Bee-Breeder Shopping: What to Look for When Buying Bees

Happy, healthy honeybees of good "survivor stock" are crucial to a new hive's success. Here's how to find the best breeders when buying bees.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Dan Hankins/Flickr

Each winter, beekeepers across the country place early orders for their bees. They choose either a nucleus colony (called a “nuc”) or a package of bees. These starter hives are in such high demand that reservations fill up quickly from the most reputable breeders. But how does a beginning beekeeper know who to buy from? And what should you expect when buying bees?

As a beginning beekeeper, starting with healthy bees of the right breed is crucial. Any beekeeper will tell you that genetics are essential to success. Several breeds of bees produce honey, and they’re bred for docility as well as honey production. Good genetics means your bees will start off right—they’ve been bred to be healthy and hardy, and to fight varroa mites. Finding bees with good “survivor stock” genetics means the bees will overwinter year to year in your region with success and vigor.

How Do You Find Such Healthy, Happy Bees?

When buying bees, check your area for bee breeders and apiaries that make early spring splits and sell nucleus colonies. For beginners, “nucs” are the easiest option. You might pay a bit more for a nuc, but it will come established: A nucleus colony has a mated queen, already laying, on three to five frames of brood in various stages of development. You need only to move the bees and frames into the hive you’ll have and monitor their growth.

Why Start Local?

Most beekeeping suppliers won’t ship nucleus colonies. The risk is too great of injuring the queen and the delicate brood. Buying bees from a local apiary means you have solid “survivor stock” genetics adapted to your region. Also, you bring them home yourself (or have them delivered by the apiary) with less risk of damage.

How Do You Identify a Reputable Apiary?

Time and research pay off here. Ask local beekeepers about the reputation of apiaries in the area. Have the beekeepers had success with bees purchased from these breeders? Are the bees healthy? Do the beekeepers get what they pay for? Check whether the apiary has a Facebook or Instagram account, and see how the operation presents and promotes itself. Of course, social media presence alone doesn’t determine a business’ legitimacy, but what customers write and review publicly says a lot.

When Should You “Go Big?”

Some big-name U.S. beekeeping suppliers provide healthy bees and top-notch service. If you want a specific breed that a local apiary doesn’t provide, or you want to purchase several packages and feel comfortable installing many, then turn to a big company for buying bees. As always, ask your fellow beekeepers about their favorites, and then do web research to read customer reviews. When you’ve narrowed it down to a few suppliers, call them and ask questions about their policies. What actions do they take to ensure their bees health? Where are the bees bred and raised? Do they guarantee their bees and replace any casualties?

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Spring is an exciting time in the life of the beekeeper—and if you put in work during the winer, it won’t be a stressful time.

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