Beekeeping is a rewarding hobby that offers benefits like fresh honey and an army of fuzzy pollinators. But before getting started, you’ll need a colony that’s willing to stay put.
There are various methods of obtaining bees, each with pros and cons. This guide explores how to get bees for your hive and which option is best for your apiary.
How do I get honey bees for my hive?
New beekeepers that need bees for a hive are best to purchase a nuc or a package of honey bees. Established beekeepers looking to expand can save money by splitting an existing hive or capturing a swarm.
Let’s take a closer look at the each method: purchasing a nuc, buying an established colony, purchasing a package, catching a swarm, or splitting a hive.
1. Purchase a nucleus colony (nuc)
A nuc, or nucleus, is a small-scale beehive that usually contains 4-6 frames. Beekeepers take a thriving colony and split off part of it before transferring it to the nuc. Small hives need fewer bees to keep their internal temperature warm, even during spring buildup.
A nucleus beehive arrives fully functioning, which is helpful for a new beekeeper. You get an egg-laying queen, comb, food stores, and brood at various stages of development. These are the basic elements needed to build a flourishing colony.
There are significant benefits for new beekeepers opting to buy a nuc. They get a higher chance of success, and it is easier to transition into a bigger hive.
The disadvantages of investing in a nuc include paying extra and the increased risk of parasites or disease. If you aren’t using a Langstroth hive, sourcing bees in suitable frames could be difficult.
Before buying a nucleus of bees, ask these questions to increase your chance of success and avoid disappointment.
- Has the colony recently received any treatments?
- Do I need to return the nuc box, or can I keep it?
- How many frames of adult bees, honey, brood, and food do I get?
- What is the age of the queen?
- Is the nuc overwintered or newly established?
Hint: overwintered stock cost more but are the best as the bees have proven their survival ability.
Once your nuc colony arrives, inspect it to ensure you’re getting what you paid for. Check the frames have the right amounts of honey, brood, and bees. You can also read our guide to inspecting a beehive to learn more about what to look for.
Look closely at the colony for signs of parasites, disease, or other threats. First-year beekeepers will benefit from the advice of an experienced local beekeeper.
You may also want to check out our article on bee breeds to learn which race is best for your new hive.
2. Buy an established colony
A step up from buying a nucleus is buying a full-sized established hive. You get all the benefits of purchasing a nuc, except it’s on a bigger scale. Fully-functioning hives include a queen, brood, honey, and food supplies.
Although this option may sound ideal for new beekeepers, it is better suited to those with experience. You’ll need a keen eye to determine if the colony is sick or weak. Established hives are often more defensive, which first-time keepers may find overwhelming.
New beekeepers who choose to invest in an established colony should recruit some help at the start. They’ll know what to look for, ensuring the queen bee is present and identifying signs of a struggling hive.
3. Purchase a package of honey bees
A package offers roughly 3 pounds of bees and a fertilized queen bee. Each pound of weight means 2000-3000 bees, although this varies based on the nectar flow when you receive them.
In the United States, commercial breeders specialize in selling bees and may ship them to your door. Cartons allow bees to live a few days to over a week in transit. If you have a local supplier, try to pick them up yourself.
Demand for bee packages is high, so order well in advance. We recommend buying them in early winter as stock often sells out by spring.
The queen is shipped separately with a few worker bees, so there is a risk that she may not be accepted. Beekeepers must introduce the queen to an agitated hive. But once settled in with a good supply of sugar syrup, the colony should soon calm down. Check out how to feed honey bees if you need more details.
Buying a package of bees is the most popular option as it is cheaper than a nucleus. Although more hands-on, you’ll learn faster starting a colony from scratch. Introduce the bees to whatever type of hive you’ve set up, whether it’s a Langstroth hive, Top Bar, or Warre.
Comb isn’t included, so there is less risk of disease and parasite transfer from the seller. However, implementing a disease mitigation system within the first few weeks is essential.
Buying bee packages has a few drawbacks to consider. Some bees will die during shipping, and there’s a greater chance of absconding if introduced to new hives. There are no pheromones or familiar bee scents to make the bees feel at home.
Bee breeders may take bees from various colonies, which can create teething issues initially. Bees that aren’t genetically related take longer than a harmonious nuc to build momentum.
Tips for installing bee packages
- Use new equipment and hives to avoid spreading diseases.
- Install the bees at night to reduce drifting.
- Purchase two bee packages to increase the odds of success.
- Feed the bees concentrated sugar syrup solution for the first week.
4. Capture a Swarm
Honey bees create new colonies for various reasons. Swarming involves breaking away from the original hive and searching for a new home. It is a natural part of bee life and usually happens when a thriving colony needs more space.
Swarming allows beekeepers to get their hands on free bees. A swarm will include workers, drones, and a queen, so they’re usually worth the effort.
The first method to capture a swarm is to set up a trap to lure them in. Check out our article on how to attract bee swarms to learn the technique.
Another way to get swarms is to register on relevant websites and with local beekeeping organizations. When members of the public spot one, you may be contacted to collect them.
A captured swarm will often provide genetically strong bees that have survived winter. They’re also local bees and will have a better chance of success than those shipped in.
Catching a swarm is always a gamble. The bees could be weak, Africanized, queenless, or may have been poisoned.
Newcomers to beekeeping may want to save swarm catching for next season once they’ve gained some experience.
5. Split a hive
Established beekeepers that need stock for a newly introduced hive should consider splitting an existing one. This method takes a strong colony and moves top bars or frames of honey, brood, and nurse bees to a new hive. It’s the opposite of combining hives.
Always transfer an existing queen with the worker bees or unhatched eggs to raise a new queen.
Hive splitting is a popular option as it’s cheap, and the bees should be in good condition. However, new beekeepers won’t have established hives to split.
Help! Which option is best for me?
Finding the best way to get bees for your hive may sound confusing. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. We’ve simplified your decision-making process by creating the flowchart below.
Start at the green box and see where it leads you.
Tips for buying bees
If you’ve decided to buy a nucleus or package of bees, then follow these tips for the best results.
- Take a practical course on how to install bees before they arrive.
- Get in early with ordering bees to avoid missing out.
- Try sourcing bees from local hobbyists instead of businesses halfway across the country.
- Find a mentor to get experienced advice on your new bees.
- Buy bees from beekeepers with a similar approach to feeding and pest treatment.
- Local bee clubs are a treasure trove of helpful information. Visit the American Beekeeping Federation, the British Beekeepers Association, or Amateur Beekeepers Australia to get local beekeeping advice.
Summary of how to get bees
|Description||4-6 frames of worker bees, honey, brood, and laying queen||A full sized hive with everything included||Around 3 pounds of bees including a queen||Half of an original hive that’s looking for a new home||Half of a beekeeper’s existing hive, moved to establish a new one|
|Status of queen||Includes laying queen||Includes laying queen||Queen not established||May be queenless or include a laying or virgin queen||May include a queen or eggs to raise a new one|
|Best for||Any level||Experienced||Any level||Experienced||Experienced|
|Quality||Bees are genetically related||Bees are genetically related||May be a mix of colonies||Often from a thriving colony||Often from a thriving colony|
|Price||More expensive||More expensive||Less expensive||Free||Free|
|Pros||Includes everything, easy for beginners, less chance of absconding||Includes everything, get started fast||Cheap, easy to source, low chance of bringing in disease, works with any style of hive||Free bees, often genetically strong||Free bees from a thriving hive which you control|
|Cons||Costs more, may inherit disease and parasites||Bees can be defensive, may end up with a weak hive||Mixed bees from various hives, queen isn’t established||You never know what you’ll get||Not an option for beginners to beekeeping|
What’s the difference between a package and a nuc of bees?
A nuc is a small version of a fully functioning hive containing only 4-6 frames. They include honey, food stores, brood, and a laying queen bee.
A bee package contains around 3 pounds of bees in a wooden box and a separate cage housing a queen bee.
While a nuc is the easier option for new beekeepers, a package of bees reduces the chance of inheriting parasites and diseases.
Commonly asked questions
Should I buy local bees or get them shipped in?
Only get bees shipped to your door if you’ve exhausted all local options. Bee survival rate is closely linked to climate, so buying local increases the odds of success as they’ve already adapted to conditions in your area. Bees shipped longer distances have higher stress levels and mortality rates.
When should I buy my bees?
Ordering bees as early as possible will make sure you don’t miss out. Try to buy them in the fall or winter in anticipation of next spring.
How much do bees cost?
Bee prices vary based on the time of year, location, and the type of bees on offer. In the United States, a package of bees may range from $125 to over $200 if you pick them up. Nucs often start at $200, while a full hive could cost over $250.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced beekeeper, you’ll need to get bees at some stage. Thankfully, there are plenty of options that vary in price and difficulty. Check out the summary table above to help work out what’s best for your apiary.
Experienced beekeepers will often take advantage of more than one source of bees. Some buy packages of bees and supplement their stocks by splitting hives and registering as a swarm catcher.