Going into the winter, I had two thriving beehives. One was a nucleus colony (or nuc… pronounced “nuke”) purchased from a local beekeeper and the other was a package from somewhere not-local.
The difference between the two is that a nuc is essentially a small hive made up of bees in all stages of development, food in the form of honey frames, a laying queen, and enough workers to cover roughly three to five combs.
Package bees come almost exclusively from the southern states and California, are sold by weight (usually three pounds), and are shipped in screened boxes with a queen in a separate “queen cage.” The food supplied for the package bees is typically a can of sugar syrup.
For many reasons, I decided to start my first hives with one of each. The main reason was curiosity.
Obviously, I knew it was far better to get a local nuc than a shipped package, but I felt like I wouldn’t be a real-life, honest-to-god beekeeper if I couldn’t say that I’d done it both ways. So I did it both ways, fully expecting that the package hive wouldn’t survive the winter.
And I’m here to report that I was not surprised by the way things turned out.
I think it is worth noting that I did not have any ill-will toward the package hive, nor did I treat it any differently than the local nuc; I just didn’t have high expectations for it. (It is possible that I may have, on occasion, stuck my tongue out at it, but that is speculation and hearsay)
A neighbor of ours keeps bees and admits to purchasing new packages from the south EVERY SPRING. He doesn’t even seem to feel bad or embarrassed about it.
And why should he?
Well, because the only real reason to keep bees is to try to save our food system which is almost irrevocably broken. Simply put, honey bees account for about 80 percent of all insect pollination. Without this pollination, agricultural yields would plummet and our food system would never recover.
To ride a Sisyphean cycle of purchasing southern bees, installing them in an area full of unfamiliar flora, and then subjecting them to to the freezing, northern winters just isn’t sustainable.
And you can pretty much forget about honey.
While it’s certainly possible to have a hive produce enough honey to get themselves through the winter, it is rare for them to produce enough in their first year to also share with the beekeeper. If your goal is pollination AND honey, then the package bees aren’t your best bet.
That being said, package bees are WAY better than NO bees.
NO bees is a terrible amount of bees.
I was very afraid that after this winter’s interminable Siberia impersonation, there would be no bees left in either hive. I kept waiting for the temperatures to go above 45 degrees so I could open them up to see what was happening.
One sunny day, about two weeks ago, I saw a lot of activity outside my nuc hive and only a few straggling bees around the package hive. It occurred to me that the nuc hive had undoubtedly survived the winter and perhaps the package had not–that these straggler bees were really just nuc bees robbing the now-abandoned package hive. And, after today’s investigation, it would appear that that’s in fact what happened.
With temps hovering near 50 degrees, I was able to completely open up both hives and see what there was to see.
As expected, the package hive was packed to the rafters with dead bees. Thousands of them littered every surface and clung to the frames of each super. There was still some honey in the frames, as well as a bee patty I’d given them a month or so earlier, so starvation didn’t seem to be the problem. Since there were so many bees, it was certainly not Colony Collapse, and there was no evidence of varroa mites. That left freezing to death as the only logical explanation.
Despite having topped the hive with a hay-filled super to add insulation and provide protection against excess moisture, the bees simply couldn’t handle the extreme, sustained cold. It would be like asking my Floridian grandmother to move to the Twin Cities for February; she’d always be cold and there would never be anything good to eat.
Happily, the nucleus hive pulled through the freeze-a-thon like a champ. Having been created from a hive just a few miles away, these bees were ready. They had the honey they needed and they did what they knew how to do to survive. When I opened up their hive, they were alive and buzzing and as vibrant as could be. I gave them a bee patty just for good measure and they seemed pretty grateful for it.
This hive was actually doing SO well, I will need to be able to get in there and make a split before they decide to swarm.
So, now I need to learn how to do that.