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Package Installation Mistakes

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It occurs to me listening to all of the newbees on the bee forums and watching the U-Tube videos of inexperienced people doing their first installs and listening to the experts give advice at new beekeeper classes etc., that there is a lot of very bad advice out there. Sometimes it's just that a beginner doesn't know what a happy medium of something is, but all in all, I think it's just bad advice. So here's my take on a lot of that advice of what to do and not to do:

Not to do:

Don't spray them with syrup

Certainly if you insist on doing this, don't spray them much and don't use thick syrup. 2 parts water to 1 part sugar is plenty. Personally I would not and do not spray them at all. If you have to feed them because you can't get them installed, just spray a little on the screen and wait for them to clean it up. Repeat until they don't take it. But actually I think it's a better plan to refill the can with syrup. Pull it out (of course the bees can now get out so put a board or something over the hole). If you have the kind of can that has a round hole with a rubber grommet holding in a piece of cloth, pop this out and pour in the syrup. Replace the grommet and cloth and then replace the can. If there is just the small holes, put a hole just big enough for the syrup to run in and fill it full of syrup. Then plug the hole with some softened beeswax. Check for leaks and put the can back.

Why? I've seen many drowned sticky bees from leaky cans or spraying of bees or worse, from overheated bees that regurgitate their honey stomachs as a reflex to cool them off. I don't want to see any more drowned bees. I watched a U-Tube video the other day of someone knocking the bees to the bottom (which is fine if you're about to dump them into the hive) soaking them (literally) with syrup, turning the box around and soaking them some more from the other side. Then after messing with the hive a bit, soaking them again. I doubt if half of them lived.

I've never seen bees die from NOT spraying them with syrup.

Don't leave them in the shipping box

Don't put them in the hive in the shipping box in order to avoid dumping them out. Especially if the box is on top of the top bars with an empty box on top. This is just asking for problems. Assuming you put the queen cage somewhere in the hive, the bees will cluster on the inner cover or cover and then draw combs in the empty box. Bees always prefer their own comb to drawing on foundation and will take every opportunity you give them to do so. Don't give them that opportunity. Bees are not hard to dump out of a box. Yes, this is one of those few things where gentleness and grace are not helpful, but that does not make it hard on the bees or upsetting to the bees. You may as well get used to the idea as someday you'll be shaking a swarm into a box instead of a swarm out of a box. If you really insist on letting them leave the box on their own, then put an empty deep (or medium or whatever) on the bottom and put the box in there and then put a box with frames on top of that. This takes advantage of the fact that the bees will try to cluster at the top and hang down from there. So hopefully that will be the inner cover and not the bottom bars. Make sure you remove the shipping box and the empty box the next day. Not four days later. Not five days later. The next day. Otherwise you risk them building comb in the empty space.

Don't hang the queen between the frames

This almost always results in an extra comb between those two frames drawn on the queen cage. Release the queen and you won't have to worry about the messed up combs. This is even more important in a foundationless scenario such as a top bar hive or foundationless frames as one messed up between the frames comb will result in a repeat of the error the rest of the way across. Dump the bees in. Let them settle a bit. If you're afraid of the queen flying, then pull the cork from the non candy end (where she can get out now) and, while holding your thumb over the hole, lay the cage on the bottom and leave it. Put the frames back in and the lid on and walk away.

One of the issues seems to be that people think that either they will abscond or they will kill the queen. In my experience leaving her caged does not seem to resolve these issues. If they want to leave they usually move to the hive next door anyway and abandon the queen. If you release the queen it also won't stop this from happening, but it also won't cause it. I've not had a problem with a package killing the queen. A bunch of confused bees have been shaken together from many hives and in the confusion they are just happy to find a queen. If they do kill the queen it is almost always because there is already one loose in the package that got shaken in. The bees prefer this queen because they have contact with her.

Don't use an excluder as an includer too long

Don't use an excluder as an includer after there is open brood in the hive. I wouldn't use it at all, but there is no point in it after there is open brood and it will keep the drones from being able to fly.

Don't spray the queen with syrup

It will make a mess. Yes, it will probably keep her from flying, but it will also do her harm. I know some think it doesn't but they have not seen a half dead sticky queen before. I've seen plenty. I don't spray her with anything, but if you insist, just use water.

Don't install packages without protective equipment

You have enough to worry about without worrying about them stinging you as well.

Don't leave a screened bottom board open

Bees often abscond if there is too much ventilation because they know they won't be able to control the ventilation. Which is probably good reason to NEVER leave it open. But also they get confused and you often end up with most of the bees hanging from the bottom of the screen if you leave it open. Put the tray in. If it didn't come with a tray make one. Better yet, buy a solid bottom and save the screened one for when you are moving bees or you have to close them up for some reason.

Don't smoke a package

They are already in a docile mood and they need the pheromones to get organized, find the queen etc. There is no need to interfere with these pheromones as smoking will do little to nothing to calm a swarm or a package anyway.

Don't postpone

Don't postpone installing them because it's a little drizzly or chilly. Unless it's like 10° F (12° C) or less I would install them and consider it an advantage that they won't want to fly and they will settle in better anyway. Just make sure you have food for them so they don't starve. Capped honey is best. Dry sugar that has been sprayed with enough water to get it damp will do.

Don't feed in a way that makes excessive space

A package is a comb building team. They are looking to build comb everywhere they can. Don't give them space to build it places where they shouldn't. This includes putting empty boxes on top that they have access to, or a spacer for a baggie feeder etc. A frame feeder, a jar over the inner cover with duct tape covering any access or something similar is good. A bottom board feeder is good. Baggie feeders on the bottom board are good IF you put the bees in first and the baggie feeders on after the bees are off of the bottom.

Don't leave frames out

Ever. Not even for a few minutes. Often you intend to leave them out for a few minutes and forget to come back. When you close a hive up there should always be a full complement of frames in the box, or in the case of a top bar hive, a full complement of bars. Even if you use a follower to temporarily limit the space, fill the empty space with frames or bars. You never know when the bees will find their way over there.

Don't dump bees on top of a baggie feeder

They will get covered in syrup as it all gets squished out by the weight of the bees falling on the baggie.

Don't close up a newly hived package

Let them fly and breath and get oriented.

Don't leave empty queen cages around

The bees will cluster on them and act like a swarm thinking the cage is a queen because it still smells like one.

Don't let messed up comb lead to more messed up comb

If you have foundationless or a top bar hive this is even more critical. With foundation you get a sort of clean slate every frame as there is another wall of foundation to start from. Still I would try to straighten out any messes quickly. With foundationless one bad comb just leads to another. By the same token one good comb leads to another as well. So the sooner you make sure the last comb from which the "nest" is being built is straight and centered, the better off you will be. If you have a top bar hive, make sure you have some frames built that you can tie combs into if they get crooked or fall off. That way you can always get at least the last one in the row straight again or, better yet, all of them straight. Especially with foundationless, I would check soon after installation and make sure they are off to the correct start, meaning the combs are in the frames and lined up correctly. The sooner you make sure, the better off you'll be.

If you're using foundation and the bees build fins off of the foundation or parallel combs where there is a gap you can't get to, scrape this off before it has open brood in it. The wax isn't nearly the investment that open brood is. Keep the hive clean of this messed up comb or it will haunt you for a long time to come. With plastic foundation you can just scrape it to the plastic. With wax foundation you'll need more finesse.

Don't destroy supersedure cells

Packages often build supersedure cells and they often tear them back down after a few days, but you tearing them down is a big risk of ending up queenless. Sometimes there is something wrong with the queen that you don't know. Assuming that the bees are mistaken and you are correct about the quality of the queen is, in my experience, a bad bet.

Don't panic if the queen in the cage is dead

Don't panic and assume they are queenless if the queen in the cage is dead when you get it. Odds are there is a queen loose in the package. Still I would contact the supplier just in case, but meantime install them and come back and check them before you install that new queen. You may just be sentencing her to her doom.

Don't freak out if the queen doesn't lay right away

Some will lay as soon as there is comb ¼" deep in the hive. Some take as long as two weeks to start to lay. If they aren't laying in two weeks they probably aren't going to and it's time to freak out.

Don't freak out if one hive is doing better than the other

There are many contributing factors. If they have eggs and brood they are probably doing fine.

Don't get just one hive

Get at least two. You'll have resources then to deal with issues that will come up.

Don't feed constantly

Don't just keep feeding figuring they will stop taking it when they don't need it. I've seen packages that swarmed when they hadn't even finished the first box because they backfilled it all with syrup. Feed until you see some capped stores. This is the sign that the bees have put some of it in "long term storage" meaning they consider it a surplus. If there is a nectar flow at that point, I would stop feeding.

Don't mess with them everyday

They may abscond if you mess with them too often.

Don't leave them on their own for too long

You'll miss the opportunity to learn and you may miss that things are not going correctly. I would check on them within three or four days for the first time and then wait at least that long between visits and try not to go through everything. Just get a general idea how things are going.

Don't smoke them too much

Don't smoke them too much when working them after the install. The three most common smoking mistakes:

  • People have the smoker too hot and burn the bees with the flame thrower they are wielding
  • People use far too much smoke causing a general panic instead of simply interfering with the alarm pheromone. One puff in the door is enough. Another on the top if they look excited is ok and after that having it lit and setting nearby is usually sufficient.
  • People don't light the smoker because they think smoke upsets the bees, probably because of one of the above reasons.

Things to do:

Always install them in the minimum amount of space

Always install them in the minimum amount of space that is large enough and is convenient for you to provide. In other words, if you have a five frame nuc box, that's excellent. If you don't, then use a single box. Yes a single five frame medium box is large enough if you don't have drawn comb in it. An eight frame medium box is large enough if it has drawn comb. While there is nothing wrong, per se, with putting them in more space, in a Northern climate, especially, it is a lot of work for them and they take off much better in a smaller space. While I probably wouldn't BUY a five frame nuc just for this, I would use it if I had it.

Have your equipment ready

Have your equipment ready before the bees arrive. Have the location picked and the equipment there. Have your protective equipment too.

Wear your protective equipment

You have enough to worry about without thinking about getting stung.

How to install:

When you have everything there, bees, equipment etc, then pull out four or five frames, pull out the can and the queen, slam the box on the ground to knock the bees loose and pour them out like thick oil, or like getting a pick out of a guitar. Tip the box back and forth as needed and when no more will pour slam it again to knock them loose and pour some more. When you are down to ten or twenty bees, set the package down, and gently set the frames in. Do not push them down on the bees on the bottom. Let the bees move and the frames will settle on their own. If you are afraid of the queen flying, then pull the cork on a non candy end (if there is candy) hold your finger over the hole and leaving out one frame drop the cage in that gap and then put that frame gently in place and put the lid gently in place. If you release the queen (trickier to make sure she doesn't fly) then do NOT leave the cage. Shake all the bees off of it and put it in a pocket and take it in the house when you are done. Otherwise the bees will cluster on the cage and you'll end up with a queenless swarm on the cage.

Do feed them

A package will go through a lot of feed especially when they have no comb and no stores. Feed them until you start seeing capped honey or they start to backfill the brood nest. Do check on them to make sure things are going correctly. Better to catch things sooner than later, especially things like misdrawn comb.

Videos on Package Installation

Installing a package with Michael Bush Part I
Installing a package with Michael Bush Part II
Installing a package with Michael Bush Part III

Notes on the above videos and releasing the queen.

To illustrate how much difference it makes to leave the queen in the cage, In the above video I was in New South Wales, Australia and the nights never fell below 60 F so I thought we would hedge our bets a little by leaving the queen in the cage on the bottom board. This is a bad idea where the temperatures could fall below 50 F but since we were sure it would not get that cold we decided to do it. We actually did several packages that day and we did release the queen in two of them. One of the packages with the confined queen still left the queen behind in the cage and collected in a tree. Neither of the ones with the loose queens did. Nothing is foolproof...

Michael Bush

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Copyright 2009 by Michael Bush

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