According to principles of natural beekeeping, the best way to get bees is to collect a swarm. A swarm occurs when a colony is in good health and decides to split off a portion of itself, including the old queen. The swarm leaves behind a well stocked hive with plenty of honey stores, pollen, a strong brood nest, one or more new queen cells and about 60% of the workers. A swarm is the way the colony reproduces itself and is a natural part of honey bee life. When you start a new colony with a swarm, you know you have a harmonious and bonded group of bees and a reasonably strong queen. These days however, most beekeepers keep their swarms to replace the heavy losses experienced in the winter. If you are lucky, you can find one willing to give or sell you a swarm.
The next best thing is to buy a nuc. A nuc is a “nucleus hive”, which means a small version of a full size colony artificially created by a beekeeper. Typically nucs are 5 frames of comb, several with honey and pollen and a couple with brood, along with a host of workers and a queen. The nuc hive may be created in late spring by the beekeeper, once the spring nectar flow is underway and the colonies have built up their populations. A nuc hive is not a natural swarm, so has not undergone the natural selection of individuals that occurs in a swarm, but it is generally composed of bees from the same colony, and hopefully also one of their own queens. The frames from the nuc hive are simply placed in your own hive and allowed to grow into a new colony in the expanded room. One caution about nuc hives: most beekeepers today use either wax or plastic foundation in their frames, neither of which is compatible with natural beekeeping principles. Also, virtually all nucs available today are in Langstroth frames, and thus cannot be transferred to top-bar hives.
The least desirable option, yet often the only one for beginning natural beekeepers is the package. A package is assembled by a very large commercial operation. In the northwest, the closest package sources are in northern California. A 3 lb. package of bees consists of about 10-15,000 workers and an unrelated queen. The queen is enclosed in a cage, and the bees are provided a can of corn syrup for nourishment on their journey. Packages can be ordered by mail, but it is far preferable to order through a local beekeeping group whereby packages are picked up and driven directly to their destination in a minimum time and with care for their ventilation and warmth needs. Packages are ordered between January and March, and usually are ready for pick up sometime in April. They cost between $80-100 or so. A package of bees is a completely artificial group, they have been haphazardly culled from hundreds or thousands of colonies and thrown together randomly. The queen is artificially reared and likely to be highly inbred. The good news is that despite all of these stressors, many packages are able to bond together, accept their queen, and build themselves into a healthy colony over the summer. Within two months most or all of the workers will be genetically related and thus harmoniously bonded in their work together for the colony.