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When we first decided to venture into beekeeping, one of the considerations was where would we source our bees?  The two most common, and economical choices, are either to catch a swarm, or to purchase bees in a ‘package’ from a commercial apiary. Not sure if we’d be able to source a swarm this spring, this winter we pre-ordered two packages of bees as part of a large group order through a local beekeeper’s guild.

Packages of honey bees ready for pickup

We didn’t expect we’d have bees until our packages arrived.  Doing things a little backwards we managed to catch a large swarm at the end of March, and a smaller afterswarm from the same colony in mid-April.  Our package bees were delayed by a few weeks because the weather was so bad in March in California, that Queen breeding schedules at the apiary were delayed.  On Thursday afternoon though our package bees finally arrived.

As this was part of a much larger group order, one member from the guild rented a truck and collected the packages from the apiary, and brought them to a nearby location for pickup.

Bees tend to attract other bees, so before putting the package in the car, the loose bees were brushed off the outside

In the early evening on Thursday we collected two packages of Italian bees, each containing 3lbs of worker bees and a Queen, and placed them in the car to bring them home.

Roughly 10,000 extra passengers were riding in this package in the car...the other 10,000 were behind my seat

We don’t usually transport 20,000 Italians in the back seat of our car, but the package containers were secure, and fortunately these passengers were well behaved.

Unlike a swarm, these bees were not known to each other.  Apiaries breed multiple new Queens in the spring, and the workers that are bundled in the packages are usually retired field workers that were used for commercial pollination of spring crops, not progeny of the Queen they are packaged with.  The worker bees were placed in these packages in the early afternoon, and a new Queen, in a protective Queen cage, was placed into each package.  It takes time though for everyone to be introduced.

The packages of bees arrived at Curbstone Valley in the early evening, and were set on the workshop bench

If you order package bees, it’s always a good idea to ask how long ago the package was put together. In our case the bees had only been in the package for a few hours, and were not yet accepting of their new Queen, so it was imperative not to hive our packages too soon, or risk the worker bees absconding from the hive, and abandoning the Queen. 

We left them in the workshop, where it’s dry and out of drafts. The bees had plenty of food available in the central syrup container in the package to last a couple of days before being hived.

The can in the enter of the package contains enough syrup for the bees for a few days. The metal tab to the left is suspending the caged Queen in the center of the container

Late on Saturday afternoon, as the temperature outside was cooling, we collected all of the equipment necessary to house these two packages.  In addition to the hive equipment we gathered some basic tools:

– A pocket multi-tool with flat-head screwdriver and pliers
– A dish towel
– A small saucer
– Mini-marshmallows
– Bee brush

The lower hive body was set on the stand, and half of the frames were removed to make room for the bees.

By removing a few frames, you ensure the bees don't slide off the frames onto the ground during installation

We first carefully, and slowly, pried the can of syrup up out of the top of the package, and immediately covered the resulting hole in the box with a dish towel to keep the majority of the bees inside the package.  We then straightened the tab holding the Queen cage, and carefully removed the cage from the package.  We re-covered the hole in the package, and secured it with the saucer over the hole so we could work with the Queen with minimal interference from the worker bees. 

The Queen cage was removed, and the few attached worker bees brushed from the cage

There are various styles and configurations of Queen cages, and it’s important to know which type of cage you have before proceeding.  When we collected the packages we were advised that there was only a solitary cork over the opening in the Queen cage.  Pull the cork, you release the Queen.  Some Queen cages have a cork, and either a candy plug underneath, or a second hole in the cage plugged with candy.  What you don’t want to do is pull the cork, have the entrance wide open, and accidentally release your Queen.  Either your Queen will take off, or the workers may commit treason, and kill the Queen if she’s released too early.

Queen cage with marshmallow candy 'cork' installed

Mr. Curbstone had to quickly remove the cork, and immediately…no I mean instantaneously cover the exit hole with his thumb.  Queens are lightning fast, and you need to be even faster plugging that hole.  Rule number one of hiving a package…DON’T LOSE THE QUEEN!  Rule number two, be brave and DON’T WEAR GLOVES WHEN WORKING WITH QUEENS!  Really, you can’t feel a darn thing, and are more likely to damage or crush the Queen. 

With a thumb firmly blocking the exit, you grab your trusty mini-marshmallow and stuff it into the hole.  As much as I abhor the notion of feeding anything containing corn-syrup to bees, and these days marshmallows are almost pure corn syrup (unless you make your own), it really is an excellent candy cork substitute.   

Over the period of a few days the workers will slowly consume this junk food marshmallow, and release the Queen themselves.  This provides a few extra days for the colony of workers to accept their new Monarch before she is released.

The Queen (Rosemary Hive) in her Queen cage

Once the hole in the Queen cage was plugged with the marshmallow it was time to install the Queen.  In this case we simply hung the Queen cage from the top bar of a frame and used the adjacent frame to wedge the cage in position.  Two things however are important when installing the Queen.

The first is to never position the mesh on the Queen cage up against foundation.  It’s imperative that the worker bees have access to the Queen to feed her through the screen.

The bees must be able to reach the Queen. Face the mesh toward the end of the hive body, not toward the foundation

Second, if there are attendant bees inside the Queen cage with her, the candy cork should be positioned facing UP, not down.  If the cork faces down, there’s a risk that the Queen can become trapped in the cage if one or more attendants die, and fall to the bottom blocking the exit.  Facing the exit upwards means the exit can’t be blocked, and as soon as the candy is consumed, she will be free to enter the hive.

With the Queen in position it was time to install the workers.  The package box was tapped once on the ground to cluster the bees at the bottom, then turned over the hive body, and a few gentle shakes emptied most of the bees into the hive body.

With the Queen cage secured, the bees in the package are gently shaken into the hive body

The package was then positioned in front of the hive and the remaining bees slowly found their way to the hive entrance.

We covered the hive body for a few minutes with the manipulation cloth to allow the bees to calm down.  Once they’d settled down a little we then replaced the remaining frames into the hive body, and installed the feeder to ensure they have a nectar source while they’re drawing the new comb on the frames.

Once installed, we cover the hive bodies for a few minutes with a manipulation cloth while the bees settle down

We installed the second package the same as the first.  The advantage of hiving the bees late in the day is that the bees have a natural inclination to hunker down at the end of the day, and stay closer to home, decreasing the likelihood of them absconding.  Remember, they likely still have minimal allegiance to their new Queen. 

The first package was installed in the Rosemary Hive.  This hive from the outset behaved much more like the swarm colony in that they began to take orientation flights almost immediately, some workers were fanning at the entrance to signal the Queen was in residence, and the straggler bees had no difficulty finding the hive.  These bees immediately began to consume syrup. 

Activity in the Rosemary Hive was as expected

The second package, installed in the Chamomile Hive, was behaving a little differently.  There was little to no activity at the hive entrance after installing the bees, no fanning bees, no coming and going through the entrance.  The next morning we noticed that a small cluster of bees had remained at the top of the open package outside the entrance overnight.  The bees also didn’t seem to be consuming much, if any, syrup.  It’s possible this is just a variation of normal (having never installed packages before), and we expect that the bees in the Chamomile Hive may not yet be as accepting of their new Queen.  By this morning however, the activity at the entrance of the Chamomile Hive seems more normal, and they’re now starting to consume syrup, and workers are heading into the field to forage.

This worker was caught outside overnight amidst the thyme flowers. She took off once the sun warmed her up

The next step will be to re-enter both hives in a few days to make sure the Queen has been safely removed from the Queen cage.  If she has not, providing the bees seem to have accepted her, we can release her manually, but if there’s any doubt as to her acceptance by the colony, it’s best to leave her for a couple more days.

We now have four colonies of bees on the hive stand, Salvia, Rosemary, Chamomile, and the Nuc hive (soon to be the Lavender Hive)

As you can probably already tell, hiving a swarm seemed much more straightforward, with considerably less risk of things going awry.  Overall though it went well, the Queens didn’t escape, and the bees seem to be settling in just fine.