Beginning beekeeping basics: Nucs v. packages, plus tips for getting started


Beginning beekeeping basics: Nucs v. packages, plus tips for getting started

As an aspiring novice beekeeper, one of your first questions will be: where can I get my bees?

You have two options, and, as with many things, they shake out as follows: the cheaper option is more accessible, and also more likely to fail. The more expensive option may be harder to acquire but has a higher likelihood of success. Here’s a bit more in-depth information about acquiring bees, honeybee subspecies, and hives and equipment, to help you get started.

Package bees: Cheap and plentiful

Most beginning beekeepers start with package bees for the simple reason that packages are more readily available than “nucs” (a nucleus hive, discussed below). Packages can often be procured through local feed stores or university programs. There’s often a waiting list, so if you want to start beekeeping in the spring, winter is the time to do your research and groundwork.

Bees typically come in 2 to 5 pound packages in a screened cage with a queen in her own separate cage.

Package bees are inherently riskier -- up to half of packaged bee colonies fail. So you have to do more work and more research to help them survive, especially in colder winter climates.

Challenges for package bees include:

  • Queen acceptance. The bees have to accept the queen over a matter of days -- the time it takes for them to eat through the sugar stopper into her cage -- and often she is not accepted.

  • Colony establishment. The bees are not an established colony and haven’t learned to work together yet. In addition, packaging and travel -- sometimes from long distances from a variety of different large apiaries -- puts additional stress on the group.

  • Hive building. On new equipment without drawn-out combs, they have to build wax on the frames. It takes long enough for the bees to become established that they likely won’t yield a honey crop in the first year.

Nucleus hives: Local, established, and pricier

A nucleus (nuc) is basically a very small hive with 2-3 frames full of brood and bees and an established, laying queen. Nucs are typically purchased through a local beekeeper.

Starting with a nuc puts you ahead of the game. They are already established and ready to grow. They also have some reserves like pollen and honey to sustain a growing beehive, and have comb drawn out for the queen to start laying.

Nucs are less stressed, but they are more expensive and may be more difficult to find depending on where you live.

How many hives? More than one!

Novice beekeepers typically want to start with one hive, but we advise beginning with at least two or three hives. Often throughout the season you need to move resources, like eggs or frames of honey. You’ll need to take from one hive to give to another.

Additionally, different hives may perform quite differently over time. Having more than one gives you a basis of comparison if one hive is doing poorly, so you can make changes as needed.

What kind of bees?

There are several different kinds of honey bees, including Italian, Carnolian, Russian, German, Caucasian, and Buckfast. Each has unique attributes (production volume, winter hardiness, aggressive/gentle natures, disease resistance, etc.). The right stock for you depends on your style, your environment, and your reasons for keeping bees. Educate yourself before buying.

Basic equipment

In addition to choosing bee stock, you’ll need to decide how to keep bees. There are a variety of hive styles to choose from (Langstroth, Warre, Top Bar), each with different qualities (manipulability, mobility, etc.). Learn more here. We use the Langstroth style, which is the most common.

Besides the woodenware (hives), there’s very little equipment needed to keep bees.

Protective clothing, a veil, gloves, a smoker, and a hive tool are enough to get yourself started. (If you’re doing Langstroth, you’ll also need a feeder.) In addition, you’ll have to learn about common pests and diseases and decide how to treat them.

Educate yourself -- and prepare to fail

Once you’ve decided to start your beekeeping operation, supply yourself with plenty of reliable resources. In addition to the plethora of information on the internet, get some good books, join a local beekeeping club, and seek out mentors.

Beekeeping has become very popular, which is great. It’s fascinating and really fun! At the same time, there’s a steep learning curve. You’re going to make some mistakes. Be prepared for trial and error, and be willing to learn from it and try again.

When we first began beekeeping, we stumbled quite a few times. Beekeeping now is nothing like it was 50 years ago. Keeping your colonies alive is a constant struggle, and losses can be heartbreaking, but it is a wonderfully rewarding hobby. Be perseverant, and make sure you have the time and resources to be a conscientious beekeeper. It is important to not become a part of the problem. Strive to maintain healthy, happy hives, and enjoy the journey along the way!


Five Considerations for Pollinator-Friendly Spring Planting


Five Considerations for Pollinator-Friendly Spring Planting

With the warm days of spring approaching we have all been dreaming of what we will plant in our gardens this year. Consider incorporating pollinator friendly plants into your garden plan. One thing you can do without much planning is to plant a small portion of your garden or flower beds just for bees and other pollinators.


The decline in honey bee populations has been in the news for quite a while now, but it is just not bees suffering from heavy pesticide and herbicide use, our native pollinators could use a leg up too! Creating biodiversity near your home is one small way you can make a difference. Planting beneficial plants for these creatures will provide them with more forage and habitat. There are many native plants in every area that will attract pollinators to your garden, and not only will you be doing something good for them, they will return the favor by pollinating your flowers and veggies too. The following link is a guide to native plant listings by region: Using perennial native plants is a great way to attract pollinators, beautify you landscape will plants that are drought tolerant and require little care once established.


What else can you do for our pollinators? You can let your brassicas in the garden flower after you are done harvesting your crop. These plants in the cabbage family provide a great source of food for bees, especially broccoli! The bees love it, and they will flower late into the fall when many other flowers are done blooming. I have spent many moments in the garden watching our honey bees collecting nectar and pollen from our broccoli plants in the fall. When I step into the garden there is a noticeable hum coming from the broccoli patch, and it is quite calming to sit and watch hundreds of bees working and collecting on a warm autumn day when not much else is blooming. It is tempting to pull plants out of the garden after they are done producing for you, but you may consider leaving them for the bees and enjoy an unexpected splash of yellow blooms in your garden too.


You can create all kinds of habitat for pollinators besides planting flowers. Consider drilling holes in standing dead or fallen trees for solitary mason bees. These bees like to nest in holes in fallen logs. Also leave good habitat on the ground at the edge of your garden or lawn. Insects need cover and lots of undisturbed places to nest. Follow this link to find out more on raising native bees like mason bees


Believe it or not many weeds are great forage for our flying friends! Lawn weeds like dandelions and white dutch clover provide an excellent source of nectar and pollen for honey bees and other insects. We have been molded to believe that these weeds are unsightly and a nuisance, that we must conform to uniformity! But if we take the time to appreciate these "weeds" for all that they do for us and for pollinators you may reconsider the urge to get rid of them. Did you know that you can add dandelion leaves to your salad. Dandelion greens offer many of the same benefits of other leafy greens that boost your immune system, are also a diuretic, and can help support proper liver function.


Visit your local farmer's markets and nurseries for the best selection of flowers and veggies this year. It's always best to know the people growing your plants. Shopping locally will allow you to ask questions first hand, know that your plants have not been treated with any chemicals, and you will be supporting your local economy! Did you know that  for every $100 you spend at locally owned businesses, $68 will stay in the community vs. only $48 when you buy from national chain stores!

That concludes our post on pollinator-friendly spring planting. Have anything else to add? Feel free to leave a comment below. Please share this post on your favorite social media platform. And please also be sure to follow us in social media! (links are in the footer ;)