Ideas for BKAs to provide members with colonies of bees
One constant complaint I hear is that Beekeeping Associations are unable to supply the demand for colonies of bees from beginners. It really does concern me when I see and hear BKAs purchasing nuclei, sometimes in considerable numbers, from commercial sources, because they say they can't produce enough to satisfy demands.
I don't wish to be critical of local BKAs because they are run by volunteers, many of whom have limitations on their time and in many cases their knowledge too, as some are fairly new to beekeeping and are still learning themselves. I have a lot of sympathy because in the last few years there has been a huge influx of new beekeepers who want both teaching and bees, some wanting the bees before the teaching! In many instances I have seen people teaching who are little more than beginners themselves, with little or no supervision. Although probably not the best situation they should be applauded for their efforts.
This page is written as a source of help for those who run BKAs, in the hope I can encourage them to produce enough bees to satisfy the demands of their beginners. I think I am reasonably well qualified to offer advice as I am the apiary manager of the Wisborough Green BKA. This is a very busy teaching apiary, where members can learn a lot of skills and gain knowledge and experience. From this we supply new beekeepers with their first colonies. At the end of most seasons, following various demonstrations during the summer, we usually have a surplus of colonies that we have to unite. This gives us opportunities for teaching, but they could be put into the winter to provide bees for beginners next year. Not all the suggestions below are used at Wisborough Green, but they are ideas that can probably be used in a number of different ways. I hope you find this page helpful.
A BKA needs to give practical teaching at the hive, obviously meaning hives of bees. I am lucky in that at Wisborough Green BKA we have had a teaching apiary for about 50 years. It has had its ups and downs, but at the moment it is an incredible facility where members of all abilities can learn. There are a surprising number of BKAs who still haven't got a teaching apiary. These usually visit members or perhaps one person will use their apiary for teaching, so it is going to be much more difficult for them to provide the required number of colonies.
I think it's important for the new beekeeper to be introduced to beekeeping in a fairly controlled way if possible. I accept that on occasions this isn't possible, as we have all heard of the beekeeper who started when a swarm clustered in their garden and they didn't think of keeping bees anyway.
At Wisborough Green BKA we have Preliminary sessions where potential beekeepers can handle full colonies of bees on several occasions and be a reasonably competent handler before they come to scheduled meetings, where they continue learning. This gives them a good idea of the commitment required and more importantly gets them stung a few times. It is surprising how quickly some enthusiastic people give up the idea of beekeeping after a sting or two! I think this is a much better approach than someone getting bees before they know what is involved. It also saves a lot of time and resources, because we don't have to produce bees that get wasted.
One major problem with beekeeping is the "I want, I want, I want and I want it now!" mentality. I try to discourage that and ask newcomers not to buy any bees or equipment until they have been assessed, have discussed it with their family and neighbours, have somewhere to keep them and are comfortable handling and managing a colony on their own. This might seem offensive to some, but I can tell you that it is appreciated by many. We do have those who won't listen and charge off into the distance, but they often don't make good beekeepers and always need help.
At this point we have filtered out those who are likely to become good caring beekeepers and discouraged those who may not, so we can concentrate on teaching those who are willing to learn, rather than abandon their bees that have cost a lot in cash and effort from others. We satisfy ourselves the beginner is ready to have bees and can handle them competently on their own. We are in a rural area, so there is little problem with somewhere to keep them, but it's always worth checking! So, now we need to find them some bees........
What sort of bees?
I know there is a view that beginners should start with a 5 frame nucleus of docile bees and definitely not a swarm, but having been teaching for well over 40 years I strongly disagree with that approach. "Docile" bees often mean imports, which, although being very gentle when purchased can often become aggressive in subsequent generations. They are often very prolific, building up into huge colonies quite quickly. They often need very heavy feeding, without which starvation can be a problem. On top of that they very often aren't best suited to our climate. I would prefer beginners to have good tempered bees that have been bred locally. I accept they may not be quite as soft and docile, but the beginner will learn far more about the use of smoke and controlling a colony.
I don't disagree with a nucleus, as it gives the opportunity to learn how a colony expands. At Wisborough Green we provide a 5 frame nucleus as part of a "Beginners Package". We supply between early May and the end of July. Occasionally the beginner has taken a crop of honey in their first season.
Some Benefits of BKA supplied bees.
My approach to teaching is to offer as much relevant information as you can. Very often you can teach several things from what was originally one subject. Taking colony increase as an example you may be able to include such things as:-
None of these can be taught if the bees are ordered online and plonked down in the beginners garden without you seeing them. What does the beginner learn other than just reading a few instructions?
How can you do it?
We have a standard package, or more accurately, currently three versions of it, depending if the beginner wants just bees or a hive too. We think it's important for everyone to have the same, or as close as possible. They know what they should be getting because it is written down, together with prices. They make their nucleus up from colonies in the teaching apiary, add a queen from our queen rearing section and keep it in the teaching apiary until they take it home, probably early/mid August. When they come to meetings they handle their own colony under supervision and clip and mark the queen without aids. This serves several purposes. The beginner learns from others, their queen is clipped and marked and we are satisfied the colony is good tempered and strong enough to go into winter.
I think it is important that each BKA does things to suit themselves and their situation, rather than just copy others, so I encourage them to think carefully before deciding how they are going to produce bees. What I will say is there is absolutely no reason in my view why any BKA can't supply their own beginners with bees. That might appear to be a pretty bold statement, but that's the point of this page. I also have a reputation of being positive, seeing opportunities and getting things done!
The supply of bees will help in other areas of teaching, so there are benefits all round. You will obviously need somewhere to put the bees you are using to stock the nucs. This could be in the teaching apiary or offsite, perhaps at a temporary apiary or one of the members who has sufficient space.
If the usual precautions are taken of hiving a swarm on foundation and not feeding for a few days, I have no problem with beginners starting with a swarm. There is so much to learn, but these days with the queen problems, swarms can be very disappointing for a beginner. There is the added problem that each one is different, so not all recipients will receive the same.
I think I would avoid hiving directly into the beginners hives, but swarms can still be useful. They can be hived and built up into colonies, where their health can be assessed and treated if necessary by an experienced beekeeper. Unless the queens are good, you might choose to requeen them. If the swarm is early and large, in a few weeks they should have built up into a colony from which you can remove a nucleus, so the beginner has two colonies to go into winter. A beginner will learn far more than by simply buying a box online.
During most summers there is usually a surplus of swarms. Alert your members to the fact you need them, so they collect them and either hive them or pass them on to you. There is a Wisborough Green member who lives on the edge of our catchment area. He collects 6-10 swarm calls every year, but doesn't want any more bees. He has spare ground, so I let him have some old hives, a pack of frames and some foundation. When he gets a swarm, he just makes some frames, hives the swarm and lets me collect at the end of the season. I usually requeen them, but the following year I can make nucs up from good bees with young combs. Very often with early swarms they build up strongly, so he puts his own supers on and any honey is perks for him. This sort of arrangement can work anywhere.
From the Apiary.
The making of nuclei is always good for teaching. A nucleus can be made from one or several colonies. Teaching apiaries always need small colonies, so it serves several purposes.
My method of increase will produce a reasonably large number of colonies from one, so is useful for a BKA. It is accessible from the button on the top left.
Queen Mating Nuclei.
If the BKA has a queen rearing facility a number of two frame nucs can be set up early in the season. Depending on the location you can usually expect 3 mated queens out of each in most years. They usually build up into sizeable colonies to overwinter. These can be used for making up nucs for beginners the following year.
Keep in the Apiary.
At one BKA I visited all the colonies in the teaching apiary were those supplied to beginners that year. I don't know how they were sourced, but it could be from another apiary or one of the members allowed their premises to be used. At the end of the year, all those colonies were removed by the owners and a new lot were installed the following year. I don't know the finer details, but it does mean the BKA won't need to look after them overwinter or pay for feeding, but they won't get any honey either, so less revenue.
I believe that most of the methods of increase that are on this website will suit a BKA who are supplying members.