If you are just getting into beekeeping, or looking to increase your apiary, now is the time to start debating nucs vs. packages. There are only so many ways to acquire bees: nucs, packages, catching a swarm, or making a split from someone else’s hive. There are pros and cons to each and questions around nucs vs. packages seem to be some of the most common among new keepers, so here are MY thoughts, on the matter.
When I use the phrase “package of bees,” I quite literally, mean a box full of bees. Most packages are a side effect of the commercial beekeeping industry. Commercial keepers pollinate almond trees late February to early March. They leave these fields with huge hives, full of bees just around the same time Northern beekeepers are interested in starting their hives. So you can order a package of bees for around $100 from various southern states.
The bees are shipped in little screen houses that look like this:
Inside each package is a can of sugar water, a queen, in a queen cage, and 10’s of thousands of bees in a cluster. They can be shipped through the mail, but usually you order from a local supplier and they have a pick-up day, and everyone picks up their packages at once.
Conveince is the major pro of ordering a package. You can order as many as you want by phone or online. You can prepay and pick up in the spring. Packages are cheaper than nucs and they are pretty easy to install. Additionally, package availability typically does not fluctuate based on the type of winter we had (since they come from down south) and you can sometimes order them as late as early March and still find some availibility.
There are some logistical cons to buying and starting with packages and some philosophical ones. Logistically, you need to be able to get your packages. One year we ordered from a supplier in Flint and had to drive there to pick up and another year we picked up in Holland. This meant being kind of “on call” until we heard pick-up dates. Once they were available, we had to be ready to pick-up and install, and sometimes this means you’re installing in crummy weather (you know how spring can be). Additionally, packages usually come in pretty early and we are not always out of the spring cold snaps, so that can be a concern.
Last year we ordered three packages with the intent to re-queen (more on that later). We installed all three and found, a day later, that one queen had died (in the queen cage) within the first 24 hours. Then one of the packages drifted into the hive of the third. Obviously transporting bees across the country is going to yield some die-off, but it’s kind of a big deal when it’s the queen. I did not look into getting a refund or new queen, so I’m not sure if you have any recourse when this happens.
Now, philosophically, you’ll also have to decide how you feel about packages. Buying the by-product of commercial pollination has its own drawbacks: poor nutrition (they don’t eat a varied diet when they live on almond fields), liklihood of disease and mites, and stress from travel. I think it’s fair to say you are not buying the strongest, healthiest bees. Additionally, you are perpetuating the commercial industry and how you feel about that, is personal. Here’s how I feel about it (incase you wondered).
Another drawback to relying on packages is they are doing nothing to improve the genetics of local bees. Michigan beekeepers need a unique type of bee these days. We’ve seen a pattern of later, colder winters and bees from a southern climate are not conditioned for our cold temperatures. Can packages survive the winter? Yes. Do they? Not very often, but that’s based on anecdotal experience.
So why does anyone buy packages, then? Well, as mentioned earlier, there is a lot more availability. Years ago we had a winter that decimated everyone’s hives and everyone was buying packages out of necessity. Additionally, they are cheaper by about $25-$50 and if you’re interested in buying several at once, that can add up quickly.
Here is a list of reputable sources for packages.
Ok, so what’s a better alternative? Nuc is short for nucleaus hive and if you buy a nuc you are basically buying a mini-hive. A nuc will include 5-8 frames of drawn comb, a laying queen, a little honey, and tens of thousands of bees. To install a nuc you just lift each frame out and place it into a hive box.
Nucs are a better investment because the beginnings of the hive are already established. The bees have accepted the queen, she’s alive and laying, and they already have some drawn comb to work with. Ideally, you’d find a local nuc and if you can get a queen from survivor stock (has survived a Michigan winter) even better. You also get the benefit of installing an established colony, so in that regard, you begin bee season a bit ahead of the game.
When nuc-shopping, you can now find beekeepers who are raising different varieties an crosses locally and you have a chance to meet the beekeeper you’re buying from and ask questions. You can find out if the beekeeper treated with chemicals, how he/she managed mites, did he/she feed, etc. The very first bees I ever purchased were from a beekeeper in the Lowell area. We went to his house to pick them up, sat at his dining room table and chatted awhile. He gave us some advice and tips and I still keep in contact with him. This opportunity to connect with a local, experienced beekeeper would have been lost if I ordered packages.
Well, nucs are expensive and as demand goes up, supply stays flat, and beekeepers are breeding better quality bees, prices will go up. Most local nucs were between $125-$150 last year. Will they survive the winter? Who knows. It’s always a gamble, but your chances are better with bees that have acclimated to the local climate.
Availability can also be a frustration. Local beekeepers sell a limited number of nucs each year (based on their own population), so some years they are hard to get. Usually you need to order nucs earlier than packages. I’ve heard some people have already sold out of nucs for the spring and it’s only January 4!
If you are interested in ordering nucs here are a couple of great resources:
For SW Michigan beekeepers (Kalamazoo Bee Club)
Beekeepers around the state (Northern Bee Network)
Two or three years ago I saw Meghan Milbrath speak at the Kalamazoo Bee Club’s bee school and she showed data to suggest that nucleus hives survived winters the best, packages the worst, and package bees re-queen with local queens did only slightly worse than nucs. This provides you with another option: buy packages and re-queen with a local queen. In the end, this might cost as much as a nuc: $100 for the package and $20-$25 for a queen, but you can do it hive by hive. Some beekeepers will sell queen cells for much cheaper, so you can go that route and let the bees raise the queen.
Catch a swarm
If you put your name out there and keep an eye on beekeeping Facebook pages, you might be able to catch a swarm. Anyone who has ever met and spoke with me for more than 5 minutes knows I’m a beekeeper and last year my Facebook inbox was flooded with friends asking me if the flying pests on their back porch were bees or wasps. Most the time they were wasps, but twice they were honeybees and one of the times we were able to capture the swarm!
Nuc vs. Package: A Side-by-Side Comparison
Availability may be limited
Survivor stock / local stock
Ability to find concious breeders (mite-resitance, variety, hardiness, etc)
Supports a local beekeeper
Form a connection with an experienced keeper
Easy to find and easy to order
Easy to order large quantities
Pick-up may require travel
Commercial bees (may carry stress, disease or mites)
Supports commercial pollination