Bee packages: a little bit of history
Photo 1. A package arrives in a wooden shipping package constructed from wood with wire screen on each side for ventilation during transit. An inverted feeding can with a food supply is positioned in the middle of the cage along with the queen. Typically the bees cluster around the queen making her difficult to see.
The advent of the Langstroth movable frame in 1852 gave way to modern beekeeping as we know it today. The idea of the package bee was first conceived in the 1870’s, but it did not become popular until the 1950’s as the commercial beekeeping industry began to expand with better highways and more efficient means of colony transportation. Currently, the commercial bee package production industry is largely based in the southern US where the winters are milder so packages can be shipped northward in early spring. In the mid-Atlantic region, packages typically arrive in April, just prior to spring nectar flows, so that colony populations can be maximized during the nectar flow. Snow is not uncommon during early spring in northeastern U.S. however, packages can still be installed.
The most popular size package is 3 lbs which constitute about 10,000 bees; 3,500 bees per pound (photo 1). Packages are typically shipped with a mated queen that is housed in a cage to protect her during transit. The bees are fed during transit from an inverted 1-pint metal can be filled with sugar syrup. A 3 lbs package with a mated queen averages $100-120, plus shipping. It is also possible to order packages with a virgin queen or without a queen.
There are multiple installation techniques, but two of the most common and simplest ones are described here. Remember to have all of your materials ready in advance, including: a spray bottle of 50% sugar solution, a hive tool, an entrance reducer, supplemental feed, and hive equipment (Langstroth hives with 8- or 10-frames boxes). The installation process is fairly quick and generally takes less than 10 minutes per hive. A smoker is not necessary as package bees are calm. Once your package(s) arrives, it is time to get started. Install the package(s) the day of arrival, regardless of weather. If needed, they can be left in a dark room at room temperature, spaced 2 feet apart for to 1-2 days. If this is the case, spray the bees twice daily with 50% sugar syrup and cover the bees with a light sheet or tarp. Be wary because it is easy for the bees to overheat.