Learn How Bees Can Be Sustainably Managed
Manage a More Environmentally Friendly Bee Yard
Reading Time: 4 minutes
If you’ve been into bees long, you know the high cost of beekeeping. Sadly, this drain on the pocketbook is one of the primary reasons many beekeepers call it quits after a couple of years of expensive replacement colonies, high-priced queens, and exorbitant shipping costs. However, bees can be sustainably managed on a year-to-year basis with minimal out of pocket expense and less impact on the environment.
Master Splits and Raising Queens
The most sustainable manner of keeping bees requires Beeks to learn skills beyond hive inspection, feeding regimens, and pest control. Learning to create splits and raise queens are, without a doubt, the most sustainable ways of reducing costs.
Don’t be intimidated by splits. Do some reading, talk to the experienced beekeepers, and take that leap of faith that so much in beekeeping requires. Bees are resilient with proper care and often manage various sizes of splits with ease — often requeening themselves with little to no help from the beekeeper.
Queen rearing, on the other hand, is possibly the most intimidating skill. However, this skill saves the cost of a new queen and exorbitant shipping costs to get her. The trick is to find a method that gives you peace of mind with its associated risks. For instance, if the risk of grafting makes you lose sleep at night, no fear. There are other less risky manners to raise a few queens for a small apiary. Walkaway splits, particularly in spring when the bees are eager to mate, are the simplest and most cost-effective manner of killing two birds with one stone—you get a new colony AND a new queen all in one fell swoop.
Even better, take advantage of swarm cells ready to be inserted into new splits. A box knife and a cell protector are all you need to cut each cell out and insert into a newly queenless split. This is how I raised queens for a few seasons before I gathered the courage to graft. This also allowed me to strengthen the genetics in my bee yards as I was able to pick and choose which swarm cells I wanted.
Worst-case scenario with any of these queen-rearing methods is that you may have to try again if a queen doesn’t return from a mating flight or if the queen doesn’t emerge from the cell. But it’s easy to try again, still with nothing really to lose.
Sell Your Nucs
Here’s a hidden gem in the beekeeping world — you don’t really have to learn how to makes splits nor how to raise queens. There are other ways to acquire new colonies and fresh queens. But first, let’s talk about the no-splitting issue.
I’ve heard numerous beekeepers say they don’t want to make splits because they don’t want to increase their numbers. OK, that makes sense. Understand that the single most driving force behind any bee colony is the urge to do the thing that increases the colony — swarming! There is no way around it, bees WANT to swarm. But, that’s a good thing for you even if you don’t want more colonies.
A happy, healthy colony that wants to swarm is the perfect way to pay “bee rent.” Make that split, knowing you don’t want to increase your numbers. Then go to your local bee club and let the members know you have a nuc to sell. Your bees just paid their rent for the year and your apiary numbers stay where you want them. Nucs sell like crazy as seemingly every bee community is in short supply of local nucs.
On the flip side, if you’re the beekeeper searching for a package or a nuc, put out feelers at your local club, make posts on social media or Craigslist, and you’re likely to find the aforementioned beekeeper trying to sell his surplus bees. By keeping your purchase local, you save on shipping, you get less travel-stressed bees, and as a bonus, you’ll likely have a colony better suited to your local environment.
The same holds true for queens. It is true that queen rearing is much less common than the sale of surplus nucs, but local queen producers are out there. It just takes effort to find them at times. Sometimes that local queen may be 50 miles away, but it’s more sustainable to spend an extra $15 in gas for a locally raised queen than it is to spend $40 in shipping for a highly stressed queen from across the country.
Finally, there’s the free swarm up for grabs. The advantage of buying bees vs catching swarms is in the comb and the age of the queen. Nucs come with a minimum of four frames of comb and a fresh queen while a swarm has no comb and the queen is often an older queen. However, I’ve caught many swarms with virgin queens that go on to mate and come back ready to go. Some of these have even become my breeder queens, so you stand a good chance of strong genetics with swarms.
Maybe you prefer to keep costs closer to zero. It costs nothing to volunteer to assist another beekeeper in his or her yard in exchange for a few queens or even a nuc or two. Most beekeepers keep bees as a hobby and don’t want their numbers to grow. Hit one up and ask if they’d be willing to let you help with inspections, honey harvesting, mite treatments, or even in readying equipment. You’d be surprised how many beekeepers appreciate occasional help, and you’ll gain extra knowledge along the way in addition to a few new bees.