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Home > Tip of the month – Sourcing your Bees

There are several ways in which a new beekeeper can get themselves their first colony of bees. However, there are pros and cons to all these routes. SWHB would always advise members to use ‘local bees’ wherever possible with these likely to be from a swarm collector or a local beekeeper who is either giving up, has a couple of spare overwintered boxes of bees or has prolific bees that need splitting and are excess to requirements.

1 – Getting a swarm £

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).

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.

Pros – Cheapest route. Probably healthy (sick bees are unlikely to swarm and brood break combats varroa)

Cons – Unknown source. Unknown queen performance. Unreliable source – you don’t know when / if you’ll be able to get hold of one. Unlikely to get any honey crop in year 1

2 – From another beekeeper ££

These could be from a beekeeper who’s giving up beekeeping or one who has a spare colony or nuc. 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 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 ( if not, stay clear!) – 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.

Pros – Personal contact means you’re unlikely to be given poor bees. Can be inspected before purchase. Good value.

Cons – Bees may bring issues such as varroa with them. May involve equipment changes.

3 – From a bee breeder/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 as not all suppliers comply with the recommendations from the NBU and BBKA.

Pros – Availability can be planned in advance. Can usually select style of frame bees are on (commercial, national etc). Normally some level of ‘guarantee (i.e. there should be a working queen present and disease free).

Cons – Most costly. Variable quality