Be careful if your buying packages of bees this spring!


The garlic is up and going gangbusters and the rhubarb is just breaking through the ground.  Naturally the temperatures remain quite cool, but we do get these windows of 60+ degree weather occasionally and I like to use them to make hive inspections.  The bees are definitely preparing for spring and you should be too.

In the last few days we’ve had weather in the low 60’s.  Equally important was the fact there was no wind, so I took advantage of those days to do a full hive inspection of each and every hive.  It’s important to know the condition of your hives as soon as the weather allows so you know if your bees need to be fed while they wait for the nectar flow.

In January I wrote a piece for this blog about the poor quality of queens coming with packages that originated in California last year.  After the inspections of the last few days I feel a duty to warn you again.  The results are in and anyone considering purchasing packages of bees that originate in California needs to be careful.

All of my own hives that have been here a year or more and all of my own splits, with the exception of one, made it through the winter with flying colors.  The queens have begun laying and there is excellent capped brood in every hive.  In fact three of the hives are so full of bees you would think it was mid-season.  Fortunately those hives also have a good amount of stores, though I did add one frame of honey from the dead out hive, to a hive absolutely packed with bees.  A number of these hives are from splits made last year and it should tell you something about what a split does for hive health.  They are all very healthy!

Let’s compare the existing stock to the 9 packages of bees I purchased last season.  First off let me say that I have purchased and installed packaged bees for many years and I have never experienced the disastrous results I had this last season.  I respect and generally have high regard for the company I purchased these bees from and I have done business with them for many years.  I will continue to do business with them but I will not purchase package bees from them again.

Last summer I purchased 9 packages because I can’t keep up with the demand for my honey, so I decided to expand my business.  Unfortunately it was nearly all wasted money and that is what you need to take away from this article.

Right from the start the queens in these packages struggled and all but two hives began a constant progression of requeening themselves, a process called supercedure.  Essentially as soon as a new queen would take over the hive they would soon replace her.  One of the hives came with a dead queen, yet even the replacement queen provided by the supplier was weak and the bees made a number of supercedures even after she was added to the hive.  The bees know when a queen is in poor health or failing and will replace her.  They tell us all we need to know about the condition of the queens that came with these packages.  Also keep in mind that in the same beeyard there were very healthy prospering hives that were not having queen issues.

A search of the web has turned up numerous discussions of this problem.  In other words it was common and not specific to my own operation.  There is speculation that a new fungicide being sprayed in the orchards in California led to the problem.  Some blame it on the drought and others simply say that the commercial stock the package bees come from, in addition to being exposed to various chemicals, is getting inbred and weak queens are the result.  Most likely it is a combination of all those factors.

What’s the bottom line here?  By fall, I had lost 6 of the nine packages purchased last spring!  With the exception of one weak split I made late in the season last year, all of my eleven other hives wintered.

So why go over this again?   Recent hive inspections have revealed the loss of yet another package of bees purchased last spring.  Seven of the nine packages have now been lost.  An earlier inspection in January during a two day spell of 70 degree weather revealed a small patch of capped brood in the hive just lost.  However, I could not find the queen, even though I found the queen in every other hive I inspected.  The area of capped brood in the recently lost hive was also smaller than any of the other hives I have.  In hindsight it’s easy to see that this queen was already gone.  She had begun to lay and then expired.

With spring coming and a lot of folks out there looking to order bees, I feel its important to pass this information along.  You need to know that it’s going to be very risky business spending your money on bee packages coming out of California.  Nothing has changed since last year.  All the issues that are combining to create the poor quality queens remain.  The company I bought from is GloryBee in Eugene Oregon.  I’ve done a lot of business with them over the years, but they didn’t seem to care about that when I contacted them.  I would suggest, based on my experience, that you do business somewhere else if you can.

So unless you like throwing your money away and wasting a season of beekeeping, I would suggest you avoid buying bee packages that come from California unless you specifically know the supplier and can be assured of a quality product.  Sorry, but that’s what the facts are telling us.  Your alternative is to purchase bees from a local source.  Get to know the beekeeper and learn about his/her practices.  And if you already have bees then learn to make splits.  We will be covering splits later this spring as I continue with a season of beekeeping in this space.

For now, make sure your equipment is in order and ready for the busy spring season.  Then take the time on a nice calm day to sit in your beeyard and enjoy your bees.  Watch the activity in the front of the hive.  See what pollen is being brought in and if you can identify the source.  In my neck of the woods the pussywillow is beginning to open and it will soon be followed by aspen and poplar.  If you have beehives as full of bees as mine, you will soon need to create more room in the hive to prevent them from swarming.  More on that later.  Take care all.


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