The neighbor lady smells best

When I tally the comments and e-mails related to my last post, I find a variety of opinions on why multiple packages of bees might move into one hive. Many agreed with my husband that the packages could have come from the same hive and wanted to reunite. A few thought the colony that most effectively fanned their Nasanov pheromone would gain the most followers. A majority thought the amount or quality of queen pheromone was the deciding factor.

Personally, I tend to side with the queen pheromone theory, but here is my question: suppose you install two packages in side-by-side hives. Everything is essentially equal but you have a prevailing breeze that blows queen pheromone (or Nasanov pheromone) away from one hive and toward the other hive. Could the inequality of pheromone resulting from being upwind or downwind affect the outcome? Just a thought.

In any case, far from being an unusual occurrence, having your packages move in together seems to be rather common. And when I read the stories and theories, I realized that it could be a number of factors—not just one—that causes bees to behave this way.

On the plus side, those beekeepers who tried to put their bees back in the “right” place seemed to succeed. So the take-home message is this: be mindful that combining of packages may occur, and if it does, go back and separate them.

Since that post, I’ve heard many package stories. Many beekeepers have had packages combine, many newbees had packages abscond completely (new wood with no comforting bee smells is my theory here), one beekeeper reported a supersedure cell built inside the package, several found dead queens, and one had no queen. But here’s the story that got my attention:

A beekeeper in Arkansas ordered two packages and an extra queen from a well-known supplier in Texas to be delivered overnight. When the order arrived, the extra queen was tucked inside one of the packages. In other words, one package had one queen cage and the other package had two queen cages. The beekeeper had no difficulty with the normal package, but the colony that shipped with two queens wouldn’t stay put. All but a few of the bees abandoned the queen that was left for them.

So once again, I’m asking for information. Since I have never seen extra queens shipped this way, I would like to know if this is common practice or if it is crazy. Multiple virgin queens are commonly found in one hive, and sometimes mother and daughter queens are found in one hive, but how often do you have two young, strong, newly-mated queens reeking of pheromone in one place? Did the bees leave in search of the queen that was taken out, or was all that pheromone too confusing for your average bee? Just wondering what you think . . .


New package ready to be installed.
With luck, they’ll stick around. © Tracey Byrne.

Can I start a new package on honey instead of syrup?

Sugar syrup is not the equivalent of infant formula. Sugar syrup is not something we feed to package bees because they are young, immature, or mere fledglings. In fact, bees are adults when they emerge from the brood comb. During their babyhood as larvae and pupae they ate royal jelly and bee bread, but an adult bee is fully formed and capable of eating real food. Real food for adult honey bees is honey.

I’ve been trying to understand why this question is so common, and I’ve concluded that we beekeepers give the impression that a new colony must have sugar syrup in order to survive, so new beekeepers become confused about its importance. Of course, this makes no sense: sugar syrup is a modern invention and honey bees are not.

As I’ve said before, we are lucky that bees can live on syrup because it’s so convenient when we don’t have honey on hand, or if the only honey we have is from an unknown source. But must bees have sugar syrup to start a new colony? Of course not.

Even though bees can survive on syrup, it is still a stop-gap measure suitable for short periods when better food is not available. Sugar is pure carbohydrate, pure energy for bees. It supplies no nutrients, no vitamins, no trace elements. So if you have honey from your own healthy hives, or the healthy hives of someone else, by all means feed them honey instead of sugar syrup. Your colonies will thrive because they have everything they need, not just the calories.

And, no, you don’t have to extract it and put it in a feeder. Good heavens, a feeder is also a modern invention. We put syrup in feeders not because the bees prefer it that way, but because we are not good at putting it in combs. The bees adapt to what we give them, but that doesn’t mean they prefer it.

You can put the frames of honey beside the new cluster or above it. If the honey is in their way, the bees will move it until they have their home arranged just the way the like. Trust them; they know what they are doing.


Are their ethics loose in the package too?

This e-mail came in today. I’m interested to see if you agree with my answer or have a better idea.
I just installed my first package a week ago into a top bar hive. The queen was dead in her cage and I was told this usually means there is a queen in the package loose, so give it 3-5 days and see what happens. The weather immediately took a turn for the worse, with days in the 50s and nights below freezing. At first we saw some bees making flights, but over the past few days, nothing.

Due to the cold weather, I haven’t had a chance to take a look until today, exactly a week from when I installed them. The bees are all clustered on the floor of the hive. The cluster is just about the size of a baseball. They hadn’t discovered the sugar I’d put behind the follower, no comb has been built, and there’s signs of defecation inside the hive (3 or 4 spots of bee poo on one wall).

I moved the sugar in next to them instead of leaving it behind the follower, and lightly dusted the cluster with it so they have at least a little something to eat that they can’t help but find.

My question is, what next? If I need to order another package, it needs to happen asap, likewise if I just need to order a queen. The next several days are supposed to be gloriously warm and sunny, with more moderate night time lows. Do I wait another few days and see what happens? Should I go ahead and order a whole new package? Order just a queen?

The place I got the bees from says they have no idea about bees in top bar hives, so they aren’t any help!



Whoever told you that a dead queen in her cage meant there is a queen loose in the package was either ignorant or lying. And anyway, even in the remote chance there was a loose queen in the package, you paid for the one in the queen cage and she should be alive and healthy.

With the queen dead, and no way of making a queen, the colony is just dying. It is hopeless. At this point, you need a whole new package including the queen. If the queen in the cage was dead and they sent you home without a replacement, they owe you a whole new package, including a live queen, at no extra charge.

In the meantime, put starter strips in your top-bar hive, if you haven’t already. Also, it’s not clear if you gave them solid sugar or syrup, but it should be syrup. Without lots of food they can’t build comb. So make syrup and add an attractant like lemongrass oil or anise oil so they can find it easier.

Next time, attach the queen cage to a middle bar and leave her in it a few day until comb building begins.

Andrea, I’m going to post this on the front page to see what other people think. I hope they agree.

Good luck, and next year get your bees from someone else.


The sugar syrup diaries

My next blog will be called The Sugar Syrup Diaries. It will cover 1:1, 2:1, 1:2, 1:4. How to cook. Beet or cane. Essential oils. Organic or conventional. pH. White or brown. Vinegar or lemon juice. Feeders. Timing. Spilling. Saving. Molding. Burning. In fact, I’ve already addressed each of these multiple times—ironic from a person who avoids the stuff whenever possible.

But alas, the discussion is not over. Syrup season is upon us, or maybe it never left. Today’s question is simple: Must you feed a new package of bees light syrup or can you feed them honey?

Sugar syrup has its uses, and a person with a new package of bees hardly ever has a super of honey laying around. But if you do, then you can certainly feed those bees honey instead of syrup. What is really amazing it that a lot of beekeepers will tell you otherwise.

I think these legends or wives’ tales (husbands’ tales would make more sense) result from doing the same thing year after year without analyzing the reason. When we think of packages we think of syrup partly because they come packed with it, and partly because we don’t have extra supers of honey. But is it best for the bees? Probably not.

We are lucky that sugar syrup is palatable to bees. It gets us through nectar dearths; it is readily available; it is adequate when you want your bees to start building comb. But, contrary to popular belief, your colony cannot start raising brood on sugar syrup alone. They also need pollen, or pollen substitute at the very least.

Unlike sugar, honey is laced with all kinds of things bees need for good health, including vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, antioxidants, and even small amounts of pollen. So if you want a package to get off to a roaring good start, there is nothing better than their natural food. The caveat, of course, is that honey can also carry disease organisms, which is why it is necessary to know the source of the honey you give to your colonies.
Many people give light syrup to overwintering colonies in the spring. This so-called “stimulative feeding” supposedly gets them raising brood sooner, resulting in bigger colonies earlier in the year. But many highly-regarded bee gurus dispute this. In any case, it may not be the best thing to do. Early brood rearing before pollen is readily available—or before a severe freeze—may do more harm than good.
Many commercial beekeepers do stimulative feeding in order to get their bees ready for pollination contracts. They need certain populations to fulfill their agreements, and we can’t fault these businessmen for doing what they need to do to pay their bills. But that doesn’t mean it is the best thing for the bees or that hobby beekeepers should employ the same technique. I’ve never heard that commercial bees are healthier than others.

The idea that a new colony must have sugar syrup is kind of amusing. It makes you wonder what they did for the 125-million-or-so years before C&H. Equally curious is the notion that bees won’t start raising brood without a dose of light syrup to remind them it’s spring. I’ve never heard of bees getting so high on honey they forget to raise kids. “Dammit honey! We forgot to raise a family!”

Obviously, if you run low on honey you have to feed. If you have no honey, you have to feed. But if you have plenty of perfectly good honey of a known source, don’t let anyone talk you out of it.


Update on ants

The post titled “Bad-ant ant advice and the ascension of bees” coaxed readers out of the woodwork. Some agreed with me that the ants were not the problem, some thought they were definitely the problem, and others thought there wasn’t enough information. I have to say that I learned a lot from the discussion. As with all beekeeping issues, the ant problem seems to hinge on the local environment: some places have troublesome ants and some don’t.

The reader who posed the original question has shared more information. It turns out I was right about new wood and no starters. He says, “I built a Warré hive . . . of new wood without foundation nor starter strips, just bare top bars.” He goes on to defend his decision to go with Warré, but I don’t consider that a problem. The shape and design of Warré hives is just fine and I have stolen a lot of good ideas from Warré beekeepers.

However, he goes on to describe the ants, “The ants are tiny and black, and I assume they are Argentine ants (I live in California).” Based on reader comments, it seems that California is one of the places where ants can definitely be a problem and Argentine ants can cause bees to flee.

The good news is we haven’t lost the beekeeper. He says, “I am okay with waiting until next year to try again.” He doesn’t want to buy a nuc because it won’t fit in his Warré, which is a good point. He adds, “After reading your posting (and reader comments) I accept that even without ants, my bees may still have left. But I will try and figure out a way of keeping ants out of my next hive.”

So for next year, I recommend the following:

  • Use starter strips or a bead of wax on the top bars (same as in a top-bar hive)
  • Keep the queen caged until the bees begin to build comb
  • In addition, you could place a pheromone lure inside the hive for a few days to give it a good homey smell before dumping the package
  • Use one or more of the reader-suggested ways to control Argentine ants

That’s where we stand at the moment. Besides being a bit wiser about ants, I’m ecstatic about having a new word in my bee vocabulary. But the thought of having to wait a whole year to hear how it all works out is nearly unbearable.