Updated on September 11th, 2022
You decided to take up beekeeping. In addition to getting essential equipment, you need to get honey bees.
You can buy bees for pick up from local beekeepers or distributors. Online suppliers will ship honey bees to you. You can trap a swarm to get free bees, though we do not recommend it for beginners. Reputable local beekeepers are the best source for honey bees. You can buy starter colonies or mated queens.
When buying your bees, you also need to decide if you want them in a “bee package” or a “nucleus colony” (a nuc, for short).
This article discusses where to buy bees, things to consider when purchasing, cost estimates, and more.
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Options When Buying Bees
Choosing where to buy a colony of bees includes two other decisions: what type of bee you want and what format you wish to receive them.
Types Of Bees
Western (aka European) honey bees are classified by “race,” which indicates certain traits and sources of origin.
Common races available for purchase are:
Each race exhibits certain traits that make them more (or less) desirable to beekeepers.
Italians are considered relatively gentle to work with. They breed well and are excellent foragers but may be more prone to robbing behavior.
Carniolan bee populations expand rapidly in the spring, and they overwinter well. However, Carniolans may be more likely to swarm than some other races.
In addition, some suppliers breed hybrid bees intended to be more resistant to Varroa mite infestations.
See our article about what kind of bees to buy for more information about these various options.
Different Formats – Bee Packages Vs. Nucleus Colonies
Starter colonies come in two formats: bee packages and nucleus colonies (or “nucs”).
Bee packages come in screened boxes that include about 3 pounds of bees (approximately 10,000 mostly worker bees) plus a caged queen. In addition, the package has a can of sugar syrup to feed the bees until you can install them in a hive.
The queen remains caged for several days while the bees adapt to her.
See our article about how to install a bee package for more information.
A package of bees is your least expensive option. Packages can be picked up locally or shipped to you, depending on the supplier.
A nucleus colony is a mini hive that usually has five frames with bees and an accepted queen that has already been laying eggs.
A nuc is available as a newly arranged “spring” nucleus hive or a more established “overwintered” nuc.
Nucs are more expensive than packages and are usually available later in the spring. However, they are easier to install, requiring only the transfer of frames and bees to the new hive.
See our article for more information about nucs. If it’s within your budget as a first year beekeeper, we recommend you get a nuc for ease of installation compared to installing a package of bees.
Where To Buy Bees?
Online suppliers, local distributors, and local beekeepers sell honey bees. You can purchase enough bees to start a colony or get a mated queen to replace one of yours.
Our top preference among these types of suppliers is your local beekeeper.
Buy Bees From Local Beekeepers
Buying bees locally has several benefits, especially when you first start beekeeping.
An experienced local beekeeper can be a valuable source of information and assistance, particularly as you first start.
For example, we got our first bees from a local beekeeper. We met him at a beginner course he gave. During our first couple of years, we called on his beekeeping experience several times. (Maybe it helped that we also bought honey from him.)
You can get bees that are overwintered in your area. Winter colony losses are significant here in the northeast. Colonies that survive a winter in our area have a greater chance of surviving subsequent winters. The right genes mean a lot.
Searching for a local bee supplier will introduce you to local beekeeping associations. Association members are another source of information and help. Meet other beekeepers with varied experience levels, and differing opinions, and maybe make some new friends while you’re at it.
Shipping is stressful for the bees. Lack of temperature controls in transit, and possible shipping delays create risks to the health of your bees, particularly the queen. However, with local bees, you just need to pick them up.
Shipping is a bigger problem in the age of Covid. Delays and backlogs are more common. So pick up your bees in person if possible.
“Local” can be a large area depending on where you live. If you’re in an urban or suburban environment, there probably aren’t many bee sellers nearby. So it pays to think in terms of “regional.”
Buy Bees Locally From A Distributor
Some retailers receive large shipments of bees directly and distribute them locally. Orders may be taken online or at the retailer’s location.
This type of arrangement reduces the timing risks associated with individual bee shipments.
Deliveries are scheduled in advance, and the supplier will notify you of when and where to pick up your bees. You may need to wait in line a bit, but at least your bees won’t be sitting in some warehouse or on your doorstep for an extended period.
Be aware that getting bees from a local distributor may not mean that the bees were raised locally. Ask the distributor about the source of the bees.
Getting Your Bees Home
If you pick up your bees locally, consider a few things in transporting them home:
- Expect a straggler bee or 2 to hitch a ride in your car. It’s not a bad idea to put the bees in a mesh bag (breathable) to reduce the probability that one of these hitchhikers will buzz around your head while you’re driving. Car accidents are not in the budget.
- Do not stop and leave the bees locked up in a hot car. It’s not good for your kids, dog, or new bees. So please do not keep them in the trunk, even for the drive home.
- Ensure the bee container is securely shut and tape down any potential openings. Even if they’re in a mesh bag, you don’t want them all loose in the bag when you get home.
- Secure the bee package for your trip, so it doesn’t slide all around the vehicle.
When you get home:
- If your bees came in a nuc, place them where you plan to put your hive. The box will have a closed entrance in the front. Face the opening in the same direction your hive will be so the bees can orient themselves to their new location.
- If your bees came in a package, keep them out of direct sunlight in a cool spot. You don’t know how long they’ve been waiting for you. Spray them with clean water and give them a few squirts with sugar syrup after about an hour. Get them into your hive shortly after that. If, for some reason, you need more time, spray them with a bit of sugar syrup every few hours while they wait.
Buy Honey Bees Shipped From An Online Supplier
Shipping is stressful for the bees and not recommended. However, if you cannot pick up bees locally, you can find shippers online.
If buying online, keep a few things in mind when you shop:
- Where are the bees coming from? Just as when buying locally, try to get bees from a climate similar to your own.
- Check to see if the shipper offers insurance options. If so, consider them to protect your investment. There is no guarantee that your bees will arrive alive. It will screw up your beekeeping debut to pay for a bunch of dead bees.
- Explore the shipping options. It might be worthwhile to pay extra for expedited shipment to reduce the bees’ length of time in transit.
- Once the bees are ready for shipping, how long before they are sent? Shorter is better within a couple of days of being shaken into the shipping container.
- Track your package and be available to accept delivery when your bees arrive. It’s not good for the bees to be sitting on your porch in the hot sun all day waiting for you to get home.
Only bee packages are available for shipping. If you want a nuc, you need to pick it up directly from the supplier.
Consider the following suppliers for bee packages, nucs, and queens.
Betterbee is one of our preferred places for buying bees. Unfortunately, their bee packages and nucs are available for pickup only in NYS. If they are within reasonable driving distance for you (as they are for us), I highly recommend them.
Mann Lake is one of the country’s largest bee supply companies. They have a variety of different bees for pickup or shipping including Italian, Saskatraz, Carniolan, and Russian hybrids. Nucs are available for pickup in various locations around the country.
Barnyard Bees has packages and queens for shipping. Nucs can be picked up at their location in Chatsworth, GA. David at Barnyard Bees has a very informative channel on YouTube. Barnyard Bees has a “super package” which is a set of packages with one queen. All those extra bees give a new hive a big jump start.
Lappe’s Bee Supply ships bee packages and queens including Russian hybrid, Cordovan, Carniolan, Italian, and Saskatraz. Nucs are available for pickup only at their Iowa location.
Rossman Apiaries in Georgia has one of the lowest prices we’ve seen for package bees during our review. Rossman also sells queenless packages if you are looking to boost the population of a queenright hive or create your own “super package” like those of Barnyard Bees.
Dadant has been in business for over 150 years and is probably the oldest bee supply company in the United States. They have 10 locations nationwide. Dadant ships packages around the country.
Cost Of Bees
The cost of bee packages and nucs varies widely based on local availability and shipping costs.
Here is a summary of average costs from our recent review of various suppliers:
|Bee package - pickup||$195||$120||$158|
|Bee package - shipped||$295||$150||$206|
|Bee package - all||$295||$120||$175|
Buying A Queen Bee
Sometimes you will need to replace a lost or failing queen. Many online bee suppliers sell mated queen bees throughout the summer.
See our article about determining if your hive is queenright for more information.
A queen ships in a cage with several attendants. Track the timing of the queen’s arrival. You do not want the package left on your doorstep in the hot sun.
Immediately upon receiving the queen, put a few drops of water on the cage.
Before putting the new queen in the hive, make sure the old queen is removed. Then, leave the hive queenless for a day to remove her pheromones. Keep giving some water to the new queen in the meantime.
Install the new queen just as you would with a new package.
It will take several days for the colony to accept and release her.
What Is A Marked Queen?
Queen bees that come with your starter colony may be marked or unmarked.
Marked queens are dabbed on the thorax with colored paint making them easier to spot in the hive. Spotting the queens helps beekeepers avoid injuring them accidentally. Marking colors are based on an international standard that helps track the queen’s age.
We recommend getting a marked queen if available and within your budget.
When Do You Buy Bees?
The best time to order bees for the coming season is late fall or early winter before you need them. Most suppliers start taking pre-orders by December or January.
By ordering early, you will be able to select the delivery time that suits you best and helps you avoid being shut out, particularly for nucs that are more limited in supply. Queens can be acquired later in the season if you need to replace one.
Bee packages and overwintered nucs are available starting in early spring. Spring nucs are usually available a bit later.
Catching A Swarm
There is nothing more local than a swarm of bees you capture. I’ve seen some websites that suggest this as a free way to get started beekeeping. Yes…swarms are “free”. You don’t buy them. You put up a swarm box and hope that some feral colony decides to make it their home. After that, you relocate them to one of your hives.
Let’s be real here. You’re a newbie at this. Hoping to catch a swarm to start your beekeeping hobby makes no sense. You need to learn how to set up your hive, handle your bees, etc.
Throwing up a swarm box and hoping it works while you sit around looking at your empty hives isn’t a plan to start beekeeping. You can go after swarms as a more experienced beekeeper.
See our article about swarm traps to learn more about getting free bees.
Have your hive set up and ready to go BEFORE your bees arrive. You don’t want your bees sitting around in a cage or a nuc while you start picking out paint colors to make their new home look fabulous. You’ll want to get them in the hive as soon as possible after they arrive.
Hive set up – check!
Bees installed – check!
Congratulations! You’re a beekeeper.
This article is part of a series on how to start beekeeping, a step-by-step guide for beginning backyard beekeepers.