Package Bees in March

About two weeks ago we brought back package bees from Wilbanks Apiaries in Claxton, Georgia. Our first load was originally scheduled for April 12th but early buildup conditions were ahead of plans. Reg called in early March to ask if we could pick up a load on the 25th. His concern was that if he didn’t start shaking bees soon they would end up swarming.  That would be a big loss for a package producer! 

Any chance that I get to start packages early I jump at it. These bees have the ability to buildup in time for the Locust flow in early June. With a 3 lb package costing  $77.00 this year, it is good to be able to recoup some of the investment in early summer.  This does not come without a price, on April 1st in Connecticut we usually have some pollen coming in but nectar is weeks away. When I set up the colonies for new packages, I was able to include at least one frame of honey and one of pollen for each hive. These came from dead outs that I brought in and cleaned up during late winter. I like to start new colonies, whether packages or nucs, with a reserve of both carbohydrate and protein so the queens can start laying and keep going regardless of the weather. The only problem is that it takes a frame of honey and pollen to raise a frame of brood. This is where the “Domino” nectar flow comes to the rescue. I keep a division board feeder in each colony at all times. It is an easy task to fill the feeder with  a gallon of sugar syrup without disturbing the bees. If we don’t have any pollen coming in, I can add a pollen substitute patty over the top bars. I fill the feeders when installing the bees and keep them full until they have three full frames in reserve and there is natural nectar coming in.

When starting bees on foundation,whether wax or plastic, it becomes even more important than ever to keep the feed on them. The good news is that if the bees can get to the syrup then they will be able to draw out the foundation and make room for the queen to lay. This is the place where I get on my soap box and scream about how useless boardman feeders are. There is no place in any northern beekeeping operation for these toys!  When out side temperatures are below 55degrees, the bees can’t get out of a loose cluster to get to the feed. This creates a lack of energy for the bees to consume so they produce enough heat to enable them to make wax or raise brood. In many cases the bees can starve to death six inches away from their feeder. If the temperatures are suitable for flying then the small colonies are set up to be robbed by other stronger hives. Yet another problem is that they don’t hold very much syrup and you will need to refill them very frequently. Boardman feeders are probably the biggest cause of starvation in small colonies of bees, so get a good division board feeder with a float to keep the bees from drowning! I recently bought some of the new two gallon feeders from Mann Lake. They work very well and you can get a lot of syrup in a hive without having to refill every few days and they don’t cost nearly as much as a hive top feeder. In addition, hive top feeders can have the same problems as boardman feeders in that the bees can’t get to them when it is cold.

This will be a good time to talk about introducing queens. If you read the literature, you will find all sorts of methods to introduce queens. One from about 100 years ago even suggested that you immerse the queen in sugar syrup and then let her go! My method is a little different. First, weather you are introducing a queen with a package or re queening, I always begin by feeding sugar syrup. This simulates nectar flow conditions and greatly improves the level of success. Queens come with a candy plug in one end and this should be exposed either by removing the cork or in the case of packages you will remove the metal disc on cages that are supplied with packages. I always secure the queen cage in the upper rear corner of a frame near the center of the cluster. If installing on drawn comb, I squash it edge first into the comb so the screen is accessible to the bees when the hive is put back together. The bees need to be able to tend to the queen at all times. In addition, they will be able to spread her pheremones to the rest of the bees. I never disturb the bees, except to fill the feeder, for seven days! I believe that this is a critical step in the procedure. I often say  it is like a first date, the bees think that they like the queen but they need time to get to know her!  They don’t need Mom or Dad bothering them.  After a week you can check for fresh eggs and larvae. If, in the rare event the queen has not been released, you can remove the plug from the other end and let her run out into the colony. Often times beginners, and even experienced beekeepers ,will get worried that she won’t get released in time and disturb the bees too soon. This all too often results in the queen getting killed by the colony.

So to sum it all up, feed and be patient!  There is nothing to be gained by rushing the relationship and a lot to loose if you try to hurry things up.  After you fail to introduce the first queen, the next try will be even harder to get accepted. One final thought, it is not necessary to remove the attendants that come with the queen. More often than not the queen may fly away while you are fumbling with opening the cage to release the workers. In most cases I never have trouble re queening a colony that doesn’t yet have laying workers! If you have laying woorkers then you are usualy better off just combining them with another hive and then starting over.

I guess that I have rambled on enough for a while!  Later, Adam