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How to install package bees in cold weather

Spring weather is coming late in many areas and beekeepers are asking questions about installing package bees in cold weather. I’ve heard of beekeepers keeping their packages indoors, bringing hives into barns and garages, adding heaters, and wrapping hives in plastic.

In truth, I don’t think the cold weather is detrimental to packages in most cases. Beekeepers have been hiving packages in 40° rain and freezing nights for decades. Honey bees can handle those conditions with ease.

No brood, no problem

The main problem with opening an established colony in cold weather is chilling the brood. Chilled brood can die outright or contract brood diseases, so it’s best to avoid chilling an active nest whenever possible. But packaged bees have no brood, so you are free of the major problem.

Clusters of bees without brood maintain a lower temperature, too. The core temperature of an active brood nest is kept at about 95° F (35°C). According to Currie, Spivak and Reuter in The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), the minimum core temperature when no brood is present is down around 68°F (20°C). That is a large difference.

Bad weather with benefits

Taken together, those two facts—no brood and a cooler cluster—are the reason that hiving packages in cold weather nearly always works. In addition, installing in cold weather can reduce drifting.

It seems like a warm and sunny day would be perfect for installing packages. But if you have more than one, you will nearly always get lots of drift on those perfect days. The bees from each package get out and fly around. In all the confusion, and because most are not strongly attached to their unreleased queen, the bees go back to any hive they want.

They often drift to the end hive, or the sunniest hive, and that becomes home. Install two equal packages on a nice day and you may end up with two-thirds or even three-quarters of all the bees in one hive. It only takes a few minutes. This rarely happens in cold and nasty weather because the bees stay inside and have time to learn where home is.

Hiving package bees in cold weather

How much attention you give to each colony depends, in part, on how many you have. Most who will read this are newer beekeepers with a small number of hives, so here are some suggestions from my own experience that will maximize your success with a cold-weather install.

  1. Use a small hive. In a Langstroth, install into a single deep or, at most, two mediums.
  2. Close off the screened bottom board with the slide-in varroa tray to reduce drafts.
  3. Place frames of honey near the sides of the brood box, if you have some available. Honey is a food source, but it also has a high heat capacity which reduces rapid fluctuations in temperature.
  4. Install the bees.
    1. Make a place to dump the bees by removing three or four frames from the center. Once the bees are in, replace the frames.
    2. Alternatively, you can place an empty box over the brood box to use as a funnel. Dump the bees into the empty box, wait for them to filter down between the frames, and then remove the empty box.
    3. A third alternative is to remove enough frames so you can place the package right into the hive and let the bees walk out. See “Installing a new package of bees.”
  5. Add a feeder and close up the hive.
    1. The feed should go inside the hive. I prefer baggy feeders for new packages because you can lay them right across the top bars, which is the warmest area outside of the cluster. Hot air rises from the cluster and warms the feed. Since baggy feeders are thin, they easily absorb the heat.
    2. Some beekeepers prefer frame feeders, which also work well.
    3. You can also place the feed can that came with the package above the cluster, either directly on the bars or on the hole of an inner cover. Place an empty box around the can so it is enclosed.
  6. Insulate if needed. Some people like to add a sheet of Styrofoam insulation, cut to fit, above the inner cover. Alternatively, you can use a quilt box filled with wood chips. Do not, however, use an upper entrance for a new package.

A word of warning

If you find your bees seemingly dead and comatose, do not rush to clean up the mess. Sometimes they are just cold. Oftentimes they will be fine after they warm up. Just don’t jump to conclusions and toss them away too soon. See “Dead bees rising” for how I treated dead bees that eventually flew away.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

To install a package in cold weather, you can remove a few frames and put the entire box in the hive.
A new package of Russian hybrids is gently installed in a hive. © Herb Lester.

Comments

Glenn Nichols
Reply

If you purchase one of my in hive heated feeders then you can put your bee packages right into your hive guaranteed lol

Debbie
Reply

The pic, No. 3 way, is the best way. No stress, no mess, no problems! Next day, get box out, bees are home and happy and well fed! Had to be a man who was in a hurry that developed dumping them into the hive … ha ha! Only kidding guys! But really.

Vince Poulin
Reply

This is just a heads-up to those installing new packages which has to do with the possibility the package being installed is not mite-free. Mites as everyone will learn from this blog site and efforts done by Rusty are a serious problem that we “newer” beekeepers easily overlook. I am at day-8 on a new package installation and have counted 615 mites on the mite-drop board. The supplier treats his packages with Apivar and advises that the single strip provided be retained for 42-days over which time the treatment is supposed to be effective, but the dosages recommended for this treatment also depend on number of frames present. Hives having larger numbers of frames being recommended that 2-strips used. This makes things tricky for new beekeepers as few of us consider such treatments this early in the season. Treating for Nosema in spring is something we learn, but mites? The point being – get the mite board set up immediately upon installing your packages. Don’t wait, depending on how you install the package you might get an early look at the possibility the package has mites. It is then up to you to discuss with your suppliers as to how best to go forward. Frankly, anyone with a new package of bees that has a package full of mites should be raising some hard questions with suppliers.

Rusty
Reply

Vince,

This is a good reminder. I can’t even imagine 615 mites. A colony wouldn’t last long with that load.

Deb Western Catskill Mtns NY
Reply

Or instead of spending more money use warm syrup in a gallon baggie and lay on top of the bars, put some little slits in it to let out extra air so it creates a vacuum and the bees will keep it warm.

Rusty
Reply

Deb,

That’s what I mean by a baggie feeder. See section 5.1.

Sarah
Reply

Hi Rusty, thanks so much for your timely article. With winter still hanging on here in NW MT and my 2 packages of bees coming in 2 weeks, your experience and assurances are very helpful :} I did want to ask if the black thing in the hive of Russians is a feeder or ?? And another question…… if a person installs 2 packages on the same day in warm weather, you mention how many bees might end up in the wrong hive, etc….. Do they tend to stay with the wrong hive once they go there? If the weather is too cool for their venturing out for a day or two after i install them, will that be long enough for them to get acquainted enough with their queen and hive to know to come back to it? When i get my 2 new packages, I’m planning to install them on different days….. do you think that would help them not go to the wrong hives when they venture out (if the weather is and remains warmer) or is one day or maybe 2 enough to help them keep it straight? We know eventually Spring will come here but they’re saying another month of this cold snowy/rainy weather so i’m getting prepared for all scenarios :} Thanks again Rusty. You are an amazing help and resource of information and experience 😀

Rusty
Reply

Sarah,

I did want to ask if the black thing in the hive of Russians is a feeder or? a beetle trap

Do they tend to stay with the wrong hive once they go there? yes

If the weather is too cool for their venturing out for a day or two after i install them, will that be long enough for them to get acquainted enough with their queen and hive to know to come back to it? They will be less likely to drift after every passing day, but releasing the queen will help more.

When I get my 2 new packages, I’m planning to install them on different days. Do you think that would help them not go to the wrong hives when they venture out (if the weather is and remains warmer) or is one day or maybe 2 enough to help them keep it straight? A day or two might help, but you don’t want to keep them in the package any longer than necessary. Sometimes, too, one queen is more attractive than another.

Sarah
Reply

Lol….. you mean one queen more attractive or more active, lol!! 😀 Thanks so much Rusty :}

Chris
Reply

Help! We installed 3 packages on Saturday. It was kind of rainy so we had to push some bees into the hive boxes. Anyway now we’ve got one hive doing ok, but one is almost empty and the other has a small amount inside but there are thousands bearding underneath (under the screened bottom board). I don’t think that either of the queens got out of the hives. One thing: the entrances are reduced to the smallest size – should we open them up? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!!!

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I would scrape off the beard and drop it onto a piece of cardboard while the bees are cold, and then dump it back in the hive. Maybe that will work, maybe not. The small entrance is fine. Are your hives brand new? I see that a lot with new wood.

Chris
Reply

Thank you, Rusty! Looks like they went back in one or two of the hives. They are all new boxes w new wax. Hoping they survive and stick around!

Belle
Reply

Hi Rusty, hoping to get your opinion on my package of bees. I picked them up from my supplier and brought them home. That afternoon when I went to do the install I noticed 3 large combs they had built in the package. The bees were very hard to get out. Trying to remove the comb where the bees were stuck I ended up killing some. They became very nasty. Is it normal procedure to keep these package bees so long that they build comb? Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Belle,

I don’t recall ever seeing comb built in a package, so I would say no.

Andrea K.
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I’m supposed to pick up 8 nucs this Saturday, but here in Northern Illinois, it is only going to be a possible high of 44 degrees and rainy. It will be even colder on Sunday. I really am at a lose with this cool weather this spring. Can I still install nucs that obviously will have brood, or am I risking chilling the brood?
Any advice would be appreciated.

Thanks,
Andrea

Rusty
Reply

Andrea,

A nuc can sustain itself, so why rush to install? Just wait till it warms up a little.

JoAnne - Minnesota
Reply

People define “cold” very differently, so I appreciate seeing actual temperatures in comments. Last weekend when I got my packages it was in the mid 20’s and a bit windy, and didn’t get above freezing (just barely) until Monday. Many people installed their bees in a garage or held them in packages, (feeding twice a day) in a basement until Monday or Tuesday. It’s true there was no brood to chill, but the isolated queen can get chilled during the install until the workers can get to her.

Installing in the 40’s is a “normal” year for us. This year is definitely not normal.

Brian V
Reply

Hey Rusty,

I’m in MN and we’re literally going to have a blizzard a week after 2# install. Down to about ~20F with minimum wind chills about 9F.

I threw Bee Cozys on the hives, but I worry about maybe sealing them up and putting them into the garage to wait it out. They are on drawn foundation, 3 frames of honey placed at the sides (2N, 1S), and have a pail on there. They’ve taken a little, probably a cup’s worth. Just been so darned cold here most of the week with highs not even getting to 50.

Am I just overthinking this or with a fresh package and such extraordinarily cold weather for this time of year should I take extraordinary measures like moving them into the garage?

Any tips are surely appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Jeese, that is cold. Yeah, you might put them in the garage.

navinavi
Reply

Hi Rusty,

It’s been awhile but this topic kind of strikes home and it appears “cold” is a relative term. Thought I would try out some new Saskatraz queens this year so I ordered some 2 lb packages. They arrived last Friday the 6th and I picked them up Saturday. It was a balmy 10° that morning and the predicted high of 25° (Yes, Fahrenheit and it is northwest Wisconsin ). The rest of the week is much the same and the next week lows are to be in the mid to lower 20s, highs upper 30s. So… what to do?

I did install them the evening of Saturday the 7th, temp around 12°. I put each package in a medium super since that’s all I use, screwed the bottom board to the medium, screwed a screened cover on the medium and covered their entrance up by flipping the reducer on its side and screwed that to the bottom board. I have circles cut in the top cover that accommodate mason jars so I placed the queen cage into a pint jar and place that without the lid in that hole so the girls could free their queen. I did this in the unheated garage and then proceeded to put them in the heated basement. The basement temp is around 65°. So why go to all that trouble? I wanted the queens to hit the hive running.

It warmed up to 42° yesterday. I wanted to check out the queens, add another medium, give them a chance at a cleansing flight and to let those bees that know they are on their last leg to fly off into the sunset.
Queens were doing great, nice pattern and lots of eggs, one is a little slower than the others but still doing great. So far so good.

The mediums that I installed them into were prepped with some empty drawn comb frames, some pollen frames and some frames of honey.

Drastic means call for drastic measures and its fun to meander down to the basement with the kids and catch the scent and sounds of hives for at least little while.

Thank you Rusty for this great site, I appreciate it.

Navinavi

Debbie
Reply

You can take off the sugar water, add a nice sugar brick, some pollen substitute and pollen pattie, that s/get them thru the cold spell if you put in garage and have a cozy on them .. the cozy’s work …… Make them a feed box, put it all inside the feed box, and you’re done. That s/hold them for a few weeks. Usually i put an inner cover over the bottom brood box, then put the feed box, and they come up in the feed box to get their goodies. That way you don’t have the feed on the top bars and it keeps the hive warmer. The cozy permits them to move around whereas w/no cozy they w/be clustered. Also, you can make a fast moisture box, put it on top of the feed box, then inner cover and top. (See Rusty’s post on moisture boxes) That will keep the heat inside the hive. Good luck. Hopefully Spring will get here. We have cold and rains too, and the package bees w/bee here next week…Oh Joy ! The moisture boxes and cozy’s work wonders for packages and established hives alike. One of the better bee keeping ideas !

Debbie
Reply

PS: an afterthought, if you want to put the sugar brick and the pattie/pollen on the top bars, just add a spacer, then your inner cover, and moisture box, etc. That way, if it really gets cold, they still have access, but most times, mine go up into the box.

Ethan
Reply

I bought an established colony with 2 deeps. There is a hole in the top box. Here in MA it’s been in the 20s and 30s at night and almost breaks 40 in the day, freezing rain and snow. I got them on Sunday, and didn’t have anything to wrap the hive, so I used an old queen bed cheap comforter and a tarp over that. I put wood chips in above the cover board and under the telescoping cover. The guy didn’t give me an insert for the bottom board and all the bees are now huddled at the vent hole on the front of the of the top box. I am paranoid cuz they can’t fly in this temp and I put 1:1 sugar water in the entrance. Am I doing anything that will hurt them as I am just trying to make sure they make it to next week when it’s “supposed” to get into the 50s and 60s. It was a strong hive when I got it Sunday as far as I could tell, but they obviously haven’t left the hive due to this shit weather. There were 3 dead bees in between the blanket and the tarp.

Rusty
Reply

Ethan,

Twenty and thirty degree weather for an established colony is nothing to worry about. If you don’t have an insert for the bottom board use a piece of cardboard until you can find a piece of corrugated plastic sign board and cut it to fit. Sugar water at the entrance is probably too cold for them to drink. Is you’re going to feed liquid, then place it above the cluster so it gets warm. Three dead bees is nothing. Hundreds die every day in winter. A couple thousand die every day in summer.

Glenn Nichols
Reply

Apple cidar vinegar added to your sugar syrup 1/2 cup per gallon acts as an antifreeze in winter.

Ethan
Reply

Thanks for the info. I went through an inspection of the hive and they were super aggressive. I was careful and went slow, but if I wasn’t wearing my suit and gloves I would have been stung probably 100 times and they didn’t respond to the smoke at all…I think they are Carnolians, but they were acting like Russians.

Laura
Reply

Hello – We will be receiving 3 3lb packages and queens in the next few days. We live in central MN where we just had a blizzard last weekend. The temps should be getting warmer, into the 50’s soon. My question is, what is the best way to release the queen. I’ve read several different ways to release her in cold weather, and they are all very different. One site says to dump the bees in the hive and release the queen on top of them. That seems risky since we generally don’t know how long she has been with the package. What about securing her cage with a huge rubber band to the middle of a frame and place it n the center of the box. Any other ideas?
Thank you –

Vince Poulin
Reply

Rusty – not to change the topic but as a follow-up to my post on treating newly installed packages for mites. The Apivar treatment done by the supplier was simply too uncertain for me (17-87/day). Six days after installing the package (before cell capping) I treated with oxalic acid by vapourizing. The OA treatment produced a drop of 366 mites followed by 84 mites then down to 8-9. I risked a second treatment of OA – but that treatment looked unnecessary as mite counts dropped to 0-3 following the second treatment and now holding daily at 0-mites. Total mite count from the package is 773 mites (day 19 after installation). Inspections suggest the queen and other bees not visibly affected – she is laying with good pollen flow going into the hive. Two frames in a top brood box have some nice, solid, 6-8″ pie-shaped capped brood. The original install box is on the bottom and has not been opened since adding the second top box – I think likely a good number of new bees soon to arrive from that box. All considered OA was a good choice and something required to save the package from an uncontrollable early explosion of mites and possible associated diseases. Sure give peace of mind – for the moment.

Jim Shiloh
Reply

I’ll bee picking up two packages here in an hour.

I am going 8 frame this year, so instead of pulling 5 frames to place the package, I’m going to place a brood box on top and place the package inside and let the girls do their thing. In a couple days, replace th brood box with a super and feed.

I haven’t read anywhere of someone doing this.

2nd year beek in the Baltimore MD area.

Rusty
Reply

Jim,

I think it would work fine.

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