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Installing a Package of Bees In Your Hive

Starting a new beehive is a time filled with excitement. If you are facing the task of installing a package of bees for the first time – you may have a few concerns? It can be rather scary for beginners -but it is easier than you may think. With care and patience you can get those thousands of bees into the hive and grow them into a nice strong colony.

How to Put New Bees in a Hive

Package of bees being installed into a full size hive image.

There are several ways to get bees but buying package bees is the most common way of starting new hives. If you have a source nearby, you can drive to pick up your new bee family.

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It comes as a surprise to many new beekeepers that your package can arrive via the post office.

Honey Bees Shipped in the Mail

Each year thousands of honey bee packages ship thru the US mail or with another mail carrier. If they come through USPS, you may be required to pick them up from the post office.

A package with thousands of stinging insects tends to make some mail handlers nervous – can you imagine that ? LOL Pick up your package promptly and keep them in a cool dark place.

How Many Bees Come in a Package?

Most bee packages (3 pounds) will contain roughly 10,000 bees. Over the years, producers have realized that this is a good number to start a new colony. Larger sizes are also sold. But for most beekeepers, there is really no need to put more than 1 package in a hive.

How Many Bees are in a Pound?

It takes about 3,300 honey bees to make a pound in weight. Inside a 3# package you will find about about 10,000 bees – consisting of workers, drones and 1 queen bee.

In most cases, these bees have been shaken into the box from several hives and given a new queen. You will also see a large can of syrup. This is food to keep the package alive during their journey to your home.

Package Queen Bee

When you order bees in a package, the queen bee will be protected inside a small queen cage. The cage may be wooden or plastic. There are several different styles in use. Inside you find a young mated queen and a few workers to care for her.

Once inside the new hive, workers will slowly eat through the white queen candy (in one end of the cage). This allows your queen to be released slowly.

This queen bee was unknown to the bees put in your new package. By the time she exits her cage, through the candy end, the colony should be ready to accept her.

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I do not recommend “walking the queen in” or directly releasing her. I have seen this system fail more times than it succeeded. And what it would be the point? To get the queen out a couple of days sooner? Meh..

Picking Up Your Bees

If you pick up your bees locally, arrive early. Your bees are contained in a wooden and wire (or plastic) travel cage. The sooner you get them home and into their new hive the better.

There is little danger of bees escaping from their traveling box – but it is not impossible. It is very common to have a few loose ones on the outside of the package.

These loose bees rode from the original bee yard and will likely ride home with you. They are lost and confused and rarely sting unless provoked. After riding home on the outside of the package, these “hitch-hikers” will join the colony.

Going to pick up bees can be a fun outing for the whole family. However, think it through- before going to pick up a package with Grandma, Grandpa, all the kids and the family dog along.

People can and do get stung at pickup sites. I prefer to let the bee package ride home in the back seat. This is hard to do if everyone in the car is scared to death.

Three pound package of honey bees in a wooden transport box image.

Keep Your New Bee Package Cool

If temperatures are in the 50’s F, there is little danger of the bee package being chilled. They can be placed in the bed of a pickup (out of any drafts).

You can put them in the trunk of your car, if you don’t have a long way to drive home. However, a package of bees can certainly become over-heated.

Make sure there is ventilation space around the package sides. Do not try to keep your them warm (unless the outside temps are very low).

How Long Can Bees Stay in a Package?

There will be times when you may need to delay installing your package for a few hours or a day. They can survive inside the traveling cage for a couple of days.

Keep the package in a cool, dark place and mist the screen sides with water ( or sugar water) a couple of times a day. However, it is always good to install a package of bees in their new hive as soon as possible. While honey bees can survive in a transit cage, it is not a natural way for them to live and must be stressful.

Preparation for New Bees

The well prepared beekeeper has a much smoother experience putting bees in the new hive. Prepare yourself and your equipment before taking the top off the package.

  • wear your protective gear
  • have smoker and fuel with you (you probably wont need it)
  • equipment should be assembled, painted and ready to go before bees arrive

Wear your beekeeper’s veil or other protective wear. Package bees are rarely aggressive, they are confused and lost. But, confused bees can sting – protect your face.

Smoke is not used when installing a package unless problems arise. However, it is always a good idea to have your bee smoker with you in the bee yard.

Instead of using the smoker, a spray bottle with a little sugar water (1:1) comes in handy for me. You also need to have your hive tool on hand and a knife or pair of scissors in your tool box is a good idea.

Hive Set Up and Ready

The beekeeper never wants to give a colony more space than they can patrol. The population in your new hive will be quite low until the queen begins to lay and new adults emerge.

That means for more than 21 days, the number of bees living in the hive will decline. After that time, hopefully population will grow quickly.

In a Langstroth hive, begin with only 1 deep box. (Bottom board, deep box, inner cover, telescoping top). Do not add more supers or boxes until the population inside the hive begins to grow in a month or so.

If you are using a screened bottom board, you might leave the grid board in the bottom for the first few weeks. This helps the colony feel safe.

Installing the Package Queen Bee

Assuming you have a wooden package, use your hive tool to remove the wooden flap on top of the cage. Never fear, a few bees may come out (if the opening is larger) but the syrup can fills most of the opening.

Silver syrup can in the opening of a bee package image.

The queen cage hangs near the can with a plastic strap. But, we need to remove the can to get the queen – how unfortunate.

Lightly mist the screen sides with a mist of sugar water, then gently but firmly tap the bottom of the package on the ground.

Most of the bees will fall to the bottom. Quickly pick up the cage and tilt it enough be able to grab the syrup can.

Tilting package to remove syrup can image.

Remove the syrup can from the package – now you can grab the strap with the queen cage and pull the queen cage out.

Set the syrup can aside and temporarily lay the wooden flap back on the package to contain most of the bees.

Hanging Queen Cage Inside the Hive

Check to make sure your queen bee is alive. Do not be alarmed if one of the worker attendants is dead. Bees die every day.

If the queen looks well, it is time to hang her cage in the hive. Place the queen cage between 2 frames near the middle of the bee box.

Wooden package queen cage hung between two bars in a hive image.

Fitting a wooden cage into a new hive can be tricky because there is no comb to help hold the cage in place. It is a good practice to have a small piece of wire or string to help hang the queen cage.

** Your queen may arrive in a plastic cage. If so, the same rules apply regarding placement **

A wooden queen cage will have a cork in both ends. Remove the cork from the candy end only! It is not usually necessary to poke a hole in the candy. The candy end should point up to prevent any dead bees blocking the exit.

Twist the cage so that the screen is open to workers, they will communicate with the new bees and even feed them. It is important to be sure that the exit hole is open – so your queen can leave the cage.

Queen bee in a plastic queen cage inside a hive image.

Bee Package Installation Methods

Beekeepers use various methods of installing bee packages. The most common way involves simply shaking the bees into the hive box – after the queen cage is in place. Some beekeepers prefer to take approach the task in a more gentle method. However, each method has advantages.

Shaking a Package of Bees into A Hive

  1. hang queen cage inside the hive
  2. remove some frames (with foundation) to make room
  3. pick up the package and pour (yes pour) a small mound of bees directly on top of the frames holding the queen cage
  4. pour the remainder of bees in the open space of the box
  5. carefully replace the frames that were removed
  6. close up your hive
  7. set the mostly empty cage near the hive entrance

Once your queen cage is placed inside the new hive. Remove half the frames – or just 3 or 4. In a 10 frame hive, this leaves an open space several frames wide.

Open hive ready for a package of bees to be installed by shaking image.

After pouring a small amount of bees near the queen cage, the rest are shook in the opening left by the removed frames.

It is an amazing sight, no matter how many times you do it. If you have a lot of bees taking flight, you can gently mist the bees in the hive with the sugar water sprayer.

Do not bang the package on the ground. You do not have to shake it wildly like a mad-man. Just gently shake it enough to dislodge most of the bees into the hive.

Carefully, replace the frames that were removed. The bees in the bottom of the hive will begin to climb up on them.

There will be a few individuals left in the package. Sit it in front of the hive, most of them will soon join the rest of the colony. Close up the hive.

Honey bees shaken into a beehive image.

Non-Shaking Method of Package Installation

Some beekeepers dislike the shaking method. They feel it is too disruptive to the already stressed bees.

So, yes you can install your package without shaking if that is your wish. I honestly don’t think it matters but if you want to give it a try, this is one way to do it.

Repeat the above steps for hanging your queen cage and removing half the frames. Now, we have a large open space inside the hive.

Set your open package inside the hive ( the opening where the syrup can was is open). The bees in the package will smell the queen and come out of the package to join her-usually…

By the next day, you should be able to open the hive and remove the empty package. Then, replace all the missing frames.

This method of installing a package is fine and will work well in most instances. However, I would not try it in cold weather. Sometimes, the workers don’t leave the package and the queen dies in the cold.

Using glass mason jars to feed a bee package.

Feeding Package Bees Colonies

Once you have finished installing your package, it is time to prepare a feeder. Then, leave the new colony alone for a few days so they can settle in.

To understand the importance of feeding a bee package, we need to understand their situation. This small bee family is very different from a natural swarm.

A commercial package of bees has been shaken from multiple colonies. They had no plans to go anywhere. Most of them do not even know each other and they are not prepared to begin comb building immediately.

Unlike a swarm, the workers are not primed to build comb – they did not “pack for the trip”. When a honey bee colony decides to swarm, preparations began weeks earlier.

In a swarm, a good mix of bees of different ages (many at optimum wax producing age) leaves the hive with full stomachs of honey. The swarm will be primed to build comb.

Your package arrives with a small can of food to sustain them until they are installed in the hive. Even if they are not hungry, they certainly are not well fed.

Worker bees need full stomachs to encourage wax production. Feeding your new colony well helps those wax glands start producing wax.

Feeding Bees Does Not Make Them Lazy

Beekeepers do not have to fear that providing feed for their new colony will cause them to be lazy. Bees are not like humans.

Some foragers will go out and bring in nectar and pollen. But others will work inside the hive feeding on the provided sugar syrup.

This gives the colony a boost and helps them start producing wax and making honey. We need this to happen for our colony to grow.

Bee brood inside a new colony of bees image.

Once your bees are installed and fed, they should settle down and begin to grow. Don’t open the hive every day.

New packages can leave the hive if the beekeeper is too intrusive. Your first hive inspection is done in about 5-7 days.

After a few weeks, begin performing routine hive inspections to ensure that all is well with your colony. Congratulations. You did it! Don’t you feel like a beekeeper super star!

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