A Comparison of Honey Bee Colony Strength and Survivability between Nucleus and Package Started Colonies

2009 Annual Report for FNE09-665

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2009: $9,993.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Erin MacGregor-Forbes
Overland Apiaries

A Comparison of Honey Bee Colony Strength and Survivability between Nucleus and Package Started Colonies


Interim Report

Honey bees are crucial to successful agriculture and environmental health, and the overall decline of honey bee health has become front-page news for the past several years. In recent years, the annual mortality rate of honey bee colonies in Maine has steadily increased due primarily to the parasitic Varroa mite and associated diseases. Additionally, beekeeping costs are increasing due to the increased cost of replacement colonies, queens, specialized equipment, medications and transportation.
Currently most Maine beekeepers rely on “package bees” and Southern or West Coast raised queen bees to restart their hives or establish new hives. These are “Italian” race honey bees and they generally come from commercial suppliers in Georgia, Alabama, Texas, or California. These colonies of honey bees are often not well suited for the New England climate and are less effective in honey production and pollination in this area than they are in milder areas. Many hives started with packaged bees do not survive the winter. Packaged bees are, by definition, stressed colonies. They are far more susceptible to downturns in spring weather conditions, disease transmission, and pest and parasite infestation. Unfortunately packaged honey bees are the most widely used and promoted method of starting new colonies across the nation, including in Maine.
Our project addresses the Farmer Grant focus of exploring sustainable and innovative production practices through “on-farm” demonstration during the natural cycle of honey bee colonies in Maine. The project and expected results demonstrate sustainable methods of starting new and rebuilding dead colonies while getting off of the “treadmill” of packaged bees and commercially raised queens. The project is designed to demonstrate the viability and potential superiority of local (Maine and New England) alternatives to packaged bees and commercially raised queens from the South and West Coast.
Many beekeepers feel that the sustainability of beekeeping hinges on new ways of operating that depend on local bee and queen breeders to produce replacement and new starting colonies in their area. However, due to the short queen rearing season in Maine and New England, in this part of the county local colonies are often difficult to find and often not available until well after the primary honey flow and pollination seasons are over (Queens are usually not available until Mid-June, long after the Apple and other pollination seasons are over).

Hives started with a locally raised over-wintered nucleus colony “Nuc” have a greater potential to develop into a strong, sustainable colony than a colony started with a package. Over wintered Nucs are made up of honey bees in all stages of development as well as food (honey and pollen), a laying locally raised queen bee that has “proven” her abilities through her first winter, and enough nurse, worker, and field bees to build up into a strong full strength colony over the course of the spring and summer. Essentially the nuc is a “micro hive” with an already established organization that allows for rapid expansion. Over-wintered nucs are nucleus colonies that are created from “parent” hives in the prior summer, when the “parent” colony can easily replace the frames of brood and bees used to create the nuc. The Queens also are raised and mated in the previous summer and “prove” their successful mating and development by heading the over-wintered nuc from creation, through winter, until the following spring when they are used as the foundation for the new production colony.
Our project also proposes a compromise option between Overwintered Nucs and Packaged bee colonies. Since all honey bees in the colony with the exception of the queen live for less than two months in the summer, our strategy will be to re-queen purchased packages with northern raised queens as soon as such queens become available. (Mid-Late June). Once accepted by the colony, the northern raised queens will produce offspring that are her own daughters, and therefore better suited to winter over in the New England climate, and by the end of August, our colony will be comprised entirely of honey bees suited to the area.
Our proposed project therefore offers two potential alternatives to the traditional treadmill of purchasing commercial packaged bees in the spring and losing the colony over the winter. Our solutions will demonstrate that despite the many threats to Maine honey bee colonies, sustainability is achievable by maintaining healthy colonies of northern raised honey bees that are particularly well adapted to our climatic conditions.
Our solution is to use a side-by-side comparison of overwintered nucs, packaged bees with commercial queens, and packaged bees in which the queen has been replaced with a northern raised queen to:
? Increase awareness among Maine beekeepers that there are options for purchasing or repopulating colonies other than purchasing from the traditional southern and western sources.
? Demonstrate that northern raised bees can be obtained and raised in time to provide valuable pollination services, build to sufficient wintering stength, and often collect surplus honey crops, even in their first year.
? Promote sustainable beekeeping practices overall by emphasizing Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and reducing chemical/antibiotic beekeeping use throughout our educational and outreach efforts.

Objectives/Performance Targets

All colonies were started on time and within the project specifications.
Articles were written describing activities in the SARE yard for each issue of The Bee Line (the newsletter of the Maine State Beekeepers Association) during the projcet.

Hive Assessment tool was created and used for all evaluations.


Management Progress as of February, 2010

As of February 2, 2010, all twenty four colonies were alive and clustered for winter.
The project participants purchased all new hive equipment in March 2009 for the 24 project colonies. Volunteer beekeepers from the Cumberland County Beekeepers Association helped to get all 96 boxes painted in just one day. The packages were picked up and installed in April 2009 and the nucs were installed in May. All colonies were fed constantly from installation through the end of May when they had substantially built out their “nests” and were able to forage for their own food.
Then in June it began to rain. In June 2009 it rained for 28 straight days. In addition, the average daily temperature was just 58 degrees and record low temperatures were also set in the first half of July. Honeybees can not fly in the rain, and they also need 50 degree temperature to fly to forage. This weather was extremely tough on all honeybee colonies, but particularly hard on new colonies just starting to get established. Some new colonies maintained by less experienced beekeepers literally starved to death during this period. All of the SARE colonies were greatly stressed by the weather. The project participants actually resumed feeding the SARE colonies at the beginning of July to prevent the colonies from approaching a starvation situation.
The project participants did manage to re-queen the packages in mid June (on a rare break in the weather) with Vermont raised queens, but acceptance was a struggle and both yards experienced higher than normal incidences of swarming and supercedure due to the stress on the bees from the confinement in the hives. As with many other farming operations, beekeepers must adapt to the weather conditions as best they can.
The project participants inspected the colonies as scheduled, recorded hive details on a specific evaluation form and gathered data for health and strength evaluations. In addition, samples of bees were collected and tested for nosema and for tracheal mites. Three outside “expert hive evaluators” also came on different inspection dates and participated in the hive inspections and data collection. These outside experts were the State Apiarist Tony Jadczak, Master Beekeeper Rick Cooper, and experienced beekeeper Davida Sky. These outside evaluators manipulated and inspected the colonies and rated them for strength and health.
In fall 2009 honey was harvested and weighed from those colonies with surplus and all colonies were prepared for winter. Organic Essential oil based Varroa Mite Treatments were done using Apilife Var in September and mite counts were taken pre-treatment, during treatment and post treatments. Screened Bottom Board inserts were re-installed for the mite treatments and were left in for winter. Homasote insulation boards were provided for winter insulation and moisture absorption. The colonies were not wrapped. Most colonies looked “very good” going into winter.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Data Accumulation Progress as of February, 2010

As of February 2, 2009 the project participants are still compiling the data from the hive inspection sheets and disease test results. The colonies are all alive at this time, but the toughest winter months for bees (February-March) are still ahead. Survivability is the number one criteria for valuation of colony strength in spring and we will not have that information until late April.
On March 27, 2010 the project participants will present a short update to the Annual Meeting of the Maine State Beekeepers Association. This will be in the form of a Power Point presentation with slides and a preliminary set of data from the hive inspections, ranking the colonies for health and strength as they went into winter. The final project evaluation will be made in May, when the bees are “out of the woods” and winter has passed. In mid-late May the project participants will present a full length workshop presentation and Power Point program of the final grant results at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. This program will be maintained and made available for presentation at other regional and state meetings as requested.
The project has generated an incredible amount of awareness among beekeepers of the alternatives in colony starts. The SARE grant articles in the Bee Line keep the membership engaged and thinking about the colonies and the management techniques we have been using. Sustainable Beekeeping practices (such as use of the organic Varroa mite treatment) and IPM management practices have been promoted through ongoing discussion in the articles. We have received substantial positive feedback from beekeepers both in person and by email.
We will not have final data as to the health advantages of the colonies until we see the condition of the colonies in the spring. Anecdotally however, at this point we have seen substantially higher instance of bee disease (viral primarily) in the package colonies. The swarming and supercedure rates may skew our data but we expect to at least be able to show some type of trend in colony health.
Final Report will be presented to SARE in May after the completion and presentation of the final results and Power Point program.


Anthony Jadczak

[email protected]
Technical Advisor, State Apiarist
Maine Department of Agriculture
Division of Plant Industry
SHS #28
Augusta, ME 04333
Office Phone: 2072873891