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Getting Your First Bee Hive [Overview]

A nice fellow from a recent ERBA meeting contacted me the other day about getting bees and what were the next steps. After an email or two, he secured a couple of Nuc’s and is ready for the bees that will hopefully come his way this Spring. His initial assumptions did get me to thinking that the whole process is not well documented. Some might think it is a decision that they can make in the Spring, which is far from the truth. So, I thought I would lay out a general outline of how it works. There are exceptions and this is fairly high level, but it should prove helpful to some folks.

There are four basic ways to get your hands on some bees. When I say ‘bees’, I literally mean the mass of workers, drones (maybe) and queen that make up the group of bees that you are going to start with. For the vast majority of folks, they get their bees by either buying a Nuc (Option 1) or a Package (Option 2) of bees.

‘Nuc’ is short for ‘Nucleus Hive’ and pretty much refers to a small hive body (When I say ‘hive body’, I am typically referring to the structure that the bees live in) that only holds 5 frames. To create a Nuc of bees, the seller takes a few frames from his existing hives and puts them in their own separate box (the actual Nucleus Hive Body), without a queen. They either raise their own queen or perhaps the beekeeper takes a queen from a swarm cell that he has taken from his existing hives. The point here is that the queen is usually from the seller’s own stock and the bees hatch her out, being by her side from day one. After about a month, the queen should be laying and the existing bees expanding into all 5 frames of the Nuc. I am a big fan of Nuc’s. You have a queen from your area (presumably she has traits that make her well suited for the environment) and a band of workers that have worked with her from the start. They are already a team.

A Package (Option 2) refers to a cardboard box of bees that you purchase from someone who is usually from another state. You receive a few pounds of bees in one package and a queen in another. This group is not a team yet (most of the time, the queen was not raised by the bees that were sent to you, so your bees have not become a team with your queen yet). Part of the initial job for a beekeeper who orders a package is getting them into a wooden hive body and then, over the next few weeks, making sure the bees and queen become a cohesive unit (i.e. your bees don’t kill your queen, thinking she is an enemy.) You also do not know if this group of bees has any genes that have thrived in your environment (typically, they are raised down South somewhere). I have never purchased a Package, but I have friends that have. So far, my bees have done better.

A third way to get some bees is to purchase an entire hive from another beekeeper. Most of the time that you see something like this advertised, it is simply a larger version of a Nuc. The seller has taken a bunch a bunch of old frames, filled them with bees without a queen and let them raise their own queen. The seller can get a higher price (double or triple) then what they would get for a Nuc. Getting a full hive, you have a lot of the same advantages of a Nuc, except you do not have an opportunity to learn from watching a hive grown from 5 frames to 20. There is so much value in these early lessons that I do not believe a new beekeeper should start with a full hive.

The final way to get some bees is through capture. These take the form of catching a Swarm, doing a cut-out or trying a trap-out. You are basically getting feral bees. I love these kinds of bees, but you once again do not get all of the great learning experiences that you get with a Nuc. A swarm can teach you a lot, but you have to really make sure that you have a queen after you catch the swarm. And, if you do not, you will not have any frames of eggs to give the bees to help them get started. So, although I believe you can learn a similar experience with a swarm (as with a Nuc or Package), I do not believe a new beekeeper should use this as their sole way of obtaining bees at the start.

So, that covers the main points about getting the bees. Since I am a Nuc man, I will spend a few minutes explaining ‘how to purchase a Nuc.’ The number one thing you want to do is to get it ordered right NOW! In fact, I would order my bees in the Sept/Oct timeframe, to ensure that I got them. If you wait, the entire order will be spoken for and you’ll be waiting another year.

The number 2 thing to do is to get a couple of deeps and frames to fill them. You will be bringing you deep to the seller and he’ll put those bees into your box (or he’ll give you a cardboard Nuc, but you’ll still be moving the bees into your empty Deep.

1 comment to Getting Your First Bee Hive [Overview]

  • Doug Ladd

    I fully agree with your post and trying to start people with nucs. However, as the winter progresses nucs will be sold out and package bees are better than no bees. However, the new beek must understand there is a potential for loss, but no higher or lower than purchasing nucs from a “bad” source, niether failure is due to the new beek in most cases.

    Queen failure is the number reason packages fail, my suggestion if packages are the only option is to spend the extra money ($20) and purchase a replacement queen from a local reputable bee keeper. Its not the workers for the most part that is the issue, its the queen.

    as an FYI SHB’s can be issues in both packages and nucs depending on where they are purchased from, but if your in a SHB area dont worry about it. I’m not (not yet) so i worry…LOL

    I have only purchased personally 3 packages, 2 my first year, and 1 in 2010 for my father. All 3 i have been very pleased with. Actually my dads package and package queen is still doing exceptally well. I still have one package queen around and she exceeded many “expensive” queens and is on her second winter not too mention i made 5 splits off her hive this year (1 off her , her first year) and they still went into winter in 2 solid double deeps both years!!! I mention this only to give confort to those new beeks too late to purchase nucs. You can still succeed. But again i would suggest replacing the queen, i believe and know my experiences are the exception not the rule.

    Purchase NUCS NOW!!!

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