My bees swarmed right after installation

This is most likely to happen when you install a package of bees in a brand new, never-been-used hive. I’ve heard people say it’s the smell of new lumber they don’t like, or it’s the glue in plywood, or it’s the odor of paint. But it may just be that the bees are not in love with the place, and they would rather live elsewhere. Technically, they have not swarmed; they have absconded. Swarming is colony reproduction that produces two colonies from one. Absconding means all the bees left in one cohesive group. In other words, it is still only one colony—not two—and it lives somewhere inconvenient for the beekeeper.

The problem is easy to prevent. The package of bees will not leave without their queen, so if the queen can’t leave, the bees will stay and start to build comb. Once the comb-building process has begun—and the hive begins to smell like home—you can release the queen and relax.

To keep the queen home, you can leave her in the queen cage until comb-building is underway or you can use a swarm guard, which is like a queen excluder, across the entrance. Beekeeper Jim Withers pointed out that in Langstroth hives you can also use a regular queen excluder placed just under the lowest brood box. In any case, the queen should be released from her cage as soon as comb appears. Queen excluders need to be removed before any drones emerge.

I had several packages abscond at the prison where I taught beekeeping, all from top-bar hives. Since then, I always sequester the queen if the wood is new, or I install several bars of used brood comb—the darker the better—to start them off. This is the same type of comb you would use in a bait hive. Even though it looks disgusting, it is full of odors the bees find irresistible. Go figure.

But what about those old combs? Shouldn’t old black combs—which may contain pesticide build-up or disease—be rotated out of the hive? Absolutely. I handle this by using combs that are almost ready to retire, but not quite. For example, if you retire combs after four years, use three-year-old combs for baiting a hive or starting a colony on new wood. The following year you can rotate them out of the hives.

Playing hide and seek with a queen . . . or two

If you recall, I split my top-bar hive on Friday by shaking the frames over an empty box. Once done, I was clueless about where the queen had ended up. I looked through the frames of shook bees but found no sign of her.

Within a few hours I noticed the top-bar hive was calm and the shook swarm was loud, agitated, and aggressive. All this made me think the shook swarm was the queenless colony.

Since I had provided the swarm with drawn comb, I decided to check for eggs in about 24 hours. I found none on Saturday and none on Sunday–further evidence of queenlessness.

By this time I was impatient because my schedule wouldn’t allow for much beekeeping in the days to come, so instead of verifying further, I decided to go ahead and give the shook swarm the last queen I had in reserve. (Note: As a beekeeper, one should never be impatient.)

I put the queen in a cage and placed it the hive. Something was odd, though. Instead of fanning the new queen like crazy—a message that says, “Here’s our new queen and this is what she smells like”—the workers just stood on the cage and looked at her. I could hear them saying, “Who the heck are you?”

I decided to close up the hive anyway, but as I did so, I just knew it wasn’t right. So I tore off the cover and went queen hunting again. On the third frame, there she was–the original top-bar queen.

I did a fast backtrack and removed the new queen and cage. She wasn’t injured. I think the workers still hasn’t decided what to do with her or when. Maybe they were waiting for a court order.

In any case, no damage was done. But it reminded me that bees know what they are doing. Humans just think they know what bees are doing. So when in doubt, wait it out.


Monday morning myth: attendants must be removed from queen cages

Many beekeepers believe that you must remove attendant bees from queen shipping cages before you introduce a caged queen into a hive. They believe the queen will more likely be killed by the receiving hive if both the attendants and the queen have a foreign odor.

This simply is not true. If you install the caged queen properly, the attendants will cause no problem. Before long the queen’s pheromone will circulate throughout the hive. All the bees—as well as the attendants—will then smell the same.

You can install the queen and her attendants by simply putting the shipping cage near the center of the brood nest or cluster. For best results, the hive should have been queenless for at least 24 hours prior to installation. You can then just stick the shipping cage into the wax comb on one of the frames with the screen side open to the bees. Make sure the candy end is up and the cork end is down.

After several days, the worker bees will chew away the candy plug and release the queen into the hive. By then, the pheromone will be well distributed and the attendant workers will be absorbed into the colony along with the queen.

The bigger risk to the queen—especially by inexperienced beekeepers—may result from trying to get the attendants out of the queen cage. Queens have been lost, injured, or killed by well-meaning beekeepers who wrongly believed the attendants were a threat.

For more information on queen introduction, Strachan Apiaries, Inc. has a succinct little write-up on its website. Their instruction sheet specifically states that it is not necessary to remove the attendants. And you can trust them. After all, they are in the business of providing quality queens to beekeepers . . . and they don’t want them destroyed.


When to unite the queen and a package of bees

When you receive a package of bees, the queen is in her own small cage attached to the inside of the package. Some beekeepers release her as soon as they install the package, and some wait for as much as a week before releasing her. What are the reasons for the difference?

The packaging process is disruptive to the bees, being much like an industrial assembly line. Bees are sold by weight. Machines are taken out into the apiary and used to blow the right number of bees into each package. The queens come from a queen-rearing apiary and are completely unrelated to the bees in the box. Her little cage protects her from these bees as well as from being damaged in shipping and handling.

Whenever a group of bees is exposed to a new queen, they need time to accept her as their own. This can be a few days or a week, depending on a number of variables. Whether your bees have adjusted to this new queen probably depends on how long they’ve been together. If they were packaged yesterday, it would be risky to release her today. Usually, however, they’ve been together a number of days before you receive them, during which time they have probably accepted her.

Remember, though, that they’ve been vacuumed into a box, given an unknown queen, and trucked across the country. These are all stressful events. On top of that, you’re now giving them a new home in unfamiliar surroundings. The bees may decide it’s all the queen’s fault and kill her. So why be in a hurry?

There is another reason for waiting. Once in a while a package and their queen may decide they don’t like their new home, and the whole colony may up and leave. This is called absconding. It is more apt to happen if the hive is brand new without any existing comb. I actually had this happen one year, but I was lucky enough to find the cluster hanging in a bush not too far from the hive. However, the bees won’t leave the hive without their queen, so if you keep her caged until they start building some comb, they are less likely to go. A good supply of sugar syrup will speed up the comb-building process.

Some queen cages have a plug of hard candy in one end. The bees will eat through this and have her out in two or three days. Or, if your cage has a cork in one end, you can take out the cork and replace it with a piece of marshmallow. Both these methods provide some time for the bees to adjust to their new queen before she’s free. By the time she’s released, her scent is familiar to all the colony members.

Be sure to check after a few days. If the queen isn’t released by the time you think she should be, just pull off the screen and release her yourself.


How to install a package of bees

For the hobby beekeeper who is managing a small number of hives, installing a package can be quick and easy. I’ve tried different methods and I like this one the best.

The bees will soon leave the package and cluster around the queen cage, caring for her through the screen, and eating through the candy. You should leave them alone for two to three days. This is hard for new beekeepers, but you want them to adjust to their new home. In addition, too many disruptions at this stage may cause the bees to reject the queen, so just leave them alone.

On the third or fourth day, open the hive and make sure the queen has been released. If not, release her yourself. Take out the empty package, the empty queen cage, and return the five frames to the brood box.

Some caveats:

  • Don’t wait longer than two or three days to remove the shipping package and replace the frames, or the bees will start building comb in the wrong places.
  • If you don’t have frames of honey for your bees, they will need to be fed for a few weeks. An ample supply of syrup helps them with comb-building.
  • If you want to use a baggy feeder, you will have to lay the bags on top of the inner cover instead of directly on the frames, since there won’t be enough room on the five remaining frames. Position the bags so they don’t block the hole in the inner cover. Put the spacer rim (small super) between the inner and outer cover, in order to make room for the bag of syrup. If syrup remains when you return to remove the shipping cage, handle the inner cover gently so the syrup won’t spill.