Spring weather is coming late in many areas and beekeepers are asking questions about installing package bees in cold weather. I’ve heard of beekeepers keeping their packages indoors, bringing hives into barns and garages, adding heaters, and wrapping hives in plastic.
In truth, I don’t think the cold weather is detrimental to packages in most cases. Beekeepers have been hiving packages in 40° rain and freezing nights for decades. Honey bees can handle those conditions with ease.
No brood, no problem
The main problem with opening an established colony in cold weather is chilling the brood. Chilled brood can die outright or contract brood diseases, so it’s best to avoid chilling an active nest whenever possible. But packaged bees have no brood, so you are free of the major problem.
Clusters of bees without brood maintain a lower temperature, too. The core temperature of an active brood nest is kept at about 95° F (35°C). According to Currie, Spivak and Reuter in The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), the minimum core temperature when no brood is present is down around 68°F (20°C). That is a large difference.
Bad weather with benefits
Taken together, those two facts—no brood and a cooler cluster—are the reason that hiving packages in cold weather nearly always works. In addition, installing in cold weather can reduce drifting.
It seems like a warm and sunny day would be perfect for installing packages. But if you have more than one, you will nearly always get lots of drift on those perfect days. The bees from each package get out and fly around. In all the confusion, and because most are not strongly attached to their unreleased queen, the bees go back to any hive they want.
They often drift to the end hive, or the sunniest hive, and that becomes home. Install two equal packages on a nice day and you may end up with two-thirds or even three-quarters of all the bees in one hive. It only takes a few minutes. This rarely happens in cold and nasty weather because the bees stay inside and have time to learn where home is.
Hiving package bees in cold weather
How much attention you give to each colony depends, in part, on how many you have. Most who will read this are newer beekeepers with a small number of hives, so here are some suggestions from my own experience that will maximize your success with a cold-weather install.
- Use a small hive. In a Langstroth, install into a single deep or, at most, two mediums.
- Close off the screened bottom board with the slide-in varroa tray to reduce drafts.
- Place frames of honey near the sides of the brood box, if you have some available. Honey is a food source, but it also has a high heat capacity which reduces rapid fluctuations in temperature.
- Install the bees.
- Make a place to dump the bees by removing three or four frames from the center. Once the bees are in, replace the frames.
- Alternatively, you can place an empty box over the brood box to use as a funnel. Dump the bees into the empty box, wait for them to filter down between the frames, and then remove the empty box.
- A third alternative is to remove enough frames so you can place the package right into the hive and let the bees walk out. See “Installing a new package of bees.”
- Add a feeder and close up the hive.
- The feed should go inside the hive. I prefer baggy feeders for new packages because you can lay them right across the top bars, which is the warmest area outside of the cluster. Hot air rises from the cluster and warms the feed. Since baggy feeders are thin, they easily absorb the heat.
- Some beekeepers prefer frame feeders, which also work well.
- You can also place the feed can that came with the package above the cluster, either directly on the bars or on the hole of an inner cover. Place an empty box around the can so it is enclosed.
- Insulate if needed. Some people like to add a sheet of Styrofoam insulation, cut to fit, above the inner cover. Alternatively, you can use a quilt box filled with wood chips. Do not, however, use an upper entrance for a new package.
A word of warning
If you find your bees seemingly dead and comatose, do not rush to clean up the mess. Sometimes they are just cold. Oftentimes they will be fine after they warm up. Just don’t jump to conclusions and toss them away too soon. See “Dead bees rising” for how I treated dead bees that eventually flew away.
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