My guide to buying Package Bees
A package of bees comes in #2, #3 and sometimes #4 size configurations. People often confuse the number to being the weight of a package, however bees are measured by volume and not weight so don’t expect a #3 package to weigh 3 lbs, it will actually be close to 9 lbs with the syrup can and the weight of the package its self.
#2 packages are for southern locations or hives with drawn comb (think the Carolinas and south) #3 are for northern locations or new hives with only foundation. The difference is in the physical size of the container they send them out in and therefore the volume of bees it contains. #2s are only slightly cheaper than #3 so order the #3 if you can.
In northern locations the person you are buying the bees from is likely a dealer and not the producer of the package themselves. Often these dealers want payment in full at the time of order, if you can find one who will take a deposit and payment at pickup, go that route. I always required payment it full to secure the order, but did have a few customers that I allowed to order C.O.D. due to a rapport that we developed from doing business over the years. It doesn’t hurt to ask, the worst a dealer will say is no.
Ask who the producer of the bees is. If the dealer will not tell you, that is not a good sign that you will get your bees on time or even at all. Knowing who they are buying from allows you to call the producer and verify that the person you are buying from actually ordered bees from them and will have them to deliver. It also gives you the opportunity to read up on other people’s experiences with that producer’s bees. On a side note bees have to be inspected before they can cross state lines, the dealer should have copies of the health certificate for the package. Get a copy of it for your record.
Ask about how the dealer transports the bees. Open trailers or trucks are generally the worst option. Enclosed trailers or trucks with poor ventilation are also a poor choice. Enclosed transport with fans and watering systems are the best option. Ask to see a picture of the mode of transportation from a previous trip. If the dealer hires out the transport make sure it gets hired out to a company with a refrigerated trailer or one that is specific to package bee hauling.
Once you are sure your dealer is ligit and you pay them the money, there are a few things that you should do at the time of pickup.
#1. View the bottom of the cage for dead bees and mite drop. A few dozen dead bees is acceptable, if the bottom of the cage is covered in dead bees, refuse that package. A bunch of dead bees in the package is not a good indicator of the health of the ones that are alive. Mite drop is visible on the bottom of the cage as the vibration of transport shakes them loose. There isn’t a package of bees produced in the USA that will be mite free, but it will give you an idea on whether you need to treat for mites right away.
#2. View the size of the cluster, do not accept a package that the live bees do not extend all the way across the top of the cage and down to the bottom of the syrup can. That is the appropriate volume to be in the package. Some packages do get filled on the light side and it is okay to request a different package if the one you are handed looks like it doesn't have enough bees in it.
#3. Never leave the pickup location without verifying that the queen in the package is alive. She should be in a queen cage next to the syrup can. She may or may not have attendants in the cage with her. To verify she is alive give the package a firm bump on a hard object, this will cause the cluster to fall away from the cage so you can view the queen. If she has attendants with her you may have to blow on them to clear them enough to see that she is alive. This is also a good time to verify that you got a marked queen if you ordered one. Don't worry about the bees knocked to the bottom, they will quickly climb back up and cluster again.
#4. Keep your bees cool on the ride home. Do not put them in the trunk of your car where the temp could get to 120 deg. Place them on a floor board or somewhere else with shade and bring a clean spray bottle with water in it to spray the cluster with on the way home. The bees are shipped with a can of corn syrup (Yes corn syrup; if the dealer tells you it is sugar water they are either lying or don’t know enough about the package industry to be dealing bees). The corn syrup doesn’t offer the bees much hydration so spritzing them with water is a good idea.
Lastly you take huge risks if you have your package shipped by the postal service. Beekeeping is risky enough as it is without the added stress of cramming them into an enclosed box trailer with mail, no hydration, and no ventilation. I have never seen a great outcome with postal service shipped package bees.
Don't let the fact that the dealer has your money and your bees get in the way of your judgement on getting a quality package. If you don't like the package that is handed to you, ask for a different one or a refund, even if it is risking you having to wait until the following year. Hold the dealers and producers accountable for what they are selling and the products will only get better.
And my last rule: Don't ask a dealer for a lower price. I can't tell you how often I got low balled when I was dealing. A lot of sweat and blood goes into selling and delivering bees. The margins are also not that great for the dealer. The last trip I took cost 100 K and my margin was only 10%. If you don't like the price they are offered at, buy from a different dealer. (see my thread: My last bee trip)