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