Lesson 3: Package Bees vs. Nucs

I received an email from Walter T. Kelley advertising they still have package bees for sale. For the beginner beekeeper, this can be a perilous decision. Which do I purchase, a Nuc or a Package of bees. I hope maybe this blog will guide you to the right decision.

Package Bees have been around the longest and have the greatest flexibility. You get a 3 pound package of bees with a caged queen. I purchase package bees on occasion to add diversity to my stock. Most of the time they do reasonably well. However, sometimes you have issues. Last season, I purchased 10 packages of bees from a reputable supplier out of Georgia. Out of the 10, I received 2 Drone laying queens, and 1 absconded. Here are some pros and cons for package bees:

PROS:

  • Get them earlier
  • They are less expensive
  • There is no brood so you have a chance to decrease any mite population
  • They have been the industry standard for over 100 years

CONS:

  • They having nothing to start off with. No drawn comb, or pollen/honey stores
  • The bees in 1 package may have been collected from several hives
  • Risk of absconding is greater
  • You never know what the quality of the queen is
  • You have to feed to excess to start them off

Nuc Hives are usually small 5 frame boxes with a laying queen, drawn comb, and bees. This type of purchase has its drawbacks as well. Here are the Pros and Cons for Nucleus Colonies:

PROS:

  • You can inspect the quality of the queen
  • Has drawn comb
  • Do not have to feed as much
  • Has brood frames ready to give you more bees

CONS:

  • Receive them later in the year
  • Chance of buying disease or mite ridden frames in the nuc
  • Can not be shipped by mail
  • More expensive

If you know a beekeeper who can go with you to pick up the Nuc, that is what I recommend. In my opinion, you are more likely to succeed with a Nuc than with package bees, however,  I buy package bees on occasion because I have plenty of drawn comb with honey, pollen , and brood to give them to increase the odds they will succeed. If you can get frames of brood, honey and pollen from a beekeeper, than package bees are a good solution too.

Every beekeeper has their own life experience to share. I would recommend you find someone close to provide you with the guidance you require to get started.

Having said that, if you lack that ever so important resource, I will provide you with 2 of my own personal stories of peril.

Anecdote 1: Package Bees

My very first bees were package bees. I bought 20 packages, and 20 new hives to put them in. I had read “First Lessons in Beekeeping” so obviously I knew everything there was to know. I remember going out and installing the bees in the hives. The first 2 packages, I dropped the queen cage down in the package. I quickly learned how NOT to do that because then you have to go dig her cage out from in the middle of all of the bees. The remainder went fairly smoothly even though I became more apprehensive with every package I opened due to the vast amount of bees I had swarming around me. The next day I felt this vast sense of accomplishment as I gazed out over my new apiary here on the farm. That felling lasted only for the first 2 weeks as I noticed about 6 of my bee hives were now empty! In hindsight, I suppose 14 out of 20 is not too bad for a beginner. What went wrong? Who knows! I’m sure the just absconded. There are plenty of trees around me to house in, and I suppose after watching me in action, the bees decided they would much rather take their chances own their own.

Anecdote 2: Nuc Hives

When I purchased my next round of bees, I had been keeping bees for 2 years. I will once again point out I had read “First Lessons in beekeeping” so I knew I had all of the knowledge I needed to conquer more hives. My hives had dwindled down to 10, but those 10 were thriving which gave me a false sense of confidence that I was doing a good job.  I had not at that time learned how to split the hives to make increase. I knew I needed more hives to pollinate my crops so I began to research buying more bees. I read on the advantages of buying Nuc hives. I knew this was the way for me to go. Again I purchased 20 hives knowing this time I would be 100% successful because of the vast experience I had in dealing with the last hives.

I purchased these hives over the telephone. I ordered early and eagerly awaited the day to take the 4 hour voyage to pick up my new bees. When the day arrived, I took 2 friends along with me for the trip to assist in loading and strapping down the hives. What I had read about and envisioned was 20 thriving hives in 20 small wooden hives. What I was surprised to see when I got there was 20 small cardboard hive look a-likes. I reassured myself I was doing the right thing. Justifying it by knowing I would be removing the bees from their mini-hive anyway within a few weeks.

My next warning bell should have been when we were discouraged from putting on our suits. “These bees are gentle, and besides that you do not want to stir them up before you move them you will loose half the bees.” This made sense to me, so we commenced to loading the bees up while listening to this particular beekeepers stories of beekeeping in Alaska.

To make a long story short, I returned with the bees, and set them out the next morning. I decided to give them a day or so to get acclimated before I would disturb the hive. Two days later a surprise rain crept in and kept me out of the hives for almost a solid week more. When I was finally able to inspect the hives, I found only 8 alive. The others looked terrible. Hundreds of dead bees lying on the floor of the hive, frames that were almost black. The frames were probably 5 or 6 years old looking back with the knowledge I have today.  I took the remaining 8 hives, and set them up in new hive bodies with new frames to grow on, and cycled the old frames out as quickly as possible.

I found out the hard way it is very easy to get rolled over when buying bees. You have an uphill battle to begin with when you are new to beekeeping. So please make sure you find a mentor. There are plenty of associations out there, or local beekeepers who will help you as you go. Hopefully, if you find good guidance, your first beekeeping years will be more rewarding than mine!

 


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