Last Thursday our BRL Team came into work bright and early, expecting a routine day of National Honey Bee Survey and BIP work. Our normalcy lasted all of about 15 minutes when Bart Smith rushed in to announce that our package bees, scheduled to arrive the next week, had come the night before and all BRL employees were welcome to join in a demonstration and installation help. I looked down at my bare feet in flats and nice cardigan. Hmm. Wish I had known in advance! But we (Rachel Bozarth, Heather Eversole and I) were not about to miss this for anything. We had been hearing that installing package bees was one of the best days at the Bee Research Lab.
We headed out in the foggy Maryland morning to the barn where others had already gathered in anticipation to watch Bart give a short demonstration on how exactly the process would be carried out. The packages are wooden, rectangular boxes with screens on the two larger sides. There is a thin slab of flimsy wood on the underside of the package that covers a hole and when
this piece of wood is pried off with a hive tool, a metal can is exposed underneath. Filled with sugar syrup with three slit-like holes on the top, the can looks much like a medium size soup can with the label torn off. Beside the can there is a slot in which the queen cage is located and once it is pulled out of the package the bees start to slowly leak out.
In order to be ready to smoothly install the bees you will need a nail, hive tool, and a jar of sugar syrup with a feeder for the hive. Open the hive box where you are installing the bees and remove 4-5 frames from the center. Next, take some sugar syrup and liberally sprinkle over the bees inside the package through the screen. This helps to calm them down and also prevents them from being flighty as they will be wet with the syrup. After this, hit the package on the ground to get all the bees on the bottom of the box which helps them separate from the metal can. Pry off the thin square of wood blocking the queen cage and can underneath. Remove the queen cage first, and then use your hive to tool to lift syrup container out, setting it on the ground. If you want, here you can gain give the bees another sprinkle of sugar syrup if they seem like they are excited. OK, take a deep breath, suspend the package, hole side down over the open hive and shake a hard as you can as you watch the bees tumble out. You will probably need to bang the package on the inside of the hive in order to get the majority of the bees out. If not all the bees come out it is alright, just make sure you set the package, hole side facing up, in front or next to the hive so the remaining bees can find their way to the hive. As you begin to place the frames back, remove the cork from the queen cage and use the nail to poke a hole in the queen candy. Be careful not insert the nail too far and injure the queen in the process. Place the cage, candy side up, in the middle of the frames, close the hive, and place the sugar syrup jar in the feeder. You may leave the metal can, hole side facing up, on the ground located next to the hive for the bees to get any remaining syrup they can from it. Later on the day you should be able to dispose of the empty package and syrup container.
My first experience with installing packages was a good one. No stings and because the bees were calm, it helped me feel very relaxed. It was great time for all in the lab, even those who usually do not do field work to get outside, and interact with the bees. For me, it marked the first of many days ahead that hopefully would be filled with the spontaneity of trips to the hives for all sorts of tasks from queen finding, to recording, to general colony maintenance. Ready or not, beekeeping season has started.