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Buyer Beware | Part 1

In this series of Buyer Beware articles, I share some personal experiences as well as some pitfalls and challenges that new beekeepers that I have come into contact with have experienced.

evidence of laying workers on a bee hive frame with lots of bees and comb
Evidence of Laying Workers

In this Buyer Beware article, Part I, the focus is on potential questions to ask the seller of the bees that you may be considering purchasing (and to walk away if the answers provided do not reflect good beekeeping practices).

I get asked fairly regularly by people who are starting their beekeeping journey whether a particular advert on Gumtree or Marketplace is a good buy. There are a range of platforms on which bees and hive hardware are sold by reputable beekeepers. There are also less reputable and, quite frankly, some unscrupulous sellers, that use these same platforms.

I will generally follow up and make some discrete enquiries; either to assist the newbee in their decision making or out of general curiosity if the sale information appears questionable. Some of the answers I receive to my questions are astonishing, some are shocking, and others are quite distressing!

Here, I share with you a couple of more recent conversations I have had with sellers from these particular sales platforms.

Beekeeper Gumtree

Me: How old is the queen?
Seller: I don’t know. She can’t be more than 12 months old though.
Me: Oh? Why is that?
Seller: Because I let them swarm to requeen themselves every year.

This beekeeper had run 50 hives for the last 4 years and was selling some of their hives to downsize to a more manageable number.

Assuming that each hive and subsequent colony swarmed (only) once a year over 4 years, this single beekeeper has been responsible for over 700 potential feral colonies being established in our environment over this four year period. This does not include any afterswarms with virgin queens. Nor does it take into account the potential for a hive to swarm multiple times per year. In the region where I am, there are 2 main swarm seasons; one in the Spring, and the other when the Marri (redgum) is flowering in the Summer.

By failing to implement swarm management (reduction) best practices, these swarms will have potentially competed with our native fauna for nesting hollows/spaces. They may also have created problems for the broader community should these swarms have taken up residence in other places such as wall cavities, roof spaces, kid’s cubby houses, service/utility pits, etc…

Next question.

Me: What is your hive brand?
Seller: I don’t know. I’m pretty sure there was a brand on top of the frames when I bought my bees.
Me: No, not the supplier’s brand. Your one.
Seller: Oh. I don’t think I have one then.
Me: [polite spiel on how to become registered].

Granted, this particular beekeeper later phoned me to obtain more information on becoming registered and advice on brood and swarm management. Clearly, the beekeeper wanted to be doing things the right way, they just hadn’t realised what they were.

Here’s another conversation that I had with a seller who had placed their advert on the Facebook Marketplace platform.

Beekeeper Marketplace

Me: How old are the queens?
Seller: I’m not sure.
Me: Ok. When was the last time you requeened your hives then?
Seller: About four years ago.

This meant that this beekeeper had no idea on the age of the queen in the hives that they were selling. The queen could well be second or third generation from the original purchased queen, as a result of swarming or supercedure, which means her genetics were also likely unknown.

Next question.

Me: When was your last inspection?
Seller: Oh. I have never had the state inspectors out here.
Me: No, no. When was the last time ‘you’ inspected?
Seller: Oh, I just lift the lids and if there’s lots of honey I will take it off.
Me: What about your last brood inspection?
Seller: Oh, I hardly ever get into the brood. I just look at the amount of bees under the lid and at the entrance. If I can see that there isn’t the usual amount, then I’ll have a look in the brood box to see what’s going on.

These replies led me to believe that there were no regular brood inspections, swarm management, or biosecurity checks being done and, ultimately, the quality of the hives for sale were, at best, questionable.

a bee hive box filled with brood that has not been inspected in a long time
Evidence of an unmanaged brood box

Both these conversations resulted in me advising the enquiring newbees to definitely look elsewhere. Not only were both these sellers unregistered beeks, but the hives they were selling could have been in any condition, with the age and genetics of the queens unknown.

The lack of proper brood management could also result in inheriting problem hives.

As a newbee, the last thing you want is to inherit a problematic colony (e.g., diseased, aggressive, failing queen/queenless, etc) through lack of responsible hive management. Nor do you want to be purchasing bees from unregistered beeks (no matter how much of a ‘good deal’ it may seem to be).

Food For Thought

Are you considering purchasing some hives to start your journey? If so, below are some questions you may consider asking the seller. However, be sure to ask as many questions as necessary to adequately inform your decision and create confidence in what you are purchasing.

Importantly, if the seller is not prepared to allow you to inspect the hives before purchase, then I strongly suggest you ‘walk-away’.

Key Questions

These typically revolve around the following 4 focus areas:

Brand registration
Knowledge and implementation of best management practices
Hive hardware
Queen/colony genetics and population.

Example Questions

These may include, but not be limited to:

What is your hive brand?

If the seller does not know the answer to this question then my advice is to walk away immediately. Every registered beekeeper should know what their hive brand is as it should be etched/burned/dremeled into every box on their hives. It is a legal requirement to be registered. I would also walk away if they don’t ask what your hive brand is. Under our biosecurity legislation they must keep a record of your name, address and hive brand (confirmed by reference to the register) for seven years.

Is your brand on the hive hardware?

Are you a member of WAAS or BICWA or do you participate in any local beekeeper communities/groups?

How long have you been a beekeeper and how many hives do you manage?

How old is the Queen?

Is the Queen marked?

Do you know the Queen’s genetics?

Is all the brood in the colony progeny of the existing queen?

What is the temperament of the colony?

Do you run a single or a double brood box and how many honey supers are on the hive?

When did the colony last swarm?

What is the ratio of brood frames vs food frames vs empty frames (when purchasing a nuc)?

When was the last time the colony was inspected?

When did you last extract honey and how much was left for the bees?

What is the age and condition of the hive hardware and how has the hardware been treated?

In the next Buyer Beware article I will share some experiences of newbees that sought assistance only after having already purchased their hives and some of the challenges they faced.

Helen Humphreys Passionate Beekeeper Trainer | Mentor | Producer

a black version of the Carlaminda logo

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