(A slightly longer version of this article appeared in the April, 2013 issue of Bee Culture magazine).
The resurgence of interest in honeybees is generating not only a new crop of backyard beekeepers, but also an uptick in the number of small and sideline apiaries operating across the US. I view the rise of these small operations as one of the most encouraging signs for beekeeping today. Aside from the prospect of providing many families with an added income stream or livelihood, small and sideline apiaries stand to add resilience to the industry by diversifying our stocks of bees genetically and geographically, bolstering the production and appreciation of local honeys, and producing local queens and bees sold for apiary increase.
Every emerging enterprise, however, faces its own set of hurdles and growing pains. A noticeable consequence in the appearance of these young apiary businesses is their varying level of quality control, especially as it relates to the sale of nucleus colonies (nucs). The following account illustrates what can happen when “bad nucs” change hands, emphasizing the need for both sellers and buyers of bees to better understand the complexities of this product.
Expanding with Purchased Nucs
In December 2011, with a few seasons of enthusiastic backyard beekeeping behind me, I made the decision to expand my apiary from three to thirty hives in the span of one year. I projected my inputs and outputs, drafting a work plan in which these colonies would become the seed stock for a modest, one-hundred hive honey production operation that I hoped to have up and running by 2014.
I made the decision to carry out this expansion with purchased nucs rather than package bees. I reasoned that, though I’d be paying more per nucleus colony and installing it about a month later than a package of bees, I’d also be getting a more solid start with a set of already established hives. Most importantly, I’d be acquiring groups of bees led by a vetted, laying queen with desirable characteristics.
A few days of internet research and price-comparing led me to a small apiary in New York state, located two hours away from my home. This operation seemed to offer many of the attributes I was looking for in bees. Here were a few of the seller’s claims, as noted in the operation’s website:
“Our queens are specially bred from hygienic stock that has been selected for honey production, wintering ability, and ease of manipulation.”
“I never use chemicals on my bees and never plan to, so you’ll be getting bees that are strong and well worth the money.”
“We test each queen for laying ability and production…”
A phone conversation with the proprietor—who emphasized his experience as a third-generation beekeeper—clinched the deal and confirmed the availability of the bees next spring. We settled on an order of 21 nucs scheduled for pickup in mid-May. I felt hopeful and glad to move on to the next steps of purchasing and preparing equipment for the season ahead.
Early Problems: Delayed Nucs and Missing Queens
The first in a long line of problems I experienced with my seller and his product was a substantial delay in the availability of the bees. Due to a cold snap coupled with prolonged rains in late April, the apiary had been unable to properly breed their initial round of queens, so orders would start two weeks late. This seemed reasonable enough to me, knowing the effect that fluctuations in the weather can have on queen mating. But the two weeks turned into a three, four, and ultimately five week delay—an increasingly stressful period in which I wondered if the bees would materialize at all.
The next surprise appeared the day after picking up the nucs. Despite having randomly inspected several prior to acceptance and found them satisfactory, I was displeased to find while installing them in their new hives that 20% of the units were in fact queenless. Of these, several already showed capped supersedure or swarm cells—a clear sign that the nucs had either swarmed prior to their date of sale or experienced a queen failure.
Late Problems: Pests, Sick Comb and Disease
No sooner had I stabilized my nucs from the missing queens than I encountered the next problem accompanying my purchased colonies of bees: small hive beetles. Though common in much of the southern US, small hive beetles are not a regular feature of the western Massachusetts landscape and until this point I had never before seen them in my own hives or those of any other beekeeper in my county. Yet here they were, suspiciously present in the colonies I’d purchased but nowhere to be seen in my own overwintered hives.
H. How (not) to buy a nuc
Small hive beetle larvae feeding on pollen patty removed from a nuc.
Since I’d never confronted their kind before, dealing with these creatures entailed a sharp learning curve. I quickly discovered that female beetles are delighted to lay eggs in and around pollen patties, and that commercial traps hung between frames and filled with oil proved largely ineffective. Ultimately, the only way I found to manage these pests without recourse to chemicals entailed conducting lengthy inspections throughout the summer to find and remove each of the adult beetles. (This is easier said than done!).
Then, as if I hadn’t yet experienced enough complications, around the end of September four of the purchased nucs in one yard suddenly crashed under heavy mite and viral loads (no other colonies in my operation experienced this), while a fifth nuc in another yard showed tell-tale symptoms of American Foulbrood (AFB). This last discovery was particularly worrisome to me, given the highly infectious nature of this disease and its potential to devastate an entire operation if left unchecked.
Ropey test confirming the presence of American Foulbrood in a failing nuc.
Since my bees are isolated from other bee yards and I have never had a case of AFB before, I can only conclude that it entered my apiary by way of the old, contaminated comb included with my purchased nucs. To keep the disease from spreading, I was forced to burn the infected hive and prophylactically treat all other hives in the bee yard with a powdered antibiotic (Terramycin).
After reviewing my season’s records, conducting final inspections and combining weak colonies in early October, only 11 of the 21 nucleus colonies I purchased remained viable in my operation. So much for a good return on my investment!
While they are more the exception than the rule, there are several ways in which unscrupulous beekeepers can cut corners at the buyer’s expense when selling nucs. Perhaps the most common, already outlined above, is to include old, damaged (and potentially diseased) frames in the sold product. In this way the seller literally gets paid to get rid of old comb, which any responsible apiary would instead be rotating out at intervals of five years or less at their own expense.
Old and damaged frames culled from the nucs I purchased this spring, prior to being burned. The central frame is apparently 28 years old, and several frames bear markings from beekeepers unaffiliated to the nuc seller. How many chemicals and pathogens has such wax has been exposed to?
Another notorious practice is to outfit nucs with non-productive, second-year queens that have been culled from production hives due to subpar performance. This saves the beekeeper the trouble and expense of producing and mating fresh spring queens, or of parting with his younger set of productive, over-wintered queens. In recent years I’ve also heard of nucs originating from the south being sold in New England whose queens were likely Africanized, and of attractively priced summer nucs assembled from heavily medicated, stressed-out migratory colonies whose performance ultimately disappointed their customers.
Some operations will raise nucs for sale in waxed cardboard boxes for up to eight weeks. Though cheap and convenient for transportation purposes, these containers are unsatisfactory for long term field use because they are poorly ventilated, will absorb moisture and consequently promote mold and fungal disease such as Chalkbrood.
Practical Advice for Buyers and Sellers
Given the lack of anything but an informal code of ethics governing the exchange of nucs, the best lines of defense we have as beekeepers are the same time-tested principles that apply to any sustainable agricultural enterprise: be informed, use common sense, and permeate your work with care and attention to detail. In this spirit, I offer a few recommendations that might help nuc buyers and sellers with their transactions.
Understand the pros and cons of purchasing a nuc. Acquiring a lousy nuc is a potential liability which will at best not pay for itself, and at worst jeopardize your entire operation. Conversely, a “good nuc” purchased from a reliable source will be not only problem-free, but a delight to work with and a simple way to improve or expand your apiary.
Network to evaluate vendors. Fellow beekeepers are your best resource in vetting sellers. Do not purchase nucs from anyone unless you can confirm positive experiences by beekeepers that you personally know or trust. Do not purchase nucs based purely on information described in ads, hearsay, or websites.
Inspect your nucs before accepting them. You have both the right and obligation to inspect a nuc before accepting it.
Learn to recognize problems early. Whether it’s a disease, pest, or queen issue, you should be able to diagnose and recognize problems early. If in doubt, seek the help and advice of fellow beekeepers and/or your county bee inspector.
Be vocal. Reputation is critical to every beekeeping business, so share both good and bad experiences among your peers. In doing so, you will bolster reputable beekeepers and weed out the hucksters
Know your strengths and limitations. Do not attempt to sell nucs or queens unless you’ve spent ample time refining your practices, and are confident in your capacity to deliver a high quality product on a timely basis.
Mark your queens, date your comb. It doesn’t take much time to do and saves customers a bundle of trouble—they will find and keep track of queens with greater ease and be reassured about the age and quality of the comb you provide them with.
Charge what you deserve. A top quality nuc takes a great deal of skill, labor, and resources to assemble, so charge accordingly!
Educate your customers. Just as your bees and honey are a crop, think of your customers as a crop as well. Ensure their success by providing support materials and/or advice that they can refer to as they care for their nucs.
Consider registering with the Better Business Bureau. Doing so brings a great deal of reassurance to your clientele about your practices; it also offers valuable arbitration services should any business-related disputes occur.
Queens among dark lines of bees can be especially hard to spot in a crowded hive. Marking makes finding them much easier, and lets you know if she has been replaced (her replacement won’t bear a mark). This photo shows my breeder queen, purchased from Glenn Apiaries in California. Her marking is so bright that I can often spot her on a comb without even removing it from the hive.