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 are accepted into the long list of beekeeping jargon.
When buying nucleus hives, this is one of the ways they will come.
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 nucs aren’t available. 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.