Package Bees & Getting Started Beekeeping

One of the most common first-time beekeeper questions we hear at BEEcosystem is:

“How do I get started beekeeping?”

This is a general question, but one that requires a decent amount of explanation — this article is to provide the bare basics. There are A LOT of different ways to get started beekeeping — including nucleus (or “nuc”) hives, inheriting an already established colony, luring or capturing a wild/feral swarm — however, here we are going to focus exclusively on the most typical way that our customers start their first BEEcosystem hive:package bees.

Package bees are bred in California and the southern United States for shipping throughout the country (via the USPS mail!) — especially for beekeepers farther north who are looking to establish new colonies in the springtime. The most typical packages are sold as a “3-pound package,” which will contain ~10,000 worker bees and ONE newly-mated queen.(Packages without queens can also be ordered, which are instead used to strengthen existing weaker colonies whose numbers have dwindled dangerously low over the winter.) Package bees should always be ordered during the winter, usually by February at the latest, so that they are delivered in the spring, typically in April.

If you are starting your package bees in a new BEEcosystem observation hive, your bees won’t have any wax comb built up yet on the top bar frames— this means that they need to get a strong start in their new hive, because it takes a lot of calories and energy for bees to produce beeswax. Try to start your package bees end-of-April or beginning-of-May: really, whenever the flowers are starting to come into full bloom in your area.You should also feed your bees sugar solution right away, giving them extra ‘freebie’ calories to get going in the springtime and starting to build their wax comb as quickly as possible. (Mix 2 parts granulated table sugar with 1 part hot water; shake vigorously until all sugar is dissolved; let sugar solution cool to ambient air temperature before feeding to your colony.)

Standard 3-pound package; open source image provided by Wikimedia Common

Standard 3-pound package; open source image provided by Wikimedia Common

Package bees ship through the US mail inside roughly shoebox-sized wooden cages, where the long sides of the cage are screened-in to provide the bees with plenty of ventilation. The queen bee is kept in a separate internal “queen cage,” usually along with two or three “attendant” workers, with their cage secured to the top of the inside of the package, and the rest of the ~10,000 workers clustering around it. A simple sugar solution feeder is also included in the package, which consists of a metal can with a few holes poked in the bottom — this feeder also serves as the ‘door’ to open the package of bees.

It is usually best to install package bees into the hive as soon as possible, ideally within 48 hours, and in the late afternoon or early evening when bees are least interested in flying. Package bees that are well fed, and have been cooled slightly (50–60°F ~ 10–15°C) in a dry, dark place are the most well-behaved during their installation into their new hive. Do not store package bees at temperatures above 80°F (26°C), and avoid direct sunlight if at all possible.

Here’s 10 step-by-step instructions on how to open your package bees and install them inside your hive:

*Unless you’re a very experienced beekeeper, you probably want to wear some protective gear for this; while an entire beekeeping suit is not necessarily required, it’s a good idea to use rubber bands or velcro straps to securely close long sleeves around your wrists and long pants tightly around your ankles. A beekeeping face veil is a very comforting, borderline essential, piece of protective equipment — stings aren’t usually bad, but getting a sting in the face can ruin your next 24 hours. Gloves can be bulky and cumbersome, but if you are worried about the possibility of being stung, they can be useful — at BEEcosystem, we don’t ever wear gloves, because we feel the beekeeper loses too much finger dexterity. If your gloves are bulky, and you accidentally kill a bee, the dead bee often releases a pheromone that encourages other bees to lookout, which makes them become more defensive and generally upset. While not 100% sting-proof, latex gloves can be a nice compromise, since they preserve a good amount of finger dexterity (to avoid accidentally crushing any bees), and they also provide a first line of defense against stings.*

  1. Before opening the package, spray the bees down a bit with ambient temperature 50% sugar solution from a spray bottle, spraying directly through the screened sides. (This keeps them distracted when you open up the package, and focused on eating instead of flying!)
  2. Have your hive open and ready to receive the bees — if you’re using a BEEcosystem observation hive, you will have the back panel hinged wide open, and your top bars already arranged in their places; if you’re using a Langstroth, Warre, or regular Top Bar hive, you will usually have the entrance to the hive at least partially plugged/closed with grass clippings or straw, and some frames removed to provide space for the bees to go in. (The reduction in entrance size during installation is to prevent bees from leaving the hive immediately, giving them enough time to get acclimated and realize they have just been gifted a lovely new home.)
  3. Remove the feeder can — usually a piece of wood will be stapled over it on the top of the package — use a hive tool or flathead screwdriver to pry the wood off, and then pry the edge of the sugar feeder until you can carefully lift the feeder through the top of the package. (It helps to firmly knock one corner of the package against the ground first, knocking the bees off of the feeder can and onto the bottom of the package.) Your package is now open, so you want to work as quickly as possible.
  4. The queen cage will either be attached to the bottom of the sugar feeder, or just inside the top hole of the package. Remove the queen cage first, and check to make sure your queen is alive! (If she is not, you will need to document this immediately and send the picture to the breeder who you purchased your package bees from.) Set the feeder can or the piece of wood back over the hole in the package for a minute or two while you deal with the queen cage first.

  5. Usually there will be a small cork over the sugar-fondant plug on your queen cage. Remove the cork, and use a toothpick, pin, needle, or very small nail to make a hole SMALLER THAN A BEE through the fondant candy (~1/8"). BE VERY CAREFUL NOT TO POKE OR HARM YOUR QUEEN BEE!!! (The fondant candy is kind of like a queen release time bomb — the bees eat through the fondant to release the queen in 24 to 48 hours, and by the time she is freed, they are all used to her smell and know that she is their queen.)

  6. Carefully place the queen cage in the empty hive, making sure that the partially holed-through fondant candy plug (as well as the mesh side of the queen cage) is accessible to the other worker bees that you will soon place in the hive. Worker bees need to be able to feed the queen through the mesh and also chew through the fondant plug in order to free her from the cage. If you are using a BEEcosystem observation hive, place the queen cage on the lower level of top bars, mesh side up and fondant plug accessible.

  7. Next, the rest of the bees go into the hive! (This can be the most daunting part for beginners, but it is also the most fun in retrospect — especially if you’re a first-time beekeeper, think of this as your anointment to the beekeeping community!) Make sure your bees are sprayed down with 50% sugar solution via the spray bottle, just so that their wings are a bit wet. Then, knock the package against the ground firmly, so that the majority of bees fall to the bottom in a clump or “bee ball.”

  8. Gently but quickly shake the package bees into the open hive. You may knock them against the ground once or twice more to gather the remaining straggler bees, making sure that all of the workers go into the hive.

  9. Now that your queen cage is uncorked, and your worker bees are in the hive, simply close up your hive as carefully as possible, taking care not to injure any bees around the edges. You may use your hive tool to gently spread out any clumps of bees that are bulging out too much to prevent the hive from closing, or use a “bee brush” to push any bees around the edges back inside before closing up the hive.

  10. If you have a few straggler bees that remained in the package or that fell onto the ground, try to leave the hive open overnight (just ever so slightly open!) and in the same place with the package on the ground by the hive entrance, just to give your stragglers a chance to find their way inside the hive. If you can’t leave your hive out and in place overnight to save them all, don’t fret — you’ve got the vast majority of them — honeybee mortality is just a hard fact of life for all beekeepers, and sometimes you inadvertently lose a few.

And that’s it! If you’re installing your bees in a new BEEcosystem observation hive, you will move it to its final wall-mounted location, and connect the crawlway transfer tube to your window unit (if the observation hive is indoors).

It is also very important to immediately and continually be feeding your newly installed package bees with sugar syrup solution, at least until the flower bloom and nectar flow are going strong in your area. With a BEEcosystem observation hive, sugar syrup solution is fed through a mason jars on the top of the hive; with other types of hives like Langstroths, feeders will be placed inside the hive, atop the frames and inside an empty box.

Within the first 3–4 weeks of establishing a new colony from packaged bees, seeing the numbers of bees in your colony fall by a third is completely normal. This visible mortality happens because it takes a full 3 weeks for new adult worker bees to develop, during which time older workers from your package will die off naturally. After a month, the net amount of worker bees in your hive should be growing, as new workers are now developing faster than the old ones are dying.

Endnotes & extra pointers:

  • Always carefully visually inspect your package bees before opening up the package; it is normal for a few dead bees to be at the bottom, but if there is a very large amount of mortality (more than a 1/2 inch of dead bees in the bottom), you will probably want to document that by taking some pictures and then letting your package bee supplier know — your bee breeder may be willing to provide you with a replacement package. If your queen does not arrive alive, the breeder will almost always replace her (along with your entire package), since you cannot start a new colony without a mated queen bee.
  • It is always a good practice to open your hive back up and take out the empty queen cage if you can, about a week later — the cage serves no purpose inside the hive once the queen is released, but if you leave it inside, it can get attached to your top bars or frames with propolis or wax, making it much harder to remove later on.

Have any questions or comments? Let us know! Thanks for reading!