How to Obtain Your Initial Bee Colony

6 of 11 in Series: The Essentials of Setting Up a Backyard Beehive

You’ll need some bees if you’re going to be a beekeeper. But where do they come from? You have several different options when it comes to obtaining your bees. Some are good; others are not so good. Here are some bee-ordering options and their benefits or drawbacks.

Ordering package bees

One of your better options and by far the most popular way to start a new hive is to order package bees. You can order bees by the pound from a reputable supplier. In the United States, bee breeders are found mostly in the southern states. They will ship just about anywhere in the continental United States.

A package of bees and a single queen are shipped in a small wooden box with two screened sides. Packaged bees are sent via U.S. Mail. A package of bees is about the size of a large shoebox and includes a small, screened cage for the queen (about the size of a matchbook) and a tin can of sugar syrup that serves to feed the bees during their journey. A three-pound package of bees contains about 11,000 bees, the ideal size for you to order. Order one package of bees for each hive that you plan to start.

Package bees are shipped in screened boxes. Note the feeding can and queen cage.
Package bees are shipped in screened boxes. Note the feeding can and queen cage.

Buying a “nuc” bee colony

Another good option for the new beekeeper: Find a local beekeeper who can sell you a nucleus (nuc) colony of bees. A nuc consists of four to five frames of brood and bees, plus an actively laying queen. All you do is transfer the frames (bees and all) from the nuc box into your own hive. The box usually goes back to the supplier.

If you can find a local source of bees, it’s far less stressful for the bees (they don’t have to go through the mail system). You can also be reasonably sure that the bees will do well in your geographic area. After all, it’s already the place they call home! An added plus is that having a local supplier gives you a convenient place to go when you have beekeeping questions (your own neighborhood bee mentor).

To find a bee club or association in your state, hop on the Internet and go to www.beeculture.com. Click the link “Who’s Who in North American Beekeeping” and then select your state. You will find a listing of all the bee clubs and associations in your area.

A nuc or nucleus consists of a small wooden or cardboard hive with three to five frames of brood and bees, plus a young queen.

A standard nuc box.
A standard nuc box.

Purchasing an established colony

You may find a local beekeeper who’s willing to sell you a fully established colony of bees. This is fine and dandy, but too challenging for a new beekeeper. First, you encounter many more bees to deal with than just getting a package or nuc. And the bees are mature and well established in their hive. They tend to be more protective of their hive than a newly established colony (you’re more likely to get stung). Their sheer volume makes inspecting the hive a challenge. Furthermore, old equipment may be harder to manipulate (things tend to get glued together with propolis after the first season). More important, you also lose the opportunity to discover some of the subtleties of beekeeping that you can experience only when starting a hive from scratch: the building of new comb, introducing a new queen, and witnessing the development of a new colony.

Capturing a wild swarm of bees

Here’s an option where the price is right: Swarms are free. But this isn’t for the first-year beekeeper. Capturing a wild swarm is a bit tricky for someone who never has handled bees. And you never can be sure of the health, genetics, and temperament of a wild swarm. In some areas (mostly the southern United States) you face the possibility that the swarm you attempt to capture may be Africanized. Save this adventure for year two.

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The Essentials of Setting Up a Backyard Beehive

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