Honey bees unite!

Here’s a new take on package installation—new to me at least. If anyone has heard of this happening, I would sure like to know.

Last week Nancy, of Shady Grove Farm in Kentucky, installed two packages of honey bees from an in-state supplier. The bees were placed in used deeps that had been cleaned and prepared in advance.

Each package of bees was given used but clean brood combs along with two frames of honey. The queens were in standard cages with candy plugs. No new wood was in either hive.

The next day when Nancy checked on the colonies, she found all the bees—both packages—in one hive! The empty hive contained the caged queen along with about 100 workers. The full hive had every frame covered with bees, and more bees draped from the inner cover. What happened?

I thought this was fascinating, so I began to read Nancy’s e-mail to my husband. I had no sooner read her introductory words when he interrupted and said, “Let me guess! All the bees went to one hive.”

This floored me even more because I couldn’t figure out how he—not a beekeeper—saw it coming when I didn’t. I asked him why he thought that.

He said sooner or later the bees from one large hive would be separated into two packages, and maybe one of the packages contained the original queen. Then, as soon as they had the chance, they would all reunite.

This makes sense on some level, but I have images of bees from many hives getting vacuumed up into a big barrel and then parceled out to individual packages that are outfitted with random queens from the factory. If that were the case, I can’t see his theory working, but maybe smaller operations package their bees differently. I just don’t know.

In any case, I recommended she split the hive and try again. She did it by moving the bee-encrusted inner cover and two bee-covered frames back to the empty hive. After two days it seems to be holding, although the one hive is still much more populous than the other.

Nancy plans to equalize the populations after the bees settle in and the queens begin laying—an excellent idea that will help the smaller hive build up faster.

So, what do you think? What happened here and why? Does anyone have a theory or experience with this? Nancy and I would love to know more.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

WesternWilson
Reply

My bee mentor imported a number of packages last year from NZ and installed them all in a single beeyard. When she returned to check on queen releases, to her surprise about 4 hives worth of workers had migrated to one hive and queen. The migrants all came from adjacent or next over hives. We named the hive “Animal House”, but in retrospect perhaps we should have called it “Sophia Loren”…not only was the queen prolific, but she seemed to attract drifters at an unusual rate. We concluded she must have an extra potent queen pheromone profile. One benefit (although the hives were equalized on discovery of the party) was that the combined worker force drew out 20 deep frames in two days!

Rusty
Reply

That must have been amazing to see!

Aram
Reply

Interesting theory. I will test it in the future. I find similar behavior with mating nucs, but what I attributed that behavior to was a queen with stronger pheromones that workers were attracted to. Were the queens of the same lineage? If workers can give preference to raising queen cells with grubs of similar background to them, why not gravitate toward an italian queen if they are of italian origin.

Scrap Iron
Reply

I’ve seen bees packaged up and your hubby is right on track.

Besides, how many “In State” Kentucky suppliers have hives strong enough this early in the year to make up packages?

Rusty
Reply

Scrap Iron,

I wondered that as well. Seems a bit early.

Gene Rinke
Reply

Hi Rusty

My guess is that the hives were too close together and they all went to one box.

Gene

Gary Rondeau
Reply

I’m going with Gene here. It is not just queen pheromone that tells the bees that they are home. In fact, when hiving swarms you know you have made it when the bees start fanning at the entrance with their butts in the air to release the “here is home” pheromone for other bees to find their way. This happens when you hive packages as well, and if one hive does it to excess and the other is near by, I can see this leading to more bees moving “home” and more bees fanning too as “here’s home” and the whole thing going unstable until all of the bees are in one box. (Except for that handful around the other queen where the queen pheromone IS stronger.)

Gary

JoAnne
Reply

I agree with your husband. I saw a video of a small operation shaking bees and they just pulled out frames from hives and started shaking from one until the package was full, then they shook the next frame into the next package until it was full. They filled several packages with bees from the same colony. Not sure about the original queen, because this operation raised and caged queens and plopped one into each package, but I suppose an even smaller operation might put the original queen into one of the packages. I wondered why packages combining didn’t happen more often, but ours travel several days by truck to get to us, so by that time bees are used to the queen they got.

Rusty
Reply

JoAnne,

Thanks, this is good to know. I suspected packages might be done that way in very small operations, but I didn’t know for sure. Good point, too, on the distance. Those that travel long distances are most likely acclimated to the queen by the time they arrive.

Dave
Reply

My initial thought was the same as your husband’s. If they had not been separated for too much time, the bulk of them might have recognized their old queen.

The other thought that comes to mind is that maybe the queen that was left is not producing enough queen pheromone; with conditions not being optimal for supersedure the bees were attracted to the strong queen maybe?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

Yes, other people had this thought as well, and I think it is very likely. Queens vary greatly in their ability to produce pheromone, so that is probably the best theory.

Morris
Reply

Well that’s interesting! I tried to remember similar situations and this is what I have come up with: a few days ago I received a battery box with 28 queens. All the queens were getting various amounts of attention from the nurse bees that were sent with the queens. There were two caged queens that were getting a disproportional amount of attention. I assumed these queens were better mated and hence producing a greater pheromone bouquet. You see this greater attention with better bred queens in established hives too. In that situation those queens have a larger retinue of attendants.

So to get back to the package question, perhaps the hive that attracted the bees from the nearly vacated hive was better mated and therefore more attractive.

What do you think?

Morris

Rusty
Reply

Morris,

I think you are right. When I look back, I’ve always noticed that some queens attract workers like a magnet attracts filings—they are practically stuck in place. Other queens, though they are attended, don’t have that kind of magnetism, and some run around with barely any attention paid to them at all, even though they lay viable eggs and manage to keep the colony together. I wonder, though, if it is the genetics of the drones, the number of drones, or some other variable that is making the difference.

Nancy
Reply

Well, Rusty, before I saw all these comments another club member called to say that two new packages of his had combined. And as you noted from another correspondent, the combined hive was roaring with stores and newly drawn comb. It helped that he had lots of honey from last season, but he had put equal amounts in both hives.

His may have been too close together: he has one stand for both hives making it very difficult to work, and I suggested he make separate stands. He had waited ten days to check, so we’ll see how the split works.

But mine were the same distance apart as others I’ve used for packages which stayed put. And the honey and old brood frames were from the same established hive.

In any case, splitting them seems to have worked out OK for now. Both queens are out and laying, and surprisingly, both have stored a lot of nectar for early May. And if this discussion has been helpful to anyone else, it’s worth the experience.

Nancy
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, KY

“The miracle is not walking on water. The miracle is walking on the green Earth.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh

Rusty
Reply

Nancy,

If nothing else, I’ve learned a lot from it. Thanks!

Hafiz
Reply

Rusty!!! What a timely post. I think you answered a serious question. Few weeks back I installed 2 new packages and it seems one has way too many bees than the other. Same environment, same level of feed, same field of mint, Japanese yomogi – everything. I think your theory makes sense. They merge somehow.

Does it then also answer why one colony is always weaker (it has always been my case) when we install 2 packages at the same time?

To equalize the situation then, should I just take some frames with bees and switch? How about I switch the hive locations…then the foragers from the stronger hive might go to the weaker hive? Or, that a bad idea?

Thanks!
Hafiz

Rusty
Reply

Hafiz,

Yes, I think this happens much more frequently than I ever imagined. To equalize, you can move frames of brood from one hive to another, or your idea will work as well.

Nancy
Reply

Rusty,

You’ll get an email with picture about this. Briefly, about ten days ago I gave the smaller hive a frame of brood from the larger, and when I checked this week, they had made and sealed a supersedure cell. So it seems the theory of the second queen’s pheromones (or however they can tell her genetics) is a good explanation.
Just a note to the commenter about Kentucky: our supplier is located in-state. The bees were from Georgia. Sorry about the confusion.
Nan

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