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.
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!