"Swarms" or Nucs

BY N.J. Gates
Apiculture specialist BCMAF

This article is reprinted and retyped from the original first published in Beesceens April 1991.Some changes from the original have been made by John Gates. Any information in italics has been added by Bill Ruzicka.

In the May 15th Issue of Bee Scene Vol. 6 No.1, Mr. Bill Ruzicka, a Kelowna beekeeper described a system of stock production he named the “6 lbs swarm". The essence of the system is that artificial swarms, averaging at least 6 Ib in weight, are created from some of his hives by shaking the entire populations of those hives. including the queens. into brood boxes prepared by his customers.

This takes place after the hives return from tree fruit pollination (May 15th or later). The brood from his shaken hives are then placed on some of his other hives to emerge, The resulting bees are used to make replacement hives. 1991price He sells the swarms for $39 • $45 depending on the time of the year they are ordered. In his article, Mr. Ruzicka lists some of the advantages & disadvantages of the system for beekeepers purchasing the swarms. What was not covered were the reasons for prospective bee producers to consider such a system of bee production or an evaluation of the honey producing potential of the swarms.

Reasons to consider the system;
In the Okanagan Valley most commercial beekeepers use almost all of their colonies for fruit tree pollination in April and May.

Some bees are sold from the colonies before pollination, but because strong colonies are required to set good fruit crops, not many bees can be taken from the hives at that time of the year. On the other hand, bee buyers who have traditionally used 2 lbs packages or nucleus colonies to produce honey need those units in April or the first week of May to produce full crops. If the "6 lbs swarms" established later 'in May were capable of producing a full honey crop. Okanagan beekeepers could sell bees alter pollination when their hives are near full strength. (Figures are for 2013year) It should be made clear, however, that selling the swarms may not produce extra revenue for the bee producers because, the colonies shaken to provide the swarms are eliminated and their replacements do not normally produce much honey. Instead, anticipated revenue from a projected honey crop to be sold sometime in the future is traded for immediate revenue from bee sales. There may be some good reasons to make this trade. If the swarms are sold for $135 and the bulk price of honey (in the barrel) sells for $ 1.60/lb delivered, the seller is guaranteeing himself the equivalent to 85 lbs honey crop. In an area like the Okanagan with a long term honey crop average of approx. 60 lbs that sounds like a good trade.

The producer actually guarantee himself the honey crop, which in the Kelowna area is very unreliable. But even with swarms sales sufficient to support farm gate honey sales.

The Test
The Following test was done in the Armstrong honey producing area of the NORTH OKANAGAN:

In 1990 Mr. Ruzicka and I compared honey production of 5, "6 lbs swarms" to that of 5, 4 frame nucleus colonies, The procedure we followed is described below;

The 4 frame nucleus colonies were fed and otherwise managed to produce as large a crop of honey as possible.

On June 20th  swarm colonies #s 1,3 and 4 received their first honey supers and on June 29"' #s 3 and 4 received a second honey super.

On. July 5th , the 4 frame nucleus colonies received their first supers. At the end of the season swarm #s 1, 3 and 4 averaged 70 lbs of honey. Swarm #2. which had a virgin queen when shaken, produced only 5. lbs. The 4 frame nucleus colonies produced 40 lbs of honey on average. Honey stores in the brood chambers were roughly comparable in the eight hives.

The swarm colonies that started with laying queens out-produced the 4 frame nucleus colonies by an average of 30 lbs per colony. If we include the swarm with the virgin queen, the swarm colonies total production was 55 lbs greater than that of the nucleus colonies. In total, the swarms produced 215 lbs of honey. The nuclei produced 160 lbs. This indicates that the "6 lbs swarms" compared favorably to 4 frame nucleus colonies for honey production.

It is always dangerous to assume that results obtained in one season and in one location can be duplicated. Beekeepers should note that this was a one-season test performed in the North Okanagan in 1990. That year the honey flow began about June 10~ and continued for much of the summer. Also, the queen stocks used in the two groups were different. If the nucleus colonies had been started earlier in the season, using overwintered or imported early season queens, their honey production should have been greater on average than we obtained in this study. Also, If the honey flow had started later in the season the nuclei should have had more time to catch up to the swarms. Nevertheless, the swarm system offers an interesting alternative to the traditional four frame nucleus colony.

In the future, to ensure that all the swarms are productive units, colonies to be shaken should be quickly checked for young brood to ensure the presence of laying queens.

We now do find the queen and check her brood before transferring her into customer box and shaking the bees.