The Low Down on Bee Packages - by Bee & Bloom

The Low Down on Bee Packages

A Newbee Disclaimer

It is often said that beekeeping is as much an art as it is a science, and that is especially important to remember during your first year. Bees are wild creatures whose decisions vary wildly according to location-specific variables; it's obvious that they don’t read the same books that we do. 😉 A good beekeeper listens to and takes cues from their bees, but that is an ability that comes with time and experience. For now, just observe as much as you can and expect for things to go awry occasionally! Beekeeping should be viewed as a partnership between us and the bees - we are not and will not ever be in control of them (which you will find out soon enough).

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A Box o’ Bees

Packages are small boxes jam-packed with bees - about 10,000 of them (roughly 3 lbs). They also include a mated queen and a can of sugar syrup to sustain them during their travels. The packages are constructed out of wood and screen, allowing for a lightweight container that provides the bees with plenty of ventilation. These packages generally come from large apiaries (bee yards) that are dedicated to raising bees and shipping them all over the country. The compact crates are full of worker bees, drones and a queen who is safely stowed in a protected cage. Packaged bees are generally taken from the upper brood comb of strong hives. They are shaken into the box using a funnel.

Packages do not include any kind of frame or comb. Once received, the packaged bees are shaken straight into an empty hive and the caged queen is placed inside with them. The bees will chew through a candy plug in the queen cage to release her, and then they will get started on their busy bee business.

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The Briefest History Ever

Packages were attempted as early as 1870, but didn’t really start gaining traction until about 1910. They were shipped all over the country, and subsequently the world, by trains, trucks, boats and planes. These days, you’re most likely to see them expedited with a shipping service, where they arrive conveniently on your doorstep.

Pros:

  • They will work with any style of hive! Top Bar, Warre, Langstroth, Skep… doesn’t matter.
  • Packages are produced on a massive scale, so they are readily available in the spring.
  • Because they can be shipped anywhere, they are available to people who don’t have nearby sources of honeybees.
  • You get to observe the process of the bees starting from scratch, which is educational for a new beekeeper. This also applies to swarms.

Cons:

  • The stress of being packaged and shipped is rough for the bees and can have a negative impact on their health.
  • If the bees are being shipped from across the country, they will not be acclimated to your location (weather, forage, pests, etc.), which lowers the chances of success.
  • Packages are typically shaken together from multiple “production hives”, while the queens are pulled from separate “queen rearing”  hives. This incurs a greater risk of the bees rejecting the queen, as she is not their queen mother.
  • The quality of mass-produced honeybee queens have been called into question in recent years, and the fact that there are only a a few large operations raising the majority of these queens is dramatically reducing the gene pool.
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Removing the queen.

The Early Bird Gets the Bees...

Due to a sharp incline in bee die-offs in recent years, packages and nucs are in high demand. If you are planning to purchase a package in the upcoming season, it is important to plan ahead. I would start researching during the winter and plan to have your package reserved by late February, if not earlier; people generally start taking orders as early as November.

It is best to find nearby sources of bees, because these bees will be acclimated to your locale. If you are in a pinch, though, they can be ordered from anywhere. In some cases, any bees are better than no bees.

Bees raised in treatment-free apiaries tend to be better at coping with pests and disease, rather than being dependent on chemical treatments. Make sure to do your research and purchase bees from a reputable source. Your local beekeeping association should have some recommendations for you, and you can also check out Solomon Parker’s map of treatment-free bee suppliers.

Package Pick-up

Be sure to inspect your package thoroughly before accepting it. Bump the bees to the bottom of the box to uncover the queen cage, and then make sure she is alive and kicking in there. Check the bottom for dead bees - some dead bees are acceptable, but a thick layer of dead bees is not.

You must be ready to install the bees once you arrive home. They can survive package life for a few days, but it is best to get them hived as soon as possible. The only reason I would wait to install a package is in the event of extreme weather (think hurricane or temps approaching zero). Light rain or cold temperatures are still a go; if anything, it will force them to stay put!

If you must wait, keep them in a cool location. Hot weather in the package conditions can be fatal to the package. Plan to lightly mist the bees with water in a spray bottle every 1/2 hour or so.

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This is a queen cage. Notice the pink plastic cap; the candy plug is right underneath.

Package Installation

Now for the fun part! Installing a package is incredibly simple, but can be unnerving for people who have never had the pleasure of finding themselves in the middle of 10,000 confused honeybees. Remember to take your time and make slow, but confident, movements. Now is not the time to be gentle - that will make the process far longer and more drawn out than it needs to be, for both you and the bees.

  1. Prepare your hive. On a top bar hive, count 8 - 10 frames and then insert the follower board; remove the 8 - 10 frames. In a Warre hive, set the first box on the bottom board with all bars in place; set the 2nd box on top with all bars removed. In a Langstroth hive, depending on how many boxes you are starting out with, place bottom boxes with frames in place, then add top box with a few middle frames removed.
  2. Gather your tools (a brush and pliers or a hive tool to pry the syrup can from the package) and put on your protective gear.
  3. Bump your bees to the bottom of the package to clear the queen cage. Lift out the feeding can and then carefully reach in to remove the queen cage. Bees will be escaping - don’t stress about this; they won’t go far. Once you have the queen, gently replace the feeding can.
  4. Place the queen cage in the hive. Important: This part will vary depending on where you are located. If you are in a warm location and are confident that your nighttime temperatures will not dip below 50°F, place the queen in the bottom of the box (floorboard on TBH, top of frames directly under top box for Warre & Langstroth). If you think your temperatures might go below that, do not put her there. The bees will cluster at the top of the hive to stay warm, and she will be left behind and freeze to death. You can hang her from a bar or frame at the top, but be aware that they will most likely start to build comb around the cage that you will have to correct later on. Michael Bush just releases the queen directly - read more about his method here.
  5. Bump bees to the bottom one more time and remove the feeding can. Flip the package over and begin to shake the bees into your hive. You want to shake firmly to remove the bees as quickly as possible. You may need to bump the package a few more times to loosen the bees.
  6. Once the package is mostly empty (there will be a few stragglers), set it on the ground next to the hive. The rest of the bees will find their way into the hive to join the others.
  7. Gently replace your frames or bars, and close up the hive. Be sure that you replace all of your bars and frames, because the bees will build comb in empty spaces, and that’s a real pain in the ass to clean up.
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Our temperatures are fairly mild here in the Pacific NW, so placing the queen on the bottom board is just fine.

Notes on Installation:

  • Don’t smoke the package prior to installation! They need the pheromones to get organized.
  • Do not shut your bees in the hive after installation. I hear this misguided piece of advice passed around fairly often, but it has not proven to be an effective method for preventing absconsion. Your bees need to start gathering resources immediately, and shutting them in will only delay this process.
  • Since they are starting without any food or brood, it is often recommended that you feed them upon installation. However, feeding is not always necessary. Personally, I would feed only if expecting bad weather for the next few days or if installing during a nectar dearth.
  • Because packaged bees do not start out with brood (baby bees), you will see the population dwindle in the first month. This is normal. There are no new bees emerging to replenish the older population, and new bees won't start emerging until about 30 days after installation.
  • Do not spray the package with sugar water prior to installation. This can drown bees and will definitely make them unreasonably sticky. If you think they need to be fed, spray very lightly or just refill the feeding can.
  • Do not place the package directly into the hive. I’ve also seen this passed around online, decrying the brutal practice of shaking the bees. Here’s the deal: it doesn’t bother them that much, and the cross-comb they build in/around the package will be a pain in the ass for you, and much more of a pain in the ass for the bees when you have to get in there and clean it up!

A few days later...

You will want to leave your bees be for a few days, but it is important to check-in on them in about 2 - 3 days. If you open your hive at this time and notice that the queen is still in her cage, go ahead and release her. Open up the cage gently, holding it inside the hive so that she doesn’t get spooked and fly away.

Sneak Preview

As a new beekeeper, it is important to figure out a good balance of interaction with your new hive(s). Too much and they might abscond, too little and you won’t know if there’s a problem. As a general rule of thumb, a 15 - 30 minute inspection every week or so during the busy season is appropriate. For a freshly installed package, though, it will need to be a little bit more. You’ll do your 3 day check-in to ensure the queen is released, and then I would continue doing short inspections every few days until you are confident that things are moving in the right direction. If you are keeping foundationless hives, this is also a good way to keep an eye on new comb construction and correcting any crooked comb before it becomes a problem. Here is a quick timeline of what to expect:

  • Week One: The queen should be released by day 3. Comb construction will be underway, and you should see eggs once comb is drawn (~5 days after installation).
  • Week Two: The queen should be laying, and the bees will be stocking up on nectar and pollen. There should be several frames/bars built with consistent progress. There should be plenty of eggs and larvae at this point, but no capped brood quite yet.
  • Week Three: There should be consistent comb construction;  progress on nectar and pollen stores; eggs, open brood and some capped brood.
  • Week Four: The bees may need more space at this point; add bars, frames or boxes as necessary. There should be plenty of nectar and pollen, and possibly some capped honey, as well. You should be seeing open and capped brood and an expanding population as brood starts to emerge.
  • Week Five: You should have a fully functioning, very busy hive at this point! Keep an eye on hive space, expanding as needed.
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Closing up the hive after installation.

Troubleshooting

I’ll be honest, packages often experience more trouble than a nuc, swarm or split. However, they are often the only reliable method for new beekeepers to populate their hives, and this is perfectly okay. Packaged bees are better than no bees, and most of the time - the bees are successful and grow into a strong, healthy colony. It is important to know what could go wrong, though, so that you can be prepared. As the old adage goes, “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

Potential problems in order of severity:

Dead or Rejected Queen

The queen that comes with your package was introduced to the bees when the package was shaken together. She is not their queen mother, and they consider her to be a stranger; she would likely be killed if allowed to run loose immediately. For this reason, she is locked in an introduction cage. These cages work by containing her in a safe space with a candy plug. As the bees chew through the candy, they have time to become acquainted with this new queen through her scent, and hopefully accept her as one of their own. Sometimes, though, they don’t. They will release the queen and actually kill her by surrounding her and heating her up until she dies. It’s called “balling”, and it’s pretty brutal. The hive population will die out within 40 days of installation without a queen, so if you suspect something has happened, take immediate steps to correct the problem (either by purchasing a queen or adding frames of eggs and open brood, if available). 

Starvation

Because packages are starting completely from scratch, it is important to have a good understanding of how they will be accessing resources to start comb construction and food storage. If the weather is decent and there is strong flow going on, let them forage. However, if you have an ominous weather forecast (for bees, thats weather below 50 degrees and/or heavy rain) or there is a nectar dearth, go ahead and feed them for as long as either of those conditions last. I am not a huge proponent of feeding, but if they have no other way to access food or water, they will die without it.

Absconsion

Sometimes, after a successful package installation, a beekeeper will return to the hive and find it empty. When bees pack up and leave, we say that they have absconded. It’s disappointing, but there’s not really anything we can do about it. For one reason or another, a particular colony may find their new living environment to be unsatisfactory. It doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is wrong with the hive, but I have heard that open screened bottom boards contribute to the problem. If you are using a screened bottom board, make sure it is closed up during installation and until they are well-established in the hive. Too much ventilation dissipates the scent of the hive and makes pheromone communication nigh impossible for them, which is confusing, so they leave. Close those bottom boards up.

Supersedure

Let’s say your package has been moving along just fine. You see eggs and larvae, and your bees are storing up nectar and pollen at a good pace. Heck - you’ve even seen the queen waddling around in there! But you open your hive up one day and notice that several queen cells have been constructed. What’s up? Well, sometimes the bees judge the quality of their new queen to be substandard, and they decide to replace her. This is normal, especially in packages. We refer to this as supersedure. The best thing to do in this case is trust the bees and let them carry out the process. Culling the queen cells will just set them back.

Cross combing

Cross-combing, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that big of a deal. Some bees draw perfectly straight comb, and some don’t. The best way to handle this problem is to prevent it from happening in the first place by keeping an eye on new comb construction, but if you find a hive full of crooked comb - don’t despair. This is easily fixed with a second set of hands (or a comb stand), a brush, a hive tool or knife and something to re-attach the comb (zip-ties and large hair clips work for top bars, large rubber bands or twine work for Langstroth frames). This is a great guide for fixing cross-comb.

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Rest the package against the hive to allow stragglers to find their way to the group.

Good luck!

Just remember that your main job at this point is to observe. Step in only when necessary. Be aware of potential problems, but trust your bees to do what they need to. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, folks. And above all, enjoy it!

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