Soon your bees will finally be here – a most joyous occasion for new bee keepers especially. No doubt you have been studying up on how to get package bees into their hive, and already have some idea how to do it, but just in case…
Of course you already have your hive equipment all ready assembled, painted and hopefully in place in your future bee yard ready to receive your new BFFs.
If you are using a Screened Bottom Board – close it up! Packages or swarms often abscond when installed in hives with open bottoms. Once they have some comb built and brood going open it up if you want to, but keep it shut until then.
Note – I started keeping honey bees using the foundationless method, and while it did work out OK, I have since changed to all plastic foundation – which is another issue. The point is that these pictures show foundationless frames, while you will probably be using foundation of some kind. Don’t worry about that, the only difference is how you release the queen – which will be pointed out when we get to that part.
If it turns out that the weather is foul when your package bees arrive, they can be kept in a cool dark place – like a garage – for several days, but installing them sooner is better than later. Except for this – if you are installing in a top bar hive or other foundationless system, it might be better for the bees to spend a total of at least 3 days caged up in contact with their new queen before you release them.
If there are no other bees already nearby where you are installing your package bees, then you can do it at any time of day – hopefully during nice weather – but if you already have bees in the same location you can help to keep your bees from drifting to existing hives by doing the deed as late as possible in the afternoon so that they will spend the night in the new hive before they look around too much.
How to Install your Package Honey Bees
First take 4 frames out of the hive to make a space for the bees. Next pry the plywood cover off of the package.
The package contains a can of syrup with a few holes in it for the bees to eat during shipping.
Hold the tab that the queen cage is hanging from as you carefully remove the syrup can. Everything will have bees clinging to it so you have to go slow and kind of wiggle things around to keep from injuring them.
After removing the can, and the queen cage keep the bees in the cage by laying the little piece of plywood back over the hole.
Notice the white wax that the workers deposited on the queen cage while they were in route. They really can’t wait to get to work. But, the queen and worker bees were collected from different hives at the commercial apiary where the bees were produced, and don’t immediately accept each other.If those bees hanging onto the queen cage cling tight and feel almost like velcro when you gently brush them off it means that the queen has not yet been accepted. But even if they have accepted the queen already a timed candy release is a tried and true way of minimizing the risk when introducing a queen to a new hive.There should be several attendant bees in the cage with the queen, and some of them might be dead – which is normal – but make sure that the queen is alive.
Compared to the pictures of queens you might have seen on the Internet your new queen might look kind of puny. There are two reasons for that 1) People usually post pictures of particularly big fat queens, not average ones. 2) Your queen has been in a cage – not laying eggs – for several days, and queens get skinny when they are not laying eggs. She will fatten up a lot in a week or two.
Most wooden queen cages have two corks that keep the queen in for the trip, and under one cork there is a plug made out of sugar “candy” that the workers will gnaw away to free the queen. Be sure to remove the correct cork – the one with candy under it – not the one which immediately releases the queen. Immediate direct release of your queen will void the warranty – and may result in her being immediately killed. Don’t do that!
Hang the Queen Cage in the Hive - An easy way to fasten the queen cage in is with a simple rubber band:
Don’t directly release the queen Unless, you are doing foundationless – in which case you MUST directly release the queen. If you don’t know what I mean by “doing foundationless” then this does not apply to you. Rest assured that using foundation is a good way to go – the tried and true way. Those foundationless guys are outlaws, who live on the ragged edge. Direct release is much more risky than a timed candy release.
The reason that you don’t put a queen cage into a foundationless hive is that the bees will start building comb right on the queen cage instead of on your carefully constructed starter strips, and instead of nice straight comb you will get something like this instead:
Crooked chaotic comb which will be likely to fall apart when you do an inspection – Which is something you don’t have to worry about when you use foundation.
When introducing a queen into a foundationless hive without comb. First make sure that the queen has been confined with the package for at least 3 days, and bees are not aggressively clinging to the queen cage like velcro. Then just free the queen and put the queen cage in your pocket – seriously don’t leave the cage laying around or the bees might cluster on it because of the queen pheremones on it. Now hope that she doesn’t immediately fly away, and isn’t killed by the other bees.
If after a candy release the queen is still in the cage in a week you can safely release her then during your first inspection.
Usually in a package bee installation “how to” you are instructed to shake the bees out through the 3 inch hole left by the syrup can – lots of shaking involved which doesn’t look too pleasant for the bees – but it really doesn’t hurt them. You can also take the screen loose on the side of the box to open up the entire side as instructed in this beemaster video on installing a package of bees. But really, that’s a lot of extra work, and shaking them out through the can hole works fine.
Before you shake in the bees Install the entrance reducer on the smallest opening.
When you are ready to install the bees, take a deep breath and rap the package down sharply to get all of the bees in a confused pile on the bottom. Now just dump them right into the hive with the queen. After you shake most all of them out, set the empty package near the entrance of the hive so that any holdouts can walk in on their own.
You might be worried that at this point they will either all just fly away or swarm all over you and try to sting you to death, but they won’t. Actually they will probably just about ignore you. Experienced bee keepers might not wear any equipment at all. Smart bee keepers will wear a veil, because getting stung in the eye can cause blindness. Beginners should suit up to the point that they are confident and don’t have to worry about it at all. No shame in that.
After pouring the bees into the hive carefully replace all of the frames – slowly wiggle them in to give the bees a chance to get out of the way. If you have 10 frame equipment you might want to leave one frame out until you remove the queen cage in a few days – just even out the extra space on each end. It seems impossible from the way this picture looks, but I don’t think I killed a single bee.
Now carefully replace the inner cover.
A Quart jar with some holes punched in the lid makes a great feeder – a push pin type thumb tack makes perfect sized holes. Install whatever kind of feeder you plan to use and fill it with 1/1 sugar syrup. Check on it and keep it filled as long as they will take it and don’t start back filling the brood nest.
Cover the jar feeder with an empty hive body, and the outer cover.
If I had been on the ball I would have placed the entrance reducer before I started.
In just a few minutes the bees were all moving inside and flying around the yard orienting themselves. In a few hours they were already bringing in pollen from the blackberry flowers.
Now the hardest part – leave them alone for at least a week. The bees need time to build comb for the queen to lay in and to accept her before you bother them – premature inspection could cause them to kill or supercede the queen. Keep them fed, and admire how cool they look going in and out, but don’t open the hive.
This process might look intimidating, but after all of the waiting you will probably really enjoy it. When I got my first package I worried that when I dumped all of those bees out they would just rise up and fly away if I didn’t do everything exactly right. But the thing is they don’t seem to want to fly away. It’s almost like if you had been cooped up in a greyhound bus for 3 days and then you were deposited right into a five star hotel with an open buffet – what they really seemed to want to do was settle in and make their selves at home.
- Get your hive equipment ready – don’t forget to install the entrance reducer. Close the screened bottom board if you are using one.
- Remove 4 frames from the middle of the hive to make a hole to pour the bees into.
- Rap the cage down to shake the bees down to the bottom.
- Pry out the feed can, remove the queen cage, and cover the hole.
- Verify that the queen is alive. If she is not alive – call me, I have a few spares.
- Remove the cork from the candy end of the queen cage.
- Fasten the queen cage into the hive with the candy end up and the screen unobstructed.
- Rap the package down again to shake the bees to the bottom.
- Dump them in there.
- Replace the frames – push them all together to the center of the hive!
- Install your feeder and close the hive.
- Keep them fed.
- Leave them alone for a whole week.
- If when you inspect after one week the queen is still in the cage – remove the other cork and release her into the hive – by now she will be well accepted. And by the way, an otherwise queenless hive like this will feed the caged queen through the cage for a long time – that is exactly how commercial producers “bank” queens until they are ready to ship.
- Don’t get excited if you don’t see either the queen or brood the first time you inspect – both are hard for new bee keepers to spot.
A great video on installing package bees
Photography by my lovely and fearless wife Shirley – who was not wearing a bee suit.