honey bee management

Would you accept this package of bees?


Would you accept this package of bees, or does it contain too many dead ones? Most beekeepers said it was okay.

I haven’t yet tallied the results of my survey, but it seems most people would accept this package of bees. However, 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.

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.

Packaged bees vary in quality

My own experience with packages has been very good. I’ve never received a package with this many dead bees. On the other hand, I’ve never ordered a package for delivery 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 learned 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 number of dead bees

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 per 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, the producer shakes bees from many hives into a large container. These bees are then funneled into queen-containing screened packages that sit on a scale. When the proper weight is reached, the producer adds a can of syrup and staples the packages 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 a bee reaches 35 days, it dies.)

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.

Yes, that’s a lot 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 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’s just luck.

Honey Bee Suite


  • Very impressive deductions. Thanks a lot. Me too, I learn a lot from you and I have learned a lot about packages through this dialogue between us.

  • Coming in late to the discussion, but, yes, I would accept the bees as long as the queen and the rest of the bees looked good. There appears to be a sufficient population left. To give them as much support as possible, I would, if at all possible, give the bees some drawn comb (a mated queen should be ready to start laying once the bees have accepted her) and I would continue feeding sugar syrup until they stop taking it.

    We are mentoring a new beekeeper who contacted us after ordering bees for mail delivery. The package was beautiful with a good-looking queen on arrival, but after a couple of weeks the hive was clearly queenless. The queen cage was empty on the beekeeper’s first inspection at 3 days. We think she got out too early and the colony killed her before she started laying. There were a couple of half started queen cups though the hive knew it had a problem, but there were no eggs to actually create a queen. We have given this colony a frame of eggs, larvae, and capped brood, hoping the bees will raise a queen and forestall a laying worker developing. Stuff that can happen even with a good package wherever it comes from.

  • Debbe, like you I would accept such a package, and if I had no queens would contact a local beek to see if they had some brood to put in the package with live larva should the queen fail they could have the ability to produce a queen and as you state would provide a fall syrup for them till they stop using it even if the season would normally use spring syrup…perhaps that logic demonstrates just how little I know, but that is why I come to this site…to learn.


  • Rusty,

    I haven’t been raising bees very long, but in the past 3 years I have purchased 6 package bees of various subspecies. Italians, Carniolan, Saskatraz, and a, (Caucasian mix, nasty). Every package I received had very little dead bees at all, if I had to count them, there wouldn’t have been more than 75 in any one package, in fact the last 2 packages I didn’t dump, I let them climb out into the hive, and if there were 10 bees left in the bee bus when removed it I would be surprised. For me to receive a package of bees that looked like that, would be like being sold a dog with mange. Not exactly how I would want to start out. I’m not saying you can’t treat it, or fix the problem, but again just not my first choice. I would be very disappointed and maybe even worried about their health. Maybe I’m picky, that’s just me though. Although that’s not to say they wouldn’t do just fine. Just my opinion. Happy Beekeeping!!

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