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There are several ways in which a new beekeeper can get themselves their first colony of bees:-

• From a bee breeder or dealer, who prepares and sells established nucleus colonies and complies with the recommendations from NBU and BBKA.

• From a swarm collector.

• From another beekeeper, either one who’s giving up beekeeping or one who has a spare colony or nuc.

Let’s look first at the NBU “Guidance for the Sale of Honey Bee Nuclei”, which can be found within the Advisory Leaflets section of Beebase.

The guidance applies to anybody who is selling nucleus colonies, but more especially to those who make a living from this, namely bee breeders and dealers.

Quote: “A nucleus is a well-balanced colony between 3-6 brood combs. It should have bees, food, brood, and an established young mated laying queen.

The total number of combs should be stated. Comb need not be new but should have been thoroughly cleaned. Combs should be fully built out, i.e. not wax foundation. The outer combs can be food only, especially on the outside faces.

At least 3 frames with brood should be present. Brood and eggs in all stages should occupy at least half the total comb area, with no brood cycle break. At least 30% of the total comb area should be sealed brood. No more than 15% of the total comb area should be drone brood. There should be no active queen cells at any stage of development.

A 3 frame nucleus will require the equivalent of 1 full comb of honey and a half frame of pollen as stores. A 6 frame nucleus will require 2 to 3 combs of honey and a whole frame of pollen.

There should be a good balance of adult bees of different ages and 3-4 frames should be well covered. The bees should be good tempered when handled by a competent handler in suitable conditions. There may be a varying number of drones depending on the time of year.

The brood should be healthy and not show any signs of disease in any stage, except that a small number of cells showing chalk brood is acceptable as this infection is so common in UK colonies. In the adult bees there should be no obvious signs of any disease (for example: acarine which can be cause distinctive “K” wings or crawling bees; deformed wing virus which can cause damaged wings and is associated with heavy Varroa infestation; and, Nosema which can cause dysentery). No wax moth should be visible.

A nucleus should be in a position to expand as soon as purchased, without the risk of starvation. It is not just the number of bees, but the queen and the quantity and age of the brood that is important. The container should have adequate ventilation to allow for transportation.”

From a Bee Breeder or Dealer

Bee breeders and dealers almost always market their colonies online, tend to be quite expensive. Their nucleus colonies can rarely be inspected before they arrive at the beekeeper’s apiary.

Some websites advertising colonies for sale do not produce their own colonies but act as an agency for other dealers, so SWHB advises you to carefully check exactly where your bees will be coming from, and what type of bees you will be getting, before parting with quite a lot of cash.

BBKA advises members to use ‘local bees’ which are likely to be form a swarm collector or a local beekeeper who is either giving up or who has a couple of spare overwintered boxes of bees.

From a swarm collector

You have to be ready to receive a swarm at very short notice, and have to be willing to take what is offered. That’s the plus, that you’ll instantly become a beekeeper for a minimal outlay – a contribution to the swarm collector’s expenses that is set by either the swarm collector themselves or by the association (SWHB).

A big plus for a swarm is that they’re likely to be healthy (will sick bees swarm?) and a brood break caused by swarming should reduce the varroa load.

An early swarm (April, May) will likely be large, because a ‘prime swarm’ contains half the bees from the original colony. It does, though, also contain an older queen and you’ll never know how fertile she might be. The colony might choose to replace her fairly quickly, which could mean a broodless period and a reduction in colony size before a new queen is laying.

A later swarm (June, July) is likely to be a ‘cast’, will be smaller, with an unmated virgin queen that will take two, three, or even four, weeks to start laying, depending on weather conditions. In the meantime the colony will shrink a little. The new colony will, though, spend those weeks drawing comb and collecting nectar and pollen so that when the queen does come into lay everything is ready. Waiting for a new queen to come into lay can be a testing time for a brand new beekeeper who will have been advised not to open the hive too often because a new queen and her little colony can easily be spooked into absconding if disturbed.

From another beekeeper

It’s very much pot luck and you get what’s in the box, which tends to be matched by the price. You almost always also buy the box(es) the bees are in, which could be in any condition so either have to stick with that style of hive or transfer the colony to your own hives.

Generally, though, you get a good deal from another beekeeper and they’ll be delighted to let you look inside the hives to see what you’re getting – which can be a brilliant learning experience for a brand new beekeeper. You may also be lucky enough to buy some other bits and pieces a retiring beekeeper no longer needs.

Will You Raise Good Bees?

Marking your queens is a good idea, if you can find them, because it makes them easier to spot. Within your own apiary you can use any colour, but it’s best to use something bright such as yellow, pink, or bright orange which will stand out during an inspection.

A lot of beekeepers use POSCA pens for marking their queens, these have replaced tippex or enamel paint. Be careful, though, and test the pen after shaking it and before trying to mark your best queen because they can sometimes flood.

Some breeders mark their queens with a numbered disc, and provide a record indicating when that queen was bred. Others use the international queen marking colours.

All you need to do is remember the mnemonic “Will You Raise Good Bees?”

Will = White = year ending in 1 or 6

You = Yellow = year ending in 2 or 7

Raise = Red = year ending in 3 or 8

Good = Green = year ending in 4 or 9

Bees = Blue = year ending in 5 or 0