Updated on July 20th, 2021
You’ve decided to take up beekeeping. In addition to getting basic equipment, you of course need to get honey bees.
You can purchase honey bees from online suppliers, local distributors, or local beekeepers. It is possible to trap a feral swarm to get free bees, though we do not recommend it for beginners. Reputable local beekeepers are the best source for your honey bees.
When deciding where to get your bees, you also need to decide if you want them in a “bee package” or a “nucleus colony” (a nuc, for short). We’ll explain each and why we suggest you start with a nuc, if it’s within your budget when you start beekeeping.
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Why Buy Bees Locally?
Buying bees locally has several benefits, especially when you first start beekeeping:
- We’ve found that beekeepers love to talk and share experiences. Someone in your area who sells bees can be an invaluable source of information and assistance, particularly as you first start out. We got our first bees from a local beekeeper. We met him when we attended a beginner course he gave. During the first couple of years we called on his expertise several times. (Maybe it helped that we also bought some honey from him.)
- You can get bees that have overwintered in your area. Winter can cause significant colony losses here in the northeast. We’ve found that colonies that survive a winter in our area have a greater chance of surviving subsequent winters. The right genes mean a lot.
- A search for a local bee provider will introduce you to beekeeping associations in your area that can be another source of information and help. Meet other beekeepers with varied levels of experience, differing opinions and maybe make some new friends while your at it.
- Shipping is stressful for the bees. Lack of temperature controls in transit, possible shipping delays, etc. all create risks to the health of your bees, particularly the queen. You can find online suppliers that are “pick up only” and some may be in your area.
The bees we got from our local beekeeper have, without a doubt, been the best bees we ever got. Other bees seemed to do well during the spring and summer. However, our winter losses were all from those other colonies. The bees we have today are direct descendants of our locally obtained bees.
“Local” can be a fairly large area depending on where you live. If you’re in an urban or suburban area there probably aren’t too many bee sellers nearby. We live in more rural location. Our first hives came from a beekeeper about 20 miles away so it was very convenient.
We also have a local retailer that distributes bees from a northeast supplier in the early spring. These bees are picked up by the retailer in bulk early in the morning and arrive at our location about 3 hours later. It’s much better than several days in transit. With lots of people picking up their bees on the same day it’s another great place to meet like-minded hobbyists.
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 there are a few things to consider 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 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, your dog or your new bees. Do not keep them in the trunk even for the drive home.
- Make sure 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 bees so that they don’t go flying around in case of a sudden car movement (like screeching to a halt when a bee lands on your ear because you didn’t heed the advice about a mesh bag.)
When you get home:
- If your bees came in a mini-hive (see “nucs” below), place them where you plan to put your hive. The box will have some type of plugged opening in the front. Face the opening in the same direction your hive will be. This will permit the bees to fly around and begin to orient themselves to their new location.
- If your bees came in a package (see “bee packages” below) 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 some clean water using a mister or spray bottle. Give them a few sprays 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 little more sugar syrup every few hours while they wait.
See our article Why, What, How & When To Feed Honey Bees for information on making sugar syrup.
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 another time and get your free bees.
See our article about swarm traps to learn more about getting free bees.
As I said earlier, shipping is stressful for the bees and not recommended. However, if you must (or just really, really want to for convenience) you can find shippers online. If so, keep a few things in mind.
- Where are the bees coming from? Just as when buying locally, try to get bees from a climate as similar to your own as possible.
- 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 length of time the bees are in transit.
- Once the bees are ready for shipping, how long before they are actually sent? Obviously, 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.
Check the following suppliers for bee packages, nucs, and queens:
How Will Your Bees Come?
Package bees usually consist of the following in a wooden or plastic cage:
- 3 lbs. of bees (approximately 10,000 bees)
- A queen…in a cage to protect her until the bees come to accept her
- A can of sugar syrup to keep the bees fed until you put them in a hive
The main advantage of a bee package is that it generally arrives early in the season to give you a good start on your beekeeping. They are also less expensive than nucs.
So how much do bees cost? See our article How Much Does It Cost To Start Beekeeping? for our latest information on the cost of bee packages and nucs.
Installing a package can be a bit intimidating the first time you do it because of all the bee activity. Check our video on installing a bee package below.
The major drawback to packages is that all you get is bees. No brood, no honey…heck, they may not have accepted the queen yet. You will have to feed them and make sure they accept her highness.
There is always a small chance that they won’t like the new home you provided and will just abscond leaving you out about 150 bucks wondering what just happened. Not saying it will happen (hasn’t happened to us), just that it could. A nuc (discussed next) has brood already which makes it even less likely that your bees will abscond.
See our article about absconding for more information about why bees leave a hive.
If you can do it, there’s a better way. Get a nuc.
What Is A Nuc (pronounced “NEWK”)?
A nuc, or a nucleus colony, is basically a mini-hive with a queen, bees and 5 frames that include some combination of comb, nectar, pollen, honey and some brood. A nuc is our preferred way to go for beginners.
There are 2 types of nucs to consider: spring nucs and overwintered nucs.
Spring nucs tend to be available a bit later in the spring as they need time to build up. Spring nucs take some of the stress out of installing your first package, but do not necessarily give you
Overwintered nucs are available earlier and get your colony growing that much sooner. If the bees overwintered locally, they have a genetic makeup should be advantageous going forward.
Another major advantage, particularly for a new beekeeper, is the ease with which the new bees are transferred to the hive. Simply pick up the frame and place it in the hive, being careful not to drop the queen.
Nucs have several disadvantages relative to bee packages:
- Nucs are more expensive that bee packages. Overwintered nucs are more expensive than spring nucs.
- Nucs are essentially 5-frame Langstroth deep boxes. This makes them unsuitable if you opted to start beekeeping with a Warré hive or top bar hive. Nucs for those hive types are difficult to come by.
- Suppliers generally do not ship nucs so you need to find a supplier you can go to for pickup.
What Is A Marked Queen?
Marked queens are dabbed on the thorax with colored paint making her easier to spot in the hive. Spotting the queens helps beekeepers avoid injuring her 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 which are more limited in supply. Queens can be acquired later in the season if you find the need to replace one.
Depending on your location, bee packages and overwintered nucs are made available starting in early spring. Spring nucs are usually available a bit later.
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.
See our next article about what type of hive to pick for your bees.