As a new beekeeper you will have to decide where you’re going to source your honeybees from. Should you just order a package of bees online or purchase a Nucleus colony (Nuc) from a local beekeeper? To help with that decision let me explain the differences between a package of bees and a Nuc.
A Nucleus colony, or Nuc, is a small functioning beehive with 4-5 frames of bees. A Nuc box includes an established laying queen with frames of brood, honey, and/or food stores. A package of bees is a 2-3 lb. box of bees, approximately 10,000, in a vented wooden box with a queen in a cage.
8 Key Differences Between Nuc’s vs Packages of Bees
|Package of Bees
|Available in 2-3 lb. packages
|Available in 4 or 5 frame colonies
|Shipped in screened box with caged queen
|Nuc Box includes 4-5 frames + egg laying queen
|Bees often unrelated & from different colonies
|The bees are genetically related
|Queen not established and unrelated to worker bees
|Includes an established queen
|Easily shipped over long distances
|Cannot be shipped, only purchased locally
|High availablity, can be ordered from anywhere
|Not widely available & usually requires pre-ordering
|No brood, honey or food stores included
|Brood, honey and/or food stores included in the frames
|Least expensive option for purchasing bees
|More expensive than a standard package of bees.
What Is A Nucleus Colony
Nucleus beehives are small functioning bee colonies with everything the bees need to establish a strong colony. A Nuc box includes comb, a brood nest, beebread or food stores, and an established egg laying queen. Since the queen has already been accepted by the colony the hive has a higher chance to expand and flourish.
A typical Nuc contains either 4 or 5 established frames with 2 of the frames containing honey or pollen bread for feeding, and at least 2 frames of brood for colony expansion. The colony usually contains brood and worker bees in all stages of development, forager bees, nurse bees, and some drones.
Since Nuc’s are small established colonies they cannot be shipped and must be purchased locally. They tend to be more expensive than a package of bees and you’ll likely need to pre-order them. The key to purchasing Nuc’s is to do your homework and only buy from local reputable sellers.
When purchasing Nuc’s here is 6 important questions you’ll want answered:
- How many frames of adult bees are included?
- How many frames of brood, honey or food stores are included?
- How old is the queen?
- Does the price include the Nuc box or does it have to be returned?
- Is the Nuc a newly established colony or an over-wintered colony?
- Has the colony received any form of treatment and if so when?
Once your Nucleus colony is received, inspect it to ensure you got what you paid for. I would also recommend inspecting the colony for brood diseases and parasites. If you are a new beekeeper have an experienced beekeeper assist you with this inspection.
The best Nuc’s to purchase are over-wintered colonies. They have survived the winter as a complete and strong cohesive unit and will flourish quickly in the spring. Bee colonies like these can really form the basis for a strong apiary.
Over-wintered colonies tend to cost a little bit more but purchasing these Nuc’s really increases your chance for success, especially as a beginner. Also, if you’re looking for a modest honey harvest your first year, over-wintered Nuc’s are your best option.
The Pros And Cons Of Purchasing a Nucleus Colony
|Contains 4 to 5 frames of drawn comb for the queen
|Most expensive option for purchasing bees
|Contains frames with brood, honey, and/or food stores
|Less availablity and cannot be shipped
|Includes an established egg laying queen
|Can only be purchased locally and usually requires a pre-order
|Less feeding, support, and/or monitoring
|Higher chance of disease and parasites
|Bees genetically related and includes worker bees in all stages of development
|Frames usually only available for deep Langstroth hives
|Contains brood in all stages of development
|Difficult to transition into Top Bar or Warre hives
|More resililient colony since it’s established and from a local region
|No general quality of standards for Nuc’s and can vary considerably between sellers
|Easier to transition into a new hive, is less stressful for the colony
|Requires closer inspection for disease, can be difficult for beginners
|Lower chance of queen being superseded and/or absconding
|Some nuc boxes have to be returned, unless included in purchase
|Higher chance of success as a new beekeeper
As indicated in the chart above there is several pros and cons to purchasing a Nucleus colony. One of the biggest advantages is your colony has a much higher chance for success and survival especially in preparation for the winter.
You’ll get a month head start on honey production, your bees will require less feed, and your bees will have less stress when moved into a larger bee box.
The main disadvantage of Nuc’s is they are more expensive, and you do need to purchase Nuc’s locally, so there is less availability. Also, good quality Nuc sellers usually have a waiting list. It is not uncommon to have to pre-order your bees 6 to 12 months in advance.
Lastly, if your using any Top Bar or Warre hives I wouldn’t suggest purchasing a Nuc colony unless the seller has the woodenware to fit. Langstroth hives are pretty much all that is available for Nucleus colonies.
Here is a great video showing how to introduce a Nucleus colony into an empty hive.
What Is a Package of Bees
A package of bees typically comes with 2-3 lbs. of bees and a young queen (in a queen cage, usually marked) ready to be placed in the hive. A package of bees contains roughly 10,000 honeybees.
Since the queen has not yet been accepted, or locked in, with the colony it will take time for the bees to accept her. There are specific methods for introducing the queen and I’ll include a video below illustrating this process.
The package normally comes with a can of sugar syrup to help feed the bees during shipping. They will also require supplemental feeding until the colony accepts the queen and becomes established.
It is not uncommon to receive quite a few dead bees; some will die during shipping because they are stressed and are not working. The longer the shipping time, the more dead bees you’ll receive.
These bees are grumpier and will be highly agitated when you first transfer them to a new hive. Once they accept a queen and are working, your bees will calm down quite a bit. Buying packaged bees is the most popular option for new beekeepers since its cheaper than buying Nucs.
One of the biggest advantages to purchasing a package of bees is how much you will learn as a beginner beekeeper. You will get to observe how the bees build a hive from scratch and you will have to be more hands on in the beginning. You can also use any type of bee box since it will be a small colony to begin with.
Packaged bees are usually made up of worker bees from different colonies as well as a new queen from a different hive. Some suppliers also package a couple worker bees with the queen bee. But this does vary between suppliers.
Sometimes your bees can arrive pretty beat up depending on weather conditions and shipping times. I’d recommend to always inspect your queen to make sure she is alive and healthy. If you’re new to beekeeping, it’s best to have an experienced beekeeper assist you with this.
The Pros And Cons of Purchasing a Package of Bees
|Least expensive option for purchasing bees
|Bees require more feeding, support, and monitoring
|High availability – very easy to locate packages of bees
|Includes a new unrelated queen, will take time to be accepted by colony
|Can be shipped over long distances
|Higher chance of requeening and/or absconding
|Bees easily placed in any type of hive, Langstroth, Warre or Top Bar
|Increased stress on bees from shipping & will receive dead bees
|Less likely to have diseases and parasites
|Colony requires a lot more time to build since no comb, brood, or food stores
|Easily transferred into a new hive
|Possible climate difference between shipping origin and hive installation
|Education – best learning experience for a new beekeeper
|More stings since more grumpy bees, bees not prepared to leave their previous colony
As indicated in the chart above there is several pros and cons to purchasing a package of bees. I still cannot overstate the importance of the education a new beekeeper will receive when purchasing bee packages. Not to mention how much easier it is to order packages of bees no matter where you live, and they are more cost effective than Nuc’s.
Packaged bees can be easily introduced into any type of hive, whether you have a Top Bar, Warre or Langstroth hive. There also tends to be less issues with mites and parasites since there is no brood frames included. But you will need to treat your bees in a couple of weeks.
The biggest disadvantage to packaged bees is they tend to be pulled from different colonies and therefore are genetically unrelated. They also require a lot more TLC and if the colony doesn’t accept the queen you many have to purchase another. The colony will require quite a bit of feeding to build comb and to gather nectar and pollen.
Packaged bees also have a higher chance of absconding especially if being introduced into a brand-new hive. New hives and frames do not contain the attractive pheromones and scents that older frames and hives do.
If you’re new to beekeeping, it’s always best to purchase 2 packages of bees. You just never know what could happen especially since you’re learning, and you will make mistakes. You could be incredibly lucky and have both colonies take off, but you could have one completely die or one colony not accept the queen.
Here is a good video illustrating how to introduce a new package of bees:
What is the best time of year to start a beehive? The best time of year to start a beehive is in the early spring. However, the specific month will vary depending on your location. Some beekeepers will start their hives early April while others have to wait until May.
What is the difference between a brood box and a super? The difference between a brood box and a super is brood boxes are used by the queen to lay eggs called brood for raising new bees. A super is the hive box used to store a bee’s honey called a honey super. Also, super is a common term used to describe the actual hive body or beehive box.
How long does it take for a new beehive to produce honey? It will take a new beehive a minimum of 4 months to produce honey. A new colony may be producing an excess of honey within 4 months, but not necessarily enough for you to harvest. Practically speaking, your unlikely to harvest any honey from a new colony until its second season.
How much honey do bees need to survive winter? To survive the winter a standard 10 frame brood box of bees will need 80-90 lbs. of honey in Northern climates, 60-80 lbs. of honey in Central climates, and 40-60 lbs. of honey in Southern climates. The bees will need this deep box of honey placed on top of the lower brood box to survive winter.
What is the best fuel for a beehive smoker? The best fuel for a beehive smoker is simple and affordable, easy to light, burns for a long time and produces a cool smoke without injuring your bees or yourself. Bees need only feel cool gentle smoke from your smoker and not heat and sparks to be effective.