- Becoming independent of industrialized package bees and raise acclimated local bees
- Learn how to propagate your own queens
- Prioritizing in order of importance to you: collecting honey, over-wintering, being organic, creating local strain of bees
- Making a profit from your bees
To achieve these goals you have some decisions to make.
Decision 7: Becoming independent of industrialized package bees and raise acclimated local bees
Buying industrial packaged bees most likely means you are buying bees not bred for our northwest climate. Producing local bees means producing your own queens, which can be done once you have invested in one or more colonies of bees.
Decision 8: Learn how to propagate your own queens
Classes are available to teach you the various techniques of which there are many.
Decision 9: Prioritizing in order of importance to you: collecting honey, over-wintering, being organic, creating local strain of bees
Are you hoping to get honey the first year from your package bees? Will you take almost all honey and cross your fingers hoping they will overwinter or take little honey and leave plenty for the bees?
This is at best a 50/50 proposition. In the first year, you need to build 30-40 frames of comb, and have the bees and the weather in your favor. There are three major flows In Washington State:
- Maples in the spring
- Blackberries in summer which is our best crop and
- Knotweed in the fall (at least half of which is fall feed).
The best time to pull honey is after the blackberry so you can put the drawn comb back in the hive. If you are lucky or feed heavily in the fall, you can take some knotweed too.
Pollen and honey are resources. When you take it from the colony the bees either need to work harder due to the shortfall, do without it and probably die, or they need to be supplemented with feed and pollen patties. Winter months are a challenge so leaving 60 lbs of honey is the most important foundation block to winter survival.
Drawn comb is the most valuable resource to manage after total bee/colony quantity. Bees tend to draw most or the entire comb in the spring up to and through blackberry. After that, unless there is a huge flow, they will not draw comb but instead fill nooks and crannies on existing comb. If you put a box with clean frames on in August, you will increase the amount of space the bees need to guard and actually decrease the honey crop.
Decision 10: Making a profit from your bees
Beekeeping is analogous to farming: you are dependent on the weather and how much crop you bring in. With 1-4 colonies, it is possible to pay some costs. An average hive brings in 35 lbs of surplus honey, which sells for say $10 per pound. If you do the math as a 1st year beekeeper, considering the bees, the gear, feeding, maybe medication, spinning and bottling it would be hard to come out money ahead, let alone making enough to bank.
A strong queen and the resulting large colony will produce a lot of honey, but a strong colony is harder to manage for swarms so you could watch your honey potential fly away. As backup for a weak queen or swarming event, set up a couple of nucleus colonies. David Feinberg recommends five frame nucs because they build really well, do not get too big, and often make honey the first year.
Overwintering your colonies contributes to improving the bottom line. More hives mean more honey. Splitting is a good way to increase the number of colonies. You can split one colony into two or two colonies into three or four. There are different ways to provide queens for each of the new colonies: buying queens, using late spring or early summer swarm cells, or even letting a split create its own queen. Overwintering means you have bees that have survived the challenges such as varroa and nosema so you need to decide how you feel about medicating. If you go treatment-free, you must be willing to risk the loss of colonies. There are various resources to help you with that including longtime beekeepers Michael Bush and Randi Oliver web sites addressing the topic.