Monday, April 13, 2015

Honey Bee Packages

After the disappointing realization that all five of our colonies were dead, we were pretty discouraged about bees.  But after the initial shock of our (but mostly their) loss, we couldn't help but begin planning for more.  Honey bees are so fascinating and beekeeping such an incredibly rewarding hobby.  It's worth the risk to try again.

We were able to order two packages of bees from a semi-local bee supply company.  They order packages from further south and distribute them in our neck of the woods.  The one downside to this is that these packages contain queens are southern queens and aren't acclimated to our climate. Because of this, we are hoping to re-queen some of our divides this year with local queen-lines who have successfully over-wintered here.

Last week, Jamey and Miriam went and picked up our bees- two packages with about 20,000 female honey bees in each package along with a queen (in a queen cage) and a can of feed (sugar syrup) for nourishment.  The bees in the packages don't know the queens housed with them.  These are young queens reared by beekeepers for this purpose.  The rest of the bees were transferred into the package from another hive.  The queen is caged to protect her- those bees don't know her and might try to "ball" or kill her once initially exposed to her...hence the cage of protection.

sugar syrup pre-made and ready at a ratio of 1:1, sugar and water 

We decided to install one of the packages into a new Langstroth hive that Jamey built and the other into one of our top bar hives.  One advantage to packages is that there are no frames to deal with so they can be easily transferred into your choice of hive.  One downside is that they don't have frames of brood with them which may make them feel more invested and at home in a new hive if they have their frames installed with them.  Here's to hoping ours still like their new homes and don't take off looking for their old one.

To unpack a package, the first step is to remove the small cover on top (see right package below versus the left).  This reveals two things- the top of the can of sugar syrup and the strap that attaches to the queen cage (what Jamey is holding in his left hand).

Lifting out the feeding can is next.  Then, he pulls up the queen cage using the strap.  It's helpful to quickly place the cover over the hole so all the bees stay put (for now).

Below is the queen in her cage.  She didn't have access to the food but worker bees are used to feeding queens so they would have taken care of her en route.  The next step is to remove the small cork disk at the top of the queen cage.  Removing the cork reveals a candy plug.  Once the bees are all snug in their new hive, the bees will chew through the candy, releasing the queen.  By the time she's free, they will have acclimated to her scent and (hopefully) adopt her as queen.  The cage is then placed within the comb so as not to disturb hive traffic.  We used existing combs leftover from our hives from last year.  Bees can also build their own if there are none available.

Next came the "exciting" part.  Jamey had let me wear the jacket (I was so excited to be out with the bees again) but as he began working with them, a couple got agitated enough and stung him, despite the sugar syrup spray (which is supposed to keep them busy licking syrup off their wings and keeping them from flying).  I quickly gave him the jacket, stepped back and used zoom.

Below, he's turning the package upside down so the bees fall down into the hive where the queen is waiting.  This can take a little while and requires tapping and shaking the box hard to dislodge the bees.

After most of the bees are inside, the last few frames are put back in.  This year, we're trying a top feeder for our Langstroth hive.  In the second photo below, you can see the shallow unpainted box set on top of the bottom box.  This is the feeder.  Sugar syrup can be poured directly into the tray, giving the bees access to it from below.  A cover fits on top and the roof of the hive goes on over that.

He then repeated the same steps and installed the other package in one of our top bar hives.  In these hives, we use jar feeders.  Because there isn't a lot blooming yet and the bees need lots of energy to build up their small starter colonies, AND since we're hoping to divide them sometime this summer, we want to give them a good head start.

When most of the bees are out of the packages, they are set in front of the hive entrance.  Bees in the hive will come out and fan the queen's scent out of the hive so that lost bees can follow her scent and find their new home.  Didn't I tell you that honey bees are fascinating?

Later that afternoon, the package was all but empty and the bees had already started foraging.  They very quickly found the water source I set out for them, too, just out of reach of the chickens who would have jumped into it and knocked it over (knowledge from experience).

In a few days, we'll look into the hives and make sure the queen has been released and all is well.  It's so nice to see activity at our hives again.  It just didn't quite feel quite the same without them. Pin It


  1. I love reading your bee posts and I pray for the opportunity to be a beekeeper someday. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  2. I don't understand why the workers would take care of the queen en route if they would kill her if they could get to her. Can you explain?

    1. Good question. Some of the worker bees that were dumped into the package with the stranger queen would have likely been in the stage of their bee duties where their job is to feed and care for the queen. I'm guessing that their instincts take over and they care for the queen who is present. Also amid the workers would likely be guard bees who would quickly identify her as foreign and try to sting her as well as release alarm pheromones telling other bees to attack her, too. I'm not sure if there is a "magic" time frame when they just accept her because she's the only one present but this is my best understanding of what happens.

      It's possible that by the time we were installing them, they had accepted her. The added built in time of chewing her out may help her scent spread throughout the hive, making everyone feel at home/hopefully helping them stay put versus taking off.

      If anyone reading this has a better understanding (or additional input) as to the reasons for the queen cage and the candy plug, please chime in! :-)

  3. Ahhh. Okay... so there are bees whose only job is the care for the queen, and then other bees who are the guards who would kill her?

    1. Not quite:-). Worker bees (all female) take on many different jobs during their lifetime and the jobs generally follow the same order. A newly emerged worker comes out of her cell and then cleans herself, her cell (and nearby cells) and takes out the trash (dead bees, diseased brood, etc.). About 1-2 weeks later (depending on the needs of the hive), she becomes a nurse bee and feeds the developing larvae (nurse bees check on larvae hundreds of times a day). Next, she may become a queen's maid- her job is feeding, cleaning and taking away her poo as the queen busily lays eggs. Next, she works at the entrance of the hive, accepting nectar by the foraging bees and packs it away into clean cells. Then, she'll become a builder and use the wax flakes that come out of her body to build and repair comb. Her next job is that of guard bee, smelling everything that tries to enter the hive to make sure it's friendly. Finally, her last job is to forage for nectar, water and pollen outside the hive. It makes sense that this stage is last- when the bee dies of old age (around 40 days old in summer), it's likely that they'll die out in the field instead of inside the hive.

      Guard bees only attack or guard against outsiders. Once they adopt her as their queen, they try to protect her, not harm her.

      Does this help? :-)

    2. Wow... that is so cool! I had no idea, and I've been researching beekeeping for YEARS!!! It's like working your way up in the company. :-) Yes, that makes perfect sense. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions.

  4. This was fascinating, thank you for sharing your experience. I have been interested in beekeeping and this totally reassured me that this is something I am going to do next spring:)

  5. SO amazing!! Thank you for sharing with us, Jane. I hope you have great success with this new batch of bees. I enjoyed your great shots and commentary of the entire very interesting. :) Hugs, Camille


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