Bee Packages: What Are They For And How Do I Get Them?


Honeybees can be found in their natural environment out in the woods or farms busy foraging for nectar and pollen to make honey or feed their brood either in beehives.

In order to establish or start a colony in a beehive, you will need to introduce the bees into the hive. One method of doing this is sourcing Bee Packages from beekeeping suppliers and breeders who specialize in this line of work.

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This is a beekeeper installing a bee package to start a new hive

So, what is a bee package? A bee package has enough bees to start a new hive, bees arrive in a wooden frame box that is screened on both sides, to ventilate the bees during transit. Your typical bee package size is 3 pounds of bees, although 2 and 5 pound packages can be sourced. Inside the bee package, are worker bees, a newly mated queen bee, and sugar syrup for the bees to eat during shipping.

If your package bees are received in a good, healthy condition, they are installed into a nucleus box. This is the whole purpose of having the bees in a package that can be easily and safely shipped with minimum risk to the bees. It’s also easy to install into a beehive with enough bee numbers to quickly and efficiently establish a beehive.

Now let’s delve into some detail on how you can go about getting bee packages and what they are for. We shall also walk you through, what to do and expect when your package arrives:

The Bee Package

Package bees are measured by the pound. We have an article about factors that influences how many bees are in a pound.

However, typically when purchasing bee packages there are about 3000 to 4000 thousand bees per pound. A three pound package will have about 10,000 bees. A two pound package will have about 7,000 bees.

Each pound of bees can be expected to cover 1 frame in a beehive. Therefore, if you get a 3 pound package of bees, they should cover 3 frames. The big advantage of using a bee package is that you are starting out with a stronger workforce that will build up rapidly.

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This is an example of a full frame of bees

It’s worth noting that a typical package does not have brood, comb, eggs or larvae included. These bees will swiftly buildout wax combs to store incoming resources and begin a brood nest.

If you want to check it out, it is actually fascinating “How bees make wax “.

What Species Of Bees Are Available In Bee Packages?

Some of the commonly available bee species that can be found from suppliers are; 

Italian bees

Carniolan bees

Russian Hybrid 

• Saskatraz bees

Let’s have a quick glance at some of their characteristics and traits.

Italian Honey Bees

Italian bees are a gentle and easy honey bee species to work with. They will usually begin their build-up as soon as conditions in temperature begin to rise. However, on overcast and cooler days they will not leave the hive.

They have good wintering ability and their tendency to swarming is limited. Italian bees maintain a large worker population; this is regardless of environmental conditions. 

The drawback here is that the resulting large bee population can be more than the colony can feed and may lead to early winter starvation. This may explain the Italian bees habit of robbing other neighboring hives of honey.

They may also exhibit the disloyal behavior of joining other colonies. This is called hive drift. When forage or pollinating plants are scarce and not found in ample quantities, Italian bees have been known to gorge on their own honey supplies. Interestingly this industrious breed does have the ability to ripen honey early. Italian bees are fairly susceptible to Varroa mites and tracheal mites.

Carniolan Bees.

Carniolan bees are especially easy to work with and are well known for their gentle temperament. If you are concerned about aggressive bee behavior, you will have little to worry about with this breed as they are perfect for backyard bee keepers.

They get through the winter with a greatly downsized population and thus do not require great stores of honey during winter. 

On the other hand, the Carniolan bees jump back to life quite rapidly once winter is over and in an incredibly short period of time, build up the size of the colony. This ability to rapidly increase the hive population can prove problematic as it makes them prone to swarming, which can then lead to crowding.

Russian Bees

The Russian bees are highly resistant to tracheal mites. They are very industrious and good producers of honey. They compare well, if not better with the standard bee stocks in honey production.

Breeders of Russian bees and queens are located all across the country with most of them concentrated in the South and in California.

When pollen is scarce, Russian bees do not build their colony population and they shut down brood rearing until pollen is readily available.

Saskatraz Bees

Generally, Saskatraz bees have a similar temperament to Italian bees. They are good producers of honey and they show good characteristics similar to those of breeds commonly used.

Saskatraz bees are a fairly new variety and have shown a higher resistance to Varroa mites and tracheal mites. This resistance to viral and fungal problems has made the demand for Saskatraz bees to go up among beekeepers. These bees winter well and have been observed to be more hygienic than other honeybees.

Purchasing Options

Now that you have an informed idea of what honeybee breeds are commonly used in the United States, let’s have a look at the purchasing options. You will be glad to know that package bees breeders and suppliers can be found in most parts of the US including the following;

• Pennsylvania

• Kentucky

• Illinois

• Ohio

• Georgia

• Texas

• Minnesota

• California

No matter where you live in the States, whether in the East Coast, West Coast, South, Midwest, or the Mountain regions, you’re most likely to find a beekeeping supplier fairly close to you.

Generally, when placing your order of package bees from suppliers, you want to keep in mind that supplies can sell out due to high the high demand of package bees. For that reason, it’s best that you order well in advance to avoid disappointment.

Preferably, you want to put in your order in the winter for March through May shipments. It’s a good idea to order from suppliers nearest to your area where possible. That’s because the package bees will be more acclimated to that area. It also reduces shipping costs as well as lessening stress on the bees.

The table below shows a shortlist of reputable package bee suppliers in the US that one can order from. Some have several branches strewn cross the states make shipment easier, while others only supply locally and their immediate surroundings to customers within a 3 hour driving distance.

Bee Package SupplierLocationShippingBreeds of Bees
Sweet Mountain HoneyGeorgiaEast coast to west coast, Shipping between March an MayItalian, Carniolan & Russian Hybrid
Lappe’s Bee supply and Honey FarmIowaPick up only from locations across Iowa, Available in April Italian Hybrid, Carniolan or Saskatraz
Long Lane Honey Bee FarmsIllinoisPick up only at Fairmount, IL
Available in April
Italian Hybrid
Kelley BeesKentuckyWill Ship to these locations. Zones 1-4 with insurance Zone 5 at own risk
Available Spring
Italian or Russian Hybrid
Apis Hives CoColoradoPick up from six locations
Check their website for availability
Italian/Russian Hybrid
Queen Right ColoniesOhioWill ship bee packages
Available in April
New World Carniolan, Three-banded Italian, Cordovan and Saskatraz
Barnyard BeesGeorgiaShips to all US states accept Hawaii and Alaska.
Available in Spring
Italian

Picking up the package bees from the supplier is often a good option provided you live near a one. An advantage to that is you get the package bees within a shorter time and the bees are less stressed on arrival. If you happen, to live far from the closest supplier to you, then the only other option is to have the package bees shipped to you.

Of all the above package bee suppliers, Barnyard Bees, Sweet Mountain Honey, Queen Right Colonies, and Kelley Bees showed to have a very impressive shipping coverage that includes most of the US.

In case you are wondering what the prices for package bees look like? Here is a helpful ballpark guideline;

• 3 pound package bees will range from $130 – $160.

• 2 pound package bees range will oscillate between $95 – $130.

• Nucs will usually range between $150 – $300.

The mode of shipping by suppliers is often via USPS ,UPS, Priority Mail, Priority Mail Express or First-class Mail and largely determines the actual cost of shipments. It’s worth noting that only queen bee packages with not more than eight attendant bees can be shipped by airmail. Otherwise all package bees’ cages are transported via surface mail.

Seasonality

Beekeeping happens to be a seasonal venture where the changing seasons dictate the kind of activity and actions bees and their beekeepers will engage in. Good timing is essential at all stages, right from ordering your package bees to installation into a nucleus or hive.

Order your bee packages as early as you can as the likelihood of suppliers often selling out is high. Bee packages are typically shipped from the beginning of March through to May. With this in mind, you will need to get in quickly to avoid disappointment.

If you are living in a state where March is still cold you are going to want to order your bee package for later in the spring when the worst of the winter is gone.

When your bee package arrives and has been installed, the bees will go to work making wax for combs and foraging for nectar and pollen to rapidly build their hive and get their queen laying

During springtime, as the temperature warms up and the days grow longer in March, the buildup of the hive’s population picks up. The queen bee becomes more active and will start to lay more eggs. The growth is exponential more bee means more resources and faster building of wax combs.

In May, with plenty of food available for the bees, the rate of growth should be peaking. With the queen able to lay up to 2000 eggs per day the activity in the hive should now be starting to produce good stores of honey.

In summer, male bees or drones are found in high numbers. This is the nectar flow or honey flow season when the hive should be producing and storing more honey. Ideally, the hive will be operating at maximum capacity. All going to plan the beekeeper is able to extract delicious honey.

The number of bees will start to decrease in the following months and the drones will kicked out of the hive as winter approaches.

What to expect during shipping 

During the shipping process, it is common to lose some bees in the bee package. Kelley Bees say in their “bee package policy” that:

It is normal to have up to 2” of dead bees in the bottom of the package due to the life cycle of worker bees and the timing of entry into the package.

Kelley Bees

Unfortunate as this may be, it’s a normal occurrence because these bees are banged out of boxes and poured through funnels prior to the hazards of transportation.

In order to cover the expected loss in transit, suppliers will shake more than 3 pounds of bees into each package. If the amount of dead bees is abnormally high, this would warrant a replacement. It may be a good idea to visit the Better Business Bureau website to check if customers have registered any complaints against your supplier.

The most important thing is that the queen is still alive and well. She is the priority of the bees in the package they will bee feeding her and keeping her warm within their cluster.

Taking Care of The Package Upon Arrival

Ideally, the bee package should be installed as soon as possible, however if the weather is rainy or unseasonably cold it is best to hold off for a day or two for better weather,

A package of bees can be held for several days in a dark room or basement where the temperature is close to 50 °F. You just need to make sure you keep the food up to them.

The bees should be fed in the package by spraying a mist of sugar water using a clean spray bottle with a 1 to 1 mixture of cane sugar and water. The sugar syrup can that comes with the package can go dry and your bees will starve, so spraying them with sugar water is important.

Do not leave bees in the sun or in a place where they are exposed to heat. They don’t tolerate heat and they will die quickly. It’s important that someone is physically at the delivery point to receive the package. It is also important to find out if bees brought in by truck were in a climate controlled environment while on transit to their destination.

Installation of Package Bees

The best time to install the package is in late afternoon. At this time the bees are not likely to drift.

It’s important to note that for at least the first few weeks after installation, you will need to feed the bees heavily until the colony is well established.

There are a variety of feeders available from hive top feeders, in-hive feeders, or entrance feeders. The feeding solution should be a sugar and water mix at a ratio of 1 part water and 1 part sugar.

A pollen substitute is also available in stores and you might want to use it to feed your bees. This will provide the protein they need up until the colony is well established. It is also advisable to keep the entrances reduced to a small size. This helps to conserve heat and prevents robbing.

It is good if you have the available equipment to install the bee package into a 5 frame box. This is easier for the bees to manage early on. Once the hive has drawn out those 5 frames and filled them with brood, honey, and pollen stores the hive can be expanded. You could transfer the hive into an 8 frame or 10 frame box.

We, ourselves choose to run 9 frames in a 10 frame box. This is a broadly common practice. This choice makes the frames easier to uncap when they are full of honey. It also makes the process of maintaining your hives easier when it is time to get the frames in and out of the boxes.

This is are really good video demonstrating how to install bee packages

The most crucial part is to prepare for the arrival of the bees. Read all you can and be well equipped with information. If you can, visit a beekeeper near you or join a beekeeping club.

Have a couple of gallons of sugar water ready for your bees arrival! Use clean containers only. Do not risk accidentally poisoning your bees by using recycled containers.

Having looked at some of the main aspects of package bees, a few additional interesting points come to mind.

How long can package bees live in a cage?

Worker bees typically live for about 6 weeks in the wild or in a beehive. That’s a 42 day lifespan. Package bees are usually all adult bees. From the time the bees are packaged and shipped to the customer, a few days will have passed, keeping in mind another day will pass if the bees are not installed on the same day they arrive

All this time the bees are being fed on sugar syrup. They are not rearing brood or reproducing. If the bees arrived at the customer 5 days after packaging, they will have lost about 7 days from their life cycles. That’s why it’s imperative to ensure that you install the package bees into your hives as soon as you can post-delivery.

What to Do if the Queen Arrives Dead

If your queen is dead on arrival of the package, but there are still live bees in the package, go ahead and install the package and place it into a hive. Keep the dead queen in with the bees (in her cage). This action will hold the bees. Then call your supplier.

If the supplier can not replace the package or provide a new queen within a week, sadly the remaining bees may not survive. If you already have an existing hive these bees could be added to another hive.

A successful tool to manage this scenario is to install a super on another hive by placing paper towel or newspaper in between the new super and the hive below. Add the package bees to the top super. Within a day the bees will have chewed through the paper and the package bees will be accepted as part of the original hive.

Whilst you don’t get your new nucleus hive, you will however get a much stronger existing hive. Once this has been successfully actioned, A new queen can be sourced and the hive can be split.

Stress on Package Bees in Transit

What should concern you most, is the long term effects of stress, even if your package bees arrive on time via mail. Constant cooler temperatures whilst in transit help the bees keep calm. You can determine this because they will hang from the top of the package in a cluster. Hanging in this manner keeps them calm, so they don’t get so stressed. 

If you notice bees constantly running up the sides of the cage screens, starting from bottom and going to the top, and then starting all over again at the bottom, it’s is very likely the temperature is too hot. This behavior by bees is called “running the cage”, and it puts tremendous pressure on the bees and can greatly shorten their lives.

The health of the queen bee is one of the major issues that will have the largest impact on the hive. If the queen overheats due to lack of adequate ventilation, this can either ruin her ability to lay eggs or if the heat is extreme she can die. 

In the event that her ability to lay eggs is compromised, then her chances of starting the next generation of worker bees will not be possible, and eventually all the worker bees that were with her in the package will end up dying. Then you will have lost all the money you spent on the package and lose your beehive.

Conclusion

Creating and managing your very own hive can be a very fulfilling and fun venture.

It is probably better if it is your first ever hive to look at purchasing a complete nucleus hive from a local beekeeper who can offer you support as you start out.

Purchasing bee packages is a great way to start a new hive and can help you rapidly expand you apiary.

Do your research to find a good supplier in your area or one that has a good track record of shipping bee packages. Order early to ensure you can secure your package as numbers are often limited. Most suppliers will sell out early.

Be prepared for the package when it arrives. Have your location ready, equipment and sugar water well prepared.

It has its challenges of course, but the fun part is rearing these busy little creatures and enjoying fresh honey straight from your backyard.

References

https://www.lappesbeesupply.com/

Bees for Sale

https://heritageacresmarket.com/list-of-bee-suppliers-by-state/

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