Learning to keep bees is a tough job, taking decades to get good at. When learning to keep bees, the learning curve is steep for those who try to learn the trade. It's daunting to grasp at the knowledge expounded by those only a few years ahead of you.
A major questions beekeepers face is whether to start with nucleus hives or packages.
Beekeepers shorten the term nucleus to nuc, pronounced like a Barnes and Noble E-reader or as the nuc in "nuclear". Both pronunciations are common enough they' accepted into the long list of beekeeping jargon.
- Everything a colony needs to quickly increase their population
- Contains 4-5 frames of drawn out comb
- Contains lots of pollen and capped honey, ready to be used for raising brood
- Often Sold in cardboard or wood box that can be used again
- High probability of success during 1st year of colony
- Worker bees and queen know each other and are already working together
- Easy to install compared to packages
- Typically come from local sources, which means queens are better acclimated
- Often purchased straight from the beekeeper, creating a sense of accountability
- Nucs have every generation of brood already, eggs, larvae, capped brood, foragers, etc...
- Not always available and usually requires beekeeping contacts to find them
- Often available later in the spring than package bees are
- State laws may prevent transport across state lines
- More expensive than packages
- Beekeeper may need to exchanging boxes, frames and foundation with seller
- Often only sold in deep boxes with deep frames; medium frames are much less common
- Comb may contain pesticides and fungicides you will transfer to your new hive
- The comb that comes in a nucleus hive may harbor diseases
- Low-quality beekeepers may sell you their broken or old equipment
- It is difficult to find nucs designed for top-bar hives
- Available across the United States
- Installation window is flexible while bees are in screened box
- Cheapest way to buy bees
- Can receive further discounts when buying a large volume of bees
- Brand new queen, only weeks old are sold with packages
- Does not come with any honeycomb, so diseases are not spread
- Most traditional way to stat a hive, so advice is available on tips and tricks
- The easiest way to buy bees for a top-bar hive
- Package bees were not prepared to leave their previous hive
- Have to work for weeks to build enough comb for queen to lay eggs
- Requires sugar water to build honeycomb quickly
- Often sold by large operations using chemical treatments on bees
- Queen replacement or colony absconding is common in 1st year
- Bee population is small and still building during spring nectar flow
- Queen and worker bees are not familiar with each other
- Bees live for several days in a screened box, increasing stress
Our take on it all
Packages are trying to be an swarm, which is a group of honeybees looking for a new place to live. Swarming bees are full honey and prepared to build comb in a new home. The bees in a package aren't prepared to build new wax and a home like a swarm. This is why packages struggle to succeed, they just aren't prepared well.
Its like hearing a tornados coming in week and being able to prepare versus a tornado popping up and destroying your home. If you know you'll need to build a new home, preparing goes a long way in succeeding.
Swarms prepare and packages don't.
Being said, packages are easy to buy and this is why they are popular. Because packages are easy to buy, beekeepers take a risk with bees that may not survive rather than not getting bees at all.
If possible, buy nucleus hives if you can. They're better than packages in almost all scenarios, but they aren't better than packages if you can't buy one. In the right hands, packages can surpass nucs in population during the first year. But that still doesn't negate the negatives that come with a package.