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?


  1. We bunged together a spreadsheet some years ago about this. If p is the probability of a colony making it through the winter to the next year then the probability of being entirely beeless is (1.0 - p) to the power of the number of initial colonies. So four colonies with fifty-fifty odds, p = 0.5, has a one out of sixteen chance of leaving you entirely beeless.

    If you are a slightly worse beekeeper such that p = 0.4 then four colonies gives you one around out of eight chance to become beeless but if you are a little better such that p = 0.6 then four colonies gives you only about one out of forty chance of beelessness. The extra colonies really magnify the effects of a little more skill.

    1. Oooh! Thanks for weighing in! Love that you put together a spreadsheet. It sounds like we're saying the same thing, but you did it with more math. Man, I'm so jealous of people who can math. :-)

      Also, you've proven one of the points I tried to make -- new beeks typically are less skillful, so increased hive numbers help offset their lack of experience.

      Thanks again for sharing those numbers. You've made my inner geek's day!!!

  2. Even though I have a degree in Mathematics, I can't do math in my head anymore. That's what computers (and spreadsheets) are for. ;-)

    I have to disagree though with the whole premise for new beekeepers though. I started with one (not even the suggested "minimum"), hoping to add another the next year. The stress of maintaining one colony through worry was plenty but I could give that one colony all my attention and devotion - increasing it's chances of survival. I was fortunate that it survived the first winter and the next year, I got another package, so I had my desired two. But in year 3, the first colony died, but I ended up with 2 more by splitting the remaining colony. So, my 2 going into winter, turned into 3 come spring (plus I caught a swarm so was up to 4). I never would have had the confidence to do the split in year 2 as a newbee, but maybe that's just me. Managing twice the number of hives you want to have could be daunting to a new beek.

    I think you should go into the winter with 50% more than you want to survive and then split in the spring to make up the losses. So I'd say 6 if you want to have 4 next spring. If you only had 2 survive, you could be back up to 4 in no time. No math there, just empirical forecasting.

    For newbees, I would suggest starting small, accepting that you will lose 1/2 or all your colonies over winter, and rebuild from swarms and splits the next year rather than buying packages or nucs. That's the fun part of beekeeping - learning new trades, being self sufficient, and being cheap. Especially heed Julie's advice about ways to increase your numbers without buying bees.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Don. That's a good point about first year beeks who might feel too intimidated to make splits. It really helps to have a mentor who can help out -- or at least a community of online beeks to walk you through it. You're right about time, too. The first year, it takes longer to inspect -- especially since new beeks always seem to be looking for queens! :-) However, going into winter with 50% more bees than you want is a good compromise in terms of cost, time, and numbers.

      You were very fortunate that your colony made it through the first winter. Even though I'd ordered 2 colonies, bear attacks at my supplier's apiary limited his ability to provide nucs, so I received only one -- which was then attacked by a bear a my house in late fall. It was an awesome colony, so I could have split it a couple of times if I hadn't been so chicken. After the bear attack, though, I really wished I had. Having 1-3 extra colonies might have made a huge difference in terms of having more numbers and having resources to spread around (because I actually kept those poor bees alive until about February in my garage).

      Even more than losing the bees, though, I regret having to start from square one in terms of how to deal with winter the following year -- that inexperience caused me to lose 3/4 of my hives. It's no good being a beekeeper years on end if the bees never make it through winter. In a cold climate, knowing how to pull through to spring is a critical skill. Besides, losing bees feels bad all-around. It's awful for the bees, it's awful for my family, and it's awful for my wallet.

      Btw, you cracked me up with "That's the fun part of beekeeping - learning new trades, being self sufficient, and being cheap." Hahaha! I love that because it's so true! Every time I rig something out of scraps for the beeyard, it makes me feel like MacGyver! LOL!

    2. I guess my basic point is that for newbees, just keeping the few hives you have alive is all you can manage the first couple of years. I think the more hives you have and less experience, the more you are likely to be in p=0.2. I see posts on FB and newsgroups where people say they are just starting out and plan to have 20 hives. I keep thinking - I hope that works out for you, but guess in many cases it doesn't for all the reasons you cite.

      You are so right - I was very lucky that the first year hive made it - despite my lack of knowledge. They just barely made it, but as my mentor said - "Be happy - you got them through the winter!" Thank goodness I don't have bears in my neighborhood - I'd have been screwed! If you had done your split and didn't need to buy new bees after the bear attack, you still might have lost 3/4 of your hives due to inexperience. But now you are an experienced beek and you are more likely to pull your colonies through the winter. You have a bear fence (imagine if that attack hadn't happened until year 3 and you had 8 colonies!), know how to do increases and keep varroa counts low, and plenty of spare equipment (or at least scraps to make nucs) to make some splits and sell them!

      I think these days, we don't teach newbees that they are probably going to lose some (or all) of their bees the first few years. There are too many stressors on the bees today - lack of forage and pesticides creating weak bees that can't deal with pests like varroa and associated diseases. Gone are the days where you could just put out a hive and it would just thrive. I know I didn't get that message (or at least it didn't sink in). It still hurts when my bees die, but I use that as a learning experience for the next year.

      I use the scraps from my hive making not only for the bees, but for so many other things as well - door shims, props, etc. But mostly, they just clutter up my garage. ;-)

  3. I have one comment on your statistical analysis. If with 4 coins, the chances of having at least 1 coin land on heads are 15/16, then the chances of having 1 coin land on tails are are also 15/16. Mathematics makes my head hurt, so that's all I have to say 'bout that.

    Unless you have an experienced beekeeper in your yard tending to your hives while you look over their shoulder, I'm in the school of thought that the more you start with the more you have to lose. I started with one hive and am SO glad I did. It didn't make it into Spring because there was SO much I didn't know. We'd read all the books, had gone to bee club meetings, conferred with other TBH beekeepers, but we didn't have first-hand knowledge to know what we were seeing. From that one colony and that first loss, we learned a boat load. It made us think hard about what the bees needed that we failed to provide. Those early lessons paid off because when we restocked we still only had one hive, but it became two. The second became 4, luckily in another beekeeper's yard because we're only allowed two in ours.

    I wish I would've stuck with just one style hive, though. When I start up again, I'm torn between which to restock, my TBH or my Warré.

    1. You are so right about first-hand experience and loss being the best teachers. That's sort of another benefit of having more hives, though. When I had one hive, I was seeing what was happening in just the one hive, and it was my only teacher. But when I suddenly had four, I felt that I learned much more in the same span of time because each colony was presenting different issues to research. Of course, fake-it-'til-you-make-it is frequently my preferred style of learning, but it's admittedly not for everyone.

      Of course, if you have 4 coins, the chances of at least one landing on tails is also 15/16. But I guess I'm heartless enough to say that losses are to be expected in beekeeping. For me, it's the live one that matters because it can replace the losses.

      You brought up a really good point about mentoring. I was very fortunate to attend a bee school prior to beekeeping -- something a lot of newbees don't have the opportunity to do. I also had a lot of experienced beeks who gave me advice when I had questions. It makes a HUGE difference for any beekeeper, but for a first-year beek, those bee buddies are invaluable.

      Eagerly awaiting the day when you can keep bees again. :-)

  4. I have to agree with Don and others that four hives might be a bit daunting for a new beek. I had three my first year and was a bit overwhelmed at times and unsure exactly what to do. I was fortunate enough not to lose any hives that first winter.

    I like the notion of two hives for a newbee. Enough to allow comparisons without breaking the bank. Having a mentor or local club is also really important, and I would advocate just listening to the experts that first year to give the best odds of overwintering. Plenty of time to experiment in future years.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post, and hope your bees are well!

    1. Hi, Erik. Glad you weighed in. However, I feel I should clarify. My recommendation isn't to start with 4, but rather to have 4 by winter. It's a small but important distinction. Start with 2, get comfortable handling the bees. But if you're feeling adventuresome and the bees are strong enough, make some nucs up so that you can go into winter with 4.

      Of course, splitting might be scary for a new beek, which is why I wholeheartedly agree with you about finding a mentor and talking with experienced beekeepers. Having some expert advice (and help) can make all the difference and give a new beek some confidence to try new things.

  5. Hello, fellow beekeepers!

    Well, Beekeeping 2017 has already taught us the first lesson of the year - use mouse-guards! After finding a mouse nest in one of the top-bars today, i seem to remember a post where you dealt with the same issue. Looking through your archive, i can't seem to find it. Am i remembering wrong?

    I'm particularly curious about clean-up - the aroma of mouse urine is pungent and disturbing and i can only hope a vigorous rub with sand paper will do the trick.

    Hope all is well in your bee yard, and here's to another great season of beekeeping!


    1. So sorry about your beehive. :-( Did the mouse kill entire the colony? Or just ravage part of the hive?

      I had a mouse problem, but it was in an empty hive. I had set an empty Warre out hoping to catch a swarm, but never did. It was an extremely effective rodent attractant, though.

      If it were my dead colony, I'd go ahead and bleach the hive. If the colony was still alive, I'd transfer the bees into an empty hive and bleach the mousey one. Sandpaper might work, and bees tend to propolize everything anyway, but I guess I'd feel more comfortable knowing it was bleached clean.

      Good luck this year!

  6. Thanks for the response! Yes, we'll use a diluted bleach solution on the wood in the hopes of removing (or at least minimizing) any traces of rodent infestation.

    Sadly, the two hives where mice were certainly present are dead. It's hard to know if the hives would have survived if they were mouse-nest-free, but the take-away is to use mouse guards from this point forward. Last year, it just wasn't an issue, so mouse guards were never really on our active radar ... alas, we live and learn.

    Meanwhile, it looks like we'll be starting the 2017 beekeeping year with five hives (knock wood), though this is based on visual inspection of entrances. It's still too wet and cold to do a thorough inspection, but oh, how i want to.

    Thanks again for the response, and good luck to you this year as well!


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!