Editor’s Note: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m sure your stories and opinions will help other beekeepers in the future, and that is what matters most.
I haven’t yet tallied the results, but it seems most people would accept the package, although some would not be happy about it. Many of you realized that rejecting the shipment would mean certain death for those remaining, so you would be willing to give it a try. I admire the can-do attitude.
What follows is my original post, written before I asked your opinion.[line]
I read the beekeeper’s e-mail before I saw the photo, so his frustration surprised me. My gut reaction? I would accept that package in a heartbeat, as long as the queen was alive and frisky.
While shipping bees long distances is not ideal for bees or beekeepers, I can imagine situations where it might be necessary, so I won’t second guess the keeper’s decision.
My own experience with packages has been very good. I’ve never received a package with so many dead bees; on the other hand, I’ve never ordered a package to be delivered through the mail. I suspect that after five days in the hands of the postal service, this was a very good outcome.
Many years ago I was taught the one-inch rule: as long as the layer of dead bees wasn’t more than an inch thick, it was okay. I still go by that.
As most of you know, a package of bees is merely a mechanism for getting a colony started. Except for the queen, the bees in that package will all be dead in a matter of weeks, so it isn’t like buying a shipment of ewes. Worker bees are ephemeral—here today, gone tomorrow.
Estimating the numbers
I tried to estimate the expected dead with a calculation. It works as long as you are willing to make a lot of wild assumptions. On paper, I assumed the following:
- Worker bees live an average of 35 days in the spring and summer. (Four to six weeks is a frequently cited number, so I took an average of 5 weeks and multiplied it by 7 days.)
- I assumed a three pound package.
- I assumed 3750 bees per pound or 11,250 bees/three-pound package. (I often see estimates of 3500 to 4000 bees per pound—depending on whether they are hungry or not. So I took an average of the two.)
- I assumed an even distribution of ages. (To make packages, bees are shaken from their hives into large containers. These bees are then funneled into queen-containing screened packages that sit on a scale. When the proper weight is reached, a can of syrup is added and the packages are stapled together for transport.) So my assumption here is that the package contains an even distribution of ages from one day to the maximum of 35 days.
- I assumed that bees are dying from old age alone, and not from the stresses of traveling or disease. So even under ideal conditions, 1/35 of the bees die every day. (In other words, once they reach 35 days, they die.)
So 1/35 of 11,250 is 321. That’s how many die in a day. Multiply this by 5 days of travel and you get 1605. So assuming the package was handled perfectly—and the bees are healthy—I would expect to see at least 1605 dead bees after five days.
That is 14.3% of the initial package, or approximately 1/7. An easier way to do this is to say 5 days is 1/7 of an average bee life (35/5=7) so about 1/7 will die during the trip.
I know, lots of assumptions, but it gives you a ballpark estimate. I can easily imagine I’m seeing 1/7 of the bees on the floor of the cage. I can also see that it’s less than an inch, so I would go with it.
Knowing what to expect
As I said, ordering packages by mail is risky business and should be a last resort. But even packages that are ordered through a club or retailer can look bedraggled by the time you get them. It helps to have an idea of what to expect before you see them.
If all this is true, it is logical to wonder why some packages have no dead bees. Reason: My 4th assumption (an even distribution of ages) doesn’t work in early spring. When colonies are rapidly growing, the population distribution favors young bees. If you are lucky enough to get a package containing mostly very young bees, few will die. If, however, you get a package that contains a high proportion of older bees, more will die. In some ways, it is just luck.