Welcoming some new friends

The bees arrived. It was getting late. I was getting anxious. But just after the sun settled for the night, my friend Mark arrived with our two packages. He brought us 13,637 worker bees and two queens. We counted them. The queens, that is. These bees were part of a shipment that came through our local bee club, which ordered 202 packages from the folks at Scandia Honey who brought the bees from New Zealand.

Why New Zealand? It’s warm there. Queen breeding and beekeeping are in full swing. We’d gladly buy the bees from the tropical parts of Canada, if Canada had tropical parts.  Until global warming fully kicks in, we’ll have to import our bees from the world’s hot spots.  With the bees offloaded from Mark’s bee-mobile, we immediately set about welcoming our imported foreign workers to their new homes. Every time I release immigrant bees, it reminds me of how my own grandparents arrived in the Americas from central Europe. Those folks were every bit as penniless as these New Zealand bees. (But that’s a tale for another day.)  My grandfolks did OK. I hope these bees will, too.

Earlier in the day, my son Daniel and I placed two single-storey brood chambers in the back yard. This is a new project, new equipment, new bees. Regular readers know that I’ve owned several honey farms over the years and thousands of hives and I’ve been tripping over bee boxes for about fifty years. But this time is different, just like all the other times before were.

Since many readers of this blog are new beekeepers, I figured it would be helpful if I re-experienced the joy of starting a couple of hives at home, reporting on all the mistakes I make each and every day.  I’ll still write about beekeeping news, science, and culture from my usual ten-mile-high view, but from time to time, I’ll come back to these backyard bees and describe beekeeping from ground level.

Before the bees. We set up two boxes like this – the feeder is farthest from view, then two drawn-out used frames, a gap, another drawn comb, and (closest to us) two new black plastic frames. The gap in the center is where the bees from the cage will be released, then three more drawn combs will be added into that space.

In our back yard, we found an almost perfect place to bee, so we settled hive chambers atop bottom boards, and covered the caverns with lids. As this is a new bee project, my 15-year-old son wanted to try the fancy-dancy new plastic rims. He says they look like space-age bee boxes and he’s right. I wanted to give these thick-walled boxes a try because they are well-insulated and we won’t have to worry so much about our cold summer nights. Nor, I’m told, will we need to winter-wrap these units later in the season, the way that I had always done with wooden equipment. Along with the fancy boxes, we picked up new-age plastic frame-feeders and some solid one-piece plastic brood frames.  My son Daniel filled the feeders with some sugar syrup just sweeter than equal parts sugar and water. And that’s where things sat for a couple of hours while we waited for the bees to arrive.

We released the workers from their cages urging them into their new boxes. Freedom for the bees.  It’s rather liberating. We release the honey bees out of those cages and allow them to occupy our boxes – or not.  The bees are always free to leave. They don’t have to stay with us. They can fly up into the trees or drift off to explore the vast prairies that surround our city.  Their new home has a door and the door is always open.  Go, if you must, but stay if you like.  However, it’s getting dark, there’s a chill in the air, the home we are offering to the Kiwi immigrant-bees is warm and safe, just the right size, and it has a well-stocked pantry.  They’ll probably stay, but they are free to leave. Their choice.

Installing packages, as we call the process of settling foreign bees into Canadian houses, takes about five minutes for each hive.  I’ll let our photos from last night’s adventure tell the rest of the story.

The worst part of last night’s job was separating the twins. We received two packages. The cages were vigorously stapled together. They might as well have been welded or super-glued.  Seriously, this was rather brutal.  Neither the bees nor I liked the shaking, twisting, jiggling and prying required to pull the units apart. Someone should do something about that.

Now you can see the cage hovering over the gap where the bees will be released. I’m pulling out the feeder that came with the package. It’s basically a plug that keeps the bees in the cage (and holds their food while they are traveling). Once the can was pulled free, honey bees gently tumbled into their new home.

Here you can see the cage’s feeder/plug in my hand while Daniel shakes the bees into the hive. By the way, have you heard of the ‘barefoot beekeeper’? I’m wearing socks.

Daniel had shaken the bees into the gap, I placed the three missing gap-frames back in their spot and now Daniel is getting the last few bees out of the cage and into the hive.

This looks like a small weak hive. It is. There are a lot of bees which you can’t see, but a two-pound package has only about ten percent of the number of worker bees that are in a strong colony in summer. But if the queen is good and if the honey gods are merciful, this package can make about two hundred pounds of excess honey in July and August. That’s the closest thing to magic that I know of.

… and we are done.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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12 Responses to Welcoming some new friends

  1. Ray says:

    Great item Ron, always interesting to see others doing ‘regular’ stuff like installing. And I must admire your ‘barefoot’ (and bare hand, bare head and bare everything) approach! You are a lot braver than I.


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Well, not bare everything! We wrecked our budget on my son’s outfit. No money left for mine!
      You probably know that package bees are more confused than defensive. I wear a veil when pulling honey and sometimes when making splits, but I didn’t bother with it last night. However, I insisted that Daniel wear his spacesuit, just in case, and any new beekeeper should at least wear a veil. And shoes, too. By the way, I almost always light a smoker, but I never do when installing packages.


  2. Glenn Hile says:

    Do you always paint your hives a darker color?


    • Ron Miksha says:

      I usually paint my hives white, but I wanted these to blend with the earth tones in our back yard in the city.

      Here’s what one of my commercial yards looked like a couple of years ago…

      bee yard near alfalfa


  3. Glenn Hile says:

    What is the brand of the new boxes?


  4. valbjerke says:

    My bees aren’t arriving until
    May 10….I would be happy to follow a running dialogue/update from you. 😊


    • Ron Miksha says:

      Hi, Val!
      Thanks for the comment.
      I’ll give regular updates on these bees. If you haven’t installed packages before, there are a lot of little tricks to know. I didn’t mention too many of them here (and individual results will vary) so please consider getting a local beekeeper to give you a hand when you install yours.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Erik says:

    Congrats, Ron… and Daniel too. What a fun project. Enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Emily Scott says:

    Do any Canadian beekeepers sell packages later in the season, or is selling Canadian bees not really something that happens on a commercial scale?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Some packages are produced in British Columbia and available in late May. Our season is short so receiving packages later in the season isn’t a very popular notion. Getting queens to mate early is the bane of Canadian package, queen, and nuc producers.

      Look at these figures for Alberta, the place where I live and almost half of all Canadian bees are kept:

      Alberta imported 70,000 packages (95% from New Zealand) and 253,000 queens in 2016. Hawaii supplied 72% of queens purchased by beekeepers in Alberta in 2016, other US states accounted for 25%. Fewer than 2% of the queens bought by Alberta beekeepers came from BC.


      • Emily Scott says:

        I see. I can understand why, and yet…it seems a shame to import bees used to such a different climate. I’ve met some UK beekeepers who import queens from NZ, but never a hobby beekeeper who has imported bees from a different country. There seems to be a bigger culture of starting off from swarms or local nucs here – or perhaps it’s just that we have far fewer commercial beekeepers around to impact our import figures. Thanks for finding the stats!

        Liked by 1 person

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