First of all, if you are a brand new beekeeper, please consider purchasing a nuc. Here is a post about nucs. You will have more success with a nuc. Promise. Then next year, when you are addicted to bees, get some packages.
If you have decided on packages (find our more about packages here), you will have the option of 2- or 3-pound packages (sometimes 4-pounders too). Either package size can yield a successful beehive. It is a management decision, and this post describes some things to think about while making that decision.
Packaged bees are measured by the pound. There are 3-4,000 bees per pound, or about 7,000 bees in a 2-pound package and about 10,000 bees in a 3-pound package. (Honestly, no one really counts the bees!) The initial worker bees in the package are not offspring of the queen, and may be any breed. They are usually Italian, as Italians are known to build up fast.
Once the package is in the hive, the 2- or 3-pounds of initial worker bees get to work. They draw out comb, collect nectar and pollen, and the queen begins laying eggs, and those eggs begin to mature and emerge. It takes about 21 days for the egg to grow into a bee. Meanwhile, the initial work force will slowly die off, hopefully to be replaced by young bees. The emerging bees are offspring of the queen, and will be true to the queen and her mates.
Photo of 3 packages of bees crated together. One of these will be installed in the hive shown.
If the weather is good (sunny/warm), bees gather nectar and pollen for the upcoming brood. More workers can gather more nectar and pollen and can care for more brood. This can give a head start to 3-pound packages.
If the weather is poor (wet/cold), which usually happens in a Utah springtime, beekeepers will need to feed bees. More workers mean more mouths to feed, and more time for the beekeeper at each apiary. (This becomes more of an issue with increasing hive numbers.) Packaged bees are used to having plenty to eat, as they come from sunny California (or the South). Thus, a 2-pound package can be easier to feed in the springtime.
In the cold weather, 3 pounds of bees may be warmer in their hive because of more body heat.
The queen bee will lay as many eggs as bees can care for. Caring for eggs is typically a job for newly emerged nurse bees. She can only expand her brood chamber so far with the initial package workers. Two pounds of workers will expand to cover about 4 deep frames. (“Cover” means they will take care of eggs laid in the comb, literally “cover” the space with their little bee bodies.) Three pounds of workers will expand the brood chamber to cover about 5 frames. At that point, the expansion stalls out because there are no new emerging nurse bees to care for a larger brood chamber. Once the first set of new bees emerges, the hive really takes off.
If we conservatively say that the queen can lay 1,000 eggs a day, then it would only take her 3 days to make up the difference between a 2-pound package and a 3-pound package. About 4-6 weeks after the package is hived, you won't notice any difference between 2- and 3-pound packages. They will have similar bee numbers and accomplish the same amount of work.
This management decision really only impacts the first 4-6 weeks of growth. The 3-pound package has a slight advantage in good weather. The 2-pound has an advantage to the beekeeper in poor weather.
And then there is price. In 2013, 3-pound packages cost $75, and 2-pounders were $65. The $10 difference is significant if you are buying, say 30 hives. It would save you $300.
Because of the cost difference, we use 2-pound packages for our operation and they work well. Over hundreds of hives, there is no significant difference between the two sizes after 6 weeks. Also, 2-pound packages are standard in the beekeeping industry.
We start our 2-pound packages in a nuc box (like the awesome barn hive below) until they fill up the space, and then transfer to a standard 10-frame hive.