When to unite the queen and a package of bees
When you receive a package of bees, the queen is in her own small cage attached to the inside of the package. Some beekeepers release her as soon as they install the package, and some wait for as much as a week before releasing her. What are the reasons for the difference?
The packaging process is disruptive to the bees, being much like an industrial assembly line. Bees are sold by weight. Machines are taken out into the apiary and used to blow the right number of bees into each package. The queens come from a queen-rearing apiary and are completely unrelated to the bees in the box. Her little cage protects her from these bees as well as from being damaged in shipping and handling.
Whenever a group of bees is exposed to a new queen, they need time to accept her as their own. This can be a few days or a week, depending on a number of variables. Whether your bees have adjusted to this new queen probably depends on how long they’ve been together. If they were packaged yesterday, it would be risky to release her today. Usually, however, they’ve been together a number of days before you receive them, during which time they have probably accepted her.
Remember, though, that they’ve been vacuumed into a box, given an unknown queen, and trucked across the country. These are all stressful events. On top of that, you’re now giving them a new home in unfamiliar surroundings. The bees may decide it’s all the queen’s fault and kill her. So why be in a hurry?
There is another reason for waiting. Once in a while a package and their queen may decide they don’t like their new home, and the whole colony may up and leave. This is called absconding. It is more apt to happen if the hive is brand new without any existing comb. I actually had this happen one year, but I was lucky enough to find the cluster hanging in a bush not too far from the hive. However, the bees won’t leave the hive without their queen, so if you keep her caged until they start building some comb, they are less likely to go. A good supply of sugar syrup will speed up the comb-building process.
Some queen cages have a plug of hard candy in one end. The bees will eat through this and have her out in two or three days. Or, if your cage has a cork in one end, you can take out the cork and replace it with a piece of marshmallow. Both these methods provide some time for the bees to adjust to their new queen before she’s free. By the time she’s released, her scent is familiar to all the colony members.
Be sure to check after a few days. If the queen isn’t released by the time you think she should be, just pull off the screen and release her yourself.