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How To Get Bees For Your Hive [5 Ways]

A beekeeper holding a frame covered in bees

If you want to get started bee keeping, you’re going to need some bees. But you already knew that right? Would you like to know how to get bees for your new hive? Keep reading to discover a range of ways to source bees and how they compare.

By the end of this page, you’ll be able to weigh up the pros and cons of each option and decide what’s best for you.

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. If you already keep bees and have an empty hive, you may want to save money by splitting an existing hive or capturing a swarm.

1. Purchase a nucleus colony (nuc)

Buying a nuc

A nuc, or nucleus, is a small-scale beehive that usually contains 4-6 frames. Beekeepers may take a thriving colony and split off part of it before transferring it to the nuc. A smaller hive means fewer bees are needed to keep its internal temperature warm, even during spring buildup.

A nucleus beehive is fully functioning, which is useful for a new beekeeper. You’ll get an egg-laying queen, comb, food stores, and brood at various stages of development. These are the basic elements needed to build up a flourishing colony.

For a new beekeeper, choosing to buy a nuc carries some big benefits. It gives you a relatively high chance of success and is easier to transition into a larger hive.

A row of nuc beehives

You’ll need to weigh up the pros with a higher price tag and an increased likelihood of parasites or disease. If you aren’t using a Langstroth hive, you may also have difficulty sourcing bees in suitable frames.

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?
  • Is the nuc overwintered or newly established? (hint: overwintered cost more but are the best)
  • What is the age of the queen?

Once your nuc colony arrives, always inspect it to make sure you’re getting what you paid for. Make sure all the frames are included with the right amounts of honey, brood, and bees. You may also like to check out our guide to inspecting a beehive to learn more about what to look for.

Take a very close look at the colony to ensure there are no parasites or other threats. If it’s your first year as a beekeeper, try to get help from an experienced beekeeper as they’ll know what to look for.

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

Established hive

A step up from buying a nucleus is buying a full-sized established hive. You get all the benefits that come with buying a nuc, except it’s on a bigger scale. You’ll get a full-functioning hive with 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 a colony that’s established should recruit some help at the start. They’ll know what to look for and can make sure the queen bee is there and identify signs of a struggling hive.

3. Purchase a package of honey bees

Buy a package of bees

If you decide to buy a package of bees, you’ll get roughly 3 pounds of bees and a fertilized queen bee. For each pound of weight, you’ll get around 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. If you have a local supplier, you could also pick them up yourself. The cartons allow bees to live a few days to over a week in transit.

The demand for bee packages is high, so get your order in well in advance. We recommend buying them in early winter and you may be disappointed waiting until spring.

Unlike a nuc, where you receive a fully functioning colony, with a bee package the queen hasn’t been accepted yet. She usually gets shipped separately to the main hive and may have some worker bees in with her. As a beekeeper, you’ll have to introduce the queen to the rest of the bees that are likely to be highly agitated. Once settled in with a good supply of sugar syrup, they should soon calm down. Check out how to feed honey bees if you’re unsure.

Buying a package of bees is the most popular option as it is cheaper than buying a nucleus. Although it’s a more hands-on way to get started beekeeping, you’ll learn more by starting a colony from scratch. Your bees can also be introduced to whatever type of hive you’ve set up, whether it’s a Langstroth hive, Top Bar, or Warre.

You don’t get any comb with the order, so there is much less risk of disease and parasite transfer from the seller. However, you’ll want to implement a disease mitigation system within the first couple of weeks.

Buying bee packages has a few drawbacks which you’ll need to consider. Some of the bees will die during shipping which isn’t ideal. There’s also a greater chance of the bees absconding if they’re introduced to new hives. They’ll have no pheromones or familiar bee scents to make the bees beef more at home.

Bee breeders often pull bees from different colonies which can also create teething issues in the beginning. Bees that aren’t genetically related won’t gather momentum building the new hive as quickly as a harmonious nuc will.  

Tips for installing bee packages

  • Use new equipment and hives to avoid spreading diseases.
  • Install the bees at night to reduce the numbers that drift to other hives.
  • Purchase two bee packages if it’s your first time to increase the odds of success.
  • Feed the bees a strong sugar syrup solution for the first week.

4. Capture a Swarm

Capture a swarm

Honey bees may want to create a new colony for a variety of reasons. The process of breaking away from the original hive and going in search of a new one is called swarming. It is a natural part of bee life and usually happens when the hive is thriving and needs more space.

Swarming presents an opportunity for bee keepers to get their hands on free bees. A swarm will include worker bees, drones, and a queen, so they’re often well worth the effort.

To capture a swarm, the first method is to set up a trap to lure them in. Check out our article on how to attract bee swarms to learn how it’s done.

A man capturing a swarm of bees from a tree

The second way to get swarms is to register your details on relevant websites and with local beekeeping organizations. When members of the public spot one, you may get the callup to take them away. 

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 bees that were shipped in.

The issue with swarms is that it’s always a gamble on what you’re getting. The bees could be weak, queenless, or may have already been poisoned.

Newcomers to beekeeping may want to save swarm catching for next season once they’ve gained some experience.

5. Split a hive

Split a hive

If you’ve already got bees and need more for a newly introduced hive, 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.

It’s important to transfer an existing queen with the worker bees or unhatched eggs so that a new queen can be raised

Hive splitting is a popular option as it’s cheap and you know the bees are in good condition. The problem for beekeepers in their first year is that they obviously won’t have any bees to split. So, splash out on a package and hopefully, they’ll be okay to split next year.

Help! Which option is best for me?

Working out the best way to get bees for your hive may sound confusing. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. We’ve tried to simplify your decision making process by creating the below flowchart.

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 who have a similar approach as yours toward feeding and pest treatment.
  • Local bee clubs are a treasure trove of useful information.

Summary of how to get bees

 NucleusEntire hivePackageSwarmSplitting
Description4-6 frames of worker bees, honey, brood, and laying queenA full sized hive with everything includedAround 3 pounds of bees including a queenHalf of an original hive that’s looking for a new homeHalf of a beekeeper’s existing hive, moved to establish a new one
Status of queenIncludes laying queenIncludes laying queenQueen not establishedMay be queenless or include a laying or virgin queenMay include a queen or eggs to raise a new one
Best forAny levelExperiencedAny levelExperiencedExperienced
AvailabilityLowLowHighLowVaries
QualityBees are genetically relatedBees are genetically relatedMay be a mix of coloniesOften from a thriving colonyOften from a thriving colony
PriceMore expensiveMore expensiveLess expensiveFreeFree
ProsIncludes everything, easy for beginners, less chance of abscondingIncludes everything, get started fastCheap, easy to source, low chance of bringing in disease, works with any style of hiveFree bees, often genetically strongFree bees from a thriving hive which you control
ConsCosts more, may inherit disease and parasitesBees can be defensive, may end up with a weak hiveMixed bees from various hives, queen isn’t establishedYou never know what you’ll getNot an option for beginners to beekeeping

Commonly asked questions

What’s the difference between a package and a nuc of bees?

A nuc is a small version of a fully functioning hive that only contains 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 of the two for new beekeepers, a package of bees reduces the chance of inheriting parasites and diseases.

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. The further bees are shipped, the higher the stress levels and mortality rate.

When should I buy my bees?

It is best to place an order for bees as early as possible to avoid missing out. Try to order your bees in fall or winter in anticipation of next spring.

How much do bees cost?

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. Prices vary based on time of year, location, and the type of bees on offer.

Summing up

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced beekeeper, at some stage you’ll need to get bees for your hive. 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 will buy packages of bees and supplement their stocks by splitting hives and registering as a swarm catcher.

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