Field Guide to Beekeeping
Acquiring Bees and Queens
One must have bees in order to be a beekeeper. It is not always easy to find and purchase bees, especially if one is a new beekeeper and does not know how to obtain bees. Furthermore, bees can be hard to acquire given the level of beekeeper demand for bees today. I have been keeping bees only 25 years; so, I do not have a long history of following the supply and demand trend for bees. However, I feel that it is safe to say that the demand for bees has never been greater during my beekeeping tenure. In Florida, the state where I work, we have gone from about 900 registered beekeepers to over 3,500 registered beekeepers in the last eight years. All of these new beekeepers need a source from which they can acquire bees. This insatiable demand for bees seems similar almost everywhere I travel.
Along with this demand for bees has come a dwindling supply relative to the number of people wanting bees. I am not suggesting that we have fewer bees available to us. I am, instead, suggesting that the number of people wanting bees, and the number of colonies they want, is outpacing the bee suppliers’ ability to produce bees and have them available when beekeepers want them. Bee availability when needed seems to be the biggest problem. Bees are easy to acquire during some parts of the year, but difficult to acquire at others. Generally speaking, the highest demand for bees occurs in late winter and through spring. Thus, you need to get on purchase lists early, usually by summer the preceding year, if you want to have your bees in time for spring use. On the other hand, bees can be quite available through summer and into early fall. There often is not a waiting list for bees that time of year, though how the bees are “packaged” for sale (nucs, packages, full size colonies, etc.) can be limited seasonally.
Beekeepers can acquire bees in six main ways, as: (1) nucs, (2) packages, (3) full size colonies, (4) swarms/bait hives, (5) cutouts (feral colonies removed from a structure), and (6) splits from their existing colonies. Some of these ways of acquiring bees further require you to obtain queen bees separately. For example, you will need a new queen if you split your own colonies because either the parent hive or the split will be left without a queen. Thus, it is helpful to know that one can acquire queens by (1) purchasing mated queens, (2) purchasing queen cells, (3) purchasing virgin queens, (4) grafting and producing one’s own queens, and (5) allowing one’s colonies to requeen themselves. In this article, I will describe and review the pros/cons associated with the various ways of acquiring bees and queens.
*Terminology note: Throughout this article, I use the word “colony” to describe the adult and immature bees collectively and “hive” to describe the physical structure (lid, hive body, bottom board, etc.) in which the colony lives.
(1) Nucs – Nucs (Figure 1) are small colonies, or “nucleus” colonies. Nucs accommodate full-size, Langstroth-style frames. This simply means that the frames that come out of a nuc can go into a standard Langstroth colony. Nucs generally are sold by the frame, with three and five frame nucs being the industry standard. Currently, nucs are priced around $20 - $30 per frame, meaning that a typical 5-frame nuc costs $100 - $150. You usually do not get to keep the hive components (lid, hive body, and bottom board) with the purchase of a nuc. Rather, you only purchase the frames and the accompanying bees. Consequently, you must have a full size hive body ready to accommodate your nuc upon purchase and you must return the nuc’s hive components to the producer after the installation of the nuc. Of course, I am confident the nuc producer would sell you the hive as well, for an additional fee.
Nuc producers/distributors usually have nucs available during much of the production season, this being spring through fall. However, the majority of nucs are produced for a spring distribution. Nucs are in high demand throughout spring. You need to get on nuc purchase lists with your nuc producer of choice about 6-8 months before you want/need the nucs. Otherwise, you get nucs when the producer has them available, which could be much later than you want them.
The producers of nucs create the nucs as splits from their existing colonies. They usually add a queen cell to the nuc, the cell being purchased from a queen producer or one that they produced themselves. Less often, the nuc producers will move the old queen from the parent hive into the nuc or allow the nuc to requeen itself. The latter is an acceptable practice, if monitored closely to ensure that a quality queen is produced, the former less so since you would be purchasing an older queen, possibly at the end of her productive life.
The advantages of starting with nucs is that nucs are functioning colonies. They have a queen, brood, honey, pollen, and wax comb. They come ready to work. They do not have to take time to establish, as they already are established. Furthermore, they come with frames and pulled combs. That is hard to beat. Think of nucs as “starter colonies,” waiting for the opportunity to expand their colony and become productive. If timed correctly, a new nuc can be hived and make a surplus crop of honey for the beekeeper during the first season. Incidentally, this is why they are in such high demand in early spring. Beekeepers are trying to get them hived and established before the main nectar flow. Many commercial beekeepers increase their hive numbers by purchasing and hiving nucs. Nucs are one of my preferred ways of starting hives.
There are some potential downsides to starting with nucs. First, many nuc producers see selling nucs as a way to get rid of the old combs in their production hives. This helps them because they constantly are circulating new combs into their production hives. However, it could be a potential problem for the consumer because there could be pesticide residues in the combs and/or pest and pathogens that accompany the hive equipment. I often say that starting with nucs is a good way to start with another beekeeper’s problems. Nucs are a great way to start a hive. However, it behooves the consumer to (1) inspect the nucs before purchasing them, (2) ask the nuc producer about the history of treatments and pests/pathogens in his or her colonies, and (3) discuss the source of the queen in the hive. The latter is especially important given that there often is little-to-no selection of queens that end up heading nucs.
(2) Packages – As the name implies, packages (Figure 2) are small cages containing bees, a feeder can, and a separate small cage containing a queen. The queen is kept in a separate cage because she is unrelated to the bees in the package and will need to be introduced to the bees slowly and methodically. The standard package contains about 3 lbs of bees. I have seen 2 and 4 lb packages, but they are not as popular at 3 lb packages. No, the package producer does NOT weigh the package to ensure that you are getting the weight of bees you purchased. It is more of an estimation. You get what you get. These days, the going rate for a 3lb package of bees is about $70 - $120, depending on what part of the country you are purchasing them in. You often can negotiate a reduced rate if you order packages in bulk. You also can order queenless packages at a reduced rate, usually about $20 to $30 less than the price of a queenright package.
Package producers shake bees into the packages, the bees originating from strong production colonies. The queens typically are produced, usually via the ...