You can’t call yourself a beekeeper without bees, but there are so many choices! Figuring out what to buy can be tough. The type of goal you have for yourself and your apiary will impact your purchasing decisions. This post will deal with the forms bees come in, i.e. packages, nucs, or complete hives. For more information on the differences between different breeds of bees see my previous post Honeybee Breeds.
You can purchase bees in a complete hive, a nucleus hive (nuc), a package, or as individuals.
Buying Bees One at a Time
Sounds silly when you say it like that, but queens are often purchased individually. Queens can be ordered already mated, virgin queens, or as queen cells. They can be shipped in any form, but shipping virgins and cells decreases their success rate at mating and becoming a productive queen. Queens cost anywhere from $4 for a capped cell to hundreds of dollars for artificially inseminated breeder queens. You’ll find most queens in the $25-45 range. If you need bees for apitherapy, which is using bee venom for treating certain chronic conditions, contact a beekeeper local to you about buying small quantities of worker bees. I don’t have a recommended price range for buying bees by the cup.
Buying a Complete Hive
This is the most expensive option. If you are paying top dollar for a complete hive, make sure you are communicating with the seller on how many brood boxes and supers you are getting in the deal. If you have no experience with bees, please be working with a mentor before jumping into a full hive responsibility. The hive should be inspected beforehand by someone you trust since the risk of bringing home disease and pests, or purchasing a hive that is already crashing due to mites. Most beekeepers are honest and wouldn’t sell a dud hive, but it never hurts to have an experienced person look it over for you. Depending on the condition of the hive and the time of year, full hives tend to be in the $300 range. They are worth more in spring than they are in late fall.
Buying a Nuc
Nuc is short for nucleus, and it is a mini hive. A nuc typically contains 5 frames, either deep or medium, a laying queen, brood, stores, and bees. Current 2016 nuc prices range from $150-$350. Prices rise as the season progresses and supplies become short. Some nucs contain queens with certain genetics that command a premium price as well. Nucs are often sold in cardboard or plywood boxes for transport. You pick them up, take them home, and install them in your own equipment. Sometimes you can get a small deposit back if you return the box to the seller. Some sellers will help you install the nuc in your equipment that you bring to the pick up site. Just communicate beforehand so you know what to expect.
Nucs are really your best option as a new beekeeper. They already have brood to care for, so it’s unlikely they will abscond. The frames of honey and pollen make the nuc a little more resilient than a package in case of extended bad weather. Nucs are small and generally less defensive than larger hives. They are just the right size to learn on. An overwintered nuc is one with a queen that has lived through the winter and is ready to go 100mph into spring. Sometimes it takes a new spring mated queen a little while to get into the groove of laying productively. Because nucs contain wax and brood, they can be carriers of disease and aren’t allowed across some state lines. Be sure to follow your local laws.
Availability can be an issue with purchasing nucs, especially if you did not reserve one over the winter. Sellers have a target date and amount of nucs they would like to have ready, but beekeeping is unpredictable. Weather, poor queen mating, or high winter losses all impact the supply of nucs in the spring. Connecting with your local beekeepers will help you discover resources in your area. Sometimes you can snag a nuc late in the season from a beekeeper making splits who would be willing to sell one or two.
Packages are the form most bees are sold in, and the easiest to find. A quick online search brings up dozens of package dealers, and they don’t sell out as quickly as nucs do. Packages are made from bees overwintered in the South and the queens are southern queens. Bees can be raised much earlier in areas like Texas and Florida than in the rest of the country. A package can be requeened at a later date with a northern queen if you prefer.
There are a lot of benefits to packages. There is a greater supply, available earlier in the spring, and they cost less. A 3lb standard package of bees costs between $100-120 before shipping. Package bees can be treated for mites before they are hived. There is no brood for the mites to hide under, so you are starting with a pretty clean group of bees.
The disadvantages to packages can mostly be overcome with proper management. They are slower to build up than nucs because the contain a random age mix of bees and have no comb to lay eggs in. Give them drawn comb if you can, 1:1 sugar water if you can’t. Feed them until they have filled one brood box. They may need a pollen substitute if you don’t have abundant natural pollen yet. Immediate queen supersedure can be a problem with packages, and there aren’t many drones available this early in spring to mate your new queen. Bees who feel the need to supersede just seem to have low morale and don’t work as hard building up the hive. Occasionally a package absconds. If you are able to give them a frame of brood it can serve as an anchor to hold them in the hive.
When you hear “feral bees” what people generally mean is bees that are not in a hive right now. They may be talking about the swarm in someone’s yard that came from an overfed southern package a mile away,or the bees may be truly feral. Either way, the best thing about feral bees is they are free bees. Sometimes they take some work if they are in a tree or building, and there’s always the lady that calls you to pick up her giant swarm that turns out to be a hornet’s nest. I’m not going to cover all the in’s and out’s of swarms and cut-outs here, those topics will be covered later. If you get a chance to hive a swarm though, good for you! And good luck with your new bees!