Bringing home new honeybees

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

It’s been several years since I kept bees. I decided this year was a good time to start up the bees again. 

I have all of the equipment I need, including beehive boxes and the frames inside that are used to help guide the bees to make straight honeycombs. I still have my old bee suit, which is decades old, my veil to protect my face, a smoker, hive tool and all the other esoteric beekeeping tools I collected through the years.

A few weeks back, I ordered a 3-pound package of bees and just received them this week. For those not familiar with the honeybee trade, yes, bees are sold by the pound. There’s around 3,500 to 4,000 bees per pound depending on how much food they have in their stomachs. 

Young new honeybees ready to go to work in their new home.

Package bees sold in Michigan are raised in Georgia where the bee season is much longer and the winters are much milder. That allows colonies of bees to build up to such high numbers that bee breeders can remove half of the bees or more and use them to start new colonies.

The most common sizes of bee packages run 2 or 3 pounds. The package sizes are not just arbitrary numbers a sales person picked out of the air, rather it reflects the number of bees that would be left in a typical hive after a Michigan winter. 

If you’ve never seen a honeybee package, it is a rectangular wooden box with metal screening along the two long sides. It’s basically the same screen that is used for window screening. It allows for plenty of air circulation while still keeping the bees confined in the package box. Ventilation is critical because when the bees are inside the package they are quite nervous, as you can imagine, and active even though they are crowded into a small space. All of that extra activity generates quite a bit of heat and the screen allows it to dissipate. 

A bee package containing three pounds of bees ready to be opened

The ends, top and bottom are made of solid wood to add strength since the packages are stacked on top of one another inside the truck during shipping.

Secured to the top of the package is a can of sugar syrup used to feed the bees. The end of the can has a couple of tiny holes to allow the bees access to the syrup.

A bee colony is not complete without a queen. So the Southern bee breeders always add a queen bee to each package.

Using special techniques, bee breeders are able to multiply the number of queens to make sure there are enough queens to go around.

A hive cannot survive without a queen since she is the only individual that lays eggs, and without eggs there would be no bees to replace those that eventually get old and die. 

The other thousands of bees are female worker bees. Even though the worker bees are female, they are sterile and normally do not lay eggs. 

During transit, the queen bee is kept safe in a small, specially designed cage. Without the cage, a queen would be in danger of being crushed to death by the worker bees on their journey to their new home. 

Worker bees will instinctively cluster around the queen as a protective gesture but in the confines of a bee package, the clustering can be too much for the queen to bear. 

Inside the queen’s cage, the bee breeder will place a few worker bees to tend to her.

One end of the queen cage has a hole drilled into it, which is filled with a plug of solidified sugar mix called “candy.”

Sugar is used as a temporary barrier because bees will eat away at it until it is all gone. This allows for the gradual introduction of the queen to her new colony. 

The bees in the package are not necessarily the same ones she grew up with. So to avoid the possibility of the workers mistaking her for a stranger and attacking and killing her, she is kept in the protective cage until the workers accept her as their own queen. 

When it is time to release the package of bees into a new hive box, the beekeeper leaves the queen in her small cage to allow the worker bees time to adjust to their new queen and new home as they slowly remove the candy plug. That process can take a few days, enough time for the queen to be fully accepted by the 10,000 or so members of her new colony.

The can of sugar syrup is removed from the package allowing access to the queen cage. Dozens of worker bees cluster around the cage as it is lifted from the package.

Package bees are shipped to Michigan in climate-controlled trucks during mid to late April. Taking delivery of bees in early spring allows the hive to take advantage of the entire season to gather nectar and pollen used as food for the colony.

New workers are busy all spring and summer making extra honey for winter and raising new bees that will replace them as they get old. 

Along the way, the number of bees will increase to as many as 40,000 or more going into winter.