New Bees for Newbies

Thursday 13 January 2022

Winter months are a time for planning in the beekeeper’s calendar. Planning the upcoming season will allow your apiary to run smoother, regardless of how many hives you manage. This is also a great time for someone who has only yet been considering beekeeping to prepare to dive in! Over the next few blogs, we will consider a few points that would be valuable to organize this winter. This week, we will begin with a discussion of ordering bees.

New Bees for Newbies

When spring comes and hives are unwrapped, beekeepers find out how many survived the winter. Overwintering strong hives which have been properly treated, fed, and winterized will be valuable in minimizing overwintering losses. A compelling article from researchers in Switzerland was recently released which further corroborates evidence that proper varroa mite management of winter bees improves colony success in the spring (Julie et al. 2021). Nonetheless it is not uncommon to lose a small percentage of hives to winter stresses. Beekeepers often make up for these loses by replacing colonies in the early spring. 

Unfortunately, a major challenge for the Atlantic Canada beekeeping industry is the lack of early spring queens (Bixby et al. 2019). Virgin queens typically cannot mate until late May or June at the earliest due to the absence of mature drones. Historically, the solution has been to order bees from warmer climates where queen rearing can begin much earlier, such as New Zealand and Hawaii. It is important to place these orders in the winter to ensure that they arrive when you want them. Ordering bees from outside of Canada requires special protocols which must be followed via the Canada Food Inspection Agency. There are also unique protocols for ordering bees from out of province within Canada (see protocols for Maritime provinces below). Rather than taking this on directly, it can be helpful to order imported bees through local bee suppliers who are more familiar with the legal process. 

Honey bees ordered from abroad typically come as packages of many bees or a single mated queen. A package generally holds 1-1.5 kg of adult bees as well as a mated queen. A mated queen will arrive with attendant worker bees, who are often removed from the cage before introducing the queen to a hive. Packages and individual queens must be installed into proper hives after transport and you should be prepared to do so when the bees arrive.  

Figure 1. Three common ways to buy bees. From left to right: honey bee packages (source:, nucleus colony, caged queen.

If you are not anxious to have new bees immediately at the start of spring, buying local nucleus colonies (nucs) and queens is a great way to support the Atlantic beekeeping industry. There are suppliers of local nucs and queens throughout the Atlantic provinces who typically sell between May and July. Provincial beekeeping association websites can be a valuable resource in connecting with reputable providers. Once again, it is recommended that orders be placed early because lists are typically first come, first served and supplies are limited. This is especially true for beekeepers in Newfoundland and Labrador, where honey bee importation is exceptionally restricted!

For new beekeepers, nucs are a great way to get started because they already contain the necessary building blocks for starting a new colony- bees and drawn comb! There are some considerations to keep in mind when buying a nucleus colony. A nuc should include a mated queen, frames with drawn comb and food stores, and bees of all life stages. Typically, there are 3-5 frames holding a combination of these resources. For more information on nucs, explore the new ATTTA factsheet “What is a Nucleus Colony: Information for New Beekeepers!

Bixby, M., M.M. Guarna, S.E. Hoover, and S.F. Pernal. 2019. Canadian Honey Bee Queen Breeders’ Reference Guide. Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists Publication 55 pp. 

H. Julie, J. Hattendorf, A. Aebi, et al., Compliance with recommended Varroa destructor treatment regimens improves the survival of honey bee colonies over winter, Research in Veterinary Science (2021), j.rvsc.2021.12.025

Pollinator Education New Video Release! Assessing Hive Strength: Counting Flying Bees Returning to the Hive

Check out our latest video on ATTTA's YouTube Channel about assessing hive strength. This video discusses how to assess hive strength by counting flying bees returning to the hive and the pros and cons of using this method. Watch HERE to learn more!

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