Bee packages: how are they made and what are their benefits?
Working with bee packages is a very clever way to make the best use of the hive’s resources. It is a simple working technique with many advantages. However, you need to have a very good knowledge of mechanics and follow the steps correctly. In this article we explain how bee packages are made and how to use them correctly to multiply the hive.
For many beekeepers, the choice between nucs and package bees when it comes to expanding their colonies is clear: they choose package bees. This is a strategy that allows them to increase the number of hives without putting too much strain on their resources, as no brood, regardless of its age, is removed from the hives.
In addition, package bees are one of the best ways to send bees over long distances, as they are more transfer-resistant than nucs. On top of this, package bees transmit far less disease.
In this article we will explain what package bees are and how to manage them effectively. We will also discuss their advantages and disadvantages and their effectiveness compared to nuc management.
1- What is a cluster of bees?
It is a group of isolated bees, without comb, brood, honey or anything else: just bees. In fact, a cluster does not necessarily have to have a queen: it can be composed exclusively of workers and a few drones.
In general, it is estimated that a package should contain about 10,000 bees. This represents about 1.2 to 1.5 kg of bees. This is the size of an average swarm.
Once selected, these bees are enclosed in a rectangular box with walls made of a very fine mesh. It is this container that gives the name to the whole package.
Then a queen can be introduced into the cage, which can be either already fertilised or a virgin. In the case of virgin queens, many breeders prefer to include two to ensure fertilisation. This shows how simple it is to assemble a package of bees: nothing else is needed, neither brood comb nor honey or pollen resources.
Packs can be used in different ways: as a starter hive (pack of bees with a queen) or as reinforcement of a weak hive (pack of bees with or without a queen).
2 – How are package bees made?
When making a package of bees, there are a number of steps to follow to ensure that it is done correctly. Otherwise, the package may be unbalanced and contain too many or too few bees.
To start with, you need to have the necessary means:
Strong, well-populated hives
In order to make packages, you need a large number of bees, so it is important to have well-populated colonies which can give a certain number of bees without affecting their development.
One way to achieve this is to feed the donor hives with a stimulus feed a month and a half before the packages are made. This way they will be strong and have an abundant and healthy population. Care should be taken to avoid hives that may have a high presence of varroa mites or other pathogens.
Beekeepers who make packages use different models of bee collectors to collect the bees. The simplest model is a metal funnel with a wide part of about 40 or 50 centimetres in diameter and a narrow mouth which is coupled to a hole of about 10 centimetres in the box containing the package. Another widely used model is a kind of large box with metal mesh walls. On top of this, a stainless steel funnel of about 60 centimetres by 50 centimetres is placed.
This combination of funnel and box allows the bees to be stored in up to four complete supers. The collected bees are then distributed. Finally, there are mechanical bee collectors: they consist of a box, on top of which several rollers are placed facing each other. The honeycombs are inserted between them and the rollers are allowed to sweep the bees into the bottom box.
Boxes for packages
The boxes in which the packages of bees are placed are rectangular and measure about 35 centimetres long, 25 centimetres wide and 15 centimetres high. They are made of wooden slats, closing all their sides with fine wire mesh.
On one side there is a round hole of about 10 centimetres in diameter, which acts as the mouth of the packet. To close it, a container is used which, in addition to covering the hole, contains a candy-shaped block of food. The container will have holes for the bees to feed on.
It is important to pack the bees with the right amount of food and the only way to do this is to weigh them. A kitchen or bathroom scale is ideal for this task.
Solid food or candy
Candy is very easy to make. Mix five parts icing sugar to one part water. Bring to the boil and allow to thicken until the dough is cool enough to knead and easily cut into blocks.
Fertilised queens or caged virgins
If you want to use the package to create a new colony, which is most common, you will need to add a queen. She can be added at the time of creating the package, for which she must first be caged without the workers being able to release her until the beekeeper decides it is time to do so.
Alternatively, she can be added two days after the package is created, when the bees have already formed an orphan colony. In this second case, the queen is also introduced into a cage, but the bees are allowed to release her.
Once these elements are prepared, the package of bees can be made. Once the donor hives have been selected, the process begins, which involves the following steps
Selection of bees
The key to collecting bees is to select the type of worker bees you want to use and, most importantly, not to take the queen from the donor hives. This requires locating the queen, which is not always easy, so that she does not end up in the package.
You can also work as in the easy method of making nucs: one day before making the package, the bees are shaken and two or three frames of open brood are lifted onto the supers.
The supers are separated from the brood chamber by an exclusion screen, so that the nurse bees and other workers go up to work in these combs, always leaving the queen at the bottom and ensuring that the bees in the supers are suitable for creating packages. In hives such as the Dadant, which do not allow this exchange of queens, there is no choice but to look for them so that they are not transferred by mistake.
Collection of bees
When the package is to be assembled, it is sufficient to take the combs that have been isolated and carefully sweep their bees into the funnel or roller machine. Some beekeepers drop the combs onto the funnels, but this can cause the nectar and honey to fall into the box, choking the bees. Vigorous brushing is a better technique.
Weigh the package
The weight of each package should be checked. When the reception box already contains 1.2 to 1.5 kg of bees, the package is ready.
Presentation of the queen
If the package contains a queen, whether fertilised or not, she should be placed in the box in a transport cage with four or five worker bees and the required ration of sugar candy. The exit door of the cage should be closed. The cage is fixed inside the package box with a wire.
Closing the package
When the transport box contains enough bees, the door is closed with the lid which is attached to the feed box.
Spraying with water
A good idea at this stage is to gently spray the collected bees with sugar water. A spray bottle is sufficient for this operation, which is intended to stimulate the bees’ cleaning instinct. The bees will start cleaning each other, which will create a new and unique smell for the newly created colony. In addition, the liquid will hydrate the bees, which will better withstand the transport.
Transporting the packages
The packages are very easy to transport. They are light and, as the walls are made of wire mesh, there is no risk of suffocation. The bees can spend up to 72 hours in these conditions without too many problems.
Opening the packages
Once you have reached the place where the new colony is to be established, it is time to open the package. It is recommended to do this at dusk, to avoid alterations and possible bee escapes. To open the package, a hive is taken from which several frames are removed. The package box is placed in the hole and the lid is opened.
The queen’s cage is removed and placed between two combs of stamped or stretched wax. The flap of her cage is opened so that the worker bees can slowly release her. The package bees are then allowed to sneak out and occupy the comb around the queen. It is advisable to add a ration of stimulating food (liquid), which can be provided in a feeder.
Within a few hours the workers will have released the queen and, as most of them are young, they will start waxing with great energy, allowing egg-laying to start quickly. Two or three days after installation, the new colony can be checked to see if it is functioning properly, with the first work and probably the first laying of the queen. It is time to collect the box from the package, the queen cage and to complete the hive with the removed frames.
Soon the package will have become a full-grown hive and its development will be very rapid.
3 – Advantages of working with packages
This way of working with packages has great advantages over natural breeding, which is based on the capture of swarms, and artificial breeding, which uses different nuc production techniques.
The main advantages of the package system are
Little wear and tear on the donor hives
By not removing brood and food from donor hives, the impact is very low. The workers are removed, but a batch of new bees will quickly be born to replace them, while the queen continues to lay eggs without disrupting her rhythm. In addition, donor colonies do not lose food, nor the work of building the combs that go into the nucs.
Less health risks
Most diseases travel in the form of spores that are deposited in the comb, brood cells, pollen or honey. By collecting only bees from very strong and healthy hives, the possibility of spreading diseases to other hives is minimised.
Selection of young bees
With the technique described above, young worker bees are easily selected. They are suckers, perfect for building new combs and caring for the first brood of queens in the packages.
Safety and comfort in transport
When transporting nucs or hives, it is easy to crush the bees when moving and shaking. In addition, the bees get very hot, as the space inside the boxes is very limited. However, as there are only bees in the packages and the mesh walls allow full ventilation, there are far fewer bee deaths.
Greater acceptance of the queen
When nucs are made, there is always a risk that the bees will build queen cells from the brood in the comb. With packages, as there is no brood at all, this is impossible, so the swarm is much more likely to accept a queen, whether she is fertilised or a virgin.
Adaptation to all types of hives
As a package does not have comb or any other manual, it can be used just as effectively in Langstroth, Dadant or any other type of hive.
Safer and cheaper to buy
Bee packages are one of the safest ways to buy new bee colonies. It avoids the health and queen acceptance risks of nucs and ensures that all bees and queens are young, strong and consistent. In addition, the packages are cheaper than nucs.
With all these advantages, package bees are one of the most interesting solutions for multiplying apiaries. It is also a very appropriate way to buy swarms, as the prices are competitive and the advantages, as we have seen, are remarkable.