Many beekeepers are getting a resurgence of winter weather just as their package bees are arriving. The question, then, is how long can you keep bees in a shipping container?
For best results under normal circumstances, you want to install your bees as soon as possible. The same day you get them is best, especially if you don’t know how long they’ve been in the container. Some long-time beekeepers say no more than four days max, but you can probably keep them in there a week if you feed them.
Check the feeding can
First, check the feeding can. The level of syrup will give you some indication of how long the bees have been caged. I’ve read that the feed can should last for four days, but I imagine there is a lot of variation. On arrival, I’ve seen the cans totally full and totally empty and everything in between.
You can pull out an empty can and refill it with syrup or you can feed your bees by spraying the bees through the screen. Use a syrup of about 1:1 and spray three or four times a day.
Keep them cool and quiet
You should put the packages in a dark space that is cool, but not really cold or hot. I’d say about 50-55° F (10-12°C) is good. Too warm and they will thrash around and want to fly, too cold and their food requirement goes way up. Also, choose a spot that is dark and quiet. Remember, you want them to lie low for a few days without a lot of upset.
I’m guessing that well-fed bees in a dark and quiet space at the right temperature could survive 7 days, or maybe even 10. Nevertheless, you want to install them at the first available moment. Here’s why.
Bees die every day
Every day some of the bees in the package will die. These are the bees that must build the first comb, raise the first young, forage for the first supplies, and care for the queen. You need a certain number of bees to get all the work done. Even if the queen lays on day one after installation, it will be three long weeks before you get any new workers.
Spring and summer bees live an average of about four to six weeks. Let’s say five weeks (or 35 days) as an average. The bees in your package vary in age, although most are probably fairly young. But even if we assume they were only one day old when packaged, after a week in a cage, they’ve already used up 8 days. Now you’ve got 27 days left of the 35-day average lifespan.
It takes 21 day to raise brood. Subtracting that from your 27 days gives you 6 days of wiggle room. The wiggle room allows for a queen that isn’t released for a couple days or who doesn’t start laying right away. As you can see, a week in a shipping container is an unfortunate thing.
Conditions will vary
In truth, some of the bees will live longer and a cluster of bees has an amazing ability to survive. Against all odds, I’ve seen packages survive when all the numbers say they can’t. At least you’ve got that in your favor.
Still, keep these numbers in mind if you decide to warehouse your bees until better weather. If the weather stays above freezing, I would install as soon as possible. If the temperature dips below freezing, you may consider moving your hives inside. Every situation is different, but the point is that there is a limit to keeping them in a cage.
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