Package bee season has come and gone again. We used a new supplier for bees this year, so the cages and the process for install is different than what we had with our previous supplier. Some general background information on the bees
- Bulk bees – The bees were collected (shook) from their parent colonies throughout the day Saturday (5/19) up until nightfall. Due to the way the bees are collected there was the possibility of a mother queen being with the bulk bees since they are collecting young bees from the brood chambers. It doesn’t happen often, but our experience with other producers who use the same approach has been that less than 1% of packages have a loose queen in them. From the feedback we received from installers and from our own installations, we know there were some shook queens in with the bulk bees. Our estimate is that it was around 2% Typically the indicators of a shook queen in with the package bees is 1) the bees aren’t clustering around the queen cage in the package or 2) the caged queen is fine when installed and then is found dead in the cage when returning to inspect for release a few days later. Sometimes these situations are mis-identified as being a problem with the caged queen. Often installing a replacement caged queen ends the same way with the replacement dead in the cage.
- Queens – The queens were in 3-hole Benton cages and had attendants with them. The queens and their attendants were collected from the mating nucs on Thursday and Friday (5/17, 5/18). It is important, that if one encounters a DOA queen that they install her as normal since even though she is dead there is often enough queen pheromone on the cage to keep the bees in their new home until the replacement queen is installed. This is the strategy whether her death was due to an issue related to caging, transport or as a result of a shook queen. Occasionally there may be a dead attendant or two in the cage and this is normal.
- Pests –
- Varroa destructor – The colonies from which the bulk bees were shook are regularly treated for varroa. We don’t recommend treating packages for mites during installation since we feel the bees need some time to acclimate to their hive and the queen. The treatments can impact acceptance and will often result in a delay in laying. However, it is good practice to evaluate mite load through testing 10-14 days after install.
- Hive beetles –The hive beetle, is a member of the nitidulidae family, more commonly referred to as pill bugs. There are 73 species of picnic bugs in Wisconsin, but the hive beetle, nitidulidae aethina tumida, is a non-native. The hive beetle is a nuisance to honeybees and can become a significant problem in weakened colonies. The adult hive beetle will lay eggs in the hive. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on pollen, honey and bee larvae in the hive. The larvae then exit the hive, burrow into the soil and pupate. Hive beetles have been becoming an increasing problem throughout the US, including Wisconsin. They generally come with migratory colonies and nucleus colonies entering Wisconsin from California, Texas, Georgia, Florida. They can be transported with package bees as well. Three years ago we received word of hive beetle problems in packages coming out of central and northern California, which was new. It has always been a concern in packages out of the southeast but illustrates the problem is becoming widespread. Generally, it is felt that the hive beetle cannot survive the Wisconsin winters. The adult hive beetle can fly further than honey bees. They like to feed on rotting fruit. Their larvae love pollen patties (and in many areas beekeepers are switching to dry powdered pollen substitute for that reason). The hive beetles also trick honey bees into feeding them. Due to the hard armor, the honeybees cannot kill them. Instead the bees tend to just chase them around the hive. Hive beetles like to hide in dark places, crevices, etc. in the hive and the most likely place to see them is just under the inner cover around the ends of the frames.
- We want you to be proactive – If you saw a hive beetle during install or post install, please squash it and let us know of your findings.
We will be sending samples of the bees to the Beltsville Agricultural Research Service – Bee Research Lab in the next couple of weeks for testing just to see what disease and genetic issues the bees are carrying (we may end up sending samples to a lab in Oregon as well since Beltsville had trouble keeping up last year with analysis). We know that all bees now, regardless of where they come from, carry some diseases and rarely (read never) do any package producers provide any sort of information on diseases other than the state issued inspection certificates. We will share the results after we get them, but it could take several weeks.
Next Steps for New Beekeepers
So, what should you be doing over the next several weeks with your bees?
- Feeding – if your bees need to draw out foundation in your brood boxes you should continue to feed a light (1:1 or lighter) syrup. In order to make wax and draw comb three things are needed, young bees, carbohydrates and temperatures over 60 degrees. Young bees, 12 to 18 days old, are the best wax producers, but they need adequate carbs in order to do so. They obtain the carbs from plant nectar or sugar syrup. Molding and fermenting of syrup can become a problem in warm weather. One way to help preserve syrup is to use a very small amount of chlorine bleach (1/2 teaspoon per gallon) or distilled apple cider vinegar or lemon juice (1 to 2 tablespoons per gallon) in the syrup. Another is to use some Honey-B-Healthy in the syrup. Even if your installing on drawn comb we recommend feeding until your bees are established in their new home.
- Inspection – You should inspect your hives every 7 to 10 days (14 days maximum). When inspecting pay attention to the sounds and smells of the hive in addition to what you see. Prior to opening the hive spend some time observing the entrance of the hive. Note the level of traffic, whether the bees are bringing in pollen, if there are any bees crawling on the ground. When opening the hive pay attention to how the bees act. Queen-right colonies will be very calm, quiet and will generally ignore you as they go about their tasks. Queen-less colonies will act more dis-organized and generally be “louder” in that they “roar” loud and long. When inspecting the interior of the hive pull the second frame from the edge of the box out gently first to provide some room to manipulate the remaining frames without squashing bees. When starting from a package the primary things you are looking for are evidence that the queen is present (eggs, larvae, flat capped brood). You do not need to dig around looking for her, less is more at this point. The queen is capable of laying 1400 eggs a day as long as she has comb to lay in and there is plenty of food resources in terms of syrup or nectar and pollen for the bees to feed her. Some queens will start laying right away, some will delay starting for 1 to 2 weeks. The latter is very nerve wrecking for the beekeeper due to uncertainty.
- Expanding the brood nest – If you have started your bees in a single deep on foundation, it will be about 4 to 7 weeks before you will need to add a second brood box. The exact timing is based on how many frames the bees have drawn and are fully utilizing. We generally wait until the bees are using 7 or 8 of the 10 frames in the box. When adding the second box pull one brood frame from the center of first box and place in the center of the second box. Push the frames together in the first box to keep the brood nest together and place the empty frames to the outside edges.
If you have started your bees in two mediums you may find it necessary to reverse the order of brood boxes, placing the one from the bottom on the top, in order to get the bees to fully utilize the frames. Once the bees have utilized 7 to 8 frames of both mediums then a third medium can be added. Pull one or two brood frames from the second box and place in the center of the third. Push the frames together in the second box to keep the brood nest together and place the empty frames to the outside edges.
With either configuration, it is important to provide adequate space for the bees to limit the chance of swarming. Even first year colonies may swarm if they become overcrowded.
Package Cages and Miscellany
- Package Cages – There is no cage deposit and no return is required. The cages we had this year were old-school wood cages. In general they held the bees well, but like most wood cages, it can be difficult to remove the syrup feeders. We had a couple cages where the feeder support had failed and the can fell down inside the cage. Most of this was due to the method of inserting the can when packaging the bees with a queen.
- Feeder Cans – This year we had liquid syrup feeder cans again, which we really don’t care for. We watched nearly all of the bees get packaged up throughout the day and while every can was shook tested prior to inserting in the cage to make certain it would flow syrup we still encountered cans where the syrup had crystallized and sealed the feeding openings shut. For whatever reason the bees cannot or won’t lick through to re-open the holes. It has always been our practice to feed bees as soon as possible after offloading and thereafter two to three times a day, alternating between water and light syrup. The packages we kept for ourselves were not installed until 6 days after being packed up and despite being held in package cages for that time they were in good condition overall.
- Queen cage hangers – This was our first experience with poly strap hangers for queen cages. In general the feedback on them has been good. From our own installations we found the most difficult part of the process was removing the staples from the strap hanger to release it from the package cage. The length of the strap hanger makes it easier to handle the cages. It takes some getting used to, but once a person has the hang of it the poly strap hangers work fine.
The Ideal World
As we worked through the process this year with Roziers, there are things that we can improve upon for next year and we will be having those discussions over the next several weeks.
- Timing – mid to late April delivery is crucial, with the first week of May being the latest for taking package bees. When we get into mid to late May there is more potential risks in harming bees in shaking and transport. Even though we are setup to haul bees in such situations, take precautions as it relates to a wide range of predictable problems, and have places to offload/transfer all along the route in the event of something serious, it is the un-predictable that is a concern. Getting trapped on the highway with a load of bees for several hours in late May due to an extended closure such as a severe accident, hostage situation, etc can lead to a disaster.
- Package cages – we would prefer to use the Bee Bus cages and use gel feeders or hard candy feeders in transport. Gel feeders and hard candy do not fail to feed like syrup cans may. The Bee Bus cages lock together nicely, have better airflow and are easier for most beekeepers to use.
- Queen cages – we like the 3 hole Benton cages and having attendants with the queens. We feel the queens are better cared for with this approach prior to packing and during transport. The poly strap hanger worked fine and we think can work well with the Bee Bus cages.
As always, if you have questions or feedback on the bees feel free to call or write. If we don’t answer leave a message and we will return your call.