spring management

Post-package anxiety

Every time I install a new package of bees, I get post-package anxiety. It comes from thinking too much about the egregious price I just paid for a bunch of bees that, save for the queen, has a lifespan of four or five weeks.

Not only is the package doomed to fade away, but the bees have a lot to accomplish before they do all that fading. They have to accept the hive, establish it as their home, build a nest, tend to the brood, and start putting away stores. In short, they have to replace themselves inside of a month and, since there is no brood in the oven when they start, hive failure is only one mistake away.

The first thing I worry about is the queen. Is she alive? Will they accept her? Is she fertile? And will she be a decent layer? And then there’s the rest of the gang. Will they like their new home, or will they abscond the first chance they get? Will enough bees survive long enough to care for that critical first batch of brood?

Instead of becoming more relaxed with the passing years, I’ve gotten more anxious. Before I knew so many things could go wrong, I didn’t worry nearly so much. But now . . . well . . . I even invent things that might go awry.

Nineteen days ago I installed three packages, the first I’ve purchased in several years. I released the queens three days after installation and then left the colonies alone for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks I decided on an abbreviated inspection—just a quick look for brood with minimal disruption.

That brief look turned into one of those joyous moments in beekeeping. In each hive I saw brood all the way to the frame edges and solid as rocket fuel. What a sight! The hive populations are set to explode in the next two weeks and there are still many bees from the original packages. I have never seen so many frames of brood come together so fast.

Are they as anxious as I?

So what did I do differently? The answer is honey. I had many, many frames of honey on hand, so I started each package on five frames of drawn comb sandwiched between five frames of honey. I was really excited about the prospect of not having to make syrup, which is why I did it, but I never imagined it would have such an impact on the bees.

Now that I’m thinking about it, of course their feed would affect their performance. Honey is designed to be the perfect bee diet and has much more to offer than syrup. It’s full of vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals and flavonoids. It has a flawless balance of sugar types. It has flavor and aroma. It has the ideal amount of stickiness and the perfect amount of water. No doubt I have made a great discovery . . . honey is good for bees!


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    • Kristin,

      I wrap them in plastic wrap, freeze over night, then store the still-wrapped frames in an unheated shed.

  • I got my one package 19 days ago as well, the queen is laying like crazy. Did you also get your bees from Trees n Bees?

  • Hi Rusty. I installed 20 packages this year and and bought 35 queens for splits bringing my hive count up to 150…I know, crazy! One of the things I like to do to boost my packages and, at the same time, reduce swarming is to steal about 5 frames of bees and brood from my strong hives to combine with the package. The procedure works like this: First, I give the package time to release the queen and for her to start laying. Indeed, I wait until there is capped brood a couple of days from emerging. By this time the bees that came with the package are only a couple of weeks from expiring at best. This typically occurs around the end of April. This is also when the bees around these parts begin having visions of swarming. I go through those strong hives and do a little thinning of their population by stealing about 4 frames with capped brood with the attendant bees and a nice frame of honey. Obviously, you must be certain not to take the queen when you do this. I checker board either empty drawn comb or new foundation in the place of those frames. In most cases, this slows the swarming instinct. The bees I took are combined with the package bees by placing a sheet of newspaper over the box with the package and placing the box with the stolen brood and bees over top of that. It takes the bees a day or two to chew their way through the newspaper and, in the process, become accustomed to their new queens pheromone. I would guess the success rate of the combined bees accepting this new queen to be in the high 90’s percentile. I have seen times when the new bees, apparently, killed the queen and made an emergency queen cell but this is rare. Likely because I make a point to try to only take capped brood and larvae to old for them to make a queen out of. This super charges the new hive so that I can expect a honey crop from it and, perhaps, prevent an overwintered hive from swarming. It has worked well for me the last couple of years.


  • Is there any way to feed a new package of bees with honey if I have no frames from another hive? My first package of bees are arriving next week (2 weeks early) and I just found your website.

    • Cynthia,

      It is fine to feed honey as long as you can verify that it is free of disease. The best way to verify is to know the beekeeper and ask. Some of the worst bee diseases, including American Foulbrood, can be transmitted through infected honey. If you don’t know for sure, it is better to feed sugar syrup.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I installed a package of bees on 23 May this year, in a Warre hive. I fed them sugar syrup for about two weeks and then they stopped consuming it, so I stopped feeding. I did have a problem with robber bees in that time, which I wrote you about, but that problem has been resolved.

    I am fretting because this colony has not drawn much comb, only five partial ones, so far. Although I don’t see lots of bees coming in and out, as I would expect based on what friends’ bees are doing by now, they do fly in and out, and I see many bees coming into the hive with pollen on their legs, over the course of the day.

    I tilted up the box to peek at the underside of the comb, and plenty of bees are clustered on the existing comb and they all seem to be busy as I would expect.

    I am concerned mainly because I want to be sure they have enough honey stored up by the time winter comes. I don’t care if we humans aren’t able to take any of the honey this year, but I do want them to be making enough for themselves to overwinter.

    Is this behavior within the range of normal a little over a month after installing them?

    Thanks for your help.

    • Pennie,

      You can answer this yourself. Count the days: 23 May to 25 June is 33 days. It will be three weeks for the very first eggs to hatch, assuming the queen laid eggs the first day. She probably did not because there wasn’t any comb. Let’s say she began laying eggs the third day. Now it’s 24 days before the very first egg hatches. That’s 9 days ago. Now, during that time, bees from the package will be dying every single day. So the net number of bees is going to go down until new bees are born (the first 24 days, roughly).

      Since there isn’t a lot of room to lay in the beginning, the queen gets a slow start. She may only lay a few hundred eggs a day in the beginning instead of a few thousand, so the build-up will be slow. When these bees first hatch, they will be nurses, taking care of the nursery for the first few weeks of their lives. So they are inside working, but not flying around.

      So add the two or three weeks they spend inside to your 24 days and it’s going to be 38 to 45 days before you see a lot of activity outside. You are at day 33. You need to relax. The bees know what they are doing.

  • Thank you so much for this reply, Rusty. First-time beekeeper’s nerves, compounded by the loss of my first two packages. Those losses felt like they came out of the blue. I kept telling myself a less-sophisticated version of what you spelled out for me about this particular colony, but I still worried.

    This morning I sat, as usual, with the bees for a while. And a very clear thought came to me, as if sent by the bees themselves. I wasn’t fretting, just enjoying them and all the other insects and birds that fly around. The thought said, “This will all look very different in a month’s time.”

    So you just confirmed in human words what I got from the bees this morning. Thanks again so much.

  • Hi Rusty and readers

    I removed a tiny swarm of bees from an irrigation control box just over a week ago. They had three small pieces of comb with a bit of brood. I moved them into a nuc box and relocated them to my property. Given the size of the swarm, I assume it was a very old queen which took flight from a hive. It is the start of spring and therefore the beginning of swarm season.

    When checking them four days later I could not find the queen, nor were there any eggs, just young larvae and capped brood. Before panicking I waited a few more days to see if they would follow their emergency queening process using what they had, but no luck from what I could see.

    When checking them yesterday I found a capped queen cell, what a relief!. My intention yesterday was to remove the queen from a very strong hive and let them follow the emergency queening process, and save the small swarm.

    My question therefore is, seeing as their numbers are down since relocation and I want to help them recover and boost their numbers, would it be safe for me to wait until their new queen is laying, and then take a full shallow box, lock, stock and barrel from another strong hive and combine using the newspaper method onto a deep which contains the queen and a hand full of workers? I am concerned that the vast differential of bee numbers will be a problem for the tiny remaining swarm.

    Any other suggestions how I could significantly boost the swarm with minimal risk will be appreciated.


    South Africa