Next week we'll be learning to use the smoker, so I'm getting one so I can practice. Thankfully I have a spot in the front pasture that will be an endless supply of pine straw, which is the fuel of choice around here.
The options for starting out with bees are these: buy packages, buy nucs (short for nucleus), or buy an entire hive.
My understanding from what I have read and learned thus far is this. Packages are small cages holding about 3 pounds of worker bees. There's a tiny cage suspended inside the larger package which holds the queen. When you get the bees home you remove the queen, put her (still in her tiny cage) into your empty hive, then open up the "package" of worker bees and gently shake them into the hive around the queen. If all goes well the workers begin to feed the queen, chew through the queen candy sealing one end of her cage, and let her out.
Nucs are 5 intact frames of worker bees with a queen. The frames have cells with eggs, larvae, pupae, pollen, honey, etc. In other words, the nuc is the "nucleus" of a working hive. Everything is already in process. You bring the nuc home, put the frames in your empty hive, and off you go.
An entire hive is exactly that. All the parts of the hive, full of bees and comb and honey, usually purchased from someone who is either downsizing or getting out of bees altogether.
Each of these has pros and cons. Buying an entire hive assumes you know enough to go into that hive before purchase and check for mites and any signs of poor health. I'm not quite at that point yet, so I've ruled this option out.
Initially I was thinking in terms of packages, because they're slightly less expensive and seem to be more readily available. But then I learned that bee packages are made up by people going from hive to hive, shaking some bees into the package cage, and then putting a separately bred queen with this newly-created colony. My first reaction: given what I've learned about bees and their biology, along with their social aspects, isn't this a recipe for disaster? It's convenient for the beekeepers selling packages, and for anyone buying packages, but apparently there are some losses in transport, frequent queen deaths due to worker bees stinging her to death, and sometimes other casualties of the process.
I like the idea that a nuc is a group from an actual working hive. The worker bees are the actual daughters of the queen. They are already a team and have achieved frames with all they need to survive. In my mind, they're family. That's all it took for me to determine that nucs are what I want to start with.
Now the hard part is finding nucs! Who knew how far in advance one has to put in orders! I have leads on a couple of options but may have to wait to get started. In any case, I've made my decision and I'm (almost) ready to go. Meanwhile I have to get two hives purchased, assembled, treated and painted, and set up. And it looks like it's going to soon be time to purchase the coveted beekeeping suit I found online. More details as the process unfolds!