Mother Earth Living

Buying Bees: Starter Colonies for Beekeeping Beginners

Before beginning beekeeping, decide if bee packages, nucleus hives or swarms are best for your beeyard.
By Alethea Morrison
March 2013
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A bee package is a box that contains one mated queen and a bunch of bees from different hives.
Photo By Mars Vilaubi
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Homegrown Honey Bees (Storey Publishing, 2012) is a beginner's guide that clearly explains everything you need to know on how to keep bees successfully, from getting your first bees to harvesting your first crop of honey. The following excerpt is a guide to starter colonies—a resource for discovering which kind of beginner setups may be best for you. For more on starting beekeeping, read A Guide to the Different Types of Honey Bees.

You can buy this book in the Mother Earth Living store: Homegrown Honey Bees.

When Buying Bees, which Starter Colony is Best?

Buy bees from quality suppliers, ideally from local sources that have bees adapted to local conditions. To find a bee supplier, ask for recommendations from beekeepers in your area, either through a local bee association or through the online forum at Beesource.com. Resist using an Internet search engine, which won’t filter for good reputation. Ask the supplier what the policy is for replacing a queen that is missing or dead on arrival. A key choice is whether to start with a package, a nucleus hive (also known as a nuc), or a swarm.

Bee Packages

A package is a box that contains one mated queen and a bunch of bees that have been collected from an assortment of different hives. A common size for the package, which is sold by weight, is 3 pounds, which roughly equals ten thousand bees. Since a package does not contain brood, pollen, honey, or drawn comb, the colony will be slow to build in strength and productivity.

Package pros:

• Can be introduced to any equipment, such as medium boxes, deep boxes, or top-bar hives
• Less expensive and more widely available
• No brood diseases

Nucleus Hives

A nuc, short for nucleus hive, is a fully functional starter hive that is ready to install in your hive body. It consists of a laying queen and a small quantity of bees on three to five frames of brood, honey, and pollen. 

Your supplier’s equipment must match what you plan to use. If you want to use medium-sized boxes for your hive bodies, a top-bar hive, or small-cell frames, for example, and the only nucs available to you are standard-cell deeps, then a nuc isn’t a good choice.

One disadvantage of a nuc is that you are inheriting frames with drawn comb and brood, which may contain diseases and a higher level of mites than you’ll find in a package.

Nucs are harder to find than packages. Joining a local bee association will put you in contact with veteran beekeepers in your area, some of whom may have nucs for sale in the spring.

On the other hand, nucs also have significant advantages. With a laying queen, developing brood, and available food stores, your colony will rapidly gain strength and productivity. 

Nuc pros:

• Colony gains strength more quickly and reliably and is more likely to have surplus honey at the end of the first season
• Less chance of losing disoriented bees during installation
• If the stock is locally bred and overwintered, bees will be adapted to local weather and forage

Swarms

Though it is less common for beginning beekeepers to start with swarms, many proponents of natural beekeeping swear by them as the best option. By definition, a swarm is the product of a colony that has vigor enough to reproduce, increasing the chances that the bees have a healthy constitution. Also, only a small number of commercial bee suppliers provide 99 percent of the queens sold in the United States, so your choice of feral bees will support genetic diversity. And then there is the obvious benefit that a swarm is free.

Some bee associations, especially in western regions, have community outreach programs through which they advertise a free service for removing unwanted swarms from private property, thereby saving the bees from extermination. The association then finds new or established beekeepers willing to adopt the colony.

Swarm pros:

• Supports genetic diversity in honey bee populations if the colony is feral
• No cost
• Comes from local stock healthy enough to reproduce on a colony level

When Should I Install My Bees?

You typically install a new colony of bees in the spring; the exact timing will depend on your area. If you are using a local supplier, they can advise you. If you are ordering your bees by mail, you need to connect with local beekeepers, any of whom will have the answer for you.

Preorder your bees in the winter, preferably as early as December or January. Many suppliers sell out of bees well before the spring season, and after all your anticipation and preparation, you don’t want that kind of disappointment.

Excerpted from Homegrown Honey Bees © Alethea Morrison, photography © Mars Vilaubi, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Homegrown Honey Bees.


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