Guest Article by Ruth O’Neill:
Installing a new bee package is not difficult, if you rehearse the steps needed and round up all of your equipment ahead of time. You should plan to introduce your bees to the hive on the day your package arrives, if possible. Don’t worry too much about cool weather or even a little wind. The best place for the bees is inside their new hive box, and since they will not have brood to keep warm they can easily cluster together for warmth.
Set up your hive ahead of time
Set up your hive components before your bees arrive. The components you will need are minimal: a hive stand of some kind, a solid bottom board, one deep super, an entrance reducer, and the inner and outer covers. You do not need hive insulation.
Gather the equipment you will need for installation
- Veil and gloves: Package bees are not aggressive, but you could still get stung.
- Hive tool
- Sprayer with sugar syrup (optional)
- A jack knife or nail
- A gallon of sugar syrup (1:1 by volume)
- A few mini-marshmallows
- A few large, sturdy rubber bands that will fit around the width of a frame
- Please note, you should NOT use a smoker
Installing a New Bee Package
Your bees will come in a screened crate that contains about 12,000 worker bees (for a typical 3-lb package) and a mated queen in a cage suspended from the top of the crate. The queen cage may be plastic or wood, and may have a candy plug or a cork covering the queen’s exit hole. More about that below.
Some beekeepers elect to spray sugar water (1 sugar to two parts water) lightly onto the screened sides of the crate just before installing the bees. If you are installing the bees on the day you receive them, this is not really necessary. But if you decide to hold the bees in the crate for a day or so, lightly spray the screening on one side of the crate about three times a day. Don’t spray syrup on or near the queen cage. The workers will feed the queen as needed.
Follow these easy steps to introduce the bees to the hive box
1) Prepare the hive box:
- Pull the outer and inner covers off, and pull several frames out of the middle to make an opening.
- If you are using a division board feeder, that should be put in place now if you haven’t done so earlier, and filled with syrup.
2) Open the crate:
- Put on your veil and gloves.
- This step is optional, but many beekeepers lightly spray one side of the crate at this point.
- Using your hive tool, pry up the plywood piece that is covering the hole in the top of the crate, if there is one. The bees still can’t get out because the syrup can is occupying the hole, but they will be clustered at the top around the queen cage and the syrup can. So before prying out the syrup can, rap the crate on your work surface a few times to knock the bees down to the bottom.
- Pry the syrup can up with the hive tool, and slide it out. It can be discarded.
3) Check the queen:
- The strap that is suspending the queen cage can now be pulled from its slot. When the queen cage is out, re-cover the hole to keep workers in the crate. Look at the queen and make sure she is moving around and looks okay. (Murdoch’s requires inspection before leaving the store with your bees, but this may vary by supplier.) She might have a few worker bees inside the cage with her, as attendants.
- Set the queen cage aside (not on top of the metal outer cover, which may be hot)
4) Put the workers in the hive:
- Flip the box over and shake the workers into the hive box. You can smack the sides of the crate to help free bees that are clinging to the crate. Upon exiting the crate, some of the bees will fall directly into the opening you made by pulling frames out; others will land on top of the remaining frames. These bees will begin filtering down between the frames and into the hive interior on their own.
- It’s okay to leave a few bees inside the crate – just set the crate on its side on the ground with the opening next to the hive entrance, and most of them will find their way out of the crate and into the new hive on their own.
5) Put the queen in the hive, via delayed release or direct release:
- Delayed release is the more cautious of the two methods because it involves keeping the queen locked up and protected in her cage for two or three days after the workers are installed. The delay is intended to allow the workers and the queen, who were just thrown together a few days earlier, extra time to get acquainted and thus reduce the chance of worker aggression.
- Check if there is a candy plug on the queen cage, or if it’s just a cork plug. If it is a candy plug, the bees will chew through the plug in a few days and release the queen on their own. Sometimes there is a cork covering the candy plug, and you will need to remove that. If there is only a cork plug (no candy), pry it out with a jack knife and stuff a mini-marshmallow into the opening, which will do the same thing as the candy plug. Or, you can leave the cork plug in place and plan to remove it later, when you check the hive in a few days.
- Put a big rubber band around a frame (one of the frames you removed earlier) and slip the queen cage underneath to secure it, positioning the cage a few inches down on the foundation face. Make sure the screen faces away from the foundation so the queen can be cared for and can communicate with her workers.
- Gently put the missing frames back in, letting them drop into place on their own because initially they will be resting on the bees still piled up in the bottom of the hive box, and they will need a little time to move out of the way.
- It’s important to leave a gap in the frames where the queen cage is located, so the screen side is accessible to the workers. There is a little extra room in the hive box for pushing the frames out to the sides.
- Return in two days. Open the hive (with light smoke this time), and pull the queen cage out. If the queen isn’t out yet, release her manually by holding her cage over the frames and picking the plug out with a jack knife, or by prying the screen off. She’ll join her workers promptly – it’s very unusual for the queen to fly off at this point. Then push all of the frames snugly together. The workers may have already begun to fill the gap between the frames with comb, but this can be cleaned out with the hive tool if needed.
- Direct release is by far the easiest method. There are seldom problems with aggression toward the queen from the workers. One advantage to direct release is that you don’t need to open the hive to check on the queen two days later, as you do with the delayed release method.
- To use the direct release method, put the workers in the hive body as described above. Then, before putting the frames back in, open the queen’s cage while holding it just above the gap in the frames. You can open the cage easily by prying up the staples holding the screen on, while temporarily holding the screen in place with your fingers.
- When you’re ready, lower the cage right next to the foundation of one of the frames about midway down, and then release the screen and let the queen grab onto the foundation. As soon as she grabs on, you can gently pull the cage away from her. Quickly insert the rest of the frames as described above, and then close the hive up.
6) Feed the hive with sugar syrup:
- If you are using a hive-top feeder, place that over the hive box. At this point the workers and their queen are all securely enclosed in the hive, with some activity around the entrance including a lot of happy wing-fanning on the landing board. Put an empty super around the feeder to enclose it. Fill the feeder to about 1-inch with sugar syrup, and then place the inner and outer covers on top of the hive, and you’re done.
Written by Ruth O’Neill. Ruth is a Research Associate in the Wanner Extension Entomology Lab at Montana State University, who cooperates on a variety of projects related to insect pests of crops. She has experience as a hobbyist beekeeper, and has a special interest in honey bee health and protection.