It is heart-wrenching to lose a hive. The silence of your backyard when the bees are gone makes you want to cry. But you can also look at it as an opportunity for a fresh start. If you are just getting started it is easy to doom yourself to frustration by making uneducated choices.
The best thing I can suggest to someone starting over or starting out is to get local bees that are already adapted to your specific micro-climate. A wild swarm or a cut out from a feral hive in a nearby house, outbuilding, or tree would be ideal. These are bees that are already survivors. Wild swarms are genetic gold, the are already toughing it out on their own with no “help” from humans. They are shrugging off all the contaminants, pollutants, and chemicals that we love to spread everywhere. In short, they are bare-fisted back ally urban bees who can take a licking and keep on ticking.
You can set up swarm catchers in an area with existing hives. You can be on the lookout for feral hives and spread the word that you are available for swarm removal. This is cheap but uncertain because swarms may not find or like your swarm catchers, and you may not be able to find a feral hive to cut out. If you do find a hive it might be 30 feet up in a tree or require a contractor to remove from a building or to repair the damage caused by removal.
The next best option is a swarm or split from a local natural beekeeper. You can buy a split or nuc (a small queen-less hive that has queen cells in it so the workers can raise a new queen) from a local chemical-free beekeeper. You want to specify a split with viable queen cells, not just fresh brood. Workers can raise a queen from fresh brood but this is an emergency queen who often has a short life span and is weaker than a born queen. This is a certain but expensive option.
You can buy a working hive from a local chemical-free beekeeper. This is more expensive and may not be an ideal set up for naturally managing bees as you are paying for whatever equipment the other beekeeper likes to use or more likely wants to get rid of.
As a last resort buy splits or nucs from local conventional beekeepers. Not the best plan since the queen was raised on a contaminated foundation and subjected to who knows what kind of chemical cocktails in her tender formative days. This might be marginally cheaper than buying from a chemical-free beekeeper but will cost you many times over in the long haul.
All of these are vastly superior options to shipping in unknown bees who are adapted to another climate. These bees are bringing with them diseases that will surely be passed on to local bees and contribute to the cycle of loss for everyone. Mail order bees may be cheaper or easier to find, but they are one of the principal drivers behind catastrophic collapse and are not a practice that natural beekeepers should be supporting.
No matter what route you chose to acquire bees it is all going to be wasted if you slap them into a hive full of contaminated foundation. Let them build their own natural comb free of chemicals and sized to meet their requirements. Anything else is asking for trouble.
My recommended approach to getting started would be a combination of a split from a local natural beekeeper and actively looking for swarms and feral hives. This combination approach gives you a guaranteed hive right away in the spring and a possible back up hive as well. If you don’t get a swarm the first year you may generate one of your own from the purchased hive in the next couple of springs. Either way, you are securing the future of your beekeeping with a second hive with superior survivor genetics.