For novices and more experienced beekeepers, early spring is the time to install new bee colonies for the year.
For the non-beekeepers out there, bee packages are the most common way to install and start beekeeping. If you order bees through the mail, they’ll almost certainly come in what’s called a “package”, which consists of a screened box full of worker bees, a queen bee in a cage, and some canned sugar syrup to keep them alive until they reach their new home. I recently helped a “newbee” beekeeper install her packages and was introduced to the “bee bus” plastic container.
The postal service is very nervous about bee packages and will call the beekeeper at 6 AM in the morning hoping that you will pick them up and take them off their hands. They are literally terrified by all the caged bees that cannot get out! Not like live fluffy cheeping chicks which are also shipped via the post office.
Most packages are 3 pounds of bees, which simply means you get three pounds of worker bees (10,000 to 12,000 bees). The queen is caged in a tiny little cage where she can be fed and hydrated by fellow bees- kind of like servants!
Queens Run Everything
The queen bee is raised separately from the worker bees at the apiary that produces queens for other beekeepers. That means that the worker bees aren’t familiar yet with the queen bees’ pheromones (chemical signals) to accept her yet and could possibly kill or reject her at first. But the cage means that the queen bee remains segregated from the other workers until they become accustomed to her and accept her (hopefully). It is kind of like a baby bird imprinting on his/her mother, even if the mother is not their biological one.
Here’s the can of syrup, the final component of the package. Depending on where the package came from, the tin can may have holes punched in the bottom with a nail or might contain a fabric feeding entrance (as shown here). Either way, the idea is that the bees can get a little bit of sugar-water at a time to keep them going or they would starve.
The Star of the Show
A tiny cork plugs up the cage along with a candy plug holding the queen in her cage. Removing the cork starts the process of the worker bees eating the sugar plug that is the final barrier to the queen and is completed within a few days and the queen emerges ready to lay eggs. By that time, they should treat her like the star that she is, ready to take care of her in return for her laying thousands of eggs over her lifetime. A good strong queen will keep the colony going for at least 2 years before she weakens and needs to be replaced.
It takes all of five minutes to remove extra frames from the hive and dump the bees inside the hive box. The queen cage has been inserted inside the the hive and she is waiting for the others to start to free her.
Feeding sugar water to the bees is critical for the hive to build up quickly before cold weather hits. You can use the can that came with the package and when that runs out, a mason jar full of sugar water will do. Placed on the top of the hive the sugar water drips down into the bees. Feeding is crucial when you install bees as a ready supply of food, instead of expending energy foraging outside.
I have a head start over new beekeepers because I already have drawn comb from old hives for them to start depositing pollen and nectar into. It takes a lot of energy to make new wax for the queen bee to start laying her eggs.
Giving the hive about 4 days to settle in, the beekeeper will need to open up and make sure the queen has been released. This type of release is called the ‘slow release’ method and has a better chance of success with queen acceptance. The quick release method of removing the cork and placing the queen directly into the hive can be disastrous with the bees stinging the queen to death, and I have seen that happen.
The next step is to check the hive in several weeks to see if brood is present and if that is present, you have been successful with installing a package of bees!