It sometimes seems like you have endless choices when it comes to beekeeping. You’ve finally decided that, yes, you want to be a beekeeper. Now the fun begins. We’ll get into equipment later on. For now, you have some choices to make about the bees. I’ve gone the package bee route and the nuc route. “Nuc” by the way, stands for nucleus hive.
I mentioned earlier that you have to order packages early. Where you order them might have a lot to do with your location. Since this blog is about keeping bees in the Berkshires, and we can have very long cold winters, most of the packages bought around here come from Georgia. Bee supply houses like Betterbee and other dealers place orders for several hundred packages to suppliers like Wilbanks, and in turn take orders from beekeepers. Some dealers actually make the trip down to Georgia and come right back, so your package bees go from the supplier to you in a matter of a couple of days.
Options for package bees are often very limited. For instance, Betterbee only sells packages with Italian queens. It is still possible to find a few suppliers that will mail your bees. Yes, mail as in your local post office who will call you at first light and ask you to please come and get your bees. Years ago, you could order bees and all of your equipment through Sears and Roebuck.
There are different opinions on getting package bees (as with every aspect of beekeeping). Personally, I think package bees sometimes get a bad rap. While it is great to get bees locally, from stock adapted to your climate, I’ve had great success with some packages.
One year, I ordered 5 packages of bees from Wilbanks. They were put in all new equipment with new foundation and produced 400 lbs of surplus honey. I’ve had other packages that have gone queenless, but for the most part, my packages seem to do okay.
A nuc hive is one you buy that is already established. You can order these from suppliers, but often you will buy a nuc from a local beekeeper. Variations in price can be wide. The nucs I ordered this year from Mike Palmer are $125 each, which sounds like a lot, but I know he is a very reputable beekeeper and the quality of his bees are second to none.
When you talk to someone about selling you a nuc don’t be afraid to ask questions, and make it known that you will be checking the bees before you take them. Some things to ask are:
What kind of bees and queen am I getting? How old is the queen? A year old queen is not an issue. In fact I’ve heard a number of beekeepers say, and experience tells me that a second year queen often out-produces a new one.
How many frames of bees and brood am I getting and what size are the frames? A typical nuc is four or five deep frames. Some raise nucs on medium frames. If you are going to be using all medium boxes for brood and honey, you’re not going to be able to fit deep frames in the box.
Do I have to bring a box to transfer the bees into, or is the nuc box included with the purchase? Do I have to pay a deposit on the box or return it?
I would say one of the most important questions is the one about frames of bees and brood. A friend of mine went with a beginning beekeeper to pick up nucs she had ordered. She had to bring her own boxes for transfer. When they got there, my buddy wanted to look at the bees. There was about two frames of bees, hardly any brood, and the other empty frames were old comb that the beekeeper was just trying to get rid of. When he called the beekeeper on it, all he got was “take it or leave it” for a reply.
So, although most beekeepers are reputable, word of mouth works wonders. Ask a few beekeepers for recommendations when looking for someone to buy nucs from, ask the seller questions beforehand, and be sure you both have the same expectations as to what is being offered for sale. I expect a box full of bees and brood when I buy a nuc.
The winner? It’s hard to say. I may catch hell from the package opponents, but I think every new beekeeper should experience the thrill of putting a package of bees into the hive, placing the queen cage in, seeing the wax as it’s drawn out, and especially seeing those first eggs and capped brood. To me, it’s a way of learning and enjoying the process from the very beginning, kind of like starting your tomato plants from seed rather than buying one with blossoms already on it and plunking it into the ground. Nucs have their merits in that the queen has already proven herself to be a good layer, and the hive is well established and ready to really take off. Almost everyone will recommend starting with two hives. How about trying one package and one nuc? happy beekeeping