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Plain Talk Beekeeping

Plain Talk Beekeeping March 2024 – Problem Bee Packages – Sometimes things just don’t go right

- March 1, 2024 - excerpt by James E Tew

When paJames Tew photockage installation goes correctly
Last month, I discussed some topics relating to hauling honey bee packages from the producer to the customer. The package bees have already been through an ordeal by the time the beekeeper acquires them. After the point of transfer from producer to customer, a second bevy of problems and challenges may begin to present themselves.

The package release procedure
The procedure for installing packages is deceptively simple. Spray the packages with thin sugar syrup every few hours. Have your empty hive equipment ready. Remove the center four frames and then remove the top cover from the package. Bounce the bees down within the cage. Deftly remove the feeder can, remove the queen cage, and then temporarily lay the package cover back on the cage. (This quick move is to prevent too many bees from leaving the package too soon.)

Determine that the queen is alive, and then, by removing the cork, expose the candy plug on the queen cage. (Note: Your package may have a plastic queen cage. The instructions for release are similar). Then suspend the queen cage within the colony. (How you suspend the cage is essentially your decision. Use a thumbtack or modify a paperclip. There is no standard way to suspend the queen cage.)

Turn your attention back to the package cage. Give the package a second bump and then pour the bees into the hive space left by removing the four frames. At this point, bees are flying everywhere — but most are in a heap within your brood chamber. Gently replace about three of the frames. Note that the queen cage within the hive will probably require temporarily leaving one frame out. Shake the few remaining bees in front of the colony and watch for them to begin scenting — an indication that they have recognized the colony entrance. Get the empty package away from the colony. It is attractive to disoriented flying bees.

Put a feeder on the new colony and close it up. It will probably be a good idea to reduce the entrance down to about one inch. At this point, don’t do anything for a couple of days except refill the sugar feeder, if needed. About 3-7 days later, quickly open the colony and release the queen if she is not already out. After releasing the queen, don’t do anything for a week or so — except fill the feeder. Be patient.

There is one variation that you might want to consider. Rather than pouring the bees from the cage, you can just set the open package can in the open space within the hive. The bees should slowly move out of the cage; however, sometimes they don’t readily leave. A couple of days later, you can then remove the cage before burr combs are produced in the empty space around the package. Either release way, pour or slow, it’s not difficult. The main thing is to just get the bees and the queen out of the package one way or the other.

My intent here is not to go into specific detail about how to release packages. Articles and videos abound. What I want to discuss in this piece are some of the common things that can blow up, before, during, and after the package bee release procedure. Things that can go wrong with package installation can be put into two categories — little wrongs and big wrongs. Secondly, you get run into problems at three stages — before installation, during installation, and after installation.


Something goes wrong before installation
The package doesn’t arrive. It was never shipped. Candidly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get packages shipped by any method. There’s no denying it — packages of bees in transit require special handling. A wet spring with constant rain can cause absolute havoc with shaking and shipping schedules. In fact, just a few years ago, heavy rains during the spring season very nearly caused the cancellation of some orders by frustrated producers. Very rarely, sometimes packages are not shipped due to unintentional overbooking of orders. Again, I need to say that this cause for your packages not arriving is rare. If you’re a new beekeeper, ask around for recommendations before selecting a producer.

The package of bees is dead. A basic thing that can go wrong before installation is for your package to be dead upon arrival. It happens. The package gets too hot (or rarely too cold) or it suffocates. Either way it’s a sorry mess. You should realize immediately that a major factor is now irreversible — your timing. Even if you get the package replaced—and you usually can—it will take time to get another shipped to you. The spring season ticks on. This is one reason for ordering your packages as early as possible.

They’re here — but they’re half dead (or half alive). A layer of dead bees up to about ¾” is okay — not great, but okay. All reputable producers put a few more bees in than necessary to offset a few bees dying on the difficult trip. However, if half or more of the bees are dead, give the producer a call. Their responses may vary, but they will always be concerned.

In these damaged packages, if the queen is alive, introduce the weakened package as usual. Don’t put too many dead bees in the new hive. It just makes work for house-cleaning bees. If you have other colonies, or a beekeeper friend, beg a frame having a small patch of capped brood on both sides. This would probably be more helpful than adding adult bees.


They’re here but it’s cold and raining. Getting the bees out of the package as quickly as possible is always a good idea — but sometimes the weather (or maybe your work schedule) just won’t cooperate. Mix up a solution of thin sugar syrup and spray the mixture on the sides of the cage.

Store them in a dark room that is around 50-55°F or so. Obviously, a dark, cool basement is a good option. Spray the packages several times per day and then leave them alone. If you must hold the bee packages longer than three days, lay the package on its side and put a feeder directly on the screen. You must assume that the shipping feeder can is nearing empty.

As a passing note, when you install bees that have been confined for that long, be prepared for yellow rain upon their release. You may want to move your car from the area.

 Something goes wrong during installation
They didn’t stay where I put them. Dave H., the former apiarist at the Ohio State Wooster Bee Lab, has frequently told the story of his very first package installation. He went out just after lunch — having absolutely no experience — and positioned the queen within the awaiting empty brood chamber. He shook the bees out. He said the bees came back out of the box as …