There are two basic ways of getting honey bees: a nucleus colony or a package of bees. When I first started beekeeping, I ordered nucs, short for nucleus colonies, because it was like a small starter hive containing five frames of worked comb, a laying queen acclimated to the honey bees accompanying her and of course, a bunch of worker bees. I felt like this gave me a jump-start since the honey bees did not need to use their energy to make the honey comb needed to raise brood and store pollen and nectar. A nuc is essentially plug and play, if you will. The bees acclimate to their environment and simply get on with the business of foraging and being a honey bee.
Since I have lots of worked frames of comb available from past years of beekeeping, I decided on a package of bees this time. A package is just as it sounds: a breathable package of worker bees and a new queen, new because she wasn’t actually in a colony with the workers, but rather raised separately and caged up prior to being combined into a package with thousands of mixed worker bees from various hives in an apiary. As such, the bees must accept her as theirs before progress is to be had.
So how does this go down, you may wonder? You may laugh when I describe it as opening an empty hive body, adding the queen and then “dumping” in the bees, but that’s essentially it. The crucial component not to be overlooked though is that the honey bees must accept the queen as theirs before the true work of the young colony begins. As such, I opt to slow release the queen by removing a tiny cork at the bee candy end of a queen cage, allowing the bees to chew through the candy to release their new leader when they’re ready to welcome her. And that’s just what happened in short order.
I had set up ahead of time so that all I needed to do when I got home with the package of bees was to install them. The carpet tacking I use on the screened bottom board to prevent skunks and other predators from scratching at the entrance and eating my honey bees had weathered. I used this opportunity to tack on a new strip and clean up the components, then added a slatted rack, an empty medium hive body (I run all mediums because of the weight), then an empty deep hive body to house sugar syrup, an inner cover and an outer cover. I mixed up 1:1 sugar syrup that morning, added a bit of homemade Honey B Healthy to stimulate feeding and placed that into quart jars with tiny holes punched into the lids for feeding purposes.
It was a lovely warm spring afternoon when I picked up my package of honey bees. I let them rest a short while after the drive, then I sprayed them down with some sugar syrup to keep them busy. I removed four frames, then moved two of the remaining six frames to the side to accommodate the queen cage. I pried open the lid of the package with my hive tool, easily popping up the staples. Then in a quick, controlled manner, I removed the traveling container of feed and the queen in her cage. I stuffed an old pillow case I use while working my hives into the gaping hole left behind by these two items to prevent all the bees from spilling out. Many flew out of course, but they were just flying about curiously.
My focus immediately shifted to the queen. I removed the tiny cork from the candy end of the cage, not always easy to do because it is so small and gloves limit dexterity. I actually took the cage housing the new queen and her accompanying five attendants away from the activity of the hive, removed my gloves and worked the cork loose with an extended paper clip. I suspected that these girls accepted her as theirs because there were so many honey bees on my hands and the cage as I did this, not in an aggressive manner but in an “all hail the queen” manner.
I’d like to point out that this was a particularly challenging endeavor as my neighbor decided to cut his grass while I had all of this going on and actually rode right up to the fencing behind my hives on his tractor, causing the ground to tremble and the deafening noise to instill irritation from flying bees from both the new group and the resident hive. I stayed calm, moved slowly and pressed on while he continued to cut grass beside me because I was at a point of no return, having opened the package and removed the queen cage and cork.
I placed the queen cage in between two frames, candy end up, and pressed the frames together to contain her. So now I had six frames pushed together, the other four frames were still out of the hive. I tapped the box of bees gently to release them from the top of the box, removed the pillow case plugging the opening, turned over the box and gently shook out as many honey bees as I could. They poured out onto the frames and crawled down into the hive body that smelled like home with the alluring scent of wax that honey bees appreciate. All ten frames were replaced into the hive body, I added a quart jar of sugar syrup, then the inner and outer covers. Voila! New hive in residence!
I propped the remaining bees against the opening of the hive (the smallest opening on an entrance reducer since these new bees aren’t large enough in numbers to properly defend their hive, particularly one with sugar syrup). There were still a lot of bees in the package but I wasn’t worried about it because the pheromone of their new queen would guide them home. And that’s exactly what happened. I put my things away and came back to watch them exit the opening of the package, crawl down the side of it and walk into their new digs.
I took my kids for ice cream to celebrate our new bees. When I returned, it was dusk. All but a small group of honey bees remained in the package, clustered over some newly drawn wax they made during transit. I pried open the wire mesh on the one side of the package and within two minutes, these girls joined their kin. Bees are amazing!
And just like that we have new beginnings. While I was sad for the loss of my blue queen and her entourage as we left winter, I’m glad I’ve moved forward with this new beginning, allowing new life to benefit from the drawn comb of the lost bees. I was curious as to the release of the new queen and couldn’t wait beyond two days to check on them. I found the cage empty, the queen released, one dead worker inside that could have been an attendant or a curious bee checking out the cage and not finding its way out. To my sheer delight, I found the new queen walking on some comb, getting her bearings.
Just over a week later, I found a frame of eggs! Now that she’s laying, I will mark her. Yellow is used for years ending in seven. Marking the queen will help me spot her amongst the tens of the thousands of honey bees that will inhabit this hive and allow me to keep track of her, knowing it’s this queen and not a superseded queen going forward.
While the reign of the blue queen is past, her legacy lives on in the neighboring hive to the new one. This hive contains the blue queen’s genetics, the white queen (denoting 2016) was made from the blue queen’s eggs, thereby rescuing that hive at the time. The white queen is cranking out brood and her girls are storing nectar fast and furiously during this nectar flow. The new yellow queen and her brethren join the white queen in my little apiary, amidst a spring tapestry of vibrant green grasses, dotted with bright yellow dandelions and purple violets, blooming pink redbuds and white dogwoods, abundant plant life flourishing at the beginning of this nectar flow. Any day now, the tulip poplar and black locust will add to the mix, making the nectar flow rich and life sustaining.
So I am back to two hives in my little backyard apiary, the resident hive having gotten a neighbor. Spring is here and there is abundance. Honey bees are busily storing up their nectar and beekeepers are hopeful that the nectar flow will be strong so we can harvest the surplus in the summer.
Wishing you a happy spring filled with new beginnings!
New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings. – Lao Tzu