With your beehive setup and installed in position, it's time to obtain your bees and install them in their new home. But how exactly does a beekeeper go about locating bees?
This is an overview of the main options available to you, with more coming later going into detail on each.
When to order
The first thing to consider might be a surprise - when to obtain your bees. You will probably obtain and install them in their hive in the spring, so what's the big deal? Well, we simply want to make a point about lead times, so that the new beekeeper isn't disappointed.
Beekeeping is enjoying a huge growth in interest, across the country. That places demands on all aspects of beekeeping, not least of which is the supply of bees. What this means in reality is that few beekeepers can buy a hive on an April day, drive to the nearest bee supplier and buy his or her bees.
Instead, packages and nucs tend to be in high demand. The implications of this across the country vary, based on seasonal weather, number of nearby suppliers and much more.
As a general rule if you are planning to start beekeeping in the spring, PerfectBee strongly suggests you investigate your bee supply options in January or February and consider placing a deposit on a package or nuc.
We can't say this is necessary in all areas and who you know is also a factor. But it's always sad when an excited new beekeeper starts searching for a bee supplier in the spring, just as the hive arrives through the mail, only to find there are none available.
So, plan early!
Which race of bee?
We have looked at the Common Races of Honey Bees available to you. The choice of bees affects many aspects of your bees, including:
- Level of aggressiveness
- Effectiveness at foraging
- Honey production
- Propolis production
- Resilience to cold weather
- Vulnerability to robbing
- Ability to resist mites
- Cleanliness of the hive
- Tendency to swarm
Local or remote?
Another factor, mostly relevant to a package of bees or a nuc (see below), is the geographic source of your bees. It is possible to have either shipped to you from anywhere in the country. As a general rule, though, PerfectBee doesn't recommend this, for a number of reasons:
- It's more stress for the bees. This one is rather clear. Though bees have been shipped successfully for many years, it's just common sense that those picked up locally have less stress placed on them than ones arriving from afar.
- Lower risk to the beekeeper. When you physically pick up bees locally from a supplier, you have the option to check things out first. This can be as basic as making sure the queen is included! While obviously very rare, a package or nuc has been known to arrive without a queen or maybe with some other negative indicator that can be easily determined when picking up locally.
- Suitability to your region. A bee from Texas has a very different heritage to one from the frigid north. This manifests itself in various ways, such as the ability to overwinter (survive through the winter) and its genetic resistance to diseases or mites that may be relevant to your region.
Although having a package of bees or a nuc shipped isn't impossible and may be the only option in some rare situations, PerfectBee recommends obtaining your bees from a local, recommended and trusted source.
A package of bees
A package of bees is a great way to start beekeeping. Normally, a package will have 10,000 or so bees and they will come in - well, a package!
The bees in a package will not be offspring of the queen included in the package. That adds some risk of the the bees rejecting the queen, though that risk can be reduced by the beekeeper, as we will see.
Compared to, for example, capturing a swarm, a package of bees offers a more predictable, structured way to obtain and introduce your bees. You collect your bees from a supplier, have a chance to check them first, make sure the queen is healthy and so on. Then you drive home (note: driving home with 10,000 bees in the back of a car is always a fun experience for a beekeeper!) and - on your schedule again - prepare to introduce your bees.
Then you take part in one of the most fun aspects of beekeeping, namely when you introduce your bees to their new home. If this is your first time, it will also be a time of great excitement and a little adrenaline!
A package of bees is a very good way for a new beekeeper to locate his or her first bees.
A nuc is different to a package, in a number of ways. Specifically, it is a mini-colony that is already established, in a small version of a hive which itself we call a nuc.
The bees descend from the queen, so there's no risk of rejection. Very importantly, the colony has all the various stages of the bee life cycle represented. For example, the queen is laying eggs, and larvae and pupae will be evident at various ages.
There will be adult bees, carrying out their different age-based roles. The frames of the nuc will also hold important resources, such as honey and pollen.
In short, the nuc gets you going as a beekeeper with an established colony. From day one, the colonies workers are is ready to start foraging, soon after you introduce them to their hive.
The nuc is again an excellent choice for the first time beekeeper to start a new hive.
Capturing a swarm
The third option available for starting a beehive is to capture a swarm. This is more common than you might imagine and need not be as hair-raising as you might imagine!
When bees swarm they are, contrary to the layman's view that they are lethal and out to get everything in their way, actually quite docile! They are quite full of honey and are looking for a final resting place. So, while scout bees search for that location, they are typically just chillin' out!
Although catching a swarm is indeed viable, it is not an approach PerfectBee would recommend for the first time beekeeper, if a package of bees or a nuc is readily available.
First, the location is somewhat unpredictable. When you get the call that a swarm is available, it could be anywhere! The swarm might be conveniently at arm's length on a tree branch with a satisfying bend when you whack the tree to drop the bees. But it might also be under a deck or in the arch of a car's wheel, that's not so convenient!
The makeup of the swarm is also less predictable. With a package or nuc, you have a good sense of the source of the bees and someone specific to ask questions. With a swarm, the race of bees forming a swarm may not be your preference and the physical steps necessary to capture them is more involved than merely picking up a package or a nuc!
Finally, it takes a brave beekeeper to capture a swarm for his or her first ever bees! That's not because a swarm is any more dangerous or risky but when you do capture your first swarm it's best to have an experienced beekeeper with you.
In conclusion, look forward to the day you capture your first swarm as an exciting day in your evolution as a beekeeper, but consider a package or a nuc as the way to get started.
Although having a mentor or member of a beekeeping club around is always preferable at the outset, both of these options can be handled alone by a well-prepared new beekeeper.