Our “Newbee Questions, Expert Answers” series, takes the questions of a curious, fascinated, worried, perplexed and sometimes downright confused “newbee” and provides expert responses.

In this edition…

We start near the very beginning. Our resident newbee decided not to go with mail order package bees, so purchased from a local supplier instead. He now has his first package of bees, for his first hive. Installing a package of bees strikes fear into his heart! So, what questions does he  have?

Mark: I heard that Italian bees are the best bet for the beginner beekeeper. Should I just make sure I go with those?

Ron: Italian bees are certainly the most common and tend to do very well.  However, possibly a more important question to ask yourself is about the climate you are in.  Is it wet, cold winters, mild winters, etc?  Italian bees developed in moderate climates with mild winters.  Still, they seem to be quite resilient and will likely perform well for you.  Those in northern climates with long cold winters, may want to try the Carniolan race which is adapted to cold winters, or even a Russian/Carniolan cross, though they can be hard to find.

The best source of bees would be to find bees from your local area, since they are already acclimated.  If you can find an established, trustworthy source who raises bees in your area, those would be the ones to look for.  You and the bees will be better off.

Best bees of all?  Catch a wild swarm.

Mark: My nearest bee supplier is 30 miles away , so I am planning on just having a package sent to me through mail. Make sense?

Ron: The process of packaging and shipping bees is very stressful on them.  The less stress the better condition your bees will be in when you hive them, but its entirely a personal decision.  I just drove 150 miles one way to pick up some Russian/Carniolan bees, so for me personally, I’d make the drive.

Mark: There were 100 or so dead bees in my package. Is that too many?

Ron: That would be pretty normal.  If the bottom of the box is covered in a quarter to a half inch of bees I’d be concerned.  Never accept a package of bees that are soaking wet.  If the bees are wet it means they have over-heated.  When they over-heat they regurgitate the contents of their stomachs and that is why you find them wet.  Those bees will die and you should refuse to accept the package.

Mark: Are the bees going to make a mess in my car on the way home?

Ron: The bees will leave a few debris behind, but the real mess will likely be left by the can that contains the syrup the bees feed on while it the package.  They usually leak to some degree.

Mark: The cage for my queen had a little cork in the end but no candy. Was that a mistake by my supplier?

Ron: Hard to say.  Some companies do not include a candy plug in the queen cage, but most of them do.  When buying packages you should always prepare to install them by having a few miniature marshmallows or gummy bears with you so you can make your own candy plug if need be.

Mark: Everyone told me there should be a square plywood cover on my package above the sugar can – but there wasn’t. What should I do?

Ron: Years ago it seems all packages came with the plywood cover you described.  I haven’t purchased a lot of packages in the last few years, but those I have purchased did not come with the plywood  cover.  I’m thinking the industry has probably moved away from using them for the most part.

Mark: My supplier told me that the queen was already acclimatized with the bees in the package and I should just let her out of the cage on day one. Is that OK?

Ron: The sooner she can begin laying eggs the better, so some people will directly release the queen into the hive.  However, if the bees have not been with her long enough to accept her as their new queen she will be killed.  Its referred to as “balling the queen”.  If she is killed its a long road just getting back to where you were the day you picked up the package.

Mark: If I let her out the cage, I’m really worried about my queen flying away. How can I prevent this?

Ron: Remove the cork (or candy plug), cover the end with your finger (she wont sting you) and lay the cage into the pile of bees you just poured into the hive, then quickly close up the hive.

Mark: Should I pour the bees in or just place the package in the box and leave it there?

Ron: Pouring them is a fairly common practice, but its just as acceptable to remove enough frames at the side of the hive box (or put in enough bars in a top bar hive to make room) so you can place the entire package in the hive.  Just be sure to remove it when you check to see if the queen has been released or you are likely to get a mess of comb everywhere you don’t want it.

Mark: I was so excited that I put the bees in, put the hive back together and then realized I forgot to place the frames I had taken out back in. The missing frames are towards the end of the box. Is this a problem?

Ron: About the same issue as placing the package box in the hive.  If you forget to replace the frames within the next few days the bees are going to use all that open space to build comb.

Mark: When should I peek at the feeder and how quickly should I expect it to be consumed?

Ron: The bees can easily drink a quart (or more) in one day.  So your feeder could be drained rather quickly.  A good time to make the first check and refill would be when you check to see if the queen has been released.

Mark: What should I expect after I place the bees in their hive and the morning after?

Ron: Expect to have your buzz on and it wont be from your coffee!  You’ll be filled with anticipation to see how they are doing.

All kidding aside, there are many things you can do to become familiar with your bees.  I’ve encouraged the new Beeks in the class I teach to focus on the activity at the front of the hive.

  • Can they identify a guard bee?
  • Are there bees hovering around the entrance, maybe drifting back a bit and then returning to hover in front of the hive and not doing much more than that (they are orienting themselves to the hive so they can find their way back in the new location)?
  • Do you see bees bringing in pollen?  If so, where’s it coming from?
  • Are bees coming directly in and also leaving directly from the hive with little hesitation (those are foraging bees and they are settled in and getting down to business).

Just observing your bees can be immensely educational and fun at the same time.