Beginner Beekeeper Series: How to Install a Package of Bees

Are you ready to set up your new hive, including the queen? Here are step-by-step guidelines to your first hands-on experience with your new bees.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Susy Morris/Flickr

Many beekeepers around the United States consider ordering a package of honeybees the only way to get a hive started. Whether you live far from other beekeepers, are just starting out, or live in an urban setting with no apiaries nearby, a package is an easy-to-ship and compact starter kit with everything you need to start keeping bees the very day they arrive.

While packages of bees have their drawbacks (and are not the only way to start an apiary), they’re fairly straightforward and most easily accessible. They come in several sizes, too. If you order your package with ample time and have communicated with the beekeeping supplier company that provides it, you will get notified of the shipment of your package and can make the necessary arrangements to accept it upon arrival.

Here’s what to do when they arrive. I recommend to have a bee mentor or experienced beekeeper with you for the installation, but it is not necessary if you’ve practiced and feel comfortable around bees.

1: Wait for Sunshine

Packages must be installed in good weather conditions. If rain is in the forecast, simply wait. You can spray your package with sugar water (50/50 organic white sugar and distilled or spring water) to keep the bees fed and hydrated.

2: Get Started

Have your woodenware and hive equipment set up in the location you want them, and remove four to five frames from the box where you will install them. Light your smoker. Have a spray bottle of sugar water handy, and give the bees a light misting. Remove the lid and feeder can from the package entrance. Gently but firmly bump the package box to settle the bees away from the entrance and queen cage.

3: Remove the Queen Cage

You’ll find a little cluster ball of bees hanging onto the cage, and this is good. They should go with the queen. Replace the lid to the package so the remaining bees stay in place. Check the queen to make sure she is alive and well.

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4: Install the Queen Cage in the Hive

First, remove the cork from the candy end only. This allows the queen time to chew her way out of the cage and make a smooth transition into the hive after you’ve completed installation. There are several ways to install the queen cage. First, you can tie it to a frame with a rubber band. Second, some beekeepers like to cut out comb and wedge it into a frame. However you choose to install the queen cage, remember that you’ll eventually need to remove it.

5: Return to the Package and the Bulk of the Bees

Carry it over to the hive, remove the lid once again, and firmly but carefully shake the bees down into the open gap in the hive. Do this with gusto (but without hurting the bees) just a few times, so as to not irritate or upset the bees. Try to get the majority of the bees into the hive. They immediately start sending out pheromones to the other bees to let them know they’ve located the queen. This is why it is critical to install the queen cage first.

6: Carefully Close the Hive

Don’t worry if you don’t remove all of the bees from the package. Leave the package box very close to the hive, and the remaining bees will find their way in by smelling the pheromones released by their sisters.

7: Feed Your Bees!

Your new bees will have no comb, honey, brood, stored pollen or even nectar to turn into honey. You must feed them. Keep them well fed. Then, do not conduct inspections for at least one week after installation. This is also very important. Keep the feeder full, but do not disturb the bees. They must work to accept their new queen.

8: Check on the Queen

One week after installation, check to see that your bees have released the queen, accepted her, and that she has begun laying. It’s crucial to find the queen and find signs of her fertility in this inspection, because if she is not there, you still have time to install another queen and save the bees (and your investment). A happy hive has forager bees coming to and fro with pollen, house bees building comb, and lots of eggs and brood starting to grow.

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