Optimising colony growth with a new package or nucleus of bees


This is my attempt to give advice to help you optimise the growth of your bee colony from your new package or nuc.  It is hard to give formulaic advice for beekeeping as you have to adjust what you are doing as situations develop and no two colonies or two seasons are alike.  However below is a framework for what I would expect a typical package to do in a brand new hive (fitted with only foundation) in a typical year.  I have assumed your bees don't attempt to swarm in their first year as this would be unusual - although by no means an impossibility.  If you do come across queen cells at any point then do not just squish them and hope for the best.  You would be well advised to follow a standard "artificial swarm" technique which I am not going to go into here but a google search will bring up plenty of variants.

The following feeding regime is more or less what I would use for a new package.  If you bought a nuc instead of a package the bees will initially build up a bit quicker and will be perhaps 2 or 3 weeks more advanced than a package and so you could use the same feeding regime but you could probably miss out the first 3 weeks of constant feeding and move straight onto the 1kg of sugar a week feeding regime as described from 3 weeks onwards.

Lets assume you  collect your package on the 1st of June.  I will try to explain how I would manage a package of bees and what I would be trying to achieve.  I will assume the package is hived only on foundation, if this is the case then I would recommend that syrup feeding is continued until all of the comb that the bees are going to winter on is drawn out.  If you are using a small brood chamber hive (WBC, Smith or National) then you have to decide if you want to winter on a single brood chamber or if you would prefer to winter on a "brood and a half" (a brood chamber and a shallow super).  If you intend to winter on a brood and a half then I would add the super just before all the frames in the brood chamber are fully drawn out (probably towards the end of July) and carry on feeding until all of the super frames are drawn out.  If you intend to winter on just a small brood chamber then you should be prepared to feed the bees fondant over the winter if required.

Personally I like to overwinter large colonies in large hives.  For me the ideal  hive going into winter will contain about 50lbs of stores (honey/syrup and pollen) and a fair bit of empty comb for the bees to cluster on, (there is not enough space in a small brood chamber for all of this).  I prefer this quantity of stores as I don't like messing about trying to feed fondant over the winter.  Fondant (sometimes called candy) is more expensive than sugar syrup and in my opinion more work, although it can be handy in an emergency.  So if I was using a hive type with a smaller brood box i.e. a National, Smith or WBC I would aim to winter the bees in a brood and a half.  If I was using a hive with a larger brood box (Langstroth, 14x12, Commercial or Dadant) I would be happy to winter the bees in just the brood box.



It is important to have a realistic plan of what you want the colony to achieve in its first year.  It is best to forget about getting a honey crop in the first year (although you may get some if the weather is good).

What you need the colony to do is build up as much as possible so that by the end of the beekeeping season the colony is full size in terms of population.  A larger colony will always winter better than a smaller colony as more bee numbers equals more capacity for heat generation and a better chance of surviving the winter.

 
Feeding the bees - this is going to be critical for the build-up of the colony.  Getting this right will make the difference between success and failure.  Many beekeepers seem to have a problem with feeding bees sugar syrup but it is an essential part of successful beekeeping and feeding the right amount at the right time can have a massive impact on colony growth.  It is good to remember that you have spent a fair amount of money on a package of bees and it would be a shame to lose them for the sake of spending perhaps £10 on some sugar.  It is estimated that only around 20% of natural swarms survive their first winter in a typical year.  A large percentage of these swarms die through starvation.  Your bees on the other hand can be helped while they are in the critical condition of having no combs or stores and so there is no reason for them to have a problem.

Bees require both nectar and pollen to rear brood.  By essentially providing an easy supply of nectar in the form of sugar syrup you leave them free to concentrate on gathering pollen.  Also summer bees don't really die from old age but instead tend to "wear out" after flying about 500 miles.  By feeding syrup you extend the life of the summer bees resulting in more bees in the hive that can then cover and heat a larger brood area resulting in yet more population increase.

I would feed the new package as much syrup as they would take for the first 3 weeks.  This is because it takes 3 weeks for an adult bee to emerge from a cell containing a freshly laid egg.  Hopefully over the first 3 weeks as fast as the comb is drawn out the queen will lay eggs in the majority of the newly drawn cells.  I would feed a fairly light syrup containing about 1lb of sugar to 1 pint of water.  As sugar in a supermarket usually comes in 1kg bags that would be 1kg of sugar to 2 pints of water (water from the hot tap is fine for dissolving sugar but don't give the bees boiling hot syrup). Incidentally remember whenever starting feeding you must dribble some syrup from the feeder down onto the bees leaving a trail of syrup up into the feeder otherwise the bees will probably never realise that there is an odourless lake of syrup above their heads.  After 3 weeks of continuous feeding I would give the feeder a good clean as there will be a fair bit of mould in a weak syrup by this point (unless you have been cunning enough to add some thymol solution to the syrup).  I would also have a good look at the bees at this point.  What I would expect to see after 3 weeks would be perhaps 6 frames which the bees had started working on - probably the central 4 would be mostly drawn out comb containing brood and a good covering of bees and the other 2 frames would probably be only partly drawn out and containing mostly syrup and pollen with just a light covering of bees.  Remember that I am generalising here and different colonies build up at different rates.  Also colonies on smaller brood frames will obviously cover more frames than colonies on larger brood frames whilst still covering the same area.  

If we assume that we have 11 frames in our hive we could label them:-  F = Foundation, S = Stores and B = Brood

We would have started with the new hive looking like FFFFFFFFFFF

After 3 weeks I would expect to see something like FFFSBBBBSFF

Now at this point the bee population will have decreased from the initial 12,000 down to perhaps 8,000 but soon the first of the new bees will start to emerge and the population will slowly start to increase.

Three weeks after the installation of the package or on the 1st day of a nuc installation the speed of the broodnest expansion is going to be limited by the amount of comb that the 8000 or so bees can keep warm.  They won't be able to get the outer frames containing foundation warm enough to draw them out and if you continue to feed as much as they will take all that will happen is that as brood emerges the bees will fill the empty cells with syrup and you will limit the laying of the queen and reduce the potential build-up of the colony.  In fact non-stop feeding could even cause the colony to swarm due to lack of space for the queen to lay.  So at this point I would begin to cut back on the feeding.  I would from now on feed not more than about 1kg of sugar made up into syrup per week.  Although I would probably decrease this even more if the weather was good - feeding more in a week of constant rain than in a week of beautiful weather.  Remember these ballpark figures are just to give you a rough idea until you learn to judge the condition of the colony yourself.  If at any point the colony has little stores then feed more, and if frames start to look congested with stores stop feeding for a week or two.  With a package started on the 1st of June I would not interfere with the order of the frames before around the 20th of July other than weekly checking to ensure that there are stores but not congestion, and to ensure that the bees are not trying to rear queen cells.

By around the 20th of July you have had the package for over 7 weeks.  You have fed as much as the bees would take for the first 3 weeks and then for the last month you have been rationing the syrup depending on conditions in the hive, feeding up to 1kg of sugar (made up into syrup) per week.  At this time of year in an established hive the queen would have passed her peak in egg laying and the broodnest would if left to its own devices begin to shrink and as cells that previously contained brood became empty many of them would be filled with honey or pollen.  By now most of the frames should be drawn out and at least 6 should contain brood.  At this stage the bee population has been steadily growing over the past month and now is the time to get any remaining frames of foundation drawn out (in my area I tend to find that even if bees are fed they won't usually draw foundation effectively much later than the middle of August).

By around the 20th of July you will typically still have 2 or 3 undrawn frames in the brood box.  At this point I would place 1 frame of foundation in the centre of the brood box, there should be enough bees to get away with doing this now especially as it is usually warm at this time of year.  Because there are now lots of young bees in the hive for comb building the factor limiting foundation drawing will be nectar availability.  From this point on I would resume feeding as much as the bees will take until all the comb that you intend to winter the bees on is drawn out.  You can do this now because you are past the main swarming time and are starting to run out of comb building time.  I would put drawn frames containing only stores on the outside of the chamber and move the remaining undrawn or partly drawn frames up against the side of the brood frames where it is warm enough for the bees to draw the foundation.

So by around the 20th July your hive may look something like FFSBBBBBBSF.

I would rearrange the frames to something like SFBBBFBBBFS but only put the "S" store frames on the outside of the box if you are sure they contain no brood or eggs otherwise the brood on the store frames will be chilled and could die.

I would expect that by around the 5th of August (give or take a couple of weeks depending on the weather and the size of your brood chamber) all frames in the brood chamber should be drawn out and the hive will now hopefully look something like SSBBBBBBBSS.                                      

                                                                             

At some point in August then you will reach the stage where all the comb you want the bees to winter on is drawn out.  As soon as you reach this point I would remove and clean the feeder and straight away put on an Apiguard varroa treatment.  Follow the instructions on the Apiguard packet.  This end of season varroa treatment is key to controlling the varroa population in the hive and taking a healthy batch of young bees into the winter.  Varroa isn't a problem if properly managed but if unmanaged they will usually kill a hive within 3 years.  All bee colonies in the UK (and in most other countries) contain varroa mites, so there is no point pretending that you will get a nuc or package that is free of varroa.  A hive treated as described during August should then go into winter with a very low varroa count and will hopefully be in perfect condition for the following season. 

From August onwards the queen will be reducing the number of eggs she lays.  Throughout August and over perhaps the first week or two of September there will be less larvae to feed and lots of older bees to forage.  Given good weather the bees should steadily fill many of the brood cells that become vacant with honey and pollen.

After the first week or two of September there is not usually too much forage available and the weather is not normally very good in any event.  So at this point it is prudent to assume that the hive isn't going to get any heavier without further feeding.  Hives that are not fed generally don't change much in weight over the second half of September and October - they will usually get enough to cover their daily needs over this time but without unusually good weather they will not tend to put on a significant amount of weight.

So having looked in the hive sometime in the first half of September you have to assess the level of stores and determine if the hive needs further feeding.  Basically if your hive consists of a large brood chamber or a small brood chamber with a shallow super then you want to aim to have either setup about 2/3 full of stores.  This will give you around 50lb of stores in the hive for the winter and the bees would not usually require feeding at all the following spring.  It will certainly be plenty to see the bees through until the start of April by which point the stores can again be assessed and a little more syrup given if the hive is light and the weather is bad.  Remember to check all the frames in September as although the outside ones may be full the central ones may be mostly empty.

If the hive is not about 2/3 full of stores by around the 10th of September then syrup feeding should be resumed until it is.  At this time of year a stronger syrup is better as it is primarily for storing and not immediate use.  I would make this syrup at a ratio of around 2lb of sugar to 1 pint of water although the exact ratio when making syrup is not very critical.

Remember that it is vital not to overfeed, the ideal is to get the hive as close to 2/3 full of stores as possible.  A hive chock full of stores allows no room for the queen to lay the all important late autumn and early winter brood and it also allows no room for close clustering of the bees. 

By the end of September any feeding should be finished.  The hive is 2/3 full of stores and has been treated with Apiguard.  Now is the time to make the final winter preparations.  Either a metal mouseguard or a wooden entrance block should be placed in the hive entrance to prevent mouse damage over the winter months.  I actually use wooden entrance blocks all the time in less than full strength colonies, in full strength colonies I remove them for May, June and July only.

Ventilation / Insulation - This is a topic in beekeeping about which whole books have been written.  Some beekeepers are very passionate about particular insulation or ventilation systems and are strongly critical of anyone not following their favourite system.  I think it would be fair to say that different systems work well in different areas and much depends on if the hive floor is solid or open mesh.

My advice would be that you should use open mesh floors with the mesh open over winter in the UK.  If you do this then I think these should always be used without top ventilation.  Otherwise you end up with a chimney effect and a lot of draft around the bees.  There should be no need for open feed holes in the crownboard or matchsticks underneath the crownboard providing top ventilation with this system.  It is also a distinct advantage to place insulation (polystyrene sheet or one of our insulated quilts) over the crownboard with this system.  I would also try to place something similar to an empty super underneath the floor with this system to reduce wind-chill within the hive.

If you prefer to use a solid floor then whenever I have used them I have found it an advantage to use top ventilation to prevent the hives becoming damp and mouldy over the winter.  An open hole of about one inch diameter in the crownboard works well with a reduced bottom entrance with this system.  Insulation above the crownboard is not as critical with this more traditional style setup but it doesn't seem to cause any harm.  This system would probably be an advantage in a very exposed site where hives kept with an open mesh floor may suffer from wind chill.  However personally I would prefer to provide more shelter from the wind and use the bottom ventilation system.

The important thing to realise, and one which some beekeepers fail to grasp, is that there isn't that much difference in practice between these systems and the most important thing is that the colony is disease free, with plenty of stores and plenty of young bees.  The number of bees is absolutely critical and is the main reason you have been carefully feeding them all season.  Without additional hives it is too late to do anything about the number of bees at this point and that is why judicious feeding to maximise population is so vital.


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