Nucs vs. Package Bees: which is better?

As a beginner beekeeper it’s difficult to know where to start. Beekeeping is probably one of the most exciting and difficult hobbies there are. It doesn’t have to be difficult because I’m going to give you get a head start to give you an advantage over inexperience!

One of the first decisions is whether to buy a 3-pound package of bees or a 5-frame nuc. We’re going to go over the advantages and disadvantages of both from a beginner’s point of view.

Me. Photo by Me.©

I’m going to begin by describing exactly what each of these options are.

Packages of bees

Packages come in several weights ranging from 2-5 pounds. But the average and most common is the 3-pound package. You really don’t want less than this as you’ll soon learn why.

When you order a package of bees, it’s usually something you need to order in winter thru early spring, usually because of the high demand for bees each year. The demand is coming from new beekeepers or others who lost most or all of their hives over winter.

package bees
Weighing bees for packaging. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

The package will come in the mail and generally is picked up at the post office.

The bees come in a screened box for containment and ventilation. Inside is a cluster of bees hanging from the underside of the top, a mated queen in a wooden cage, and a can of syrup to keep them alive during transit. That’s pretty much it.

5-Frame nucs

Basically you’re buying what I consider to be…a head start. Nuc is short for Nucleus. It represents the heart or core of the honey bee colony and is pronounced like the word ‘new’ with a hard ‘c’. Nuc.

You’re going to get something that looks like half a hive because it only holds…..5 frames! Ta-da! 🙂

These particular nuc boxes are 3-frame mating nucs. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

Theoretically when you buy a 5-frame nuc, you’re essentially going to receive the following: 5 frames of either deep or medium dimensions, 3+ pounds of bees, a mated queen that has already been laying, 2-4 frames of brood & food. There may be an empty frame to give them room to grow as well.

Which one should you get?

To save you time reading through this, I’ll simply say that beginners should definitely begin with a 5-frame nuc rather than a 3-pound package of bees. If that’s all you want to know then you’re set.

If you want to know why, read on.

So here’s the thing: you’re a beginner. Starting with an already-established-colony is going to increase your success rate immediately.

Beekeeping has a huge learning curve. Starting with a 3-pound package introduces a whole new set of elements that you have to learn before you can even start keeping bees.

A happy, content colony with laying queen, full of brood and plenty of food. Photo by Rick Tullis©

Not only are you new at this but now your package bees are starting from scratch too. They have no foundation, no comb, no brood, no nectar and no pollen. And although you have a mated queen in a cage, she’s technically not laying because she has no where to lay yet.

A nuc already comes with all of those elements.

The challenge of properly installing a package of bees becomes compounded when you finally pick the package up from the post office and it’s freaking cold outside. What do you do? And maybe it took four days to get them. How long have they been in that package? Who knows? They could be on the verge of already starving…I’ve seen it happen.

Not only that, but you just found the queen dead in her cage. Well crap. Now what? Order another queen and hope that she gets there in time and that your bees don’t kill her.

And here’s a little secret…not every beekeeper that you buy packages or queens from are very nice to deal with. I’ve hear plenty of horror stories about their customer service.

Consider the Queen

Here’s another point to consider: when commercial beekeepers are making packages, they locate, capture and cage a queen. She is then placed with a random group of disoriented honey bees that she’s never seen before.

That’s right, they’re complete strangers. That package did not come from one hive but rather it came from several.

The idea is that they will become accustomed to her in transit to you which could take longer than it should. Then it takes another 3-4 days before she’s finally released from the candy-end of the cage.

If she wasn’t killed while still in the cage, the bees could still ball her, meaning sting her to death. Then you have to order a new queen.

dead queen bee
A dead queen bee. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

On the other hand…

A 5-frame nuc is going to come with a queen and worker bees that already know one another because they are of the same colony.

She has already been accepted as their queen and rather than chaos there is order.

Give You and your new bees the best advantage possible

Give yourself a head start, cut the extra learning curve and just start with nucs. Unless your a top bar beekeeper which is an entirely different topic.

And I’m also not even going to cover the ethical issues that commercial beekeepers ignore in making hundreds and even thousands of packages of bees. It’s not pretty. But hey, they’re just trying to make a living right?

Whatever you choose, I encourage you to choose keeping bees in a sustainable manner and to always remember,

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee!~

Jonathan Hargus/Apicentric Beekeeper

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Jozelle Smith says:

    What do you do if you decide to be a new beekeeper & go with a top bar?
    Also what time of the year is best to start?
    Is there a point it’s too late to start a hive because winter is coming?
    Que GOT music 😂

    1. Good question Jozelle. Spring is the best time to start. But you can also begin as late as late summer. Nut due to the time a TBHive takes to grow, spring is best. You can always start the planning process now and I’ll help you😊

  2. jen3972 says:

    We only have nucs or swarms here, and I must say I find the thought of package bees pretty horrifying! That’s so far from how bees operate, it’s really sad if people aren’t aware of just how unnatural it is… 🙁

    1. Wow I didn’t know that! Packages really are so hard on the bees. It’s like you’re ordering a box of stress when you get a package.

      1. jen3972 says:

        I can imagine…

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