Buying Bee Packages

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One of the most popular ways to get residents for your new hive is buying bee packages. However, there are pro and cons to purchasing honey bee packages – you need to understand what they are and what to expect. This will help you get your new hive off to a good start.

Two bee packages bought by a beekeeper for new hives.

In the United States, thousands of bee packages are sold each year. And there are some compelling reasons that so many beekeepers choose this method of buying honey bees. Do your research before deciding which is best for you.

How to Buy Honey Bee Packages

Why is this the most common method of acquiring new colonies? In part it is due to the ease of ordering and even shipping-mail order bee packages.

Yes, you can have them delivered right to your door! Or, you may be able to pick them up from a local distribution point.

The buyer can often choose between different breeds of bees in many cases. Italian bee packages are a popular choice for beginners but Carniolan bees have become more available in recent years.

What are Package Bees?

The term package bees (also called packages or bee packages) refers to a small container filled with honey bees. The “box” is a temporary traveling box that is only supposed to contain the small colony for a short time.

Bee packages do come in different sizes but 3 # (3 pound) is the most common. This 3 # package contains roughly 10,000 honey bees. Inside, you receive 1 queen bee (traveling in a special queen cage) along with worker bees and drone bees too.

Over the years, bee experts determined that this is a sufficient number to start a colony in the spring. However, you may find 2# or 4# packages for sale too.

Three pound package of honey bees in transport cage with can of sugar water image.

Advantages

  1. widespread availability
  2. less risk of disease and pests
  3. less expensive
  4. easier for new beekeepers to handle

Order Early for Best Availability

Package bees are generally ordered in Winter and delivered in early Spring. This is an important consideration for some beekeepers.

If you live in a region with an early honey flow, you want to get your hives set up and ready to take advantage of the bloom.

For those needing colonies for pollination, early blooming trees and plants won’t wait. If you are gardener who wants beehives in place early, packages are a good choice.

Less Risk of Disease

Buying bees in a package is one of the safest way to obtain new colonies – in respect to disease and pests. You are only receiving live bees and not any frames of honeycomb. This reduces the risk of obtaining disease spores, Wax moths or Small Hive Beetles hidden in the wax.

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Most package producers treat the package for varroa mites before shipping but you will still need to check varroa levels and monitor your colony throughout the season.

Less Expensive

Package bees offer a smaller investment to get started in beekeeping than full sized hives or purchasing a nuc hive. This can be an important factor during the first year when the costs of beekeeping really add up quickly.

Easier to Handle

Another important advantage of getting honey bee packages is that the small colony is easier for new beekeepers to manage. You still need to handle them with respect and care but on average – smaller colonies are calmer than large ones.

By the time the colony grows larger and more defensive – the beekeeper will have developed some experience handling the hive during hive inspections.

Bees inside package with only a few dead ones on the bottom.

Disadvantages

  1. all packages are not created equal
  2. when ordering for shipment – know the refund policy
  3. plan to feed your new bee package to encourage buildup

Choose a Reputable Seller

All bee packages are not created equal in quality. Most suppliers give good measure but it is not impossible to get a package that has fewer members than you expected.

Choose a provider with experience and good reputation. How does the seller handle cancellations (it happens through no ones fault sometimes). If the pick up date changes (due to weather) how will you receive a notification.

Must you pay a deposit or is full payment expected when the order is placed? Is any special pricing offered for large orders?

Please remember, these are live insects that must have a place to go once they arrive at the seller’s store. No, they can’t keep them for a week.

Ask a lot of different beekeepers who they recommend – check with the local beekeeper’s associations. No business person can please everyone but longevity in business means that something is being done right.

Mail Order Risks

When ordering bees via mail delivery, be sure to understand the replacement policy of the seller. It is their job to give you a healthy start in beekeeping.

However, they can not control every step of the journey. Understand the company policy regarding, late deliveries, dead package queens, refunds, etc.

Don’t forget to consider shipping costs for your bees. Some dealers offer free shipping (it is figured into the cost of the bees). Whatever, the arrangement – we want the bees to spend the least amount of time in transit as possible.

In recent years, bee shipments have become more problematic. Drive to pick up your bee packages whenever possible.

Slower Buildup to Full Strength

Buying bee packages is a good investment for many beekeepers. Though a bit slower to get started than a bee nuc or nucleus colony, package bees can sometimes outperform a nuc hive by the end of the first year.

You should expect to be feeding more sugar water to package hives compared to others. And, don’t expect a colony made from a package to make honey until the second year. They need the first season to become established but the future rewards can be sweet indeed.

New package bees sitting in box on top of hive.

What is Inside Your Bee Package

The transportation box containing the bees may be plastic with ventilation holes or a traditional box made of wire and wood. It is just a little bigger than a shoe box. It is not very heavy and is easy to carry.

Bees

Inside the box, a large mass of honey bees hang in a clump. It is very interesting to see for the first time. They are in a transition state because this is not natural for them.

If the temperatures are cold, they will cluster tightly together – just like they would in the hive. When the weather is warmer, the individuals will not be as tightly gathered.

Those you see will be a mixture of mostly workers and some drones. Inside this mass will be your queen in her small queen cage.

Package honey bee queen in a queen cage image.

Queen Bee is Protected

Each bee package should contain a young, mated queen. She travels inside a small queen cage that contains a candy plug in one end. There will also be a few worker attendants that came from the same colony. 

It is their job to feed and care for the queen until she is released and accepted by the new colony.  Don’t be alarmed if one of the attendants is dead. Some die every day – as long as the queen is okay – you should have no problem.

When you order a bee package, the queen is unknown to the bulk of bees inside. They do not recognize her unique queen bee pheromones.

If the queen was loose, she would likely be killed. Though you will occasionally find a live queen loose in the package.

Beekeeper removing can of bee syrup from package bees image.

Can of Sugar Syrup

A large silver can is included – it contains bee syrup or sugar water. Bees can not survive for very long without food. 

The sugar water container has a couple of very tiny holes on the bottom. This allows the bees to feed during their journey to their new home.

FAQs

How many bees are in a package?

Packages of honey bees are sold in several different sizes. The most common size is the 3# package containing roughly 10,000 bees.

How are bee packages made?

Commercial suppliers combine workers from several different colonies when creating bee packages. Going to a bee yard with very strong colonies, the queen is removed from each one and set aside.

Then bees are shook from the frames into a waiting screen box (or plastic). Once the required number are collected, a separate queen cage, with a new queen, is added.

When can you buy bee packages?

Order bee package in late Winter for Spring delivery. Bee Packages are usually only available during Spring. The beekeeper who misses the Spring delivery season may have to wait until next year to get started.

What is the major disadvantage of buying bee packages?

The main disadvantage of starting a hive with a package is that the colony starts with nothing.
They have no built comb or brood to help the hive grow. It takes time for the colony to develop.

Is it normal to have dead bees in my package?

Yes, honey bees have a life span. In any hive, some members die every day. A few hundred dead bees in the bottom of the box is no reason for concern.

If you have more than 1″ of dead in the bottom of the package, you should speak with your bee supplier.

How long will it be before my bees produce honey?

The answer to this question has a lot of variables. The biggest factor being your location.
In some regions, a hive started from a package may not produce honey for the beekeeper until the second year.

How long can I wait to install my bees?

Your bees will suffer from less stress if you install your bee package into their new home as soon as possible. Keep your package in a cool dark place until you are ready to take them to the bee yard.

Can you just buy a queen bee and have other bees come to her?

You can buy a new queen bee for a colony that needs a replacement. This is called “requeening a hive“.

However, you can not purchase a queen honey bee and expect other bees to join her and begin a hive. Bee life just does not work that way. She will have to be slowly introduced to an existing colony.

A Final Word

I have had great success with ordering bee packages over the years. But, buying honey bees in any form is not without some peril. They are living creatures and transit is a dangerous and stressful time. For the newbie, interested or “those just beginning in beekeeping – packages are the best option.

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