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Nuc or package: how to buy honey bees

One of the first problems a new beekeeper confronts is how to get a colony of bees. If catching a swarm is not in the cards, or if an entire established colony is not for sale in your area, you are left with two choices: you must buy either a nuc or a package.

While this is often a polarizing topic in beekeeping circles, I tend to be pragmatic about the whole subject. Good arguments exist for either option and sometimes you simply must take what is available. At other times, the new beekeeper has unwittingly made the decision by his choice of equipment.

What is the difference between a nuc and a package?

Before I get into the pros and cons of each, I want to define these two very different options.

What is a nuc?

A nuc(leus) colony is the central core, or heart, of a larger colony. In essence, a nuc is a small colony living on 4 to 5 frames. It has all the components of a fully-grown colony, including brood in all stages of development, workers in all stages of development, most likely some drones, and a laying queen. In addition, it usually has some stored honey and pollen.

Because there are no standards, nucs vary tremendously between sellers. Some sellers specify exactly how many frames of brood are guaranteed. Some say how many frames of adult bees to expect. Some offer a frame of honey and pollen. Some only specify the number of frames in the box, such as 4-frame nucs or 5-frame nucs. Also, some may be on deep frames and some may be on medium frames. Because of all the differences, prices are all over the map. It is up to the buyer to ask questions and learn what he is buying.

Another major difference between nucs is their age. In my opinion, the very best are over-wintered nucs. In other words, the small colony is a cohesive unit that spent the winter together with their queen. Healthy overwintered nucs are likely to explode in the spring, giving you a vibrant, populous colony in no time.

Other nucs are made up immediately before the sale. The colonies may have been in pollination service, for example. After pollination, the colonies are divided, given queens, and sold as nucs. Sometimes this type of nuc doesn’t do as well simply because it is not yet a cohesive whole. The bees may supersede their queen, or they may get off to a slower start. Although most of these nucs do fine, the buyer should ask whether the nuc was overwintered or newly established.

What is a package?

Bees can also be purchased in a wooden shipping box that includes a can of feed and a newly-mated queen. These boxes are usually sold by weight and come with 2- or 3-pounds of bees. Like the bees in newly-established nucs, the bees in the packages may have recently come from commercial pollination service. Frames of bees are dumped through a queen excluder into a funnel. From the funnel the bees are measured into a shipping box until the right weight is reached. Then a newly-mated queen in a shipping cage is added to the package along with a can of syrup.

Some of the bees in a package may be related to each other, but most probably are not. Certainly the queen is not related, which is why the beekeeper most introduce the queen slowly to the newly installed package. Some of this depends on how long the bees were in transit. For example, if the package is put together, shipped overnight, and delivered the next day, the queen should be introduced slowly. If the package is in transit for a week, queen introduction should be simple.

Quality issues

Both nucs and packages pose quality issues which may be difficult for a new beekeepers to sort out. A nuc, for example, should be checked to see that it contains what the seller advertised. In addition, it never hurts to do a cursory inspection for brood diseases and parasites. This, by itself, is almost impossible for a new beekeeper. You may want to seek the help of a mentor, especially the first time.

Likewise, package bees may arrive in bad shape. Before accepting delivery, the beekeeper should be sure the queen is alive and looking healthy. You should also gauge the number of dead bees on the bottom of the cage. For an in-depth discussion of what experienced beekeepers believe is an acceptable number of dead bees, see this post: Dead bees in a package: how many is okay?

Logistical issues

For nuc buyers, a number of different options exist. Some sellers merely transfer their bees into your box. Some will want to trade new, unused frames for the frames containing the bees. Some will sell you the frames that contain the bees and put them in a cardboard nuc box which you needn’t return. Some transport them in a wooden brood box which you must return. Again, read the terms of the sale so you know how to prepare.

For package buyers, there is often a deposit on shipping boxes, so you need to learn how to get your refund. Usually, there is a time limit and a damage deduction. Make sure you know the terms of your purchase.

Nucs vs packages, pros and cons

This next section is divided by issues that new beekeepers may experience. The issues that matter to an individual beekeeper will vary depending on experience, resources, region, and personal taste. Only you can decide which option works for you.

Type of beekeeping equipment you have

This may seem obvious, but I’ve helped a number of beekeepers wield hacksaws and wirecutters to make their nuc frames fit into their top-bar hives. This is not only a pain, but it’s not good for the colony. So please note that most nucs come on frames that fit into a deep Langstroth hive. If you have something other than a deep Langstroth, check with the seller. Some may have medium Langstroths available. Most will not have anything that fits into a top-bar hive. If you have non-standard equipment, you most likely need to buy a package.

Availability

In the US, packages seem to me more widely available than nucs. Nucs tend to be pre-ordered and are often not available on the spur-of-the-moment. Packages are also ordered in advance, but sometimes you can place a last-minute order with a bee club that is making a large purchase.

That said, you may be able to find a late season nuc in your area long after all the packages are gone. In short, sometimes the decision of what to get is dictated by what is available.

Time of year

Packages are usually available before nucs, especially in the northern parts of the country. So if getting started as soon as possible is important, you may want to buy a package. Be aware, however, that even though the package comes earlier, the bees will have to work hard to catch up with an established nuc. You may do better by waiting for the nuc if that works with your schedule.

Expense

Nucs are generally more expensive than packages. The difference may be insignificant if you are buying one or two, but may be prohibitive if you are buying 20 or 30. This is necessarily a personal decision.

Watching the colony start from scratch

Many new beekeepers have enjoyed watching their colony start from a package. Like a swarm, the packaged bees have nothing to begin with, yet they soon manage to build a complete and viable colony. Watching the progression is a rich learning experience. Other beekeepers prefer to start with an established colony, especially when they are unsure of their skills. Either preference is fine.

Feeding

Almost without exception, packages must be fed to get them started. Nucs may not need to be fed at all, or only fed for a short time.

Absconding

A certain number of newly installed packages will abscond in search of other living quarters. This seems to occur most frequently when the hive is brand new and contains no attractive odors. For a more in-depth review of this, see “My bees left: how to prevent absconding.” Beekeepers can reduce the chance of absconding by keeping the queen caged until comb building begins, providing plenty of feed, or using a queen excluder under the brood box. The chance of a nuc absconding is much, much less.

Supersedure

As with absconding, the chance of supersedure is less with a nuc than a package. First, the queen in a nuc is already laying. But the queen in a package must first be accepted by the bees. Then she must begin laying. If she is found to be lacking as a queen, the colony may decide to replace her. The supersedure may succeed, but it certainly slows the entire process down and could result in loss of the colony.

Local conditions

If you buy a nuc from a local supplier, the queen is more apt to be bred locally and so be adapted to local conditions. The queens included with a package are usually from the southeastern states or northern California and are adapted to those conditions.

Intimidation factor

A number of people have told me they preferred a nuc because they were afraid of shaking a package of bees into the hive. For a new beekeeper, I can see where that may be scary. But if nothing else, beekeeping is rich with alternatives. If you don’t want to shake bees out of a package, you don’t have to. See this post for an alternative method: Easiest package installation ever.

Multiple queens

Several people have complained to me about multiple queens in their packages. The first sign of this may be eggs before the queen is released, or the presence of both a dead queen and a live one. Multiple queens in a package occur when a small queen somehow passes through the queen excluder when bees are shaken into the funnel from their frames. It is just something that happens and it usually irons itself out. If you discover it when they are both still alive, you probably should remove the extra.

Africanized honey bees

You have a greater chance of picking up some Africanized honey bee genetics if your queen was open-mated in the southern states. If this is something you are worried about, a local nuc with a local queen will make you more comfortable. If you live in AHB territory, you may want to know more about your queen’s genetics as well as her mating history, but remember there are few guarantees in beekeeping.

Brood breaks

One of the nice things about a package is the brood break. For a while, that new colony has no capped brood, a situation that can greatly reduce the Varroa mite population. For this reason alone, some beekeepers prefer packages.

Other diseases

It seems that nucs can carry brood diseases, parasites, and pests more effectively than packages. Because packages start out with nothing and build their new home from the ground up, they generally have less of a pathogen load to begin with.

I’m not saying they are free of problems. They are not. Packages can and do have mites, viruses, and other diseases that they carry with them. But in my experience, I’ve seen more transmission of brood disease with nucs than packages.

This can occur when the seller routinely treats his bees for diseases like American foulbrood or European foulbrood. If the treatment suppresses disease but the buyer doesn’t know about it, the colonies may develop symptoms once the treatments stop. The key here is to buy from a reputable seller who is proud of the nucs he sells and will stand by them.

Diseased nucs are unusual, but they do happen from time to time. Be especially on guard if the frames appear old, black, or moldy. A seller who appears to be unloading old or sub-par equipment should be avoided. Frames don’t have to be brand new, but they should be structurally sound and the combs should be in good condition.

And the winner is . . .

Personally, I never recommend one system over the other unless the beekeeper has particular concerns that can be addressed by one or the other. Both methods work, but they both have upsides and downsides. Decide which of the factors are most important to you and then make your decision based on that. Just remember, you can succeed easily with either option.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

A package of bees can be intimidating to a new beekeeper. © Rusty Burlew.

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One queen, a few bees, and a dash of skill

During our recent discussion of package bee strength, Bill Hesbach of the Back Yard Beekeeper’s Association (southwestern Connecticut) sent me the following photo of a package of bees he received back in May of 2013. He asked for credit on the order, but then managed to install the few bees that were left because he thought the queen seemed strong and healthy.

Before he took the photo he removed the queen cage and the remaining live bees but, as you can see, most of the bees were dead. With some TLC, Bill managed to nurse the remainder back to health. He said, ” . . . the queen was fantastic. [The colony] came back and built two deeps the first year. They wintered and made lots of honey the second year.”

The bees deaths are sad, of course, but it shows what a little patience and determination can accomplish. Coaxing the colony back to health is so much better than rejecting the order, which is a death sentence for the rest of them.

Nice work, Bill, and thanks for the pic.

Dead-bees-William-Hesbach-May_4_2013
One side of the shipping cage of a mostly dead package. Only the queen and a handful of bees remained, but Bill managed to grow them into a healthy colony. © Bill Hesbach.

Would I accept this package?

Editor’s Note: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m sure your stories and opinions will help other beekeepers in the future, and that is what matters most.

I haven’t yet tallied the results, but it seems most people would accept the package, although some would not be happy about it. Many of you realized that rejecting the shipment would mean certain death for those remaining, so you would be willing to give it a try. I admire the can-do attitude.

What follows is my original post, written before I asked your opinion.


I read the beekeeper’s e-mail before I saw the photo, so his frustration surprised me. My gut reaction? I would accept that package in a heartbeat, as long as the queen was alive and frisky.

While shipping bees long distances is not ideal for bees or beekeepers, I can imagine situations where it might be necessary, so I won’t second guess the keeper’s decision.

My own experience with packages has been very good. I’ve never received a package with so many dead bees; on the other hand, I’ve never ordered a package to be delivered through the mail. I suspect that after five days in the hands of the postal service, this was a very good outcome.

Many years ago I was taught the one-inch rule: as long as the layer of dead bees wasn’t more than an inch thick, it was okay. I still go by that.

As most of you know, a package of bees is merely a mechanism for getting a colony started. Except for the queen, the bees in that package will all be dead in a matter of weeks, so it isn’t like buying a shipment of ewes. Worker bees are ephemeral—here today, gone tomorrow.

I tried to estimate the expected dead with a calculation. It works as long as you are willing to make a lot of wild assumptions. On paper, I assumed the following:

  1. Worker bees live an average of 35 days in the spring and summer. (Four to six weeks is a frequently cited number, so I took an average of 5 weeks and multiplied it by 7 days.)
  2. I assumed a three pound package.
  3. I assumed 3750 bees per pound or 11,250 bees/three-pound package. (I often see estimates of 3500 to 4000 bees per pound—depending on whether they are hungry or not. So I took an average of the two.)
  4. I assumed an even distribution of ages. (To make packages, bees are shaken from their hives into large containers. These bees are then funneled into queen-containing screened packages that sit on a scale. When the proper weight is reached, a can of syrup is added and the packages are stapled together for transport.) So my assumption here is that the package contains an even distribution of ages from one day to the maximum of 35 days.
  5. I assumed that bees are dying from old age alone, and not from the stresses of traveling or disease. So even under ideal conditions, 1/35 of the bees die every day. (In other words, once they reach 35 days, they die.)

So 1/35 of 11,250 is 321. That’s how many die in a day. Multiply this by 5 days of travel and you get 1605. So assuming the package was handled perfectly—and the bees are healthy—I would expect to see at least 1605 dead bees after five days.

That is 14.3% of the initial package, or approximately 1/7. An easier way to do this is to say 5 days is 1/7 of an average bee life (35/5=7) so about 1/7 will die during the trip.

Bee-package-Charles-R

I know, lots of assumptions, but it gives you a ballpark estimate. I can easily imagine I’m seeing 1/7 of the bees on the floor of the cage. I can also see that it’s less than an inch, so I would go with it.

As I said, ordering packages by mail is risky business and should be a last resort. But even packages that are ordered through a club or retailer can look bedraggled by the time you get them. It helps to have an idea of what to expect before you see them.

If all this is true, it is logical to wonder why some packages have no dead bees. Reason: My 4th assumption (an even distribution of ages) doesn’t work in early spring. When colonies are rapidly growing, the population distribution favors young bees. If you are lucky enough to get a package containing mostly very young bees, few will die. If, however, you get a package that contains a high proportion of older bees, more will die. In some ways, it is just luck.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Dead bees in a package: how many is okay?

A beekeeper in the eastern part of the country sent me the following photo of a bee package that arrived after a five-day transit. He wondered if I would accept a package in this condition. I wrote my opinion, but then I decided it would be instructive to know how other beekeepers would react to receiving this package.

So please write and tell me, in your opinion, whether this package is acceptable or unacceptable. You can elaborate if you want, but you don’t have to. You can include the amount of experience you have, but it is not necessary. I’m most interested in your gut reaction.

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I will post my opinion and how I arrived at it later, but I’m hoping to get at least 25 other opinions first.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Bee-package-Charles-R
A package of bees received after five days in transit. © Charles Reed.

The neighbor lady smells best

When I tally the comments and e-mails related to my last post, I find a variety of opinions on why multiple packages of bees might move into one hive. Many agreed with my husband that the packages could have come from the same hive and wanted to reunite. A few thought the colony that most effectively fanned their Nasanov pheromone would gain the most followers. A majority thought the amount or quality of queen pheromone was the deciding factor.

Personally, I tend to side with the queen pheromone theory, but here is my question: suppose you install two packages in side-by-side hives. Everything is essentially equal but you have a prevailing breeze that blows queen pheromone (or Nasanov pheromone) away from one hive and toward the other hive. Could the inequality of pheromone resulting from being upwind or downwind affect the outcome? Just a thought.

In any case, far from being an unusual occurrence, having your packages move in together seems to be rather common. And when I read the stories and theories, I realized that it could be a number of factors—not just one—that causes bees to behave this way.

On the plus side, those beekeepers who tried to put their bees back in the “right” place seemed to succeed. So the take-home message is this: be mindful that combining of packages may occur, and if it does, go back and separate them.

Since that post, I’ve heard many package stories. Many beekeepers have had packages combine, many newbees had packages abscond completely (new wood with no comforting bee smells is my theory here), one beekeeper reported a supersedure cell built inside the package, several found dead queens, and one had no queen. But here’s the story that got my attention:

A beekeeper in Arkansas ordered two packages and an extra queen from a well-known supplier in Texas to be delivered overnight. When the order arrived, the extra queen was tucked inside one of the packages. In other words, one package had one queen cage and the other package had two queen cages. The beekeeper had no difficulty with the normal package, but the colony that shipped with two queens wouldn’t stay put. All but a few of the bees abandoned the queen that was left for them.

So once again, I’m asking for information. Since I have never seen extra queens shipped this way, I would like to know if this is common practice or if it is crazy. Multiple virgin queens are commonly found in one hive, and sometimes mother and daughter queens are found in one hive, but how often do you have two young, strong, newly-mated queens reeking of pheromone in one place? Did the bees leave in search of the queen that was taken out, or was all that pheromone too confusing for your average bee? Just wondering what you think . . .

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

New package ready to be installed.
With luck, they’ll stick around. © Tracey Byrne.