded in the fall while they also have no idea what their mite load was because they never checked, or who in the spring find their bees “starved” with honey just an inch or so away (this is NOT true starvation).  This category, along with new beekeepers, is the source of the bee demand each spring.

The first category above would struggle to provide bees for anyone else since in most years they’re simply splitting their own hives to recover to the number of hives needed to get them through another winter, sometimes supplementing this with packages.

As for the second category, those who are just very good at managing their bees, I often wonder what their thoughts are on selling their bees to new beekeepers or people in the first category.  I wonder if they don’t just feel a slight twinge of guilt in selling a nuc to those who are probably not going to manage it well and are therefore sending their bees off to have a high chance of failure.

With regards to new beekeepers, I feel that within 2-3 years they will find themselves in one of the three categories.  If they fall into category 3 and still stay with beekeeping (many just drop out here), they will need bees almost every spring.  In my humble opinion, there is little to no significant difference between them buying a package or buying a local nuc.  Yes, the local survivor bees for those in this category might give them a very slight advantage, but it’s not going to take that 30-40% loss rate and make it 10%.  If they don’t change their management techniques, those hives still have a high chance of loss.  So while breeding local bees is a great end-goal and something we should work toward because yes, their genetics are better adapted to our area, it’s not going to be the panacea of allowing those 30-40% loss beekeepers to magically keep bees alive without some serious changes in their beekeeping.

In short, I feel like those involved in helping beekeepers, myself included, need to focus more on making successful beekeepers vs making a successful bee.  We can’t get a successful bee without successful beekeepers and the successful bee, in my estimation, is decades off.

Leave Your Comment

Your email will not be published or shared. Required fields are marked *