What’s wrong with this picture?

While cleaning out my shed, I discovered several hard sugar cakes which I had removed from my overwintered hives back in February. I had thrown them in a bucket and completely forgotten about them. Since we are into a nectar dearth—and my honey supers are off—I decided to put the sugar cakes out in the yard for the bees to finish.

In just a few minutes the cakes disappeared beneath a teeming mass of honey bees, but no one seemed to be fighting. The bees were just gorging themselves on the windfall, so I took a couple of photos.

While looking through the camera, however, I realized they weren’t all honey bees. Right in the center were two bumble bees of two different species.

I watched these bees throughout the afternoon. The honey bees and the two bumbles crawled over each other eating, grooming, flying off, coming back, and eating some more. They had no animosity toward each other at all. When I finally went in for the night, they were still out there and the sugar was almost gone. Bees never fail to surprise me.


Now that we’re in a nectar dearth, the honey bees are eager for something sweet. © Rusty Burlew.
It seems that honey bees are not the only ones willing to take a hand-out. © Rusty Burlew.

Sea glass bee waterer

Here’s another take on a honey bee water bar. Andrew, from North Andover, Massachusetts, filled a two-tiered plant stand with bowls of sea glass. He adds plain fresh water daily and he says his bees adore it. I love the colors. The blues and greens look icy, almost begging you to take a sip. Thanks, Andrew!

Andrew Graham Sea Glass Water Dish
Sea glass water dish. © Andrew G.

A marble bar for bees

I watered the shrubbery in front of my house and got the concrete driveway wet in the process. Within a few minutes, dozens and dozens of honey bees congregated on the concrete to lick up the cooling drops.

Recalling that honey bees love salt water pools, I made a wading pool for them from a flower pot saucer and a few handfuls of marbles. Then I added water and some table salt—nothing intense, just enough to give it a slightly brackish taste. I set the saucer on an industrial-size wooden spool in dappled shade and soon forgot about it.

They didn’t pay much attention the first day, but the following day I was amazed to see them climbing all over the marbles. Once they found the saucer, it became hard to keep it full. In the photo, the water is just about gone and so are most of the bees. Since then, I added more marbles so the water is deeper and I can fill it less often.

The bees around here have plenty to drink, so this isn’t a necessity but more of a “conversation piece.” They have streams, creeks, wetlands, and water seeping out of the hillsides. Still, it’s fun to be able to watch them up close. With so many hot days ahead, I think I will have lots to watch.


The honey bees finishing their first bowl of water. © Rusty Burlew.


One queen, a few bees, and a dash of skill

During our recent discussion of package bee strength, Bill Hesbach of the Back Yard Beekeeper’s Association (southwestern Connecticut) sent me the following photo of a package of bees he received back in May of 2013. He asked for credit on the order, but then managed to install the few bees that were left because he thought the queen seemed strong and healthy.

Before he took the photo he removed the queen cage and the remaining live bees but, as you can see, most of the bees were dead. With some TLC, Bill managed to nurse the remainder back to health. He said, ” . . . the queen was fantastic. [The colony] came back and built two deeps the first year. They wintered and made lots of honey the second year.”

The bees deaths are sad, of course, but it shows what a little patience and determination can accomplish. Coaxing the colony back to health is so much better than rejecting the order, which is a death sentence for the rest of them.

Nice work, Bill, and thanks for the pic.

One side of the shipping cage of a mostly dead package. Only the queen and a handful of bees remained, but Bill managed to grow them into a healthy colony. © Bill Hesbach.

Would I accept this package?

Editor’s Note: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m sure your stories and opinions will help other beekeepers in the future, and that is what matters most.

I haven’t yet tallied the results, but it seems most people would accept the package, although some would not be happy about it. Many of you realized that rejecting the shipment would mean certain death for those remaining, so you would be willing to give it a try. I admire the can-do attitude.

What follows is my original post, written before I asked your opinion.

I read the beekeeper’s e-mail before I saw the photo, so his frustration surprised me. My gut reaction? I would accept that package in a heartbeat, as long as the queen was alive and frisky.

While shipping bees long distances is not ideal for bees or beekeepers, I can imagine situations where it might be necessary, so I won’t second guess the keeper’s decision.

My own experience with packages has been very good. I’ve never received a package with so many dead bees; on the other hand, I’ve never ordered a package to be delivered through the mail. I suspect that after five days in the hands of the postal service, this was a very good outcome.

Many years ago I was taught the one-inch rule: as long as the layer of dead bees wasn’t more than an inch thick, it was okay. I still go by that.

As most of you know, a package of bees is merely a mechanism for getting a colony started. Except for the queen, the bees in that package will all be dead in a matter of weeks, so it isn’t like buying a shipment of ewes. Worker bees are ephemeral—here today, gone tomorrow.

I tried to estimate the expected dead with a calculation. It works as long as you are willing to make a lot of wild assumptions. On paper, I assumed the following:

  1. Worker bees live an average of 35 days in the spring and summer. (Four to six weeks is a frequently cited number, so I took an average of 5 weeks and multiplied it by 7 days.)
  2. I assumed a three pound package.
  3. I assumed 3750 bees per pound or 11,250 bees/three-pound package. (I often see estimates of 3500 to 4000 bees per pound—depending on whether they are hungry or not. So I took an average of the two.)
  4. I assumed an even distribution of ages. (To make packages, bees are shaken from their hives into large containers. These bees are then funneled into queen-containing screened packages that sit on a scale. When the proper weight is reached, a can of syrup is added and the packages are stapled together for transport.) So my assumption here is that the package contains an even distribution of ages from one day to the maximum of 35 days.
  5. I assumed that bees are dying from old age alone, and not from the stresses of traveling or disease. So even under ideal conditions, 1/35 of the bees die every day. (In other words, once they reach 35 days, they die.)

So 1/35 of 11,250 is 321. That’s how many die in a day. Multiply this by 5 days of travel and you get 1605. So assuming the package was handled perfectly—and the bees are healthy—I would expect to see at least 1605 dead bees after five days.

That is 14.3% of the initial package, or approximately 1/7. An easier way to do this is to say 5 days is 1/7 of an average bee life (35/5=7) so about 1/7 will die during the trip.


I know, lots of assumptions, but it gives you a ballpark estimate. I can easily imagine I’m seeing 1/7 of the bees on the floor of the cage. I can also see that it’s less than an inch, so I would go with it.

As I said, ordering packages by mail is risky business and should be a last resort. But even packages that are ordered through a club or retailer can look bedraggled by the time you get them. It helps to have an idea of what to expect before you see them.

If all this is true, it is logical to wonder why some packages have no dead bees. Reason: My 4th assumption (an even distribution of ages) doesn’t work in early spring. When colonies are rapidly growing, the population distribution favors young bees. If you are lucky enough to get a package containing mostly very young bees, few will die. If, however, you get a package that contains a high proportion of older bees, more will die. In some ways, it is just luck.