Installing Package Bees – various methods discussed

Installing Package Bees and the various methods is a discussion item for new beekeepers and seasoned ones alike.  There are many techniques that all work and in this article we will discuss the “Package Shake” method, the “Placing the Package in the Hive” method, and the “Sheet Shook Swarm” method.   We will break down the pros and cons of each method starting with our favorite method (the “Package Shake Method” which we use to install 100’s of packages every year).

Prerequisites

Before installing see Before Bees Arrive for hive setup information and Transporting Bee Packages for safely getting them home.

In general, the hive equipment should be setup, sugar syrup and pollen patties ready, protective clothing worn and hive tool ready.  You shouldn’t need to smoke the package during install as the bees won’t typically defend it like a “home”, but it doesn’t hurt to have it nearby just in case!

If you are starting with used equipment and drawn comb then arrange your frames with open drawn comb in the middle 3 or 4 frames with pollen frames next and then honey to the outside edges.  If you are installing into old or new hive equipment then position your hive feeder such that the feed is easily accessible to the new package bees you will be installing (typically an outside edge frame feeder works best or top feeder directly above them).   Feeders are discussed in Before Bees Arrive.  It is important to provide new packages of bees an easily accessible food source (both sugar syrup and pollen patty) as they will need this food to begin building up properly and preparing for when the queen is released.  Remember that sugar syrup is a carbohydrate food source and provides nutrition to the adult bees.   Pollen on the other hand is a food source for the baby bees.   If your new colony lacks pollen then it will be unable to raise baby bees and will stall.   Start with just one deep hive box and keep any other deeps and mediums indoors in a safe place.

Installation Considerations

The installation of the package bees is typically best performed later in the afternoon as this accomplishes several things:

  • The bees are more likely to settle down and not go anywhere due to it being later in the day
  • Late afternoon spring temperatures are cooler so the bees are more likely to cluster and stay put
  • Bees have had additional time being acquainted with their queen
  • Even if the queen is quickly released the bees won’t go anywhere since it is later in the day. This gives the queen a chance to start laying and get the package bees committed to their new hive equipment.

The package of bees is composed of a wooden box (or sometimes plastic) with screened sides for ventilation, a sugar syrup can, a queen in a small cage and a small square of wood covering the top of the syrup can which holds everything in place.  The package of bees typically contains all ages of worker bees and a few drones.   During transport these bees and the queen in the cage become acquainted and will be ready to start your colony once installed into your hive equipment.  You may have a thin layer of dead bees on the bottom of your package – this is totally normal.  Older bees in the package will die during transport due to old age.

Install Techniques:

This section applies to ALL PACKAGE INSTALL METHODS

Make sure you put on your protective gear and have all your tools close by as the last thing you want to do is have to run around finding things after you have started the package bee install process.   Keep the package bees out of direct sunlight if possible while you are getting your gear together.

For all three methods described below do these 3 steps first:

  1. Start by removing the protecting wooden square cover over the syrup can with your hive tool – note that sometime the can fits a bit loose so you may need to flip the wooden cover upside down after removed on top of the can to keep bees from escaping (upside down since the nails will be in the way to put it directly back in place).
  2. The next step involves locating the queen cage strap or hanger and also removing the syrup can at the same time.   Use your hive tool to pry the syrup can up and carefully lift it up to the point you can grip it firmly with your hand.   Next give the entire package box a gentle rap on the ground while holding the syrup can so it doesn’t fall back inside the box.   The goal is to knock the bees to the bottom of the package box so you can remove the syrup can and queen cage without bees escaping.   After the syrup can and queen cage are removed place the wooden square back on top of the package box covering the syrup can hole.   The queen cage may be stapled in place so carefully remove the strap from the package box so you can work on the queen cage more easily.  Be sure to place the syrup can upright so it isn’t leaking – syrup still remaining can be used in feeders if desired.
  3. Check your queen cage and be sure that the queen is moving around and active.   Make sure to keep her out of direct sunlight.   Pull the cork from the candy end of the queen cage – make 100% sure you are pulling the cork from the candy end before you pull it!   Otherwise, your queen will fly away.  *If you find your queen dead call us immediately for options.

Installing package bees with the “Package Shake Method” – our favorite

This is our go to technique for installing package bees and involves a couple quick moves and gets the bees almost 100% out of the original package box.   We can use this technique to install a package of bees in under a minute (works great in cold weather).  Perform steps 1-3 above, then 1-6 below:

  1. Open up a gap in the center of your bottom hive box by removing 3 frames.   Take the center frame and rubber band the queen cage to this frame in a horizontal position and carefully set aside out of direct sunlight.  Double check that you removed the cork from the candy end of the cage.
  2. Next take the package of bees and give it another rap on the ground to dislodge the bees from the package and then immediately take the package and shake the bees into the gap you created in the center of the box.  You may need to rap the package on the ground again to dislodge more bees to shake. Once you have all the bees shaken out place the 3 frames back into the gap putting the queen cage frame into the center of the gap.   Wiggle the frames a bit to get the bees to move around so you don’t squish them.  Be sure the queen cage does not slide down to the bottom of the frame as you place the frames back.
  3. Snug up all the frames leaving no gaps between them.
  4. Place your pollen patty directly over the 3 frames where you dumped the bees – do not remove the wax paper.  If using a frame feeder for syrup, it should filled and put at one of the ends.
  5. Install your inner cover and telescoping cover.
  6. If any bees remain in the package you can place it near the entrance of the hive box and they will eventually drift into the hive box.

PROS:

  • Quick and easy to install bees in any temperature
  • Bees cluster back up quickly around the queen
  • Gets the bees out of the original package
  • Puts the queen is in the best position to begin laying brood as soon as she is released

CONS:

  • Shaking the bees sometimes gets them agitated

Installing Package Bees by “Placing the Package in the Hive Method”

This technique is fairly hands off with relation to the bees in the package and relies on the bees finding the queen and migrating out of the package themselves. This only works with deep boxes or double medium boxes and is not recommended if it is cold outside.  Perform steps 1-3 above, then 1-11 below:

  1. Remove 5 frames from the bottom box and set them aside.
  2. Remove the center frame from the remaining frames and rubber band your queen cage on this center frame in a horizontal position. Double check that you have removed the cord from the candy end of the queen cage.
  3.  Install the frame with the queen cage back into the center of the 5 frames.
  4. Next take the package of bees and give it another rap on the ground to dislodge the bees from the package and then immediately take the package and dump a small handful of bees onto the frame with the queen – this will keep the queen warm as well as help spread her pheromone as these bees move about.
  5. Place the package of bees upright in the gap you created by removing the 5 frames.
  6. Snug up the remaining frames leaving no gaps between them.
  7. Place your pollen patty directly over the queen frame where you dumped the bees. If using a frame feeder for syrup it should be installed at one of the ends instead of a frame.
  8. Install your inner cover and telescoping cover.
  9. If all goes well the bees should migrate out of the package over to the queen.
  10. The following day you can go in and remove the empty package of bees, slide the frames to the center and put the other frames back in on each side. Leave the frame feeder (if using one) on one end.
  11. Be sure to snug up frames.

PROS:

  •    Minimal shaking of the bees

CONS:

  • Not recommended in cold weather
  • Leaves a lot up to the bees and things don’t always go as planned
  • Sometimes the bees don’t leave the package leaving the queen to chill and die
  • Sometimes the queen gets released and they all migrate back to the package
  • The bees sometimes build comb in the package box and make a huge mess

Installing Package Bees with the “Sheet Shook Swarm Method”

The sheet shook swarm method involves letting the bees march into the hive box after installing the queen inside.  This simulates what a swarm would typically do in the wild after they have chosen a new home.  This method is not recommended in cold weather.  Perform steps 1-3 above, then 1-11 below:

  1. Place a large sheet of cardboard or cloth (24”x36” or so) at the front of the hive lining up with the entrance opening.
  2. Remove the center frame from the bottom box and rubber band your queen cage on this center frame in a horizontal position. Double check that you removed the cork from the candy side of the queen cage.
  3. Install the queen cage frame back into the center of the hive box.
  4. Snug up the frames leaving no gaps between them.
  5. Next take the package of bees and give it another rap on the ground to dislodge the bees from the package and then immediately take the package and dump a small handful of bees into the frame with the queen – this will keep the queen warm as well as help spread her pheromone as these bees move about.
  6. Place your pollen patty directly over the queen frame where you dumped the bees.  If using a frame feeder for syrup, it should be at one of the ends and filled.
  7. Install your inner cover and telescoping cover.
  8. Take the package of bees and shook swarm dump all the bees from the package onto the sheet of cardboard or cloth by rapping the package on the ground and shaking them onto the cardboard/cloth – may need to repeat a few times to get all the bees out.  Move the empty package away from the hive.
  9. The bees will pick up on the queen pheromone coming from the entrance and march up and into the hive box.
  10. Bee patient as this process can take a while.
  11. Remove the sheet once all the bees have marched inside.

PROS:

  • Natural introduction method for the package bees to the new hive box
  • Gets all the bees out of the original package box
  • Popular method for AZ hives using the back tray or front entrance

CONS:

  • Needs to be warm out to shake bees in this fashion
  • Chance that there is a stray queen in the package and all the bees fly away
  • Chance that the bees get their signals wrong and abscond away without the queen
  • The sheet shook swarm method should not be used in the same yard with other package bee installs on the same day as stray pheromones from each colony can cause mass confusion in the marching bees and severe drifting between hive boxes

Installation Summary

That’s it!  Your package bee install has created a colony.  We recommend checking in a few days to make sure the queen has been released from her cage (bees eat through the candy to release her).  After that you can check every 10-14 days to make sure the queen is laying, the bees are building up and to refill feeders.  Note that feeders may need to be filled more often so you may want to check the feeders every 7 days to start.  You can check out the [Inspections] article for things to look for on inspections.

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