4 Tips for Ordering Bees

Four tips for ordering bees

I sat on a bee. 

It's one of my earliest memories, and not a pleasant one. I was about four years old, playing in the front yard, rolling around on the grass. I put my hand right on top of a honey bee and squashed her. She stung me... and then she died. I don't know which hurt me more at the time, the sting or the guilt that I was responsible for her death (a honey bee dies after she stings someone).

But in spite of that memory I'm still fascinated by bees. When our fruit trees begin to bloom I can hear the buzzing of bees from many feet away. When I visit our patch of wild roses the bees are busy gathering nectar and pollen while I'm busy taking photos. The sunflowers along the edge of my garden in summer attract bees that I hope are pollinating my vegetable plants as well.

I also love raw, real honey, not the fake stuff often found in the grocery store. And because I try to produce things I use a lot of instead of just buying those things, I've been interested in beekeeping for a couple of years. Last year I began making plans to start our own hive.

I've been researching local options for buying bees. I feel a sense of urgency to get my bees ordered, but I also felt overwhelmed at the choices. I've also discovered that most sources are already sold out for this spring. If I want bees this year, I needed to get it done.

This weekend I was able to attend an all-day beekeeping class for beginners. While it wasn't a hands-on class, it was still packed with information - and I do mean packed. My head was already swimming by lunchtime, seriously.

The portion of the class where our instructor talked about where and how to buy bees was exactly what I wanted. I should clarify that: the whole class was great, but when he got to this point, everyone in the room sat up and started taking notes.

A honey bee colony on top of the hive frames.

Here's the wisdom I gleaned from his class:

Tip #1: Order your bees early.

Place your order or get on a waiting list. Most sellers I've contacted require a deposit when you order with the balance due when you pick up the bees (I've learned that you can ship bees through the mail or UPS, but most beekeepers prefer to pick them up in person. And if you're buying them locally - see Tip #2 - why not go get them?). Ask for their refund policy before putting up the deposit. Some will refund your deposit if you change your mind or find bees elsewhere; others won't.

Tip #2: Buy local bees

They will be acclimated to your climate and conditions and will be more likely to thrive in your new hive. Another advantage of buying local is that you'll probably be able to contact the seller later if you have a question or a problem.

Tip #3: Decide on what strain of bees you want, and how you'll purchase them.

Actually, both of these decisions might be made for you depending on what is available in your area.

Bees are sold in "nucs," complete hives, and bee packages. A nuc - short for a nucleus hive - is a four- or five-frame box that includes bees, pollen and honey. A complete hive is the full-size hive with bees, pollen and honey. A package of bees usually includes three pounds of bees (about ten thousand bees) and a queen. You can also start with a swarm, but I'm not going to address that in this post.

There are quite a few strains of bees, but the four most common types are Italian, Russian, Caucasian, and Carniolan. Each strain has its own assets and drawbacks, and some are better-suited to the climate of a particular area. Ultimately, your choice will probably depend on what is available.

Tip #4: Ask questions

You can find bees for sale online and even on Craigslist, but it's important to ask questions so you know exactly what you're getting and can make an informed decision. Ask for recommendations from local beekeepers. You won't know the reputation of sellers on the internet and Craigslist, and I think it's important to ask around in the beekeeping community where reputations are known.

Honey bees in a hive.

Questions you should ask the seller include:

  • What strain are the bees?
  • Are they local bees, or were they trucked in from another state? Remember, you should buy local bees. If they are from another state, ask if health certificates from the original state are available.
  • Is the seller willing to help if you have a question or need help later on?

If you are considering buying a nuc, you will want to ask the following:

  • How many frames are in the nuc you're purchasing? There might be three, four or five frames in a five-frame box.
  • Are you supposed to exchange frames? Some sellers ask you to bring new frames to exchange for the frames in the nuc. You'll need to know what size frames to bring: medium or deep.
  • Is the nuc box included, or do you need to supply one?
  • Is the equipment new or used? Used equipment can contain pests or diseases, so beware!
  • Does the nuc include a new queen or an older, proven queen? 

If you're buying a complete hive of bees, you should ask:

  • How many frames are included in the hive?
  • Are the boxes deep or medium-sized?
  • Is the equipment new or used?

For a package of bees, ask:

  • Does the package include a proven queen, a mated queen or a virgin queen?
  • Is there a guarantee that the bees will accept the queen in the package?
  • If the queen fails, can you get a replacement?

I did it!

With these guidelines I felt more confident in ordering my bees from our instructor, and I'm anxious for April and my bees to get here!

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Four tips to help you order your first package of honey bees.

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