I've been considering starting some Warre hives next year (though I'm now waffling on that decision), and so I ordered two packages of bees. Although I would have preferred getting bees from Sam Comfort again, I missed my window. However, Sam suggested Wolf Creek Apiary (located in Tennessee and Georgia) instead. John and Ruth Seaborn, the owners of this apiary, breed small-cell bees. Although they're not treatment-free, they stick to natural, soft-treatments -- no toxic chemical miticides, pesticides, fungicides, etc. in their hives. (If you're interested, you can hear John give a talk about small cell bees on YouTube.) They're also a supplier for GoldStar Honeybees.
I had a number of questions for Ruth about their packages, so I called her up, and we had a delightful chit-chat. It's funny how bee people (henceforth known as "beeople") get together, and they immediately begin swapping stories and sharing as if they'd known each other forever. Ruth, though... she's in a class by herself. I would've have loved her even if we didn't have bees in common. She's wonderful! Helpful, well-informed, great customer service, amazing sense of humor, warm... I can't say enough good things about her. (Of course, there will have to be a second part to this story when I get my bees, but so far, so good.)
After the conversation, I remembered my first experience ordering bees. Back then, I really didn't know that much. I knew I wanted treatment-free, small-cell local bees, but that was all. So I found some guy who sold them, and ordered on the spot. If I'd known then what I know now, I might have asked more/different questions. So for the benefit of new beeks, here are some things I now ask when ordering packages. Of course, some of these issues may/may not be important to you, and you'll have to take any opinions with a grain of salt.
- Where are the bees from? Of course, I prefer overwintered local bees to bees that are not. Personally, I feel better knowing that they are adapted to my local climate. Also, if they're local, you can pick them up instead of having them shipped, which is less stressful for the girls.
Sometimes, you can't get local bees (like me this year), so you might consider ordering a package and requeening with a local treatment-free queen. By the time winter arrives, you'll basically have local bees.
- Treatments? I prefer treatment-free bees. Soft treatments (sugar dusting, essential oils) would be my second choice. Personally, I wouldn't order treated bees without plans to requeen.
- Small cell? There is some talk that suggests small-cell bees are physically stronger than bees raised on foundation. They seem to be more resistant to varroa as well.
- Bee type? Before ordering, you'll probably want to research what kind of bee you want. The most common types in packages are Italians, Carniolans/Russians, or some kind of mutt.
- Reputation? I cannot stress this enough. Buy bees from someone who comes with a good recommendation in two categories.
Bees -- Do they sell bees that have desirable qualities like fecundity, gentleness, honey production, hygiene...?
Customer service -- Are they honest and responsive? Do they provide good customer service?
- Package size? Suppliers usually sell 3# packages, but some offer 2# packages as well. If you have a Lang or a TBH, you'll need a 3# package. However, if you have a Warre, you'll need 4-5 lbs of bees. If your supplier sells 2# packages, you might be able to save a little by ordering either a 3#- & 2#-package or 2 2#-packages. Of course, one package should have a queen, the other should not.
- Costs? Of course, there will be questions about how much does the package cost. Usually, you have to pay a deposit to reserve your package. Then you need to pay your balance by a particular date. You'll want to know those details. Also, be sure to find out if there are any additional shipping or insurance costs. Sometimes, package/shipping costs are reduced if you buy multiple packages. Btw, make sure the package is insured so that if if arrives with a dead queen or a lot of dead bees, you can get your money back or a replacement.
Some suppliers will also take a deposit on the actual package box. If you return the box within a certain number of days, you may get a refund for that.
- Cancellations? Sometimes, ordering packages is so frustrating because you have to place your order in winter. However, if you already have colonies, you can't be sure whether you're going to need a package in the spring or not. In this case, I think it's better to err on the side of caution. Order a package or two, but make sure that the supplier has a cancellation policy. Make sure you know whether you'll get your deposit back. Find out how much notice you need to provide when cancelling.
- Ship or pickup? You'll want to know if the bees are shipped. If so, do you get a tracking number? When will they ship? Some suppliers will even allow you to pick your own ship date.
If you're buying locally, you may need (and will probably prefer) to pick up bees personally. If you have pickup, find out how much notice you'll get before a pick-up date. I've heard of people who got a notice a day or two beforehand, and they had to drop all their plans to get their bees. Also, if you have to pick up, find out if the supplier can be flexible in case you can't make that date. Again, I've heard horror stories about people who had emergencies come up last minute, and they had a hard time getting their bees (or a refund) afterward. (Again, choose a reputable supplier.)
- Mating? Some people want to know whether their bees are open-mated or instrumentally inseminated (II). Mostly, these seem to be people buying packages from areas where Africanized bees are an issue (i.e., pretty much all the areas where you're going to find packaged bees).
Personally, I'm kind of squeamish about instrumental insemination and prefer open-mated queens. Perhaps I'm anthropomorphizing, but it feels like a violation, and I wonder whether we might be losing genetic diversity this way. That's a different story, though. Despite not liking it, I can see why someone might prefer II queens. Many packages are produced before there are sufficient drone populations to fertilize the queens. As a result, open-mated queens can be hit-or-miss in terms of being properly mated. II queens can take longer to start laying, but they catch up, and you have a known quantity in terms of their fertility. Even knowing this, I prefer a more "romantic" approach to mating, but I guess this is a personal choice.
- Timing of the spring flow -- on both ends? This kind of goes back to the mating issue. Some suppliers in warmer regions will start shipping bees as early as March (can you believe it?) When I ordered with Wolf Creek, they asked me when I wanted my bees delivered, which shocked me really. Having dealt with 2 local suppliers for bees in the past, I've always had to sit around and wait until they were ready. To pick a date? Unreal!
Anyway, as I was thinking about a date, Ruth mentioned that she has a CT client who has bees delivered around the 1st of April every year. That person was closer to the coast where it's warmer. I wasn't so sure of the bloom in my area at that time, so I picked a date when I knew the flow would be on.
I also made sure that her spring flow would be in full swing then, too. Why? Because with an open-mated queen, I wanted to make sure she'd have access to lots and lots of drones. For a queen, I want a
real hootchie-cootchie girlgirl who has had access to oodles of suitors.
- Queen options? I don't know why, but I see some suppliers selling packages with virgin queens. As a buyer, I want a mated queen, and I wonder why some people wouldn't. Maybe they want the queen to mate locally, but I'd be worried. Lots of queens don't come back from mating flights. If that happened to a person with a virgin queen, they'd be stuck with a package of bees and no queen. Plus, a mated queen puts your colony just that much further ahead.
Hmmm... I feel like I've left out some important questions. If there are any considerations that you take into account, please, share your thoughts!