This past Saturday I installed packaged bees into the existing equipment of my recently deceased hives in the Runamuk apiary. In my 7 years of beekeeping, this was a first for me; I’ve always bought locally raised nucleus colonies with hardy overwintered Queens. With so much comb and honey and pollen stores available following winter losses, and the promise of a good deal from a trusted beekeeping acquaintance, I decided to give the packages a shot this year.
What are packaged bees?
For the most part, packaged bees come from the south and are not acclimated to Maine’s conditions; they tend not to survive our winters. However, former Maine State Beekeepers’ Association president Erin McGregor-Forbes of Overland Apiaries in Portland, Maine did a SARE project which ultimately showed that imported packages re-Queened with northern-bred Queens have a dramatically improved survivability rate. Since I plan to raise my own Queens anyway this year I will follow Erin’s example and re-Queen these packages later in the season.
Note: It’s pretty interesting work and worth the read; see more about Erin’s research and the results of that SARE project at: A Comparison of Strength and Survivability of Honeybee Colonies Started with Conventional vs Northern Re-Queened Packages.
Paul and I ordered 5 packages a couple of months ago from Peter Cowin, Maine’s renown “Bee Whisperer” over in Hampden. Peter had come to speak with the Somerset Beekeepers a few years back when I was still president of that group, and I also follow Peter’s beekeeping articles in the Bangor Daily News. Every spring Peter makes the pilgrimage to the south and brings back a truck-full of packages to sell to Maine beekeepers.
Packaged bees consist of 3 pounds of worker bees and a newly laying Queen in a cage. They have no combs or brood, no honey or pollen, only the sugar-syrup in a can to sustain them on their journey. For established beekeepers like me─with plenty of equipment and drawn combs already on hand─packaged bees can be easily inserted to make use of those materials and replace winter-losses.
Saturday, April 29th was the day for pick up of Peter’s imported packages. Since I normally work weekends I had to leave Johnny’s early that day to drive an hour eastward to Hampden. It was a beautiful day for it and Paul met me at Johnny’s Selected Seeds Call Center so that we could take the road trip together.
When we arrived at his location in Hampden Peter was right out straight. There was one uncertain couple ahead of us, and another guy pulled in right behind us. I already know the spiel on installing packaged bees and how to care for them so we loaded the 5 packages into the back seat and departed in short order, leaving Peter to his other customers.
It’s always thrilling to drive down the road with bees in the car, but Saturday’s trip was probably the most intimate road-trip I’ve ever experienced with bees. Always before I’ve purchased nucleus colonies, which are entirely contained in a plywood nuc-box with a few entrances that are closed with screen for the trip. Packaged bees however, are fairly open, with the bees housed inside a wooden frame that is screened on 2 sides, so the buzzing sound coming from the 5 packages on the backseat was much louder than anything I’d experienced before.
This Saturday afternoon happened to be only the first or second nice weekend day that our region has experienced yet this season and Mainers were obviously taking advantage of the fair weather to get some outside work done. As we drove across the countryside we saw lots of folks out raking their lawns, mowing, or burning brush in the backyard. What was especially interesting was that every time we drove past a house where someone was burning something in the backyard─where there was the smell of smoke in the air or smoke billowed across the road─the bees became agitated and they would get notably louder. You could hear the difference, and we knew that their ancient instinctive reaction to fire and smoke was at work.
How to Install Packaged Bees
Installing packages later in the afternoon discourages your new bees from absconding, so by the time we arrived at the apiary with the packages it was around 4 and we were able to install them right away. It’s a pretty straight forward process.
We had all of our equipment set up and ready to go ahead of time: the bottom board, a deep box filled with combs, the inner cover and the telescoping cover, as well as an extra medium box to house my mason-jar syrup-feeder─and don’t forget an entrance reducer. Since I have lots of combs available, I found 2-3 frames of honey to put in each box, along with 1-2 frames of pollen, and the remaining frames were open combs where the new Queens would be able to immediately begin laying eggs.
I set the inner cover and the telescoping covers aside and removed 1 or 2 of the empty combs from each box before placing a package on top of it in preparation for installation. Then I suited up and with my hive tool pried the square wooden plate off the box to reveal the feeder can.
After opening the first package I realized that packaged bees are angry bees! I suppose if you’d been abducted from your home, unceremoniously dumped into a cage with a Queen Mother you didn’t know and trucked across the country on an epic 2 or 3 day journey, you’d probably be grumpy too! Go figure. But after being dive bombed by angry bees and having one or two persistent girls crawl up under my veil I decided it was best to do the remaining installations as quickly and efficiently as possible!
It was better to remove the staples holding the plastic tab that was attached to the Queen-cage inside the package BEFORE removing the feeder-can. Then use your hive tool to pry the can up so that you can grab hold of and remove it. Be sure to hang onto that plastic tab so as not to lose your Queen down inside the package!
I took the Queen cage out and placed the wooden plate back over the hole to prevent my workers from escaping before I was ready for them and slid the package back a bit on the hive so that I had just enough room to reach down between the frames in the hive-box. Then I removed the cork from the Queen cage and smushed the cage (with the screen parts facing up and down so as not to suffocate the Queen inside!) into the comb of one of the frames in the hive-box. Push that frame with the cage smushed into it up against it’s neighbor to help support the Queen cage so that gravity doesn’t land the cage on the floor of the hive.
Next I took the package with the 3 pounds of worker bees, placed the wooden plate aside and dumped the bees down into the opening where the missing frames should be. Knock the package from side to side a couple of times to get the bees out of the corners of the package, then set the package aside. Replace the 1 or 2 frames you’d set aside earlier and close it up!
I tried to be fairly quick with the installation of the workers. Having everything ready to go allowed me to have them from the package to enclosed within the hive in just 2 or 3 minutes.
At first it looked as though one of the hives might abscond; while the others seemed to settle right in, there were so many bees in the air around this particular hive that it looked alarmingly like a swarm to me. I waited patiently nearby to see what they would do and after 15 minutes or so they had quieted down enough that I was no longer concerned.
I went back through and added syrup feeders to each hive: a medium box above the inner cover and a mason-jar with a perforated lid filled with 1:1 sugar-syrup, and the telescoping cover on top of all that.
If you are installing your packages onto un-drawn foundation you absolutely must feed your bees to ensure they have the resources they need in order to make wax and build combs so that the Queen can begin to lay eggs. Even with drawn combs like mine, it’s best to feed those bees to stimulate egg-production and ensure the new colony has all the resources it needs to grow.
And just like that we had new bees at work in the apiary! Yay! #beesrock!
There are many ways to install packaged bees; this was how I did it. Have questions? Sage words of advice? Feel free to leave a comment below!