honey bee behavior spring management

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.



  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Hi Rusty

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


    • 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.)


  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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.

  • 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,

      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.

  • 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.

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, KY

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

  • 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?


    • 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.

  • 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.

  • I’m so glad I read this post last week. I installed two packages of bees on Friday evening. On Saturday it was cold and rainy. Sunday I checked on the bees. Many bees around one hive, not so many around the second. Today I went back to check, and the busier hive had completely drained the 1 gallon feeder. The second hive still had quite a bit. But peeking in at the top bars of each hive, one hive was considerably more populous than the other. Having read this post, I was pretty sure what had happened. I contacted my mentor who confirmed that was the likely scenario. It was too cold to do anything more than provide more syrup today, but tomorrow she is coming to help me transfer some of the bees back to the smaller hive and hopefully this time they’ll stay. I’m just hopeful that enough bees stayed with that queen to keep her warm and fed through these cold wet few days! It’s been too cold to even look to see if she’s been released yet. (60’s when installed, but 30-40 and raining or snowing since, except for a few brief hours on Sunday).

    • Dawn,

      It will be hard to make them stay if they’ve already made an orientation flight. It’s easier to equalize once you have some brood frames.

  • I some what concur with the stronger queen pheromone theory, as the scent is stronger when they orient, they go into the other hive.

    Also would not hive swarms on screen bottom boards, makes the scent stream weaker. Also would separate as far as you could for hiving time frame. Drift would be less likely at 100 feet as apposed to 2 feet.


  • Hi Rusty. Last year was my first time keeping bees. I ordered two packages and this happened. Then they died over the winter (my fault) so I got two more. And it happened again! Seems like it must happen an awful lot. There was less than a cup of bees left in the one hive.

  • Timely post – same thing happened to me this past weekend. My one top-bar hive, packed with bees, swarmed Saturday morning to our nearby apple tree. My husband and I were able to retrieve and place them in a second top bar, located nearby to the original hive. By night time they were back at the original hive. Sunday morning they swarmed again to the same apple tree, we repeated the process all over again. This time they seemed to be settling in nicely, cleaning out some blossoms that came with them and carrying away the grass that we had packed gently in the entrance. Monday morning they were on the top bars checking everything out! Went out to my gardens after lunch, walked by the hive, and it seemed too quiet – only a few bees buzzing around. Looked in the window – surprise! Totally empty hive.

    They may have again gone back to the original hive because there was a roar coming from there. In either case, stormy weather was coming at night, so they made their decision (obviously didn’t like their new quarters) and made their move while the weather was still in their favor. Always learning!

  • Hi Rusty,

    First, I love how a thread that was posted 5 years ago is still active and helping new beekeepers like me – thank you for that!

    I installed my 1st two nucs about three weeks ago. Right away I noticed one was super busy and crowded, the other was much quieter, and seemed like it had fewer bees (although still enough that it seemed to be functioning OK). It didn’t occur to me that some of the bees might have switched hives, although now I’m wondering.

    I did my third inspection yesterday, and noticed that the weaker hive hasn’t done any work on the new foundation boards, although the five frames of wax that came with the nuc have eggs, various sizes of larva, sealed brood, pollen and honey. What worried me was what I think is a supersedure queen cell on one of the brood frames. I know they have a queen because there are eggs (I haven’t been able to spot the queens in either hive), and they have tons of room, so should I destroy that cell, or let them raise that queen. Did I just get a “weak magnet” queen in that hive and they are replacing her maybe?

    • Rachel,

      You should not destroy a random supersedure cell. If they don’t need it, the bees will take care of it. If they do need or want to replace the queen, that is how they go about it. If you always destroy queen cells, you may end up queenless.

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