If you've been dreaming about getting started in beekeeping for awhile, and want to make a go of it this year, now is the time to get started. It's easy to place an order for bees from your local beekeeping supplier, but March is the last month to do it.
There are so many great reasons to keep bees on the small, self-sufficient homestead that it is almost a no-brainer. If you like to eat from your garden, your squash blossoms, blueberries and apples will all need pollinators. And, if you don't have bees around your place yet, you will definitely want to get a few hives going. Whether you want to do it for the honey and beeswax, the pollination, or the relaxing, almost meditative experience of working with bees, now is really the best time to get ready. The spring bee-order window is fast closing.
Beekeepers getting ready to work with a few Langstroth type beehives. Photo courtesy Creative Commons
The first big question you may have in setting up for beekeeping is “How do I get bees?” Here are a few possible ways to get a swarm or “colony” of honeybees for your hive. You can catch a wayfaring swarm in the months of May or June (I'll write about that later on); you can get a “split” off of a friend or neighbor's hive; or you can purchase a “package” or a “nuc” of bees from a commercial beekeeper or your local beekeeping supply company. The first option relies more on good luck than anything else, as you will have to see the swarm yourself, and know how to catch and transport it home. The second is fairly easy if your neighbor has a strong colony of bees, and is willing to show you how to get started. I am going to focus on the third option, ordering packages or nuc, as it a very common and easy way to acquire your first bees.
What is a package of bees? Package bees come from commercial beekeepers in California, Texas and other places with a warm spring climate. Every year, these beekeepers take a certain number of their strong over-wintered hives and open them up to sell off the bees. They shake the bees out of the hive, funneling them into shoe-box sized, screened boxes, and then introduce a young, mated Queen bee to create a whole new colony of bees. It is essentially a manmade swarm, ready for sale. Once the beekeepers have added a feeder to the box, they are ready for overnight transport to the beekeeping supply store near you. You will very likely be required to pick them up on a specified date, so there isn't much flexibility, and installing them in their new hive requires a few steps spread out over several days after pickup, so you are committed to stick around and not run off on vacation the next day.
A three pound package of honeybees with a tin can feeder, ready for sale. Photo courtesy apishive.com
Then there are “nucs.” Short for nucleus hive, it is an already established colony of bees living on four or 5 frames that should include a mated Queen bee and populations of worker bees, nurse bees and larvae. These four frames (the moveable wooden forms that encase the honeycomb inside the hive) will be loaded with both honey and pollen for the bees to eat and with pupating larvae, which will emerge to provide the newest generation of young bees. The frames come straight from the hives of a commercial beekeeper, are transported in a nucleus box (essentially a mini-beehive) to you the customer or to your local bee supply store, where you must pick them up within a day or two. At home transferring the frames of bees into your hive is easy. You simply remove the four frames of honeycomb with the bees onboard, and insert them in the beehive that you have already assembled at home (I'll cover the assembly of a hive kit in another post).
A four-frame nucleus colony, or “nuc box,” open for inspection. Photo courtesy indybeesupply.com
So, package bees or nuc hive, which one should you get? Decide what is best for you based on the following comparison.
Nucleus colonies are often available later and over a longer period of time in the spring, up to several months. They are easier to install into the hive; just move the frames over. It is unlikely that they have just spent the last 24 or more hours on a truck flying up the interstate, as the package bees have done. Finally, they are almost guaranteed to have a mated, laying queen bee, with brood already on the way. The main downsides? If you are using any other beekeeping system besides the Langstroth Hive (which is the standardized and ubiquitous, stacked, rectangular bee box) such as Kenya top bar or Warre, you will not be able to use a nuc hive, because the frames will not transfer easily between the nuc box and your permanent hive setup. There is the possibility that these frames may also bring with them pests and diseases from inside the previous beekeepers’ hive, though reputable bee dealers will have medically treated their nucs in advance. Nucleus colonies also usually cost about 25% to 35% more than package bees, and there may be an extra, refundable deposit on the nuc box.
Both packages of bees and nucs must be ordered in advance from your bee supplier, but packages have a more limited availability and strict pick-up window. As package bees are essentially a homeless swarm waiting for a place to land, they must be kept cool, well ventilated and re-hived immediately upon your arrival home. Sometimes your closest bee dealer will be several hours drive away, so it can be a long day of driving followed by the installation process itself. The process is a little bit more complicated than with the nuc, as the package bees must accept their new Queen bee for the colony to succeed, and this requires you to attend to them over the course of several days to ensure this success. Read about this process in later posts from this blog.
The main benefits of package bees are that first, because the box is small and light, they are easy to carry and transport. They cost less than nucs (say $100 compared with $140) and there are usually many more of them available to order than there are nucs, which have a more limited local distribution. Finally, there is a smaller potential for contamination with the package because it is only bees in the box; they don't travel with any of the honeycomb or wooden-ware that can harbor pests and diseases.
Honeybees fill the air around these colorful hives, ready to pollinate the nearby flowering field crops. Photo courtesy Creative Commons.
Whether you want packages or nucs, order up your bees now. Come late spring you'll be glad you did. Instead of dreaming about bees again for another year, you'll have all those lovely ladies gracing your vegetable patch and flower beds, humming their sweet song of increase. I suggest ordering at least two colonies, just for redundancy. My favorite place to order bees and bee gear where I live in the Pacific Northwest is Ruhl Bee Supply in Wilsonville, Oregon and there are bee suppliers in every region of the US.
After you get your order in you'll have a few weeks to get your hives set up and ready for your bees. Did you miss the package bee window? Order nucs instead. Check back in with this blog soon for posts about getting your hives built and bringing home and installing your bees.
Judson Daffern has been a wandering farmer-gardener in the Pacific Northwest since 2007 and has worked in the beekeeping business for several years. Based in Oregon at present, this year he is off the farm and focusing on travel, research and freelance writing on the topics of off-grid homesteading, sustainable agriculture, nature and environment, natural wellness and cultural food traditions. Find him online at judsondaffern.com.