honey bee management

One queen, a few bees, and a dash of skill

During our recent discussion of package bee strength, Bill Hesbach of the Back Yard Beekeeper’s Association (southwestern Connecticut) sent me the following photo of a package of bees he received back in May of 2013. He asked for credit on the order, but then managed to install the few bees that were left because he thought the queen seemed strong and healthy.

Before he took the photo he removed the queen cage and the remaining live bees but, as you can see, most of the bees were dead. With some TLC, Bill managed to nurse the remainder back to health. He said, ” . . . the queen was fantastic. [The colony] came back and built two deeps the first year. They wintered and made lots of honey the second year.”

The bees deaths are sad, of course, but it shows what a little patience and determination can accomplish. Coaxing the colony back to health is so much better than rejecting the order, which is a death sentence for the rest of them.

Nice work, Bill, and thanks for the pic.


One side of the shipping cage of a mostly dead package. Only the queen and a handful of bees remained, but Bill managed to grow them into a healthy colony. © Bill Hesbach.


  • As a newbie, what exactly does “coaxing the colony back to health” actually mean? How was this colony treated differently than another that may or may not have had a strong queen. And how did he determine that the queen was “strong and healthy”?

  • If I can get a good 3# package of bees in early April, with a little feed, I can usually get a shallow super of honey the first year. So why would anyone want to accept a package like that when they had paid for a 3# package?

    • Ray,

      In this case, the beekeeper requested a refund but he was still able to salvage the queen with the few bees that remained. Often a photograph is sufficient to make a claim. Sending a box of dead bees on a return trip to the seller is pointless.

  • Wow, how amazing that he could do that with so few bees! I feel bad that I thought it would be better to send the bees back if there were a lot of dead ones, but being new I had no idea that the bees were going back to certain death, and now that I know I wouldn’t send them back either. My first attempt last year of beekeeping I had a package delivered after being on the road for 7 days, and they didn’t make it. I tried everything I knew, and the robber bees hurt them and then the ants killed the rest. It was a terrible experience, but this year I have two healthy hives because I refused to give up. I’m so excited and hope they make it thru the winter here in Indiana. I would sure like to know what he did to coax them back to health though. It could sure help us new beekeepers.

  • They can bounce back and be very productive.
    Mine did but the point is the amount of dead bees and it is not acceptable no matter. That package in the picture is a horrific sight. Makes me sad to see such treatment and the end result.
    Regards to all.

  • Donna, I can’t really speak to ‘how to coax a colony back to health’…but the best way to evaluate a queen’s health and strength is to observe her laying pattern, and brood area. As in: eggs, larvae and capped brood- is she laying like crazy, is there enough nurse bee population to cover the brood, and is her brood pattern tight. Right, Rusty?

    • Rick,

      Agreed. Plus, even before she is released, is she large and fully developed? Is she lively, running around and trying to get out of the cage? Or is she lethargic, alive but barely moving? You can tell a lot by looking.

  • Good for him, high five and a gold star!

    Where there is life (and a queen) there is hope, well done that man, well done that queen.

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