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One queen, a few bees, and a dash of skill

During our recent discussion of package bee strength, Bill Hesbach of the Back Yard Beekeeper’s Association (southwestern Connecticut) sent me the following photo of a package of bees he received back in May of 2013. He asked for credit on the order, but then managed to install the few bees that were left because he thought the queen seemed strong and healthy.

Before he took the photo he removed the queen cage and the remaining live bees but, as you can see, most of the bees were dead. With some TLC, Bill managed to nurse the remainder back to health. He said, ” . . . the queen was fantastic. [The colony] came back and built two deeps the first year. They wintered and made lots of honey the second year.”

The bees deaths are sad, of course, but it shows what a little patience and determination can accomplish. Coaxing the colony back to health is so much better than rejecting the order, which is a death sentence for the rest of them.

Nice work, Bill, and thanks for the pic.

One side of the shipping cage of a mostly dead package. Only the queen and a handful of bees remained, but Bill managed to grow them into a healthy colony. © Bill Hesbach.

Would I accept this package?

Editor’s Note: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’m sure your stories and opinions will help other beekeepers in the future, and that is what matters most.

I haven’t yet tallied the results, but it seems most people would accept the package, although 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.

What follows is my original post, written before I asked your opinion.

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.

My own experience with packages has been very good. I’ve never received a package with so many dead bees; on the other hand, I’ve never ordered a package to be delivered 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 was taught 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.

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. I assumed a three pound package.
  3. I assumed 3750 bees per pound or 11,250 bees/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.)
  4. I assumed an even distribution of ages. (To make packages, bees are shaken from their hives into large containers. These bees are then funneled into queen-containing screened packages that sit on a scale. When the proper weight is reached, a can of syrup is added and the packages are stapled 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.
  5. 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 they reach 35 days, they die.)

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.


I know, lots 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.

As I said, ordering packages by mail is risky business and should be a last resort. But even packages that are 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 is just luck.


Dead bees in a package: how many is okay?

A beekeeper in the eastern part of the country sent me the following photo of a bee package that arrived after a five-day transit. He wondered if I would accept a package in this condition. I wrote my opinion, but then I decided it would be instructive to know how other beekeepers would react to receiving this package.

So please write and tell me, in your opinion, whether this package is acceptable or unacceptable. You can elaborate if you want, but you don’t have to. You can include the amount of experience you have, but it is not necessary. I’m most interested in your gut reaction.

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I will post my opinion and how I arrived at it later, but I’m hoping to get at least 25 other opinions first.


A package of bees received after five days in transit. © Charles Reed.

The neighbor lady smells best

When I tally the comments and e-mails related to my last post, I find a variety of opinions on why multiple packages of bees might move into one hive. Many agreed with my husband that the packages could have come from the same hive and wanted to reunite. A few thought the colony that most effectively fanned their Nasanov pheromone would gain the most followers. A majority thought the amount or quality of queen pheromone was the deciding factor.

Personally, I tend to side with the queen pheromone theory, but here is my question: suppose you install two packages in side-by-side hives. Everything is essentially equal but you have a prevailing breeze that blows queen pheromone (or Nasanov pheromone) away from one hive and toward the other hive. Could the inequality of pheromone resulting from being upwind or downwind affect the outcome? Just a thought.

In any case, far from being an unusual occurrence, having your packages move in together seems to be rather common. And when I read the stories and theories, I realized that it could be a number of factors—not just one—that causes bees to behave this way.

On the plus side, those beekeepers who tried to put their bees back in the “right” place seemed to succeed. So the take-home message is this: be mindful that combining of packages may occur, and if it does, go back and separate them.

Since that post, I’ve heard many package stories. Many beekeepers have had packages combine, many newbees had packages abscond completely (new wood with no comforting bee smells is my theory here), one beekeeper reported a supersedure cell built inside the package, several found dead queens, and one had no queen. But here’s the story that got my attention:

A beekeeper in Arkansas ordered two packages and an extra queen from a well-known supplier in Texas to be delivered overnight. When the order arrived, the extra queen was tucked inside one of the packages. In other words, one package had one queen cage and the other package had two queen cages. The beekeeper had no difficulty with the normal package, but the colony that shipped with two queens wouldn’t stay put. All but a few of the bees abandoned the queen that was left for them.

So once again, I’m asking for information. Since I have never seen extra queens shipped this way, I would like to know if this is common practice or if it is crazy. Multiple virgin queens are commonly found in one hive, and sometimes mother and daughter queens are found in one hive, but how often do you have two young, strong, newly-mated queens reeking of pheromone in one place? Did the bees leave in search of the queen that was taken out, or was all that pheromone too confusing for your average bee? Just wondering what you think . . .


New package ready to be installed.
With luck, they’ll stick around. © Tracey Byrne.

Can I start a new package on honey instead of syrup?

Sugar syrup is not the equivalent of infant formula. Sugar syrup is not something we feed to package bees because they are young, immature, or mere fledglings. In fact, bees are adults when they emerge from the brood comb. During their babyhood as larvae and pupae they ate royal jelly and bee bread, but an adult bee is fully formed and capable of eating real food. Real food for adult honey bees is honey.

I’ve been trying to understand why this question is so common, and I’ve concluded that we beekeepers give the impression that a new colony must have sugar syrup in order to survive, so new beekeepers become confused about its importance. Of course, this makes no sense: sugar syrup is a modern invention and honey bees are not.

As I’ve said before, we are lucky that bees can live on syrup because it’s so convenient when we don’t have honey on hand, or if the only honey we have is from an unknown source. But must bees have sugar syrup to start a new colony? Of course not.

Even though bees can survive on syrup, it is still a stop-gap measure suitable for short periods when better food is not available. Sugar is pure carbohydrate, pure energy for bees. It supplies no nutrients, no vitamins, no trace elements. So if you have honey from your own healthy hives, or the healthy hives of someone else, by all means feed them honey instead of sugar syrup. Your colonies will thrive because they have everything they need, not just the calories.

And, no, you don’t have to extract it and put it in a feeder. Good heavens, a feeder is also a modern invention. We put syrup in feeders not because the bees prefer it that way, but because we are not good at putting it in combs. The bees adapt to what we give them, but that doesn’t mean they prefer it.

You can put the frames of honey beside the new cluster or above it. If the honey is in their way, the bees will move it until they have their home arranged just the way the like. Trust them; they know what they are doing.