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Buying Bee Packages – What You Need to Know

Amid the excitement of becoming a new beekeeper, you have a lot of things to do. Equipment and supplies are a must.  Once that is completed, you need one more thing – honey bees.  One of the most popular ways to get them is buying bee packages. This can be a great way to get started but you need to understand what they are.

How to Buy Honey Bee Packages

Two bee packages ready to install in hive image.

In the United States, thousands of bee packages are sold each year.  There are many reasons that so many beekeepers choose this method of acquiring bees.

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In part it is due to the ease of shipping mail order bee packages. Yes, you can have them delivered right to your door! They are also less expensive than some of the other methods.

The buyer can often choose between different breeds of bees. Italian bee packages are a popular choice for beginners. However, Carniolan bees have become more available in recent years too. For the newbie, interested in getting started in beekeeping – packages are the best option.

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 allows the bee family to be moved to their new hive.

Packages do come in different sizes but 3# (3 pound) is the most common. This 3 # package contains roughly 10,000 honey bees.  You will receive 1 queen bee (traveling in a special cage) along with adult workers and drones 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.

Can You Just Buy a Queen Bee?

Yes, 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.

How Bee Packages are Made

Honey bees are social insects that cannot survive for long individually.  Therefore, you buy them in groups. 

Commercial beekeepers 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.

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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.

This practice helps to ensure that you will receive a young mated queen. But, it takes some time for the bees to accept this new queen. 

During the days required for the “candy plug” to be consumed, the workers are coming to accept the queen.

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

Inside Your Bee Package

The transportation box containing a package can be plastic – especially if it is shipped to you via regular mail. It will contain many ventilation holes to prevent over-heating.

However traditionally, transportation boxes are made of wire and wood. The box is a little bigger than a shoe box.  It is not very heavy and is easy to carry.

Group of Worker 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 package, the queen is unknown to the bulk of bees inside. They do not recognize her pheromones. If the queen was loose, she would likely be killed. Though you will occasionally find a live queen loose in the package.

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.

Beekeeper removing can of bee syrup from package bees image.

Advantages of Buying Bee Packages

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

Order Early

Bee packages 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 the most common method.

Less Risk of Disease

Buying bees in a package is one of the safest way to obtain new colonies.  You are only buying the bees and not any honeycomb.  This reduces the risk of obtaining Wax moths or Small Hive Beetles hidden in the wax.

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 than full sized hives or purchasing a nuc hive. Cost can be a factor in that first year of beekeeping when you are having to buy all of your equipment and tools.

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.

Easier to Handle

Another important advantage of working with honey bee packages is that the small colony is easier for new beekeepers to manage.

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

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

Buying honey bees in any form is not without some peril.  They are living creatures and transit is a dangerous and stressful time.

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. 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, refund, etc.

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

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

However, 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.

FAQ About Honey Bee Packages

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.

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 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.

When is the Best Time of Day to Install My Package of Honey Bees?

Installing the package promptly is best as that gets them into a natural environment.
Some beekeepers like to wait until just a few hours before dusk to put bees in a new hive.

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.

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