Heartbroken Yet Hopeful: One Beekeeper's Advice for Starting Your Own Colony

I’m heartbroken. Last fall, I meticulously prepared 13 healthy honeybee colonies for the harsh Minnesota winter ahead. Sadly, only one hive survived. The cause of their demise is complicated. The poor little honeybee -- on whom we depend for one-third of our food supply every day -- is greatly challenged in so many ways. Numerous diseases, nasty and unavoidable Varroa destructor mites, starvation, condensation, and the ever-expanding problem of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) plague these amazing creatures, and saving them continues to be a herculean task.

While I always anticipate losing some of my bee colonies over winter, losing almost all of them was a big blow. The sad truth is that I’m not alone. Many beekeepers across the globe struggle to keep their honeybees alive, and many have faced significantly greater losses than I. The documentary The Last Beekeeper chronicles the lives of some migratory beekeepers in the United States, and how CCD has decimated their apiaries -- and their livelihood. Vanishing of the Bees details the global honeybee crisis and the multitude of consequences that this problem brings to us all.

Despite my devastating loss, I choose to put my disappointment behind me and joyfully look to the future, rebuilding my apiary (bee yard) with 14 new honeybee colonies. Perhaps you are wondering, where does a beekeeper get honeybees?

There are four options to get a starter honeybee colony -- only three of which I recommend.

Splits: I procured my first two colonies this way. I made arrangements with a beekeeper friend and provided him with all of the woodenware needed to start a hive: baseboard, brood box, 10 frames, and an inner and outer cover. The beekeeper placed my empty brood box with frames on the top of his existing hive, allowing the queen and worker bees to start building comb and brood in my box. After about a month, he removed my brood box from his hive, kept his queen, and added a new queen to my brood box. Then all I had to do was relocate my new hive to my apiary and enjoy. The cost of a split will vary and is completely dependent on the individual beekeeper. My beekeeper friend sold me my first two splits for $35 each.

The bee keeping packageThe bee keeping package

Packages: This is the most common way to obtain bees. A package of bees includes one queen and one or two pounds of honeybees. One pound equates to 2500 honeybees. The majority of honeybee packages come from either California or Texas. The bees are placed into a wooden screened cage; inside the cage is a tin can full of light sugar water to keep them nourished as they travel to their new destination. The queen is in her own separate cage along with some worker bees (to tend to her majesty while they are on the road). There are several steps to installing packages, but suffice it to say, they are gently placed into their new home. The cost of a package depends on the variety of bees and the number of packages purchased -- it typically costs between $55 to $70 for a two-pound package, and slightly more for a three-pound package. This year, I purchased 12 two-pound packages of Minnesota Hygienic honeybees.

Nucs: Similar to a split, a nuc (short for nucleus colony) is a ready-made colony in a miniature, temporary brood box. Nucs contain five frames with bees, where the queen is free-roaming within the box, is already laying eggs, and the baby bees (brood) are ready to hatch. To install a nuc, all I have to do is transfer the five frames of bees into their new, permanent home. The benefit of starting the season with a nuc is that
the colony is well established, so the population within the hive will grow rapidly. Since the bee population is higher, and it includes more equipment (five frames), nucs are more expensive, ranging from $75 to $95 per box. This year I bought two nucs of Carniolan bees.

The nucThe nuc

Stealing: Even beekeeping is not immune to unscrupulous behavior. Stealing is one of the reasons why many beekeepers use a branding iron to burn their name onto all of their wooden equipment, including every single frame within a 10-frame brood box. It’s time-consuming and tedious work which has become a common and necessary practice. I have chosen not to brand all of my equipment and frames. Instead, I found a way to train my bees to recognize bee-stealing thieves and summon the skunks to chase them. (Just in case you’re wondering.)

While the cost of buying a starter honeybee colony continues to increase, and having to restart my entire apiary this year was expensive, I feel fortunate that I still have options to buy the bees. Still, I fear that our dear little honeybees may some day soon become so endangered that getting a hive for my own pleasure will become cost prohibitive.

Today I celebrate the 15 hives that comprise my 2011 apiary -- 14 new colonies, plus the lone winter survivor. It’s been a tough spring for the bees so far, but I look forward to watching their progress, peeking inside their homes, and harvesting the beautiful crop of honey they’ll be making this summer for all of us to enjoy.

Header photo by Mitch Kezar Photography.


Debbie Morrison is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. She and her husband Jim own and operate Sapsucker Farms, where their certified organic crops include maple syrup, honey, apples, plums and vegetables. Debbie's last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Making Maple Syrup: Creative Ingenuity at it's Best. Follow Debbie on Twitter at @sapsuckerfarms


Wow, I had no idea you lost your colonies... Will the replacement colonies produce as quickly as the colonies you lost?

Derek, yes and no. Yes - the population of the new colonies will develop as fast as the old colony, but no, they will not be able to produce a lot of honey for me to harvest. So my honey harvest this year will be significantly reduced over last year. And this slow, wet, cold spring isn't helping either. :/

Very sad Debbie. I am fortunate you have more I can enjoy your tasty honey again.

Jen - While I will still have some honey this year, I won't be able to harvest as much as I did last year. But whatever the amount, it will still be tasty for sure.

Get busy bees!

Yes... did you hear that bees - see what Elaine said!

Hi Debbie,
Great article. I feel for you as a fellow beekeeper. We had four hives to over winter and lost two of those. We're kicking ourselves over the mistakes we made last year--perhaps not leaving enough food, and putting in the comb we had to cut off our ventilation board the wrong way onto the frames.
Nevertheless, glad to see you are maintaining your optimistic spirit. We are too, our remaining hives, our originals, are strong and doing well.

Also, how do you feel about obtaining a hive via swarm?

Best wishes to you and the bees,

Hi Mil, so good to connect with another beekeeper! Good point, I should have mentioned swarms! That is also a great way to get new colonies. I suppose the reason why I didn't think of that is because all of the swarms I've caught have been from my own hives, so basically I'm rescuing my own colony (how's that for an excuse??):-) I have never seen or caught a feral swarm, which is a rare find in the country since there are so many places they can hide. But in the city, they are more noticeable. The only trick is that you need to know how to catch a swarm, and it's quite fun if you ask me!

Don't kick yourself for the alleged mistakes you may have made. This was a very hard year for bees in Minnesota. And especially, don't get discouraged! Beekeeping is complicated, but also very rewarding, so keep up the good work!

Bee blessings to you,

It's so interesting (and sad) that this is a global problem. I won't take honey for granted anymore.
Bee well.

PattyCakes - thank you for caring about our little honeybees. You can help by buying honey from local beekeepers, they can really use your support!

Thanks for a really interesting article.

I'm not a beekeeper but I do have a few questions about them that you might be able to answer if you would be so kind.

Last year a feral colony of bees took residence under the eves of my sister's house in Texas. She called in an exterminator who killed them. According to my nephew, feral colonies are contaminated with pathogens and, so, beekeepers are uninterested in rescuing them. However, I subsequently located another individual who WOULD HAVE harmlessly rescued them. (Too late, alas, hindsight is 20/20.) Is the health of a feral colony EVER an issue to beekeepers? I would assume that you folks have a means of isolating newly acquired formerly feral colonies from your other bees while you evaluate their health.

You might not know the answer to my next question since you are up in frigid Minnesota, but have beekeepers learned how to husband killer bees? Have they been integrated into the industry or are they still regarded as a plague?

Lastly, I have noticed quite a price rise in the shelf price of honey. It seems like the 12 oz. teddy bear squeeze bottle that I just bought sold for the same price that a 5# can did a few years ago. Is my perception accurate and is this price increase due to supply restrictions caused by honeybee diseases?

I saw a tv documentary about CDC a year or so ago and found it very sad. I think that most laymen like myself have an affectionate attitude towards honeybees and the depiction of their mass deaths was affecting as was the affect of those deaths on one migratory beekeeper who was forced out of a business that he loved by excessive deaths and had to become an auto mechanic or something.

Thanks for your attention.

Hi Yogi,
I am not Debbie, the owner of this site, but I am a beekeeper in California, and I'd like to put in my two cents in.

I have caught a feral swarm back in 2009 and they are still thriving and are very high producers of honey. It seems that many kept hives, not just the feral swarms, have mites, beetles, foulbrood, and the like, unfortunately. So from my experience, I would've been delighted to take this feral swarm. There is a caveat: I wouldn't have taken them if they were African Honeybees.

I'm sorry to hear that the hive was exterminated, but it is great that you are thinking about these issues. Thanks.

Best wishes,

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