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In 2019, we had a year that could only be described as a disaster.  In the spring, half of the hives were dead.  We ordered New Zealand packages.  Since I had very little experience with package hives, it seemed logical to run an experiment comparing package hives to overwintered hives in terms of honey production. We went into the honey season with half of our hives being overwintered hives and half of them being package hives.  We segregated the hives as much as we could so that if we were bringing in any diseases, they would be contained.  We ran 4 beeyards with package colonies, 4 beeyards with overwintered colonies and 1 beeyard with about 1/3 package colonies and 2/3 overwintered colonies.  We fed the package colonies, but did not feed most of the overwintered colonies.  We skimmed bees from the overwintered colonies to stock our cell builder hives and mating nucs to raise queens. We requeened all of the package hives during the canola season by finding and killing the queens and then replacing them with a new queen the next day.  It ensured there was not much down time between when the queen stopped laying and the new one started again.

Honey Production

2019 was an odd summer.  It rained on and off through most of the canola season and so the bees only had about 50% flying time compared to usual and were robbing through most of the summer.  The honey crop overall reflected that. It seemed much more like a New Zealand summer than a Saskatchewan summer. Therefore, I wasn’t sure that Saskatchewan bees would outperform the New Zealand bees in those climatic conditions.  However, they still did. The package hives that we bought to survive the winter losses just didn't produce like the overwintered hives did.  111 lbs. versus 161 lbs versus 221 lbs from the breeders.  Those breeders are 2 year old queens. 

chart comparing production

I realize that it could be argued that by putting the packages in separate yards, those yards just had less access or flying time and the separate locations biased the experiment against the package hives.  That's why I've also attached a separate chart from the yard that had both package hives and overwintered hives.  The overwintered hives still outproduced the package colonies.

chart of Hougan yard comparison

Stock comparison

Perhaps what surprised me the most was the noticeable difference in brood pattern.  As we were going through the package hives killing queens to replace them with New Zealand stock, I had one hive in each of 2 yards that the brood pattern stuck out as so different that I stopped to read the record card before I killed the queen.  In both situations, they had already been requeened with our stock earlier in the spring when their New Zealand queen was lost.  What was the noticeable difference that stopped me in my tracks?  The New Zealand bees had been annoying me with their tendency to have 2 – 4 cm of honey rimming the brood underneath the excluder.  They were restricting the queens laying room by not moving the honey up into the honey supers and leaning towards swarming tendencies.  Those 2 hives that we had already requeened had moved their honey above the excluder and had brood right up to the bottom of the top bar right across the hive.  The conclusion was that genetic stock also makes a difference as to how well honeybees go through queen excluders.  Clearly over the last decades, we had bred a stock that went through queen excluders with little to no problems without even realizing that we were doing it.  I assume those hives that did not go through queen excluders either did not produce as much and weren’t bred from or they swarmed and weren’t bred from.

I'm thankful that we could order packages when we had such a devastating winter loss, but I would always choose our overwintered stock over packages if I had the choice.


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Revised: January 25, 2020.
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