Winter is wrapping up and bee season is right around the corner. If you are getting started with beekeeping (or maybe your bees did not survive the winter), you may be wondering when to order your bees. The answer is simple: right now.
“You should order them right away mainly because the beekeepers who put together the [bee packages] usually start at this time of year,” Frank Drummond, professor of insect ecology at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said. “You need to get orders in soon.”
If you do not order bees soon, you may not get any at all. “There is a limited supply of bees and demand is quite high,” Drummond explained. “Beekeepers can only make up so many, so you might get put on a waiting list.”
There are generally two options for ordering bees: packaged and nucleus colonies, or “nucs.” Packaged colonies are shoebox-sized boxes with a few pounds of bees sans infrastructure. Nucleus colonies, which are often more expensive, comprised a few frames filled with partially developed colonies with some honey, baby bees and a laying queen.
Packaged bees should be ordered as soon as possible. January, normally, is ideal.
“People will actually be picking packages up in mid to late April, but the suppliers have to put their orders in way in advance,” Judith Stanton, vice president at the Maine State Beekeepers Association, said. “They have already started advertising them.”
Stanton said you can order packaged bees from big bee breeders and supply companies down south like Mann Lake, Betterbee, Kelley, and Dadant. Even stores like Tractor Supply Co. will ship packaged bees.
If you are ordering packaged bees, it is best to cater your delivery date to the start of the spring season. “If you can, have them deliver at the end of April even or the first week in May when wildflowers are just starting to bloom,” Drummond said. “It’s easier to get [bee colonies] established successfully.”
This is especially important in cold climates. “Quite often a package dealer will say they’re coming [mid-April], and Maine will have snow on ground and freezing cold weather,” Drummond explained. “It will be harder for [the bees] to be successful.”
Nucleus colonies may be a better option for Mainers, though.
“The advantage of the nucleus colonies is that there are a lot more people in northerly climate that put together nucleus colonies,” Drummond said. “You’ll pay a little more for a nucleus colony, but they’re stronger and they start building up more quickly. It’s really important in areas with a short season, which is typical in Maine.”
While nucleus colonies should also be ordered promptly, there is a little more wiggle room in terms of timing.
“Nucleus colonies usually come later anyhow,” Drummond said. “By the time beekeepers put them together and get them established the arrival date is much later.
If you are ordering packaged bees, Stanton added, you will not be able to get a package after April, but nucleus colonies will sometimes deliver in May or June. Some nucleus colonies can be acquired during the summer when small beekeepers are looking to thin their colonies in order to prevent swarming.
“That usually happens when the spring build up is really quick when the fruit trees are in bloom, like the middle of May when apple trees are blooming,” Drummond said. “Quite often they need to reduce the population strength of the colonies otherwise they’ll swarm and you will lose half your colony.”
In general, however, nucleus colonies can be more difficult to obtain.
“[Nucleus colonies] are even harder to get than packages in the sense that there’s less supply,” Stanton said. “They’re much harder to get because they’re local.” If the beekeeper you are buying from has a bad winter, Stanton said, they may also cancel your order.
The quality can also be variable. “A lot of times you may only learn this from other people in bee clubs, but the quality varies tremendously,” Drummond said. “A reputable beekeeper that provides really good quality with minimal diseases is preferable. Even to a good beekeeper may just have a spring that’s really cold, and the bees arrive stressed, chilled and not in great shape.”
No matter what you decide to order, it is a good idea to join a local beekeeping club or association in order to learn which beekeepers supply healthy nucleus colonies and potentially get discounts on ordering bees.
“Being a part of a bee club is a really good thing because quite often the bee clubs do a mass ordering and you can cheaper prices on the packaging,” Drummond said. This is especially valuable for new beekeepers; “If you’re not sure how to set them up, members of the bee club can help you,” Drummond added.
Check with your state beekeepers association to find a chapter near you in order to get the best tips, tricks and deals on ordering bees. The Maine State Beekeepers Association also maintains a list of suppliers of packaged bees, nucleus colonies and other beekeeping resources on their website.