Every spring potential beekeepers begin to get excited about starting to keep bees. They read beekeeping books and articles, and talk to experienced beekeepers about everything from setting up their apiary to buying bees.
When our son first started beekeeping, a bee farming friend gave him a small hive. It was a great way to start out. The next year, our son decided to expand his apiary and bought bees.
Buying bees isn’t complicated but it does take some planning. Most likely your local feed store or hardware store will not have everything you need to start beekeeping and the main thing they won’t have is bees.
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How to Buy Bees
You can buy bees commercially, and possibly, locally. Bees come as packaged bees, nucs (or nucleus colony) or an established colony. You can also get bees by catching a swarm.
Packaged bees are probably the most common way of buying bees. When you order packaged bees, you are ordering about 3 pounds of bees and a queen. It’s best to get a marked queen if the company offers that and most do. This will give you about 11,000 bees and an easily recognizable queen.
These bees are bred especially for this purpose. Most bee breeders in the U.S. are located in the southern states but ship bees all over the country. The bees will come via U.S. Postal Service and be delivered to your local post office. The post office will call you when they arrive, which is usually very early in the morning. You’ll want to pick them up right away. The bees will not be delivered to your door.
The bees will be shipped in a screen box and will have a small queen cage inside, along with a feeding can that has simple syrup in it.
You’ll need to order one package of bees for each hive you want to start.
“Nucs” or nucleus colonies are another option when buying bees. In a nuc, you will receive the bees, an actively laying queen, and 4-5 frames of brood.
There are companies that sell nucs or you can ask local beekeepers if any of them are interested in selling you a nuc. Nucs will certainly cost more than packaged bees because you are getting more. And it’s not just the brood frames that make the difference.
With a nuc, you are getting an actively laying queen and she’ll continue to lay eggs even while being transported. You’ll also receive bees that are various ages and know how to work together. Unlike packaged bees, who have to spend the first weeks in the hive drawing out comb for brood, nucs can get to work foraging and making honey right away.
Purchasing an established hive is a third way of buying bees. In order to purchase an established hive, you will need to do some asking around locally. If this is the route you want to go, a good place to start looking is your local beekeeping organization or your county extension office.
When you purchase an established hive, you’ll get the bees, the actively laying queen, frames and the hive. While this sounds like a really great way to start, there are a few disadvantages for a beginning beekeeper.
Established hives tend to defend their hives more aggressively than hives just starting out. Also, more bees mean that it will be harder to do hive inspections. Lastly, when you purchase an established hive, you might not know how old the queen really is. Knowing how old the queen is, is important because of what happens when the queen bee dies. If the queen dies, you can lose the entire hive.
Catching a swarm is another way to get bees. Catching a swarm is free, so that’s great. However, it might not be the best option for a new beekeeper. There are a lot of unknowns when catching a swarm. You don’t know anything about their health, genetics, or temperament.
Tips for Buying Bees
The first thing you’ll want to do when deciding to buy bees is to choose what race of honeybees you want to raise. The most popular races are Italian, Carniolan, Caucasian, Buckfast and Russian. One of the most important things to consider is their ability to survive your climate, especially in areas that get extremely cold or hot.
Once you’ve decided on the race, research suppliers. Although it’s tempting to let price be the deciding factor in whom you order from, don’t let it. Instead, purchase from a reputable commercial supplier or a reputable local beekeeper. If you need help deciding on whom to purchase from, talk to your local beekeeping organization or county extension agent.
Order your bees early. Don’t wait until spring to order your bees or you might not be able to get them. Suppliers have a limited amount of bees and only so much time to ship them. Since most suppliers are in the southern states, they ship during April and May. Once the heat of June arrives, it’s too hot to ship bees.
Get your beekeeping supplies and apiary set up before your bees arrive. When you get the call from the post office that your bees are in, this is not the time to start setting things up. You should have everything you need so all you have to do is install the bees into the hive when you get them.
Feed the newly installed bees. Even if you don’t plan on feeding your bees on a regular basis, you’ll need to feed the new bees when you first bring them into your apiary. How long you feed the bees will depend on what kind of bees you bought. If you bought packaged bees, you will need to feed them for about six weeks. This will give the bees time to draw out comb, lay eggs, and raise new bees who will begin foraging. If you bought a nuc or an established hive, or caught a swarm, you will still need to feed the bees but not as long.
Spring will be here shortly and many beginning beekeepers will be getting phone calls from the Post Office to pick up their bees. Will you be among those buying bees this spring?