As a new, aspiring beekeeper, one of the first decisions that I had to make was to purchase packaged bees or a NUC. A NUC (short for Nucleus Colony) is basically a tiny version of a complete hive, containing bees and frames with brood (baby bees), whereas packaged bees are just that, merely bees and only bees in a screened box. There are advantages to each option, but I am convinced that a NUC is the superior choice for the novice beekeeper, or specifically a beekeeper with no other hives.
One advantage of packaged bees would definitely be price; as a 3 lbs package of bees will run only $90 including the queen. A NUC, on the other hand, will run you about $150. However, as a beginner I am convinced that spending the additional $60 on the NUC is well-worth the investment and here’s why:
- A package of bees is generally shipped to the customer via US Mail. The queen (who may or may not be mated) will be caged separately, then put into the package with the other bees. The queen must be “accepted” by the rest of the hive. Generally, with a package, the colony has from the time it is shipped until the time it arrives to the customer for this “acceptance” to occur. If they do not accept her as their queen, the colony will surely fail and may swarm immediately. That would be $90 down the drain. In contrast, the NUC, if purchased from a reputable source will contain a queen who is both mated and accepted by the rest of the colony. Their whole system depends on the queen; without the queen, there is no colony. In addition, the post carriers are generally afraid of bees and you can depend on them not being treated with the same tenderness, love and care of the bee enthusiast. Afraid of them getting loose and stinging the carrier, they may place them beneath other boxes, trapped, which may result in suffocation. NUCs are most commonly picked up by the customer from the provider, which brings me to my next point.
- A NUC is generally purchased locally; and aside from supporting the local “bee farmer”, you will most likely receive bees that are acclimated to your specific region.
- Should the packaged bees accept their queen, and take up residence in your hive, they will need to begin building their home from scratch. As a new beekeeper, you will not have other colonies to pull from to help your new package survive. Generally, packages of bees arrive early spring; spring is the prime season for pollen collection and honey-flow! Packaged bees will need to spend weeks of their prime season to draw-out new comb, which is a tedious, tiring and time-consuming process; one that must be done prior to the queen having a place to lay her eggs and the gatherers having a place to store pollen and honey. The colony must struggle and work tirelessly to build their food stores and be ready for the winter months. NUCs, however, arrive with 5 frames of drawn comb, which, if chosen carefully will contain brood at all stages of development. Since the life of a honeybee is typically six short weeks, this is an incredibly important aspect of the decision to purchase the NUC. Imagine how long it will take the packaged bees to draw-out their comb, the queen to begin laying eggs, and 21 days later have those eggs develop into a new worker bee. It is possible, especially given how over-worked the hive will be, that bees from the package will begin to die off before the new brood develops, putting the colony in jeopardy of collapse. The NUC, with brood at all stages of development will likely arrive with new worker bees emerging from their cells daily, giving you a steady stream of workers who can begin the most-important job of gathering pollen and making honey during the most productive time of the year! The NUC colony will likely gather a surplus, whereas the packaged colony will have struggled to survive only to face the winter with less than what they will likely need in food stores.
As a beginner, I have chosen to start with an option which shows the highest probability of success, the NUC. As an added bonus, you will have the emptied NUC box to capture a swarm or do a split, if you’re lucky enough for this to be necessary!