Spring is an exciting time for beekeepers. If you have existing hives the workers are busy gathering nectar and pollen while the queen is laying eggs. But if you just starting out or lost your previous colony of honey bees, it is the time that package bees arrive!
Before you order package bees, do your research first. What race of honey bee do you want, or better stated, what traits are important to you? Do you want bees that are excellent foragers? What about gentleness? How about ones that are fairly disease resistant? What about the reputation of the breeder? Is cost a factor? (But keep in mind that in the world of beekeeping, the saying is, “You get what you pay for”.)
Once you have decided on race of bee, breeder, and what you are willing to spend, place your order. However, you will need to place your order well in advance of spring (November – January) to guarantee availability. As an example, when we need package bees, we typically order in January for a spring pickup (or delivery). If you wait too long, you may not be able to get what you want.
One route that many bee clubs choose, is to place an order with beekeepers and/or dealers who supply bees for the California almond pollination. Following the pollination of the crop, the bees are gathered and placed into packages along with a queen (who is in her own smaller cage inside the bee package). Typically clubs send someone with a large truck or trailer to pick up these package bees.
If you are not a bee club member, don’t worry. You will still be able to order package bees. Various beekeeping magazines or bee supply catalogs provide a list of package bee sources. Examples include, but not limited to: Bee Culture, American Bee Journal, Dadant, Mann Lake, BetterBee, and Kelley Bees.
You may wonder, “Just what is a bee package”? For starters, it is typically a wooden frame box covered with a wire mesh, similar to a window screen. The mesh is small enough that the bees can not escape. In the top of the box is a hole which is plugged with a tin can. Now the tin can is filled with sugar syrup (equal parts sugar and water) and a small hole is pierced at the bottom of the can. This tiny hole allows the sugar syrup to slowly drip. This provides both food and water for the bees while in transit. Also suspended from the top of the box is the queen cage. This tiny cage houses a queen that has been mated. (NOTE: the queen is kept separate from the rest of the bees because she has not been part of their colony and has an unfamiliar scent. The cage protects her until the bees have a chance to get used to her scent and then they should accept her. If she was just placed in with the rest of the bees, she would be killed.) The rest of the box is contains female honey bees, otherwise known as workers.
Bee packages are generally sold by weight. Common weights are 3 – 5 pounds. As a rule of thumb, 1 pound equates to approximately 3,500 bees, so a 3 pound bee package is about 10,000 honey bees. Keep in mind that all of the bees are adults (no brood) in a standard package. These days, packages typically start around $80 or more depending on race and the breeder/dealer. When ordering locally, you will be provided a date to pick them up.
The day you get your bees is exciting! But to make this experience even better, there are a few things you can do. Refer to the check list:
- Prepare a spray bottle of sugar syrup
- Have a pair of gloves on hand
- Have a small bag of miniature marshmallows
- Identify a cool, quiet area (perhaps the garage or shed or even under the shade of an awning or tree)
- Bee veil
- Sugar syrup feeder (with cooled syrup)
- Entrance reducer
If you are picking up your bees, take a vehicle that has good air circulation and air conditioning. Bees can overheat which will stress them. Once you get your bee package, go straight to your vehicle and home. (Now is not the time to run errands.) Position the package so it will get good air flow and not be tossed around. (We place ours between two bricks.) Gently spray the screens with sugar syrup (do not soak them) from your spray bottle set to the ‘mist’ setting. This will help calm your bees. Once you are home (or where your hive(s) are located), place the bee package in a cool location. Repeat misting from the spray bottle. When the bees are calm (they will buzz softly), you are ready for the next step, emptying the package into the hive!
Before you start, don your bee veil and gloves. If you have a bee suit, you may wear that as well, though some people just wear long sleeved shirts and long pants with cuffs secured snugly with rubber bands to help ensure that any wayward bees don’t make their way inside of your clothing. Place the entrance reducer at entrance to the hive.
While there are many methods on how to ‘home’ your package bees, there are a few basic steps that they all have in common. First, remove the outer and inner covers of the hive. Next, remove several adjacent frames near the center of the hive body (for a Langstroth hive). Remove the queen cage from the package and carefully swap out the cork or plastic stopper at the bottom of the cage with a miniature marshmallow, without releasing the queen. Hang the queen cage from the frame that is near the center of the hive and has the open space on the side from the previous removal of frames. At this point, there will be bees flying about. Don’t worry and don’t swat them. Now you will gently knock the package on the ground or on the hive to cause the cluster of bees to drop to the bottom of the package. Turn the package upside down and start shaking the bees into the hive. (I admit that this part can be a little unnerving for the first-time beekeeper.)
Now simply step away from the hive. While there will be quite a few bees in the air, there will also be a lot in the hive. They will begin to check out the hive, determining if it will make a good home. Some bees may start to cluster around the queen cage… this is normal. As the bees settle, step back up to the hive and place the frames back in the hive, taking care not to squash too many bees in the process. Place the inner cover over the frames followed by the feeder (we use the large one that fits the hive) and lastly, the outer cover.
Take a step back and relax. The bees will now decide if this hive will be their home. They will crawl about the frames as well as find the sugar syrup in the feeder. If it is warm, some bees will place themselves at the entrance to the hive and begin fanning to help cool the hive (a good sign). By late afternoon, you may see bees flying in front of the hive, but they are flying up and down and slightly side to side still facing the hive. (Another good sign.) These are known as orientation flights. The bees are familiarizing themselves with the entrance of the hive as well as what the hive looks like so they can find it once they go out and begin foraging.
Check on your hive on day four. Don’t be tempted to open the hive before then. The bees are still making themselves at home. (Note, you can still remove the outer cover to check on the sugar syrup, filling as often as needed.) If they are disturbed too soon or too frequently, they may leave the hive. On day four, you have one task… check that the queen cage is empty. By then, the bees should have eaten through the marshmallow, releasing the queen. (The marshmallow buys the queen extra time for the workers to become familiar with her scent so they will accept her into colony.)
On day ten, open the hive. Now your task is to check for the queen. Do you see her? Do you see any eggs in the cells? If you see her, wonderful. If you see eggs, even better. The colony has made your hive their home.
Package bees are a great way to enter the world of beekeeping. Do your research to determine what traits you want for your hive(s). Order from a reputable beekeeper/dealer and prepare in advance for your bee package.