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How long can you keep bees in a shipping container?

Many beekeepers are getting a resurgence of winter weather just as their package bees are arriving. The question, then, is how long can you keep bees in a shipping container?

For best results under normal circumstances, you want to install your bees as soon as possible. The same day you get them is best, especially if you don’t know how long they’ve been in the container. Some long-time beekeepers say no more than four days max, but you can probably keep them in there a week if you feed them.

Check the feeding can

First, check the feeding can. The level of syrup will give you some indication of how long the bees have been caged. I’ve read that the feed can should last for four days, but I imagine there is a lot of variation. On arrival, I’ve seen the cans totally full and totally empty and everything in between.

You can pull out an empty can and refill it with syrup or you can feed your bees by spraying the bees through the screen. Use a syrup of about 1:1 and spray three or four times a day.

Keep them cool and quiet

You should put the packages in a dark space that is cool, but not really cold or hot. I’d say about 50-55° F (10-12°C) is good. Too warm and they will thrash around and want to fly, too cold and their food requirement goes way up. Also, choose a spot that is dark and quiet. Remember, you want them to lie low for a few days without a lot of upset.

I’m guessing that well-fed bees in a dark and quiet space at the right temperature could survive 7 days, or maybe even 10. Nevertheless, you want to install them at the first available moment. Here’s why.

Bees die every day

Every day some of the bees in the package will die. These are the bees that must build the first comb, raise the first young, forage for the first supplies, and care for the queen. You need a certain number of bees to get all the work done. Even if the queen lays on day one after installation, it will be three long weeks before you get any new workers.

Spring and summer bees live an average of about four to six weeks. Let’s say five weeks (or 35 days) as an average. The bees in your package vary in age, although most are probably fairly young. But even if we assume they were only one day old when packaged, after a week in a cage, they’ve already used up 8 days. Now you’ve got 27 days left of the 35-day average lifespan.

It takes 21 day to raise brood. Subtracting that from your 27 days gives you 6 days of wiggle room. The wiggle room allows for a queen that isn’t released for a couple days or who doesn’t start laying right away. As you can see, a week in a shipping container is an unfortunate thing.

Conditions will vary

In truth, some of the bees will live longer and a cluster of bees has an amazing ability to survive. Against all odds, I’ve seen packages survive when all the numbers say they can’t. At least you’ve got that in your favor.

Still, keep these numbers in mind if you decide to warehouse your bees until better weather. If the weather stays above freezing, I would install as soon as possible. If the temperature dips below freezing, you may consider moving your hives inside. Every situation is different, but the point is that there is a limit to keeping them in a cage.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Bees in a shipping container. You can keep bees in a shipping container for up to a week, but an old package is less likely to get off to a good start.
You can keep bees in a shipping container for up to a week, but an old package is less likely to get off to a good start. © Tracey Byrne.

Comments

alison m gibbs
Reply

Thanks for this. I followed your cold weather installation post and got my bees in same day they arrived, the following three days have been freezing rain. But when I go out to the hive and put my ear up to it, I hear humming, so fingers crossed!

BeeHappy
Reply

I had to hive 6 packages on the 11th of April. It was 38 degrees out. I had to pile them on a Jet sled covered with a blanket and pull the sled into the bush where they were hived. The bees were a little sluggish, but it went ok.

I felt I needed to shake them in for 2 reasons first the queen had to be covered with bees, to keep her warm, and surrounded, second I did not want to put in part of them and set the rest in with the box they shipped in. I checked the next day and they looked good. Since then we have got 10-14 inches of snow.

This weekend is forecast for 55-60 degrees so I am going in to get the hopefully empty queen cadges and reduce then down to one box, they went down so slow I left an empty medium supper on top for the bee pile. Also I will check for stores, I do have some honey to give if necessary. In the high 40’s or 50’s I wouldn’t worry too much. Actually the cooler temps help prevent the abscond. Just be sure the queen does not get chilled. Either release her or dump the bees in leaving her in the center upper part of the hive. If cool, a frame of honey would be needed. They use the carbs for heat production. Or you can feed, I do not, as I am not into feeding sugar unless it is life or death.

Martha Ann Gertz
Reply

We had ONE nice, warm day & it happened to be the day we picked up our packages, so we got them in the hive. However, that night the temps dropped 40 degrees – to 32 degrees. I worry that the bees couldn’t cluster close enough to the queen, who is still in her cage. Should that concern me?

Rusty
Reply

I think she will be fine. They will surround her and keep the air warm. She’s probably all toasty in there.

harold meinster
Reply

Just received my package of bees from Kentucky on Monday. Placed them immediately into a hive to settle them in right away.

The feeding can was empty and 1/3 to half the bees are deceased in the box. The queen was fine and the remaining bees were around her. I think that shipping so close to the weekend is not a good idea. Shipping earlier in the week they do not have any layover time.

I fed them immediately with both sugar syrup and a pollen patty. The weather is cold and I cannot speak for the shipping conditions. Hopefully the hive will prosper.

Dan Geiger
Reply

Harold Meinster

Unless you are trying to get a specific type of bee you might be better off in the future checking locally for your bee packages rather than having them mailed. Not knowing where you live, you could search for (your state) bee packages or bee association or your state bee inspector to find out who sells bees locally. Finding a local bee association can be very helpful, many sell packages in spring and have advertisements from other sellers for bees and equipment.

Dan G
Naperville IL

Carol Nelson
Reply

Hi Rusty!

Very good info, as usual. Can I assume that installing a nuc would be fairly safe in this cold spell? I have frames of honey to add & usually put a hand warmer packet between the feeding jar & the jar insulating sleeve set up in a med super. It has has a solid bottom except for the feeder jar holes so too much heat escaping shouldn’t be an issue. I usually get 3# packages but this year changed to nucs. I am hoping the nucs will have a better chance with the temps in the 20/30 degrees.

Rusty
Reply

Carol,

A nuc has a need for more warmth because it usually includes brood. On the the other hand, the colony in a nuc is set up to handle cold temperatures, so I think it will be fine. The frames of honey help control temperature fluctuations and the hand warmers tide them over in the rewarming phase after the install.

Sean Govan
Reply

Hi Rusty, thank you for your wonderful blog. I love reading it, and it got me into beekeeping (this is my first year). I have a question: I got two packages last week, and one day after installation I discovered that one half or two thirds of one package had gone to join the other package. The remaining bees were in a cluster the size of a grapefruit under their empty hive. I thought they would go back in before it got cold, but they didn’t. Two days later, I came back and found them, apparently dead, in that same spot. The queen (still in her cage inside the hive) also looked dead. I scooped the bees up from the ground and dumped them back in their package to take them home, to warm them up in case they weren’t dead, but before it occurred to me to do that that I thoughtlessly took the “dead” queen out of her cage to look at her, then thoughtlessly put her in the package with her “dead” attendants (hoping to get a good look at the corpses before throwing them away). After which I thoughtlessly dumped all the other bees on top of her, along with the sticks and clumps of dirt which got scooped up with the bees. I hope the dirt clumps didn’t crush her…anyway they warmed up and I reinstalled them 24 hours later, which was the soonest I could get back to my hives. At that point they had had a day of shipping, a day clustered under their empty hive, two days of being in suspended animation, and another day of being back in their package. I re-installed them in their hive last night and as of tonight they are still there. Now I have one huge colony and one grapefruit-size colony (which I hope still has a queen at least, though I don’t know for sure because I couldn’t find her. (Hopefully I just don’t know how to look yet.)

Now for the question: what do I do? I’m thinking I should wait three more days (til Friday, when the temp is supposed to reach 62 F) to see if the queen is really there or not (by checking for eggs). If she is there, I can just wait for warmer weather and then give the small colony a frame of brood from the big colony to equalize them. But if I see no sign of eggs on Friday, I’m thinking I should combine the two colonies by putting the small colony’s deep on top of the big colony’s deep, and have one double deep with a huge colony which I can split later to have two colonies again. Do you think that would work? What would you do in my place?

Actually, I have one more question, kind of a dumb one. I had some old frames with empty, two-year-old comb in them that a mouse had deposited many droppings on. Those were the frames that I put in the hive that the bees seemed not to like. They cleaned them up quite a bit and put some syrup in three cells before freezing under their hive, but they also left a bunch of mouse droppings in many cells. Do you think they didn’t like the old comb and that that made them leave? I also put in some frames with foundation and some empty frames between the frames with old comb.

Sean Govan
Reply

I know I would hate to be given a house full of mouse poop, but then again I am not a bee. I thought since they are such good housekeepers, they could probably just clean it up and have some ready-drawn comb that is already built, instead of having to build it all themselves. Could it be that they are too “grossed out” to pick up the droppings in their mandibles and carry them outside?

I guess I will find out next time I go in and look at the frames. Live and learn.

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

Believe it or not, that all sounds rather typical. When you install multiple packages the bees often gravitate to one hive, probably because the queen scent is stronger or better in one colony than another. Once you sort out who made it and who didn’t, give them some time to build up, and then split them again (assuming you combined them) or equalize the colonies, as you suggested. I don’t think the mouse droppings had anything to do with anything. Eventually, the bees will clean it all up.

Sean Govan
Reply

Thank you so much for answering. Both colonies are alive and coming in and out of their hives. Whew! The queen that was mostly deserted is really small, much smaller than I believe queens normally are. (I didn’t get a good look at the other one to make a comparison, because every time I looked she was covered with workers.) Maybe the one queen is a runt?

The big colony is bringing in lots of pollen; the small colony, none at all.

I don’t quite understand the comb-building preferences of either colony. I have both colonies in double deeps right now–the bottom box for frames, and the top one for feeders. The small colony has old, empty drawn comb in its frames, as I mentioned earlier. Last I checked, they were festooning from their inner cover! Maybe because it traps hot air, making it easier for them to keep warm? Perhaps I should shake them into the frames and put the inner cover directly on top of the frames, with the feeders on top of the inner cover? I’m inclined to just leave them alone now to give them better chances of survival, even if they fill the entire box with burr comb. At least they will be happier that way. And I will still be able to treat for mites with a shop towel full of glycerin and oxalic acid. And if they miraculously grow enough to need more room, they can move into the box with the old comb, and that way I will be able to inspect at least part of the colony. What do you think?

The big colony despised their wax foundation and decided to build three beautiful yellow combs from the bottom of their inner cover. I plan to cut them off and rubber-band them into frames tomorrow.

Thanks again for the answers you give, I really appreciate it. Please continue demystifying beekeeping on your wonderful, informative site. This is my go-to site; I almost never look anywhere else, and when I do I don’t find what I was looking for, which is clarity and a well-explained reasoning process. There is so much to learn about beekeeping that it is hard to remember it all as you read it, and it helps to have it organized like on your site. If you write a book with all the same information as what is in your honey bee articles and in the best of the comments, I will buy it. Especially if it includes some of the photos. I think it should have the same color scheme and fonts as your site, for the sake of readability, aesthetics, and nostalgia.

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

Thank you for the compliments!

I would cut and move the combs in both hives otherwise, when you try to inspect later, it will get more and more difficult and you are bound to damage the nest structure. I think it’s best to fix the problem earlier rather than later.

The small queen could be an intercaste. Some do okay for a while, but eventually they get superseded.

Sean Govan

Advice taken on tying the burr comb into frames. You can read about something all you like, but until you actually do it you don’t know what it’s like. It was harder than it sounded.

I did the big colony first because they had the most comb. (Turns out the intercaste queen died in the small colony; that colony now has laying workers. Should have combined them. Oh well.) I hadn’t considered the fact that the combs, being built from the bottom of the inner cover, would be thick and full at the top, and thin and empty at the bottom. I also didn’t realize that the brand new comb would be that fragile. So they were flimsy, and very top-heavy.

I knew, thanks to your site, that the cells of a comb are angled slightly up; so I resisted the temptation to turn the combs upside down to have the heavy part in the bottom of the frames. For future reference, Rusty, can you tell me if it has to be right-side-up? Could they just draw the cells out a little more and curve them up at the ends if the comb were put in upside down?

Anyway, I put the combs in the frames right side up and they sagged so much that they broke. Next time I have to do this, I will cut the combs in two horizontally, and put the light bottom part on top of the heavy top part.

Since they broke, their profile looked like a very shallow sideways “v” instead of being perfectly straight and vertical. But my bees figured it out, and now I at least have a hive that I can inspect.

Now I have a question about splits, because my tiny laying worker colony is doomed and I want to have two colonies again. I plan to read all of your split articles, but have only just started. My big colony has now filled almost seven of their eight frames with fresh comb, in less than four weeks. (I didn’t realize they could build that fast!) I just added a shallow super to give them more room (shallow because I happened to have some shallow frames with comb already drawn, from a friend who got out of beekeeping, and I hope to get them to expand as fast as possible). My plan after that was to give them the deep box from my laying-worker colony, once it has drawn all the comb it can and then died out. (So if I do that, the hive will have a deep on the bottom, then a shallow, then another deep.) Now thanks to HBS, I am starting to understand the concept of a split, and I am wondering if I could use that shallow box to do a split once they fill it with brood. Just wait a couple of weeks for them to fill it halfway or three quarters, then pick it up and set it down someplace else. Does that sound like a good idea, or should I use a deep instead of a shallow? If I leave the shallow, my thought is that they can fill it faster and I can do the split sooner. (Then they will have more time raise a new queen and get her mated while there are still lots of drones available.) But if I use a deep, I will be able to give new frames of brood and larvae to the half that has no queen (if they fail to raise a new queen right away), which I couldn’t do if the two halves of the split are not in the same size box. What do you think is the smartest option?

Rusty

Sean,

I’ve experimented with giving bees cells that were upside down and the bees just abandoned them. Whether bees will always do that, I don’t know. Cutting them in half was a good idea. And yes, new comb is extremely fragile: that’s the reason it makes such good comb honey.

I don’t have a good answer for your second question. I’ve split hives using shallows, mediums, and deeps. To me, it all depends on what is going on inside the boxes more than the size of the box. To me what is important is you have open brood that includes eggs in the queenless half. Or if you don’t know where the queen is, open brood and eggs in both halves. They can work with any size box.

Sean Govan

OK. I was starting to second-guess myself, but I will leave the shallow box on there til they have a bunch of brood and then use it for the split. Thank you so much for replying again!

Elisabeth
Reply

Hi Rusty,

First year beekeeper, love your site have been reading through several posts and pinning several to reference later. This was very timely, picked up my package today in the snow! (I live in northeast Ohio) Know it left California early Sunday, currently have them in their bee bus down in my dark 60 degree basement. Syrup can feels pretty full but I have sprayed them a couple of times with sugar syrup as well. Tomorrow the temperature should hit mid to upper 40s by mid afternoon, then rain sets in in the evening, Thursday windy and one inch of snow predicted, Friday and Saturday cloudy with temps mid 40s/upper 20s at night, Sunday the weather starts to look more hospitable (50s and sunny and continuing to improve in the days to come). I’m at a loss as to what to do, if it weren’t going to be cloudy windy and cold Thursday I would feel more comfortable installing tomorrow … this is my first year so all new woodenware/foundation etc. if I do hive in the cold, will be feeding initially with fondant and pollen patty until the weather warms next week. As I see it my options are, hive tomorrow and pray for the best, keep them in the package in the basement until this weekend refilling syrup can and spraying as needed (so approximately 8 days in the package if I hive on Sunday) or hive them in my garage and close up the entrance and move them to their permanent location on Sunday. I appreciate any thoughts you have on my dilemma!

Dan Geiger
Reply

I planned for the need to feed new packages, I do not extract the brood honey from deadouts like many people seem to do. By giving them deep frames of honey I don’t need to feed the sugar syrup right away and it adds insulation and thermal mass to a hive.

I installed 2 3lb packages in Naperville IL 60565 (zone 5) on 4/7/18 at 530 PM near the high for the day of 37 degrees F. For each I used single 10 frame deeps and put 5-6 frames of sealed honey which I scratched some and the rest of the frames were a mix of open comb, sealed and unsealed honey. I put a full pollen patty on each since it was going to be cold and/or wet. The outside frames were sealed honey and two frames in the center were open dark comb with a valley cut with my hive tool to help hold the queen cage and allow the frames to be pushed together to prevent excessive burr comb since I knew I was not going to open them in the cold. I put .5 inch foam on four sides and 1.5 inch of foam on the top.

Dan G

Debbie
Reply

Feeding a new package is ‘life or death.’ Have some mercy on the bees! They’ve been through so much in being packaged and in transit, then installed in cold weather where they can hardly move or get around. I would also add a nice moisture box to the top when installing, will speed the warm up process. Love them moisture boxes!

Tammy Moravec
Reply

Hi Rusty

I just picked up my bees (I had the hive with honey in our warm garage when I installed them). We had a major snow storm 30″ so I had the bees in the garage. I could not keep them in the hive so I captured most of them and put them in the hive. We had 40 plus weather so I put them out side. Will they be OK I have foam insulation on the top and on 3 sides of the hive? My next question is will I be able to move my hive back out in the garden with all the snow melts and will they be able to fine the hive my garden is about 100 ft from the garage.

Thanks Tammy

BeeHappy
Reply

Hi Debbie, I have 40 frames of honey I kept from last year. There is still snow here, and I recall when I used to feed, that the bees do not take much sugar water when it is this cold. I am convinced that honey is a better “food” for the bees than sugar, dry or in solution. As well, the frames I kept, also have a lot of pollen under the honey in a nice arc. Also sugar digests different than honey, does not have trace minerals, produces more waste for the bees. By saving honey for packages, I am doing the best for the new packages that I can. IMO sugar is not mercy. I do reserve it for when there are NO other options, I.E. it would be the absolute last thing I would use.. I have not fed sugar in several years. If I plan to order packages, I keep enough honey back in the fall to give each package 2 or 3 frames, 2/3 to 3/3 full of honey, as well several nice combs. Have fun and enjoy your bees.

BeeHappy

Granny Roberta in nw CT
Reply

I held 4 packages of bees–in the new plastic Bee-Bus–just for overnight in our basement. After they were installed, I cleaned about 143 dead/dying bees off the floor. I managed to be philosophical about that. Then my partner claims he vacuumed up two cups of bees (about 800 bees, right?) from around the basement windows.

Uhm, are these Bee-Buses actually bee proof?

Still, I’m telling myself that, divided by four, it’s still less than the inch of dead bees on the bottom of each package that we’re told is acceptable.

Rusty
Reply

Roberta,

I don’t know anything about Bee Buses, except what I saw in a YouTube. So I don’t really know.

April bobbert
Reply

Quick question…

Will I need my smoker when installing a new package of bees into my new hive? I’ve watched a ton of videos and none use a smoker to install. Was just curious as to why I’m not seeing a smoker in use on installation day. Thanks in advance. April

Rusty
Reply

April,

A package of bees had no nest to defend. You won’t need a smoker.

April bobbert
Reply

That makes perfect sense! Ty!

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