Now that you’ve got your Flow Hive built and ready for bees, you might be wondering how best to populate it. Acquiring your first bee colony is exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. So, what factors should you consider before choosing where and how to get your first colony?
Where to get bees
Many new beekeepers buy their first colony from a beekeeping business, but you may also be able to get bees from another hobbyist beekeeper. A good place to start your research for where to buy bees is your local bee group.
Ask around and find out where other beekeepers get their bees. Is there a reputable company nearby that sells starter colonies? Or maybe somebody in the group is planning to sell some bees. Be sure to start your research early, you may need to reserve your bees several months before spring even begins.
Package vs a nuc
Apiaries that sell bees often offer two different options. You can either buy a package of bees or you can buy a nucleolus colony (‘nuc’ for short).
A package of bees has no comb. It’s a cluster of worker bees with a caged queen bee... it’s essentially a man-made swarm. Once you install your package of bees into your Flow Hive, they will begin to build comb and establish themselves in their new hive.
In contrast, a nuc is an already established colony with three to four frames of drawn comb already filled with brood, honey and pollen. The frames of a nuc are easily moved into a Flow Hive where the colony will continue to grow.
Most beekeepers prefer to buy nucleolus colonies because they are 2-3 weeks ahead of a package colony in terms of progress, but both are viable options.
Watch our Beginner Beekeeping videos for how to install a nuc or a package.
One of the most important factors to consider when buying bees is where they came from. The survival rate of your colony is closely linked to climate. If you purchase your bees locally, they will already be adapted to survive in your region. This gives you the best chance at success with your bees. If local bees are not available, try to find a beekeeper from a similar climate.
All honey bees have similar traits, but through breeding, beekeepers have brought out some subtle differences in behavior and categorized them into different breeds or races.
Many beekeepers fixate on the different breeds of bees and will purchase their bees without giving thought to much else. I could go through all the breeds, parsing out their traits and making recommendations, as many articles written before this one have—but in my opinion, too much focus is given to this subject. Even within a certain breed, each colony is truly unique, and the influences of breeding are not significant enough that a new beekeeper would even notice.
There are more important factors to consider when deciding how to populate your Flow Hive that will have a greater bearing on whether you are successful or not with your new bees.
When deciding where to buy bees, many beekeepers forget to consider the practices of the beekeeper selling them.
It’s important to find a beekeeper who keeps bees the way you plan to. This is most relevant to the issue of varroa mites. If you want to attempt treatment-free mite management, you absolutely need to buy your bees from a beekeeper who is successfully doing the same.
If you buy your bees from someone who does regular mite treatments, you should plan on continuing those treatments or your colony will most likely fail. I have seen similar issues with feeding.
If you buy your bees from a beekeeper who heavily feeds, you may find that the bees have grown accustomed to this and will need you to do the same to survive.
When buying bees, talk to the beekeeper selling them and make sure you are on the same page for whatever style of beekeeping you plan to do.
Buying bees vs catching bees
Although most new beekeepers fill their new hives with bees that they purchased from another beekeeper, there’s another option available for those adventurous enough to try it—catching a swarm!
In most places, swarms are active during the spring and summer season. In many ways, swarms are superior to what you can buy from a beekeeper. Not only are they free, but they are the product of a colony that is thriving in your climate! Not all swarms are created equal though.
The downside of catching a swarm is that you never quite know what you are getting. Some swarms are small and weak, some are without a queen, some have been poisoned already by the time you find them. If you live in an area with Africanized bees, swarms may become overly defensive after they establish themselves. You could also wait all season to catch a swarm and never hear of one to catch.
The safest bet is to start with two hives. Then you can order one colony from an apiary and still hope to catch a swarm for your second without the risk of ending up with no bees at all.
You may also want to check out Beginner Beekeeping Ep 2 for tips on where to situate your Flow Hive.
Hilary Kearney is a full-time beekeeper in her hometown of San Diego, California. Her business Girl Next Door Honey educates hundreds of new beekeepers each year. She is the author of the Beekeeping Like A Girl blog and maintains popular Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. When she’s not rescuing bees, teaching about bees, photographing bees or managing one of her 60 colonies, she’s sleeping and dreaming of bees.