First day with the bees

On Friday evening, just after the sun had set, we installed two packages of bees. Earlier in the day, we arranged six drawn-out deep brood frames (purchased from Scandia Honey, a very reputable bee farm in our area), two new plastic frames, and a feeder with about four liters (one gallon) of sugar syrup in each chamber. The bees would need the sugar syrup – our equipment included no combs of honey. If you have saved some disease-free combs of honey, you should use three or four in the bee box that receives the package. If like us, you are starting with all new equipment, you must provide some feed.

The bees were placed into hives at around 9:30 in the evening. By 10:00 pm, it was dark. As a result, all the bees stayed, settling into the brood chambers as snug as bugs, clustering, exploring their new dives, breathing Canadian spring air.

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I like installing packages in the evening. Over the years, I suppose that I have opened three or four thousand packages, usually by myself, alone on the southern Saskatchewan prairies where I once had my main honey farm.ย  That was quite a few years ago. In those days, I was fairly amble and had lots of energy.

Here’s how a week of packaging went for me.ย  It would start in Florida.ย  On a Monday, with the help of friends, I’d fill a few hundred cages with my own bees from apiaries I had among the orange groves near Orlando. I’d load my truck with the packages as it got dark, then start driving north. On most of those trips, I travelled alone.ย  By about three in the morning the next day, I would have driven my bee-laden 6-wheeler into the Appalachians in Tennessee.ย  At some big truckstop along I-24,ย  I’d sleep for three hours, curled up on the seat.ย  Then, I’d drive all day and before midnight on Tuesday, the bees and I would be in the Dakotas where we’d stay at a cheap roadside motel. The bees waited on the truck, chilling overnight. I’dย  get a shower and some sleep, then wake before dawn on Wednesday and drive further west and north, into Saskatchewan.

If things went well, I’d arrive at my little house on the Saskatchewan prairie by late-afternoon on Wednesday. As soon as I got there, I’d unload all the packages into my dark cold wooden honey house. After the truck was empty of bees, I’d load about a hundred lids, bottoms, and brood chambers (which had honey among their nine frames) and drive out to a couple of bee yards and set the boxes on the ground.ย  By then, the sun was setting so I’d race back to the warehouse, load a hundred packages, drive back to bee yards and install those hundred colonies. Then I’d return to unlock my house (it had been empty for six months while I wasย beekeeping in Florida).ย  I’d finally fall into bed where I’d sleep until late the next morning.ย  Then I’d spend the rest of that day, Thursday, carrying more brood chambers into the field. Thursday night (and usually Friday evening) were spent installing the last of the packages.

Southern Saskatchewan – I placed the brood chambers in the field earlier in the day, then returned to the apiary as the sun set to start installing packages.

For about ten years, I carried four hundred packages each spring from Florida to Saskatchewan. It took three evenings to put those 400 packages into their new homes. On the weekend, I’d start unwrapping my other colonies, several hundred more hives which had spent the winter sitting out alongside the alfalfa fields of southern Saskatchewan.ย  (I ran a combination of overwintered hives and new packages every year.)ย  You can see that this was a small business, so I did most of the work myself – though friends in Florida and Saskatchewan often dropped by to help.

Something important in this narrative which you probably noticed is that not all of the packages weren’t installed the same day that I arrived in Saskatchewan at the end of my 3,800-kilometre drive from Florida. This means that hundreds of packages had to wait a day or two before being released.

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Waiting to install a package makes a new beekeeper nervous. It should. Each day that the bees are in cages delays that hive’s honey season, slows its development, and maybe stresses the colony. But don’t be so consumed by earnestness that you try to install during the heat of day. Installing a package while it is sunny and warm may result in the bees taking wing with their queen and disappearing, en masse, forever. I hear about this happening to someone every year. Sometimes the ‘swarm’ is captured and settled into the hive you’ve gifted to them, but sometimes you just stand there, waving goodbye to $225 and your summer hobby.

Wait until evening. During the day, store the package in a dark cool building (or the coolest corner of your basement). Give it a bit of sugary syrup for moisture and sustenance. In theory, well-fed bees can wait indefinitely.ย  It’s better to wait until evening than to put the bees into their new home in the morning on a warm sunny day. Darkness is a wonderful sedative. Your bees have been contained, carted, carried, tousled, tussled, and trucked. They can chill until evening.ย  Especially if they have enough to eat (which you can supplement with a little sugar water).

It was late in the evening before our packages reached our house this Friday. It was becoming dark. We released the bees into their new homes and they settled quickly. That night was unusually mild, a rarity for Calgary in April. I was glad that it stayed above freezing all night. I knew that the bees would be warm enough to explore their new home and find the sugar feeders inside their hives.

When I took our dog outside just before six on Saturday morning, it was becoming light. There wasn’t any sign of life at the hive entrances, but that was OK. If we didn’t have a dog, there wouldn’t have been any sign of life at our door, either.

The next time I went out to look at the bees, it was nine o’clock. The sun shone splendidly on the hives. There were about a dozen bees flying about. The temperature was around 12 degrees (55 F). I was surprised that bees were in flight because the hive boxes had reduced entrances and the hive bodies have thick, insulated walls – I figured that the bees wouldn’t even know it was warming up outside.

I was even more surprised at ten when a few hundred bees were flying about.ย  They were exploring. The colonies had an anxious sound, much like you hear when robbing is happening. For a few moments, that was my concern – neighbouring hives, kept in some unknown back yard near us, had discovered our twins and were attacking. But this was just the anxious worry of a new father. My youngsters were not under attack. The bees were orienteering, learning their surroundings, and puzzling over the sudden lack of manuka bushes and the scarcity of kiwis, keas, and wekas. As Dorothy was rumoured to tell Toto, these bees were not in New Zealand anymore. Their unusual hum indicated their confusion.

By eleven in the morning, several deer entered our property (a frequent occurrence, even though we live in a central suburb amid a million Calgarians). The deer kept their distance, not from fear of bees, but out of deference to the humans in the back yard.

Also at eleven o’clock, the bees’ flights took a strange twist. Their ‘robbing buzz’ was replaced by another pitch. This time it was neither the worrisome tone I’d heard earlier nor the quiet hum of satisfied bees.ย  At the same moment, my daughter pointed out that the bees’ flights had changed markedly, too. Rather than disoriented swirls near the hives, they were flying straight upward, at least three times the height of our house. With sunlight reflecting from their bodies, they glowed like sparkling embers and then drifted from view.ย  We continued to see bees launching themselves high into the sky throughout the afternoon. When we lunched on our deck, a few bees visited us. They were curious, not menacing, and they allowed us to eat with nary a word of ill will. But by then it was quite warm (25 C, which is nearly 80 F) and the bees’ hum was gradually becoming more content.

Several times my kids peeked at the hive entrances. Though the temperature was warm and the bees’ flight was heavy (though chaotic), my kids reported that none of the insects were carrying pollen. I wasn’t surprised – there were no larvae in our just-installed colonies. Almost certainly, the queens were not laying eggs yet. And even if the queen had dropped a few, it would be three days before those eggs would hatch into hungry grubs. Feeding progeny is a bee’s main motivator for finding pollen. The bees wouldn’t need much pollen for a few days.ย  But then, at 6:18 pm, Daniel came running to me with this photo. Pollen. A sister, auguring a prosperous future, had arrived with a bundle of protein.

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If you are the proud parent of a freshly hived mob, you are probably too busy to read the preceding 1,538 words. Assuming that you simply skimmed the story, let me cut to the chase.

Install your bees at day’s end. If you install during the day, the bees might not settle – they may even end up in a pine tree on your neighbours’ lawn. Night quiets the beasts. You may need to darken and cool (say, 10C, 50F) the package and sprinkle some sugar water on the cages’ screens until evening, but waiting is worth it.

If the weather is fair the next day, you should see oodles of workers engaged in orienteering flights. This can resemble a frightening problem, but it’s probably normal. At first there will be heavy air traffic near the hive, then it will expand as the bees’ knowledge of the landscape expands.

Don’t be disappointed that the bees aren’t bringing in much pollen the first day, even if other hives in the neighbourhood are hauling it in by the corbiculae-full. Your new package doesn’t need much pollen just yet. But if you see some, smile and feel smug.

Finally – and this is the hardest thing – don’t bug the bees for a few days. They are nervous and confused. Your untimely meddling may spark a palace insurrection. It’s not uncommon for anxious bees to kill their own queen when they are disturbed. That may seem strange, but until the first heirs are being fed, the queen is looked upon with great suspicion by her subjects. The bees know that they are broodless and are susceptible to tragedy in their precarious new environment. It’s not surprising that they may blame their queen for their predicament. Your fingers on their combs will simply reinforce how awful their life has become.

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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7 Responses to First day with the bees

  1. gregmbutler says:

    Thanks for posting this. Fun to read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. valbjerke says:

    Good info. I took a beekeeping course – what time of day to install the bees was not covered. In deference to the instructor, he had two days to cover an incredible amount of information to a variety of students – some who knew zero, some who already had bees, and some in between.
    Now I know I do have to feed my new bees, I intend to wrap them as well as our temps will fall below zero at night. I am getting conflicting information though on feeding pollen patties. I purchased some – but should I feed it out? We have willow pollen at the moment, but donโ€™t know if it will still be here in a week. So far, not a dandelion in sight.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      In the dark? If the weather is cool and/or rainy, the bees won’t fly much. They will usually settle into the brood chamber. So you can install the package gloomy weather, too. But if it’s warm and sunny, wait until sunset. But don’t wait until it’s actually dark. When it’s dark, the bees get mean and sting a lot and you may trip over your hive tool and fall into the hive.
      Pollen cakes? I’m waiting until my first inspection which will be about a week after the bees were installed. Most pollen substitute gets fed to larvae. The queen in the new package might not lay any eggs for a day or two, then it takes another three days and change before the eggs hatch and need protein. That’s a good time to add the pollen patties. In Michigan, you might have willow pollen and dandelion in a week or two, but you might also get two weeks of cold rainy weather with no pollen coming in. Adding pollen patties helps assure a steady protein supply for the developing hive.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Claire says:

    This is brilliant – thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Package Hive Update | Bad Beekeeping Blog

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