Inside: The longer you wait to release your queen, the fewer bees remain to care for her and her brood.
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Different opinions on releasing the queen
One of the common concerns when installing a new package of bees is how long to keep the queen caged. Experienced beekeepers have very different philosophies on this subject, ranging from “just release her with the package” to “keep her confined for 7 to 10 days.” Several readers have asked why I recommend 2-3 days.
You can’t make a hard and fast rule, partly because there are many unknowns. For example, you don’t know how long the queen and the bees in your package have been together. The answer depends on several things, including how far the bees traveled.
The bees in the package are probably not related
It helps to remember that packaging operations dump bees from many hives into big containers. The bees then go through a funnel and into a package box that sits on a scale. When the box reaches the desired weight—usually 2 to 3 pounds—they add a caged queen from a queen-rearing operation and a can of syrup. No one is related to anyone else, or so it seems.
If they ship the package a long way, the workers have time to adjust to the queen’s pheromone. If they ship it locally—say less than a day or two—the bees may not yet have adjusted to her. That is an important part of knowing when to release the queen.
The bees age while you wait
The primary reason I don’t wait 7 to 10 days is this: spring and summer adult bees live an average of 4-6 weeks which is about 28-42 days. You don’t know the ages of the bees that were packaged, but let’s say they average 4-5 days old. Some will be older, some younger, but on average they will be fairly young.
Let’s add three days for shipping and make them 7-8 days old when you receive them. Now let’s say you add 7 days of holding time for the queen, which means the workers are 14-15 days old before the queen is released.
The released queen may wait a few days before she starts to lay. Let’s say 3 days. Now your workers are 17-18 days old when the first egg is laid. So now add 21 days before the first worker brood starts to emerge. Now your original workers are 38-39 days old. Recall that your spring and summer workers are going to live an average of 28-42 days.
Release the queen while workers are young
What is happening is that your original package has almost died off before your new bees start to emerge. Your colony will take a huge dip in population during this period in any case, but the longer you wait to release the queen, the worse it will get.
You want to have enough bees to care for the queen, build combs, and prepare the nest. In addition, they need to feed the larvae, defend the hive, keep the brood warm, collect water, pollen, nectar, and propolis . . . and perform all the other myriad hive tasks. So, although you want to be reasonably sure the queen will be accepted, you don’t want to run the colony numbers too low.
This is why I advocate estimating how long the bees have been with their new queen, and then adding a few days until it totals about 5-7. In my case, I estimate 3 days in transit and add another 2-3, then I release the queen. I’ve never had a queen rejected using this method, nor have I run a hive population so low it couldn’t recover.
Honey Bee Suite