So you’re ready to start your beekeeping adventure? You’ve read the books, you’ve attended some beekeeping lessons, and you’ve got all your fantastic equipment. Now you want to know how to buy your honey bees. There are a few different ways to obtain bees. Each has their advantages and drawbacks. But the good news is, these days, getting bees is becoming more and more simple.
So how do you buy honey bees and where do you find them? You have three options for purchasing bees: a package, a nucleus, or a full sized colony. Nowadays you can find honey bees for sale from a local supplier, or buy them online and have them sent by mail. Packages and nucs can both be shipped, but a full-sized colony needs collecting.
It’s an important decision for any new beekeeper. I remember when I first started getting interested in beekeeping, I found the various options pretty confusing. As luck would have it, you’re in the right place! The following is some useful advice for anyone looking to buy honey bees so you get off to the best possible start.
Buying Honey Bees
Whichever method you choose for purchasing bees, all of them can succeed. However, there are risks, benefits, and shortcoming to each. Your choice will depend on your own personal objectives, experience, availability, cost, and possibly the time of year you want to get started.
The first and most cost effective option is a package. A typical package of bees contains around 10,000 bees. That sounds like a lot, but it’s probably the minimum considering that most packages are delivered by mail, and some of the bees will be lost during transit. You just get the bees and a queen. Growing the colony is up to you.
A nucleus colony (called a nuc in beekeeping terms) is the next category up, and considered a more reliable start by some beekeepers because the colony is delivered in a more advanced state of growth. A nuc contains on average 5 full frames of comb, plus bees, and a queen. There are no standards for producing nucs, so comparing numbers is difficult. The big difference is that you get wax frames full of brood as well as the bees of various ages, and a laying queen. A full frame of brood can be expected to produce between 4000 and 5000 new bees.
A full-sized colony is the most advanced option but perhaps the least widespread method of obtaining bees. If you collect a hive after it has successfully overwintered you will inherit a smaller population, but one which is well established. And you become an instant beekeeper!
Overall a local supply of bees is preferable, but most packages usually come from another part of the country. With a nuc purchased locally the queen is already better adapted to your local conditions and climate, which can be an advantage.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each method.
Buying Bee Packages
Package bees are the most popular way for new beekeepers to obtain their bees.
A package of bees is usually a wooden box with two screened sides for ventilation (occasionally you’ll get packages made out of plastic). They‘re available in different sizes from 2 pounds to 4 pounds. The most common size is 3 pounds and this is perhaps the minimum for getting your colony to develop well.
Packages can be purchased from a distance and sent by mail. Alternatively you can pick up packages from a local supplier. Your local bee retailer may not be the one producing the bees, so be sure to ask where they come from. As far as possible choose a source with a good reputation. This is where it comes in handy being a member of a beekeeping association. Ask around for advice. You never know, someone in your club might receive packages of bees each new season.
A package will contain the bees, a newly mated queen in a queen cage, plus a can of sugar syrup for feeding. Most of the time the bees probably come from a commercial apiary in a southern region where spring begins earlier in the year and hive populations are grown ahead of time.
Selecting the right shipping date can be tricky so get advice from your supplier. If the bees are coming from the south and travelling north, the bees risk freezing in the early spring. If they ship too late in the spring they might overheat during transport.
Don’t be surprised to find some dead bees when you receive them. An acceptable number of dead bees is said to be no more than half inch of bees at the bottom of the package. You should check to make sure your queen is alive and looks in good condition.
Bees can only be shipped a limited distance before the stress of travel has an impact, but bees will generally do okay for up to seven days of shipping. Install your package bees as early as possible when you get them home. The population of a package needs some time to start growing. Count on a minimum of three weeks after installation.
Starting with bees in this way is similar to an artificial swarm. Swarms are mother natures way of ensuring a colony stays fresh and vigorous. In a package you start afresh with a new queen which is unfamiliar to the bees. This is why she is caged, so that the bees have time to become accustomed to her pheromone and accept her.
Advantages of package bees:
- Packages are widely available and can be shipped over a distance.
- You don’t have all the responsibilities of looking after a more evolved colony. You learn the craft of beekeeping at a comfortable pace with more time to adjust.
- A package will fit into any type of beehive. Nucs on the other hand can be built with frames that may not fit your hives.
- If you’re keen to get started quickly, packages are available in early spring.
- Packages have less problems with diseases. The more established nucs can carry over problems from their original hives and need to be kept an eye on.
- Packages are less expensive than nucs or whole colonies.
Disadvantages of package bees:
- Packages take a longer time to establish and need a long period of feeding to get the colony going.
- There’s a higher possibility that your bees will quit the hive (known as absconding). There are a few things you can do to help prevent this, but until the bees start drawing comb on the frames and settling in to the new hive, absconding is a potential problem.
- The queen in a package needs to be successfully accepted by the bees. If your bees reject her then she’ll have to be replaced, which will slow down the whole process.
- You might end up with bad-tempered bees. Queens that are mated in southern states can pick up some unwanted genetics. Since the temperament of your colony is dictated by your queen, you might be concerned about this, especially as a beginner. You can always overcome this by replacing the queen with one which was locally bred from a known source of gentle bees.
A few questions to ask your supplier before ordering package bees:
- The cost?
- What kind of bees are they?
- How long will it take to ship?
- When will the packages be available and can you select the date? (try not to let the package arrive at your postal service during a weekend, or it may be left lying around).
- Are the bees insured by the supplier in case of problems? (Too many dead bees, lost mail, etc.)
Buying Bee Nucs
A nuc is like a mini hive. Some of them are made out of wood with a bottom board and a cover like the construction of a beehive. Some are just cardboard boxes. They all contain fully drawn out frames of brood. Five frames seems to be the most popular size.
The wax comb will contain varying amounts of brood, in various states of development, and honey and pollen stores. You also get bees, and a laying queen. The queen should be around 6 weeks old, which means she’s had a few weeks to start laying.
You’re wax comb should look light or medium brown in color and not be dark. You want light colored comb from the new season and not dark old wax comb. This is because you want comb without any build up of debris or chemical residue. If you’re offered old used frames then look someplace else.
The best kind of nuc is one that has been successfully overwintered. Sometimes nucs are created shortly before shipping when hives are split and a new queen is added. They haven’t had the same opportunity to develop a vigorous colony. Find out from your supplier and opt for an overwintered nuc if you can. They are probably sold at a premium price but they’re worth it, especially if you find a local producer.
Check the quality of the contents of your nuc when it’s delivered. This means you need to know a little about what you’re looking for. Prepare yourself by revising in advance and possibly ask a more experienced beekeeper to help you check things over.
Advantages of a bee nucleus:
- The population of a nuc will expand more quickly than a package.
- You’ll get a quicker start, with a stronger colony, and a vigorous queen. There’s less risk that the new colony will fail than with a package.
- You’re more likely to find a local source for a nuc which means that the bees are well adapted to your climate.
- Absconding is very unlikely because the colony is already established.
Disadvantages of a bee nucleus:
- Your hive needs to be the right size to accept the frames in the nuc. Most nucs are delivered on deep langstroth frames. If you have an uncommon hive setup then a nuc won’t work.
- Nucs are more pricey than packages.
- Nucs aren’t usually available before later in the season, because they need time to establish.
- You don’t get to observe the colony build right from the start, so you may miss out on a learning experience.
A few questions to ask your supplier before buying a nuc:
- The cost?
- What kind of bees are they?
- Was the nuc produced locally?
- When will the nuc be delivered?
- If produced locally, when can you collect the nuc? (Best to do this at the end of the day when most bees have returned from foraging).
- Do you get new frames of comb?
- Has the nuc been overwintered?
- Do you get to keep the nuc box, or is it to be returned? (A good nuc box can be used to catch swarms)
Buying a Full Bee Colony
You may know someone who is willing to sell you a full-sized colony. It’s pretty rare for new beekeepers to go for this option.
On the one hand, you get a strong established colony which will most likely be fully productive in the first season that you own them. But it also means that you immediately become a full fledged beekeeper in a very short space of time, with all of the responsibilities that this brings.
If you do go for this option then take care about the quality of the bees and the various parts of bee furniture that you purchase. Check the history of the colony and any treatments for pests and diseases. If you’re buying the hive boxes you want them in relatively good condition so they will last. And you don’t want to inherit any nasty infections in your colony.
Take an experienced beekeeper with you when you look over the hive. If you detect any problems, then turn away and skedaddle!
A few last words….
Being prepared is the key to getting a successful start with your new bees. By this stage you should be sure of your commitment to keeping bees and have a grasp of the basics of beekeeping. Before you choose you’re bees you might also want to consider the type of bees you prefer to work with. Certain races of bees are considered best for beginners.
How many bees you should buy? Some of the best advice I’ve heard is to start with two hives rather than one. Each colony will experience different issues and grow at different speeds, but having two colonies allows you to rescue a failing hive with a little help from their friends!