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

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2010: $14,993.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Erin MacGregor-Forbes
Overland Apiaries

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: general animal production
  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, networking, on-farm/ranch research
  • Pest Management: biological control, chemical control, cultural control, disease vectors, genetic resistance, integrated pest management, mating disruption
  • Sustainable Communities: urban agriculture, urban/rural integration, social networks, sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    Recent Honey Bee “die offs” have been front-page news in the United States and across Europe for several years. The Apiary Inspectors of America report that approximately 29% of commercial honey bee colonies died in the winter of 2008-2009. Maine beekeepers, while not having been conclusively diagnosed as experiencing Colony Collapse Disorder, have been experiencing extremely high mortality levels, particularly attributed to the parasitic Varroa mite and associated diseases, averaging approximately 30% for several years. These colonies are generally replaced at significant financial expense to the beekeeper, with packaged bees produced in commercial bee breeding operations of the Southern or Western US. The project proposes to demonstrate that alternative replacement/starting colonies that come from local sources have a higher survival rate than commercially raised package bees. The project will start thirty new honey bee colonies consisting of ten traditional commercially purchased package colonies, ten commercial packages in which the queen is removed and replaced with a New England raised queen, and ten New England raised overwintered nucleus colonies. These thirty colonies will be split into two sets of fifteen, and each set of fifteen will be managed by an experienced Beekeeper and assessed multiple times over the season for health, strength and winter survival. Results of the project are expected to demonstrate the superiority of local alternatives to commercially purchased package bees in health and productivity and it is expected that the mortality rate of the local alternatives will be significantly lower than that of the traditional package colonies. Outreach will be ongoing throughout the project from grant acceptance to final report, with a series six articles describing the project progress to be published in the newsletter of the Maine State Beekeepers Association as well as a final article and PowerPoint presentation prepared for demonstration at Regional Beekeeping Association meetings. This project was undertaken in the 2009 season but due to the extraordinarily rainy weather in June and July in Maine ( extraordinarily poor weather including 28 straight days of rain), many of the project colonies did the only thing that colonies can do when under stress, replace their queen. These new queens open mated in the project bee yards, skewing the data regarding colony origin. The project proposes to run a full second season duplicating the methods of the first year to collect additional more typical data during a more typical summer season.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The proposed experiment will involve purchasing and managing thirty new honey bee colonies in the spring of 2010 and evaluating the colonies at set points for health, productivity, and overall colony strength. The colonies will be split between two “bee yards”, one managed in Standish by Mr. Peiffer and one managed in the Portland area by Ms. Forbes. Members of the cooperating club, the Cumberland County Beekeepers Association will volunteer their time to paint the hives, deliver the equipment to the apiary sites and to set up the bee yards. CCBA volunteers will also help with Bee Yard maintenance (mowing, etc) and general upkeep. The project colonies will not be opened by CCBA volunteers.`

    The thirty colonies will be comprised of 10 overwintered nucs purchased from a reputable New England bee breeder (from Connecticut) and 20 packages of honey bees imported from Georgia from a reputable commercial package bee operation.

    The 20 packages will be divided in June at which time half of the colonies will be re-queened with northern raised queens from a Vermont queen breeder as soon as 2010 queens become available. Thus, each bee yard will have five colonies started from overwintered nucs, five colonies started from packages but with northern queens introduced in June, and five colonies started from packaged bees with no alterations.

    Each colony will be started and expanded in identical new hive equipment to ensure that the colonies are on equal footing. The exterior of each hive will be painted the same dark navy color. Hive entrances will be uniquely marked with colored patterns to help the bees distinguish their own hive.

    The 20 package colonies will all be delivered and installed on the same day in both apiaries. These colonies will be purchased from the local beekeeping supplier who personally brings the packages to Maine from Georgia and whose delivery date for 2010 packages is April 15, 2010. The ten nucs will also be picked up and installed all on the same day on or about May 8, 2010. Each apiary will be managed by the project beekeeper (apiarist) for hive productivity and strength. All colonies will be fed both sugar syrup and pollen substitute in their early weeks to encourage healthy development. As with all first year colonies, the primary goal of the apiarist will be to ensure colony survival over the first winter. In the event that some colonies are able to build up enough to produce surplus honey, that honey will be harvested and measured as part of the evaluation but the hive management focus will be on building strong, healthy colonies for winter.

    Both Apiarists will use a set Varroa mite treatment (Essential Oils – Apilife Var) if treatment is necessary. Feeding of antibiotic Fumagillin will only be undertaken in the event that nosema spore counts in the fall evaluation round warrants such treatment. (Nosema Cerranae and associated disease is increasingly being found to be a primary killer of Maine honey bee colonies.) Nosema testing will be completed by the project apiarists by sampling bees on hive inspection/assessment dates and examining for Nosema levels with a microscope as well as sending samples to the State Apiarist for evaluation. Infection thresholds warranting treatment will be established with input from the State Apiarist, Anthony Jadczak.

    The Apiarists undertaking this project have clearly demonstrated their beekeeping skills and hive assessment abilities so they can avoid many of the “outlying” factors that might otherwise interfere with accurate data collection (swarming, beekeeper errors, inaccurate diagnosis of hive problems, pests or disease). The management parameters of the project will allow for the honey bee colonies to be on equal footing from the beekeeper intervention perspective, providing an opportunity to assess the colonies’ productivity and strengths on their own merits.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.