Considerations – How to Buy Honey Bees
Learning how to buy honey bees is one of the first tasks facing a new beekeeper. I mean, you can’t be a beekeeper until you have bees, right? Some new beekeepers will be lucky enough to receive a starter colony from a friend.
But most of us will have to buy honey bees for our first hives. Where do you go to buy bees and what kind should you buy? Let’s explore how to get started.
Honey Bees for Sale
As late Summer fades into Fall and Winter, bee suppliers will begin taking orders for honey bees. The whole process of purchasing bees can be very confusing to the first time beekeeper.
It is important to remember that bees are living things and no seller can guarantee that you will have success with your bees.
New beekeepers are sometimes surprised to learn that honey bee families are purchased. Some folks think they can just put out a hive and the bees will come. (This can happen – its called a swarm.) However, this does not normally occur-at least for new beekeepers who have no experience.
Buying honey bees is one of the first challenges for the new beekeeper and it can be intimidating. Don’t let the unfamiliar terms and practices involved in beekeeping frighten you. As with everything in beekeeping, each method for acquiring bees has advantages and disadvantages.
It is somewhat like buying a new car, we choose one that we like and a model with a good reputation but anyone can get a bad one! Thankfully, our bees are very forgiving and ordering bees does not have to be a hassle.
For experienced beekeepers, buying honey bees is an activity we look forward to each year. In all honesty, we don’t look forward to paying for them but we do like to get them. Providing new colonies to beekeepers is a major part of the beekeeping industry. (Read more about acquiring bees.)
Thousands of packages of honey bees are sold each year. And bee suppliers make thousands of dollars, beekeeping is big business. Approach this part of your beekeeping journey as you would any financial transaction. If you do your research, your chances of being happy with your bees increases greatly.
Why Experienced Beekeepers Buy Bees
In addition to new beekeepers, experienced beekeepers buy Spring bees as well. Some of them, “us”, will be replacing colonies that did not make it through the winter. Even though I have been a beekeeper for years, it is rare that I do not need to buy a few replacement packages.
Bees have a remarkable system for Winter survival but colonies do perish. Even with proper management, some Winter hive losses should be expected by every beekeeper. The beekeeper that controls varroa mites and makes sure their bees are well fed in late Fall reduces Winter losses.
Can you ever have enough honey bee colonies? Well, in truth you can have too many colonies but we beekeepers don’t always think so. Spring is a time that beekeepers buy honey bees to increase their number of hives. They might also catch swarms to fill new hives but purchased bees are a sure thing.
Where to Buy Honey Bees
Most of the suppliers raising honey bees in the US are found in the South. States like Florida and Georgia are centers of honey bee rearing on a very large scale. Their short mild winters are ideal for colony growth.
Honey bee colonies living in the South will be large productive colonies when northern winter lingers. This is why most of the bee “Package” producers are in Georgia.
Are these southern bees suited for life in other climates? This is a topic of great debate. Most beekeepers agree that purchasing bees local to your region could be helpful. However, cooler regions will not have large quantities of bees ready early in the season.
In my area, our “honey flow” or time of excess nectar takes place early in the year. This is the time when many plants are in bloom and my honey crop is made. If I miss the “flow” I may miss the chance to make a honey crop.
If you are a new beekeeper, you may not know how to buy honey bees from local sources. That’s okay. A quick internet search will find the bee sources nearest to you.
Beware of re-sellers who drive to Georgia, purchase bees and sell them in Wisconsin as locals ! Don’t laugh – it happens. And there is no harm at all – as long as the consumer knows what they are buying.
I have purchased bees from Georgia for years and have had good luck with my colonies. You always have the option to requeen a hive later in the season if you are not pleased with the characteristics of your colony.
Ordering Honey Bees Online
Being able to pick up your bees in person is great because you get to see exactly what you are getting. However, you can order honey bees online and have them shipped. The United States Postal Service will have the honor of delivering many bee packages. Admittedly, your postal carrier may not be thrilled with the job.
When ordering bees to be shipped, read the terms of service carefully. You want to know: how will the bees be shipped, are the bees insured, if they are insured and the package arrives damaged – do you have to file a claim with the post office or will the supplier? Different sellers have different rules.
Buy Honey Bees In A Package
The first method of buying honey bees that we should explore is the most common one. Purchasing “package bees” is the most popular method of buying honey bees in the United States.
The bees arrive in a wire and wood box a little bigger than a shoe box. We call this a bee package. The package contains roughly 10,000 honey bees-this 3# package is the most popular size.
Over the years, bee experts determined that this is a sufficient number of bees to start a colony in the spring. However, you may find 2# or 4# packages for sale too.
When your order bees in a package, the queen bee will be protected inside a small queen cage. Inside the queen cage, you will have a young mated queen and a few workers to care for her.
This queen bee is unknown to the bulk of bees inside your new package. The white (queen candy) in one end of the small queen cage will allow her to be released slowly. By the time she exits her cage, the colony should be ready to accept her.
Your bee package will also contain some food for the bees to use on their journey to your hive. A can of sugar syrup will be attached inside the box – it will have a tiny hole in the bottom to allow bees to feed.
The package bee population will include workers of all ages and even some drones (male bees). Most package producers treat the bees for mites before shipping but you may find a Small Hive Beetle that tags along.
Advantages of Buying Package Bees
Package bees are generally available earlier in the year than Nucs. 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 bees for pollination, early blooming trees and plants wont wait for bees to be available. If you are gardener who wants bees, early packages are the most common method.
Package bees are easy to order and availability is not a problem if your order is placed early. In my area, one should place an order for bees by early January to ensure the best chance of getting the pickup date desired.
You will pay less for a package of bees vs a “nuc” or established colony. Because we often recommend starting with 2 bee colonies, package bees offer a smaller investment.
Disadvantages of Buying Package Bees
When asking yourself – “Where can I buy bees” you must consider that each way of getting bees has challenges. Buying honey bees in any form is not without some peril. These are living creatures and transit is a dangerous time.
Purchasing package bees is not without its disadvantages. All packages are not created equal in quality. You should choose the source of your bee packages with care.
Choose a provider with experience and good reputation. 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. Each year I hear stories of people receiving skimpy bee packages.
Don’t open the hive everyday. The bees need time to settle down and adjust. New packages can leave the hive if the beekeeper is too intrusive. And yes, even when you do everything right, occasionally the bees will leave.
How to Buy Honey Bees In a 5 Frame Nuc
The word nuc (pronounced “nuke”) is used in the industry as a short form of “nucleus”. The nucleus or center of the colony includes: the queen, workers, drones and young bees. From any nucleus, a colony can grow to be large and productive given the right conditions.
Colony growth with a nuc will happen more quickly than package honey bees. Size can vary but the most common size of a nuc is 5 frames. The frames consist of honeycomb, honey, pollen, baby bees (brood), a queen and enough workers to fill the box. The beekeeper will move this small nuc into a regular 8 or 10 frame hive to allow growth.
Advantages of Nucs
A nuc colony does have advantages. A lot of work has already been done by the bees. Honeycomb has been constructed, food reserves collected and young bees are developing in a good nuc.
Also, the colony contains a queen bee that is already accepted by the workers. You can see why a nuc bee colony arrives with a head start in development over packages.
Disadvantages of Nuc Colonies
Nucs are not without a few disadvantages. They are more expensive than package bees. And, Nucs are often not available for early Spring delivery. If you live in an area that has an early honey flow, the majority of the bloom time may be past before your nuc arrives.
The biggest concern with nucs is the increased possibility of transmitting pests and disease. Honeycomb can contain a multitude of bacteria and diseases.
If you decide to try a nuc, be sure to purchase from a reputable beekeeper who will stand behind the bees in case of disease or other problems.
Here is a great post to help you install your nucleus colony.
Buying Bees In An Established Hive
A few lucky beekeepers may find an established hive for sale. This can be a bit overwhelming to a new beekeeper as established hives are sometimes more defensive. However, you do avoid the risk of having to introduce a new queen. The hive should have brood (babies), comb and honey.
You are more likely to harvest honey for yourself the first year with this set up – but I don’t really recommend this method for new beekeepers. In my online beekeeping class, I encourage beginning beekeepers to choose a package or nuc for their first hive. I believe that a package or nuc allows for more of a learning experience.
Buying a full hive does not come without risks. Unless you purchase from a good beekeeper with a reputation to protect, you run the risk of getting a weak or sick hive.
How to Buy Honey Bees: Step by Step
Choose Your Method: packages, nucs, full hive
Order Your Bees Early ! (Dec-Feb)
Read and Learn Before Bees Arrive
Prepare Equipment EARLY
Risks When Buying Honey Bees
Bees are livestock and managing them has its perils. No one can look at a family of bees and tell if it is a “good one” – or will continue to be good in the future. There are several varieties of bees available for purchase. Each has advantages and disadvantages.
Sometimes, queens are not accepted by the new package or are released too soon by the beekeeper. New beekeepers are in danger of failing to feed the new package sufficiently.
A Nuc colony can also have a poor quality queen bee. And the honeycomb in a nuc can bring more than bees and honey with it: pests, viruses etc. Buying bees is like buying anything else: buyer beware.
Ask around for recommendations. This is especially true if you are buying bees online. Ask different people (perhaps from different clubs) for tips to find the best bee supplier.
No Perfect Way to Buy Honey Bees
So which is the better method of buying honey bees ? Package honey bees or Nucs – or even full hives? The debate has raged for years and no doubt will continue. A common saying is : “If there is one thing beekeepers can agree on – it’s that beekeepers can’t agree on one thing !”
This is certainly true when discussing many beekeeping topics.The good news is that we beekeepers have several options for getting bees. You may decide to try each option and see which fits into your beekeeping philosophy.
Getting Off To The Best Start Raising Bees
Whichever method of bee acquisition you choose, read, learn and prepare before your bees arrive. Proper education and preparation will increase your chances of success.
Once you decide how to buy honey bees and where to order them, you need to be ready for arrival. Improper feeding is a common mistake. Feed your bees well. They have a lot of work to do.
Prepare ahead of time. Choose a feeder style. If you choose a small feeder you may need more than one at a time. I like to add a liquid supplement such as Honey-b-Healthy to my sugar water.
A good spray bottle (you can pick one up at Walmart) filled with sugar water (half sugar/half water) is handy to spray on the sides of the honey bee package. The bees will feed through the wire and it helps settle them down.
Raise your colonies off the ground. If you have only a couple of colonies you might purchase a hive stand. Otherwise, you can make a sturdy foundation for your hive by using a few cement blocks as a base.
Now you know how to buy honey bees-packages, nucs or hives. Any of these choices can get you off to a great start beekeeping. Additional resource: Here
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