Package Bee Installation

Spring is a busy time of the year for beekeepers as it marks the arrival of bee packages. Package bees have become a staple for beekeepers in North America as more people take up beekeeping as a hobby and overwinter colony losses have increased.  You can watch the Learn Now video on the process of package bee installation and there is a step by step article below. 

Enjoy the LEARN NOW video on Installing Package Bees from Penn State Extension. 

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.

Materials

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.

Step-by-step process

 Photo 2. Entrance reduction using grass. Middle frames should be removed to make space for the bees.

STEP 1: The first step is to reduce the entrance of the hive which can be accomplished with a traditional wooden entrance reducer or with grass (photo 2). The purpose of reducing the entrance is to (1) reduce flight during installation and (2) allow the bees to settle and orient themselves to their new home. The wooden reducer can be removed within a few days after installation. The bees will often remove the grass by themselves.

STEP 2: Heavily spray the bees with a 50% sugar solution prior to installation. The spray will aid in reducing flight during installation because the bees will be sticky and wet. You may have to knock the package against the ground in order to thoroughly coat all the bees. The goal is not to prevent all flight, as that is impossible, but to significantly reduce it.

STEP 3: When you are ready to install the package, first knock the package against the ground so that the majority of the bees fall to the bottom of the package. Then remove the wooden lid, the metal feeding can, and the queen cage, and lightly spray the bees again with sugar solution. It is not uncommon for bees to build white comb around the feeding can while they are in transit so it may be difficult to remove. Rotating the can back and forth while pulling it out of the package can help. Once the can and queen are removed, place the wooden lid back over the opening so the bees do not fly away.

STEP 4: Remove the queen cage from the package and check that the queen is alive. The most common queen cage is a three-hole Benton cage that houses the queen along with 2-3

Photo 3. At the end of each cage is a small entrance filled with a cork and candy, which is eaten by the workers to make a hole large enough so the queen can exit the cage within 2 days of cork removal.

attendants that groom and feed her (photo 3). The queen can easily be identified in the cage because of her large abdomen and queens often come with a bright marking on their thorax. If you notice that the queen is not alive, contact the producer or beekeeper from whom you purchased the package. Each end of the cage is plugged with cork and one side contains hard candy (photo 3) which serves as a slow release mechanism; the workers will eat through this candy, releasing the queen slowly over a period of 2-3 days. Temperature fluctuations and handling during transit can lead to high-stress levels experienced by the bees, so it is best to allow the bees a few days to settle in and accept the new queen.

STEP 5: Upon removing the queen cage from the package, place her to the side or in a pocket to keep her safe and warm until you are ready to install her. When installing the queen cage, remove the cork from the “candy end” of the cage and, with a small nail or wire, puncture the candy. The workers are able to chew through the candy and hasten the release of the queen (photo 4).

STEP 6: Remove 3-5 frames in the middle of the hive and vigorously shake the bees from the package into the allotted space from the removed frames (photo 5). Gently spread the bees with the hive tool and replace the frames. If the frames are drawn out, the queen can be placed between the two middle frames as close to the center of the colony as possible (photo 6). Drawn out comb serves as a holder for the queen cage and prevents the queen cage from falling to the bottom of the hive which can cause queen mortality. If your frames are not drawn out, place the queen centered on top of the middle frames with the screen facing downward (photo 7).

STEP 6 (alternative): An alternative method does not require the removal of frames. First install the queen, as described above (step 6), and then shake the bees from the package directly on top of the frames (photo 8). Immediately cover the bees with newspaper and add a hive body or a 1-2 inch spacer over top to prevent squashing or damaging the bees (photo 9). You may have to wait a few minutes before placing a feeder overtop the bees.

Photos 4, 5, 6. Puncture the hard candy of the queen cage with a nail (4). Vigorously shake the bees from the package into the allotted space from the removed frames (5). The queen cage is vertical and the screen is not facing a frame, allows the queen to remain accessible to workers to feed her and for ventilation (6).

Photos 7, 8, 9. Place the queen cage atop the two middle frames, screen downward facing (7). The bees are shaken over top of the queen and the frames (8). After the package is mostly emptied, place 1 sheet of newspaper over top of the bees and place a hive body or a 1-2 inch spacer over top to prevent squashing or damaging the queen and the bees (9).

STEP 7: Feeding a new colony is essential, especially when the weather does not permit foraging. Frames of honey can be provided to the recently installed colony however, if you do not have honey, an easy alternative is to provide a 50% sugar solution. There are multiple feeder types, but the most common are quail feeders or 1-gallon bags (photo 10 & 11). If you are using a bag, fill it with the sugar solution, puncture the bag with 5-10 holes using a nail or wire, gently press the bag until the air bubbles are removed, and let the solution slowly start dripping from the bag. Other types of feeders (not discussed here) include mason jars, entrance feeders, hive top feeders, and division boards.

STEP 8: After the package is mostly emptied and the feeder is in place, add a hive body or a 1-2 inch spacer over top (photo 12) and fill empty space in the extra hive body with newspaper to prevent the bees from building comb. Continue to feed the colony until the bees begin to forage. Once you are finished feeding, remove all empty spacers or hive bodies to prevent the bees from building comb where there are no frames.

Photos 10, 11, 12. A quail feeder provides an edge on which the bees can land to collect feed while not drowning (photo 10). A gallon-bag will also work. After filling the bag, puncture it with 5-10 holes with a nail or wire (photo 11). Place a hive body or a 1-2 inch spacer above the box and fill the empty space with newspaper to prevent the bees from building comb. Remove the hive body or spacer when the bees begin foraging (photo 12).

NOTE: Colonies should be left alone for the next 2-3 days, after which you should double check that the queen has been released. If she is still in her cage, it is best to gently remove the mesh and manually release her into the hive. BE CAREFUL upon releasing the queen because she can fly away. Queens that have yet to lay are lighter and can easily fly. Be sure to keep the cage in contact with the frames at all times, so the queen can walk out of the cage and into the hive on her own. Approximately one week after the queen is released, there should be evidence of a prolific queen. If not, the queen may have been rejected and another queen should be ordered. For more information on package installation and beekeeping, attend your local beekeeping club meeting or contact your state apiarist. The best time to order packages is during the early winter.

References

Martin, E. C, E. Oertel, N. P. Nye, and others (1980). Beekeeping in the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture, http://www.thebeeyard.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Beekeeping.in_.the_.United.States.pdf

Evans, Kathleen. “Installing Packaged Bees.” YouTube, uploaded by Penn State Extension, 29 March 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lt7BWoITbw&feature=youtu.be

Tucker K. Queens, Package Bees, and Nuclei: Production and Demand (1980). https://beesource.com/resources/usda/queens-package-bees-and-nuclei-production-and-demand/

Post contributed by

Kathleen Ciola Evans

Research Technologist 

Photos by Kathleen Ciola Evans & Nick Sloff