Installing Package Bees

Installing Package Bees in a New Hive

If you’ve never installed a package of bees in a hive before then it’s useful to become familiar with the methods available to you before the arrival of your new family of bees. Installation is quick and easy, but different beekeepers have slightly different ways of doing this. I thought I’d take a look at the options available to find out the best method for installing a package of bees.

So how do you install a package of bees? Choose a day with good weather and wait until early evening. After opening the package to remove the feeding can and queen cage, place the package to one side of the brood box, and the queen cage near the center between two frames. Add food for the bees and close up the hive. Return to the hive after three or four days to remove the package and check the queen has been released.

Wherever you get your bees from, they will probably be stressed after their trip, so you want to get them into their new hive as soon as possible. It’s a good idea to revise the procedure for installing your package bees so that you’re familiar with all the steps before your bees arrive. Below I’ve put together a step by step procedure and an equipment checklist for installing bees with ease! (yeah… I know, that rhymes!).

What are package bees?

There are a few different ways to obtain new bees for your hive but package bees are probably the most popular method. Almost all beginners start this way. Package bees are ventilated containers which hold mostly worker honey bees, plus a queen.

The queen is separated from the worker bees inside a queen cage. This is because the bees usually come from a colony which is familiar with the odor of another queen. The bees need to become accustomed to the queen pheromone of their new queen before they can cohabitate.

Packages also have a tin can suspended inside with sugar syrup for feeding the bees. The can has a few holes in the base so the bees can get to the syrup. The queen has her own food inside the queen cage in the form of some sugar candy, because the worker bees won’t yet be motivated to feed her.

package bees

Traditional packages are boxes made out of wood with mesh screens on two sides. The queen cage and tin of syrup are suspended in the middle, and covered over with a piece of plywood or thick card which is easily removed for extracting the bees. Occasionally packages are made entirely out of plastic.

How many bees come in a package? A typical package of bees contains 3 pounds (1.4 Kg) of bees, which is the equivalent of about 10,000 honey bees.

Where to buy package bees

Sometimes you may be lucky enough to live near a local supplier who will provide you with bees. You simply arrange a date with them and collect the package on the assigned day. Being local obviously has the advantage of limiting transport time so you get home quicker and put less stress on the bees.

The second option, and the most commonplace, is to place a mail order. There are a number of package suppliers in the US and around the world. Most of them are located in warmer climates where bee populations can thrive for longer periods of the year.

Whichever method you use for obtaining your package, make sure you place your order in advance. It’s a good idea to get your order in early because availability can sometimes be limited. A popular time to do this is around the end of november. Reserving your package will ensure that you get your bees at the start of the year.

Don’t be surprised if your package contains a few dead bees. This is normal, especially with mail delivery and the stress of transport. But if you have more than 1/2 “ (1cm) of dead bees, contact the supplier.

​When to install package bees

You want your colony to arrive when the first trees and early springtime flowers are about to bloom. Typically this is around April or May. When you order by mail, be sure to ask the supplier to arrange for the bees to arrive on a weekday. Avoid weekend arrivals because postal services might leave the package lying around for a day or two, and if the package gets placed in an location that’s too hot or too cold, you could end up with a box of dead bees!

Get the supplier to write your contact details and phone number on the box, and if possible, avert the post office, asking them to contact you as soon as your delivery arrives. Most post offices are glad to help. Retrieve your bees and get them home as soon as possible.

You also need the weather conditions to be suitable on the day you install the bees. If the weather is bad, with heavy rain, then you can wait a day or two. Similarly if the temperature is too cold it’s best to wait. At temperatures of 40°F (5° C) bees don’t like to fly and rarely leave their hive.

If needed, store the package in a cool, dark, draft-free location (your garage or basement is fine). Make sure the bees have food. Test the weight of the feeding can to make sure it isn’t empty. You can also spray the bees with a solution of sugar water. Do this a couple of times a day while in storage. Don’t soak the bees with the sugar water, just moisten them. They’ll get too cold otherwise.

The ideal time of day to install package bees is late in the afternoon or early in the evening, before sunset. At this time of day bees always return to their hive to settle for the night, so they will tend to be calmer.

Feed your Bees

You should feed your bees throughout the process of installation. Do this during transport, after delivery, and when they’re newly installed in the hive.

Feeding your bees at all stages is essential, from the moment you get your bees, to the moment you leave them in their new home. You can spray your bees with sugar water as soon as you pick them up and on your journey back. Use a solution which is one third sugar to two thirds water.

If you have to store them before releasing into the beehive, then make sure they have enough food. It’s an easy mistake to check on your package last thing, only to find them dead in the morning. Don’t be that beekeeper!

Once the bees are installed they need to be fed both sugar syrup for energy and a protein supplement. Bees normally get their protein from pollen, but in the early days the colony needs a boost. The pollen supplement will help stimulate brood production and get your colony growing. You can add a pollen substitute in the form of easy to use pollen patties ​like these. Just be sure to check these from time to time because small hive beetles also love this stuff! Sugar syrup can be given with a simple hive top feeder with ​mason jars. This sites on top of the inner cover.

hive top sugar syrup feeder

Checklist of equipment for installing bees

Having everything you need to hand will help you achieve a hassle free installation. This list isn’t exhaustive, and if you can think of anything else you might need then by all means take it with you! It’s better to have too much stuff than having to run back and forth searching for bits of equipment.

You should of course have your hives setup on their stands with all the different parts of the beehive ready for action!

  • ​A smoker with fuel and matches (You probably won’t actually need this but better to be safe than sorry. Light it before you set off to the hive).
  • ​A spray bottle full of sugar water (make sure you use a new one, and not something which risks being contaminated with anything toxic for bees).
  • ​Your bee suit, veil, and gloves. (This depends on your level of comfort around bees, but remember these bees are unfamiliar to you and probably grumpy and stressed!).
  • Two hive tools (you never know).
  • ​Hive top feeder with extra empty boxes to cover them plus jars of sugar syrup.
  • ​Pollen supplement to leave inside or near the hive.
  • ​A bee brush
  • ​Pliers
  • ​Duct tape, push pins, rubber bands, small nails and a hammer. (All useful for helping to fix things in place such as the queen cage).
  • ​A couple of marshmallows (no they’re not for you!)
  • ​Your beekeeping log book or notebook (you are going to keep good records aren’t you!?)
  • ​Don’t forget a brick or heavy weight to hold down the hive cover.
  • ​And don’t forget your bees!

How do you release package bees?

When you’ve got your new colony safely home and the weather conditions are right you can release the bees from their cage and put them in their new hive. I’ve seen beekeepers use a few different methods for this, but below is the best technique I’ve witnessed.

Traditional methods tell you to “pour” the bees into the hive brood box. It’s almost like pouring loose dirt from a container! The downside of this process is that you can end up with a lot of bees flying. And the act of being dumped into the brood box doesn’t always put bees in the best of moods! I’ve seen beekeepers get stung doing this!

With the following approach the bees are less disturbed and remain calm.

  • ​Begin by setting up your hives and gathering all your equipment. Place the package on a solid surface while you work. On top of the brood box is fine.
  • ​Position yourself behind the hive to work. This is the normal place to work your hives. Like this you’re out of the way of the entrance if some bees start coming and going.
  • ​You’re going to install the bees into the brood box. Remove five frames from one side of the box. This leaves just enough space to insert the package into the brood chamber.
  • ​Using your hive tool and pliers remove the protective sheet covering the feeding can of the package.

Next you’re going to remove the feed can and the queen cage from inside the package. The queen cage is usually attached with a metal strap of some kind. Both the feed can and queen cage will lift out, but first you need to dislodge the bees that are clinging to them!

  • ​Lift the package up by about a foot (30 cm), then let drop it onto the top of the brood box with a thump! Don’t worry! You’re bees are busy licking sugar off each other so they shouldn’t mind.
  • ​With most of the bees now at the bottom of the package you can remove the feed can and place it to one side. Don’t worry if there are still a few bees on it.
  • ​Now remove the queen cage and brush off any remaining bees. Check the queen to make sure she’s alive and kicking! Now put her in your pocket to keep her warm.
wooden type queen cage

At this stage a few bees will start flying out of the package. Stay calm. Most of them will find their way back when you’re finished.

  • ​Lower the whole package into the brood box in the space you created by removing the frames.
  • ​Take out the queen cage and verify that there is still some sugar candy blocking the entrance to the cage. If there isn’t much left then put a piece of marshmallow into the whole. Ok... Now you can eat the rest of the marshmallow!
  • ​Next, wedge the queen cage between two frames near the center of the brood box. Don’t put her exactly under the hole in the inner cover! If the feeder leaks syrup then she might drown. Use push pins, rubber bands, small nails or whatever you can to fix the cage in place. Make sure the worker bees can easily access the queen through the screen.
  • ​Put a pollen patty directly on top of the frames, but not directly in the center.
  • ​Place the inner cover over the brood box. Then fit the hive top feeder with jars of sugar syrup over the center of the inner cover. Surround the feeder with an empty hive box tall enough to cover the feeder.
  • ​Place the feed can from the package next to the syrup feeder. Any bees left clinging to it will find

Now leave them alone for up to three days! It’s tempting to return to the hive to visit your bees but you really should leave them in peace. Over the next few days if all goes well the bees will leave the package to cluster around the queen. When she’s accepted the bees will feed and care for her through the screen of the cage, and slowly release her by eating away the marshmallow entrance plug.

Uniting the queen with a package of bees

When you install a package it’s recommended to wait a few days before the queen is united with the colony. There are a few good reasons for this.

The queen in her cage is completely unrelated from the bees in the package. She was raised separately and your bees need time to accept her as their own. If you got your package in the mail then you don’t know for sure how long the queen and bees have been together. It’s even possible that the worker bees have already accepted her.

But the last few days have been a bit stressful. On top of this you are putting them in a new hive and expecting them to accept it as their new home. A new hive with empty frames is not the most inviting place for honey bees. If you release the queen too soon, there’s a good possibility that the colony will simply leave (known as absconding).

Think of it from the bee’s point of view… They’ve been crammed in a small box with a strange queen, trawled halfway across the country, and finally thrown into an unfamiliar hive!

By limiting the amount of disruption to your bees and confining the queen inside the hive you increase the chances that the colony will stay in place. Unfortunately queens sometimes aren’t accepted and you need to be prepared to replace her.

On the fourth day you can return to the hive and check that the queen has been released. If she hasn’t then you can free her yourself. Remove the package box from inside the brood box and replace the frames. Make sure the bees have sufficient food. You’ll need to continue feeding them a few weeks.

Close up the hive, and breathe a sigh of relief!

Title image credit ​Joe DeLuca. Some rights reserved

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