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Monday, February 20, 2017

How Many Colonies Should I Get?

We still have a ton of white stuff on the ground thanks to a couple of snow days, but the weather is warming up. Temps for the past week and predictions for the near future are in the 40 F range, which means it's time for maple sugaring! Ok, no, I don't tap trees, but rising sap means that the maples, one of our earliest flowers, will be blooming soon. And blooms mean BEES!!!

It's also the time of year when everyone is ordering bees and lots of newbies are asking, "How many colonies should I get?" The traditional answer is "Have a minimum of 2 hives." However, I'm going to disagree with this because newbies, who are already shelling out a lot of money for bees, tend to focus on the "2" and not on the "minimum" part of that statement.

Starting with two hives is fine. However, as a beekeeper, you need to be thinking ahead and planning for winter and even the following spring. If you want to ensure that at least one colony will survive  through winter, I recommend having plans for a minimum of 4 healthy, thriving colonies by wintertime.

So why do I recommend a minimum of 4 going into winter? 
If you want to skip this rest of this post, the short answer is this: Increasing the number of colonies you have increases the chances that at least one of them will survive winter. That's basically this entire post in a nutshell.

However, I actually feel that the number of hives you enter winter with should depend on how many you hope will live to see spring. If you want 4 colonies in spring, go into winter with 8. If you want a 100, enter winter with 200 colonies. However, for the new backyard hobbyist, it would be nice to have at least 2 hives make it until spring. You always want to have at least 2 hives so that you have resources to switch back and forth -- even in spring. Therefore, I recommend a minimum of 4. (PS. Mike Palmer has some great talks online for making winter nucs.)

Bees & Probability
I'm not a mathematician, so perhaps someone like Don from Buddha & the Bees will correct me, but let's say all factors are equal, each colony in your beeyard has the same potential outcomes for winter -- survive or die. So all factors being equal, every hive has a 50% chance making it. 50/50 odds are pretty terrible. That's essentially flipping a coin. Let's say H = Heads and T = Tails. According to the theory of probability, there are 2 possible outcomes for this flip:
H      T
However, when you flip a coin multiple times, your chances of landing on a desired result -- let's say landing on heads at least once -- increases. If you have 2 coins and flip them, each coin has 2 possible outcomes, so flipping 2 coins has 2x2=4 possible outcomes. The possible combinations of this flip are:
HH      HT
TH      TT  
Wow! Already the possibility of at least one coin landing on heads is vastly improved -- 3/4 (or 75%)! The chance of landing on just tails though is 1/4. 25% chance is still kind of high, but it's much smaller than 50%.

If you double the number of coins again to 4 coins, what is the probability that at least one coin will land on heads? 2x2x2x2 = 16 possible outcomes. Let's look at them:
HHHH      THHH      HHHT      THHT 
HHTH      THTH       HHTT      THTT
HTHH      TTHH       HTHT      TTHT
HTTH       TTTH       HTTT       TTTT
As you can see, the chance of landing on just tails gets much, much smaller -- 1/16 (or 6.25%). The chances of having at least 1 coin land on heads are 15/16 (93.75%).

If you doubled the number of coins again (don't worry, I'm not going to list out the combinations), you'd see an even greater probability that at least 1 coin lands on heads and an even smaller chance that all the coins would land on tails. Of course, there is also the law of diminishing returns, so after a certain point, you might want to stop flipping coins. Anyway, moving on...

How does this apply to bees? Bees aren't coins.
Exactly. That's why I added that condition to my earlier statement -- if all factors are equal. The problem with bee colonies is that each one is a living organism and can have all kinds of funky things going on. Some of these variables include colony size, health, parasites, location, hive construction issues (e.g., leaks, cracks, ventilation, insulation...), forage, colony age, queen quality, appropriate winterization, weather conditions, etc. If all factors were equal, you might not need more than 2 hives as a hobbyist, but bees are not nearly as predictable as coins. That's why I recommend going into winter with double the number of hives that you want to make it through to spring -- to account for losses that will occur due to some of those variables.

By the way, some of the variables that need to be addressed have nothing to do with bees and have more to do with the beekeeper's knowledge and experience. That's a whole 'nuther layer of issues!
My first year of beekeeping, I didn't get to experience winter since a bear ravaged my bees. As a result, by the time my second winter rolled around, I hadn't yet figured it out and had 4 colonies going into the season. Condensation killed 3, 1 survived. But the one that survived... that was crucial because most of my current 8 colonies are descended from that hive. While I still have a lot to learn, ongoing reading, sharing with other beeks, and some hard lessons learned through experience have made me a better beekeeper than I was when first started. (Hopefully.)

How can I expand my beeyard to 4 hives before winter?
If you're willing to spend the cash, you can certainly buy 4 packages or nucs to start out.
However, if money is a consideration (and for most of us, it is -- especially when local treatment-free (TF) packages go for $165 and up. TF TBH nucs are even pricier, starting around $200-$300), you have some options:

  • If your package bees are bustling and local forage conditions are good, splitting your bees is a definite possibility for expansion. The benefits of this are that you save a little dough, you're almost guaranteed to be able to make splits, and splits help protect your bees from the ravages of mites. Being fortunate enough to have good spring forage, I have pretty much always needed to split colonies started from packages, so don't let anyone tell you it can't be done. Another thing is most newbies don't know when to stop feeding. As a result, they feed and feed all year, which causes massive colony growth. If this happens, don't be afraid to split! If you scroll down to the Managing the Hive section of the FAQs I'm in the process of compiling, you'll find some info on making splits.
  • Find some local TBH beeks who might be willing to give you a shook swarm when their own bees start swarming. Since TBHs are not expandable, they tend to swarm once a year. Once my bees start making swarm cells, I split them and make up shook swarms with the old queen. Since I've reach maximum capacity for my yard, I've begun giving those shook swarms away. If you're on FaceBook, Christy Hemenway has created TBH groups for each state, so that is one way to connect with local TBH beeks who might help you out.  (To find your local group, just search for [Your state name] Top Bar Hives, replacing "[Your state name]" with the name of the state in which you reside.)
  • You can try capturing swarms. If you have places you can put traps, great. Otherwise, see if you can sign up for any local swarm capture lists. Your state agriculture department might keep a list. No doubt any local beekeeping clubs have a list. Your local police or fire department might have a list as well.  Swarms are kind of iffy, though, because you have to have bees in your area, but they're a possibility.
  • Try getting cut-outs. I'd recommend this option only if you're a handy kind of person, though.


Going into winter with four hives might be overkill...
Of course, I'm writing from my own experience in a northern climate with long, cold winters. Having double the number of desired colonies going into winter may be overkill if you live in an area with year-round forage where bees are active during all four seasons. For example, in central or south Florida, Instead of having double the number, you might only want 50% more.

Also, while I've been going into winter with double the number of colonies I actually want in spring, I've been coming through winter with a greater than 50% survival rate. That's ok. I'd rather have more bees than I want than fewer. Finding new homes for some of them is a snap since the demand for local bees outstrips supply by a great margin.

If you've been keeping bees for awhile, what is your take on the optimal number of hives going into winter?