Successfully Installing Packaged Bees

A Journey With The Bees

By Tom Theobald

Spring is one of the busiest times in beekeeping, as it is with much of agriculture, but it is also a very rewarding and intriguing time. In effect it is “planting time,” when the scene is set for the coming season, and what takes place in March and April can often have an irreversible influence on what comes over the next several months.

Bee Package

I’m in somewhat of a quandary as to just what “beekeeping” actually is today. We are seeing high colony losses and there has been a strong difference of opinion regarding what is causing this. A family of pesticides called “neonicotinoids” are believed by many beekeepers to be a major contributor and the science support-ing their concerns is growing rapidly. On the other side are the regulators and the pesticide companies. I won’t get into this controversy here, as important as it is, many of you are already familiar with the evidence and the arguments, for those of you who aren’t, I would suggest that you inform yourselves.

What I would like to cover in this article is directed primarily to you beginning beekeepers. There has been an explosion of interest by what we refer to as hobby beekeepers, or hobbyists, and each year for the past several years there has been an increasing number of new beekeepers.

As I said in the last issue, there are three ways to start a colony of bees: with a swarm, by buying an existing colony, or with a package. So just what is this thing beekeepers call a “package?“ Basically nothing more than a light wooden box, screened on two sides with a large center hole, which will hold a feeder can once the bees are put in the package. In a separate little cage is the queen, and when the package arrives at its destination and is installed in standard beekeeping equipment, that queen will become the mother of the colony.

I installed 25 packages for myself in the spring of 1976, my first year of beekeeping on my own. These were in addition to 40 active colonies I’d bought the previous fall. I clearly remember the evening before I was to drive south to Colorado Springs to pick up the packages, which had come in from Texas in a group order for beekeepers in the Pike’s Peak region. I was like an expectant father. I nervously walked the two lines of single story hives I’d set up west of the barn, reviewing everything I’d done to assure myself that I was ready for the bees.

The neighbor to the north woke me from my ruminations. He’d walked over to his back fence, about 75 feet from the hives. “You aren’t going to put bees in those are you?” he called out. “Why yes I am,” I answered, a little uneasily for I knew where this conversation was probably leading. “Oh, if I get stung I’ll die,” was his next comment.

We talked for a while over the fence, I assured him that he wasn’t going to be attacked by the bees (but what did I really know, I was an al-most new beekeeper) and I walked away wondering what kind of an occupation I had gotten myself into.

You have to like bees. It looks intimidating, but these are young bees and there is virtually no stinging or defensiveness.

Well, the neighbor didn’t die, he moved away and here I am 40 years later. As far as I know I haven’t killed anyone.

Those were the last packages I would get until just a few years ago, when losses exceeded my ability to regain the numbers by splitting my own colonies and catching swarms in the spring.

Sometimes referred to as “artificial swarms,” packages have been a part of beekeeping since they were first used by A.I. Root in 1879—136 years ago. Root was experimenting with shipping small bunches of bees, a pound or less, but it wasn’t long before another inquisitive beekeeper, Frank Benton, invented the small queen cage still in use today. By the turn of the last century a package bee industry had grown up in warmer states where spring came early. The bees could build up and be ready to yield excess bees by the time northern beekeepers needed them. This part of beekeeping, the queen rearing and package industry, has increased in importance with the influx of new beekeepers and the losses being experienced by established beekeepers. The challenge is whether the package producers will be able to keep up with a rapidly growing demand.

Even many commercial beekeepers of long experience have never seen the origin of these packages, how they are produced, so when the time arrived that I once again needed to resort to packages I was determined to fill that blank in my own experience. In 2009 my friend Miles McGaughey and I made our first spring trip to California for pack-ages and we shook bees and filled our packages with the crew at C.F. Koehnen and Sons, a queen breeding and package bee business established in 1907 in Glen, California.

So that’s a long way to get to where I was headed. For new bee-keepers packages are probably the best way to start. You know when they will arrive, what their breed-ing is, and a good package will get you off to a good start. It isn’t rocket science, but there are some definite steps you need to go through to do it successfully. I’ll cover the basics, but videos are also very helpful

But here’s how I do it. You need a single story hive, with frames of honeycomb or foundation. Take three or four frames out of the center and set them aside. Now take your package, tap the bees down to the bottom, and pull out the feeder can and the queen cage. Set both aside, the queen cage in a safe spot in the shade where she won’t get stepped on. Now turn the package upside down and pour the bees into the gap where the frames were removed, most of them won’t fly, they will just pour out like so many raisins. Put the frames back in the hive body slowly, giving the deep layer of bees below a chance to move aside. Put the queen, still in her cage, between two frames in the center, push them together tightly and fold the metal strap (if there is one) over the top of one of the frames.

Package Filling Setup
A typical package filling setup at C.F. Koehnen. Bees are poured into the funnel on the scale, set to the right poundage. The lower container is then poured into a package and the hole is closed with a feed can. The queen is already in her cage, suspended in the package. It was a cool day and the young bees were drawn to a warm back.

These bees have probably been with the queen three or four days already and you could probably release her right then. I recommend that you wait at least a day however, as the queen is the only leash you have on that mass of bees and if they decide to take to the trees you may have lost them. As long as you have the queen they won’t leave her. I put in packages in the late afternoon when there is still enough warmth and daylight that they can settle in, but not so much that they can get into much mischief.

These are mostly young bees with relatively few fielders so it is important to feed them from the beginning, and continue feeding while they are building up. Here in Colorado we try to coordinate installing the pack-ages with the end of winter, which for us and much of the northern U.S., is the dandelion bloom, about the third week in April for us. The packages will develop a field force as they mature and the queen starts laying, but the package needs help at the start. There are a number of ways to feed; probably the most common for beginners is the Boardman feeder that fits into the front entrance. This is exactly what was being used in the 1920s.

You could leave the queen in the cage for another day or two, or go back the next day and release her. Many new beekeepers are more comfortable with a “slow release” approach; they replace the cork plug in the queen cage with a miniature marshmallow and put the cage back in the hive. The bees will chew through the marshmallow in short order and release the queen themselves, inside the hive.

For established colonies that have overwintered successfully, April should be boom times. They have been building since February, when the first of the tree pollen started coming in and the queen resumed egg laying. They have gone from perhaps 10,000 bees to 40,000 plus and may be in need of space. You experienced bee-keepers know the routine, so I won’t go into that at this point.

Package bees have become an annual addition to many beekeeping operations so the skills you learn with your first package will probably be repeated in the years to come. Review the videos until you are con-fident of what you need to do. In May and June we’ll set up for the summer honey flow.

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