Here’s how this works.
I go to the Iowa Honey Producers Association website and look at their newsletter. In the ads, there are a few that say something like this “2# & 3# packages of Italian honeybees from [this or that] Apiary in California. Orders need to be placed by [sometime January or February]. Contact [the name of a local beekeeper and their phone number].”
You buy bees in packages with the number of bees given in pounds! This is like how you buy honey in pounds, not liters or pints, even though it is a liquid. When working with a hive, you can lift individual parts of the hive (hive bodies or honey supers) and judge how much is in there (be it honey or bees) based on how heavy it is. Hence, measuring in pounds.
I call this beekeeper at this number. She takes down my name and my order, and promises to call me when my bees are ready to pick up. When the weather is right (early April), she will drive a truck out to California, fill it full of packages of bees, and bring them back to Iowa for all the local beekeepers who ordered them to pick them up.
It makes sense to start a new hive in the springtime when the first set of flowers start blooming. This gives your bees the longest time to gather all the nectar and pollen they need to have sufficient stores of honey and pollen to make it through the winter (and maybe enough for you to have some of their extra!). The problem is, apiaries in places with cold winters cannot be making enough bees to sell off packages to their friends in the early spring. So all of us living in cold places end up getting our starter bees from places like California and Louisiana and Hawaii.
When my bees come, there will be tons (well no, pounds) of worker bees and one young queen for each new hive. The queen will already be mated (she only needs to do this once in her life) and ready to lay eggs for a lifetime (up to 5 years). The workers will be ready to do all the things that worker do (take care of the queen, take care of the young, keep the hive clean, turn nectar into honey, make wax for new comb, regulate the hive temperature, forage for pollen and nectar, guard the hive entrance from invaders, etc.). There will also be some drones (the only males in a bee colony) who will eat and sit around being useless or hang around outside hoping for a new queen on a mating flight to happen by.
Hopefully they will thrive, raise new queens when their colonies need them, and get big enough to allow me to split them into new colonies when I’d like more. And pollinate our garden and make lots of honey while they’re at it.
(Curious what a 3# package of bees looks like? I’ll take pictures when I get mine! Check back in mid-April)