If you've decided to give beekeeping a try, you’ve probably begun looking into what you’ll need to get set up. There is a wide range of options for hive styles and sizes, for tools and smokers, and for protective gear. Sorting out which choices are best can seem overwhelming.
But before you get too far into the weeds over stuff, you need to make some important decisions about your bees-to-be. You need to think about bees early on because they are not readily available all year long. In fact, after our bees go on sale in mid-December, some options are sold out in just a few weeks.
To help you get up to speed on bee-buying, here is a primer on your choices.
How many bee hives should you start with? One of the things you may have heard about starting beekeeping is that experts recommend you start with two colonies in your first year. You may be reluctant to start out over-ambitiously. (Who buys two pairs of skis before their first day on the slopes?) But it’s good advice, nonetheless.
Here’s why: If you’re just starting out as a beekeeper, you have lots of new things to learn. If you’re observant, your bees will be your best teachers. Each colony of bees can be surprisingly different from others. If you only have one colony, you will have nothing to compare it with, and so some of the lessons – and warnings of trouble – may go unnoticed. A pair of colonies serves as a kind of check on each other. Any big difference between them is a sign that something needs close attention. And because of the amazing biology of bees, problems in one hive can often be fixed by sharing resources (bees, eggs, honey) from another colony. You could think of the second colony as being a beginner’s early-warning system and a rescue colony, in case that’s needed.
The other reason to start with two colonies is that you’ll learn beekeeping faster. Two colonies will double your exposure to bees, so you’ll have more opportunities to observe and handle them. The more bee-work you do, the faster your skills and confidence will develop.
But what if your budget (for time, space, and costs) will just not stretch to two colonies in the first year? There’s a workaround for that: make an extra effort to connect with other beekeepers near you, especially other beginners who will be in the same boat. Buddying up pays big benefits as you will increase your learning opportunities, and in emergencies, you may be able to share resources to save a hive.
On the other end of the scale, what if you’ve thought about starting out with more than a few colonies? Unless you have some background in animal husbandry or farming, that may be too much of a good thing. Bees take attentive care and hard work to keep alive and healthy over the long term. Better to start out modestly in your first year and not get overwhelmed. If you discover you really enjoy beekeeping, and if you take excellent care of your bees, they can be expected to overwinter well. And then, next spring, your hives will be bursting at the seams for division into additional colonies. That’s an excellent “problem” to have!
Where will you get your bees? The next thing to consider is how you will get your bees. It used to be very common that bees were sent through the mail, but these days most people pick them up from bee suppliers, bee clubs, or from some central delivery point.
Here at Betterbee, although we take orders for bees over the phone and online, we do not ship bees. It’s not fair to the bees, who often suffer in the mail, and it’s not fair to the beekeepers who eagerly open their parcel and find a half-dead colony inside. So if you buy bees from us, you must come here to pick them up. They can return home inside your car with you, and with just a bit of care, they will travel well for several hours. If you live beyond that range, contact your local bee club to find out who has bees for sale. We’d rather that you buy healthy bees locally and come get the rest of your equipment from us, instead of buying some of our bees and forcing them to endure a long ride home.
Our bee-delivery days are all-hands-on-deck busy, but lots of fun because we get to meet our customers in person. It gives us a chance to answer last-minute questions and sometimes calm the jitters of new beekeepers faced with a buzzing box of insects, for the first time.
Should you buy a package of bees or a nucleus colony? Every colony of bees needs to be started with a large group of worker bees and a queen. This will happen whether you buy a package of bees or if you buy a small-sized colony, called a nucleus colony.
Packages of bees were the traditional way bees were sold for many years. The typical package is three pounds of worker bees (that’s about 10 thousand bees) in a screened box with a queen in a small separate cage hanging down among them. The bees are transferred to their new hive, and the queen (in her cage) is tucked in between frames for a few days. Since the bees and the queen in the package are unrelated to each other, the cage allows the workers to get accustomed to her before she is released. Worker bees, finding themselves in a package without their original queen, will soon discover they’ve been paired up with a new one. And the queen, who needs worker bees to care for her, will be glad to have their attention so she can settle down to her main “business” of laying eggs.
Starting colonies from packages works well because it unites the biological needs and instincts of both the workers and the queen even though they start out as strangers to each other. Once installed, worker bees will immediately start foraging for nectar and begin making wax combs. The queen will start filling those combs with eggs to make more bees and the hive will get itself established. In six weeks, almost all the bees in the colony will be the new offspring of the queen.
Ordinarily, because of the large energy demands of drawing new combs from scratch, a package is initially fed a sugar-water syrup to make sure there is no slow-down. Because it is literally starting out with nothing, a package colony’s build-out is a little bit slower. This isn’t necessarily a drawback as it offers a new beekeeper a chance to get up to speed during the same time. A package can be expected to reach a large-enough size for good wintering before fall. Depending on the quality of the forage during the first summer, a package colony may make enough surplus honey for a small harvest. It may also need additional feeding in the fall to get it to good wintering weight. If you are planning to use a top bar hive, all medium-sized boxes, or some other atypical equipment, you should choose a package because it is the most adaptable option - it comes with no frames, so there are no compatibility issues.
A nucleus colony (usually referred to as a “nuc”) is different from a package in that it is a scaled-down, but fully established, colony. The queen is already laying on drawn combs and there will be brood in all stages (eggs, larvae, and pupae). Some of the adult worker bees may be the offspring of the queen, but some may have come from other colonies when the nuc was assembled. (There is also a sub-category of nucs, called over-wintered nucs. See the box below for more information.)
Because a nuc is already established on drawn comb it will usually start building up faster than a package. This accelerated population build-up can occasionally be a problem for new beekeepers if it gets ahead of their early skills and comfort in handling the bees. A growing nuc may require a bit more moxie to handle at the outset and keep on top of in the first month or so. But many beginners relish the idea of jumping right in and want to know the colony is already established when they pick it up.
Depending on which pick-up date you have, and how fickle the spring season is, you may be advised to feed your nuc for a short period. A nuc will usually provide a modest honey harvest the first year (though this, like all honey-making, depends on the weather). And a nuc, with the head start of those already-drawn combs, usually has no difficulty becoming strong enough to overwinter by fall.
It’s really up to you to choose which kind of bees you want to start with. One thing should be noted, if you get both a package and a nuc, you will be forgoing the advantage of having two colonies at similar stages in development. That’s not a big deal, but you need to keep it in mind as you watch the two colonies settle into your yard on their own, differing, timetables.
These decisions about bees need to be your first ones, because bees, being living creatures, are only available early in the season. Making these first choices can seem pretty daunting, but keep this in mind: there are really no wrong options. There is no single “perfect” way to start keeping bees. Decide on whether to start with one or two hives, and then choose between packages or nucs. Then place your order soon and don’t second guess yourself. You’ll have plenty of opportunities for obsessing over your options when you move on to selecting equipment!