How to Install Honeybees
Last Wednesday night we received a message in our inbox: "The bees are on their way, pick up starts tomorrow..." It was a message that we were waiting for from our source. Our honeybees were scheduled to come last weekend, one that I assumed four months ago when I ordered them, would be warm, sunny, and welcoming dandelions. Much to our disappointment, that weekend was our last cold one to come. The day we picked up the bees it was in the 50s, windy, and still cold. The weekend that followed was in the 20s, with overnight temperatures of 15°F. Yikes! Thankfully the ladies made it through the nights. What a whirlwind and just unfortunate timing. Thankfully, there are many other places on this planet that hive bees in cold weather, so I wasn't too worried.
Our sweet neighbor and friend, John of The Barn, came over to help us install. He has kept bees for many years, so we were incredibly thankful to have him there to show us what to do and keep us all calm. Thank you, John! I will never stopped being amazed by the generosity of our fellow farming neighbors. We have learned so much from the help of others. We drove out an hour to pick up the package (we purchased a 3# package, which is about 3,000 bees) of Italian bees with an Italian queen. We stood amongst the hundreds of packages of humming bees, several of them escaped and flying around, surrounded by the heavy scent of honey and wax. Our package was gently placed in the back of our jeep, sending us off down the road and back to the farm. It was not as terrifying as I thought, hardly as terrifying! My heart was fluttering with nervous curiosity the entire ride home.
Today I want to share with you how to install your first hive of honeybees! There are a handful of steps, and I promise, it's not as scary once you are in the moment performing them. We went with the flow of the bees and everything went fine!
Installing Bees Step-by-Step
STEP ONE | Purchase a Package or Nuc of Honeybees. There is debate over which is better to purchase, a package or a nuc. What's the difference? A package of bees is usually between 2 and 3 pounds, with about 3,000 bees inside. The queen is separated from the workers in a small queen cage, which means she has not yet been involved and introduced to the other bees there. They have no comb and are just living in a small caged box until you get them home. A NUC (short for nucleus) is a temporary hive of bees kept in a small box. There are a few frames of comb inside, a queen already introduced, and brood already growing in the comb. Nucs have a much smaller population of bees and are more expensive. I probably would have bought a nuc if it was available to me, but alas, it was not! We went with a 3# package and Italian queen.
You will notice if you order a package, that there are a few components to the box. There is generally a metal can in the center - that is their sugar syrup for traveling. You will remove this during the installation process. There is also a metal clip next to the can, which is where the queen cage is attached. She will be trapped inside, usually with a cork.
STEP TWO | Make sure that you have all of your equipment ready for the arrival of the bees. This includes all of the parts and pieces of your hive (you'll at least need the two deep boxes), hive tool, bee brush, feeder of choice, bee suit, and veil. You can read all about the details on beekeeping equipment in my blog post here. Much more in depth about every single piece! If you are new to beekeeping, be sure to read that post first to become familiar with all of the names of the equipment!
STEP THREE | Set up your hive where you will be keeping it for the season.
- For the installation, you will only need one deep box with either 8 or 10 frames. We are using 10 frame boxes by Little Giant. If I could purchase our hive all over again, I would go through Dadant. Place the hive somewhere secluded but easy to get to. We have high winds here on the farm and are thankfully surrounded by a wind break of heavy pine trees. We place the hive amongst the pines, where they will receive dappled sunlight. They need some sun to warm the hive, but not direct sunlight as it can get really hot inside the hive in the summer! Face the hive entrance towards the east, if possible, so the bees know when its daylight as soon as possible. You'll also want to make sure there is nothing blocking the entrance of the hive (plants included) so the bees have enough room to exit and enter.
- The hive should be placed up off of the ground to encourage circulation and prevent the entrance of robbers (mice, cats, dogs, raccoons, other insects). You may also want to place a tacking strip in front to really keep mice away and sprinkling cinnamon is a great deterrent for ants! Make sure that it is high enough off of the ground so that you are comfortable working on it, especially for checks with heavily combed frames. We made ours a few inches lower than knee height.
- Place the bottom board on the hive stand (this can be as fancy or not fancy as you like. Most people use cinder blocks - my dad wanted to build one!). Stack the deep box on top. Place the inner cover on top, and then the outer cover.
STEP FOUR | Before you pick up your bees, or right after they arrive/you get home, make some sugar syrup. This is really easy to do, and you'll be making a lot of it until the nectar sources come in. You can use plain granulated white sugar. That's what we are using right now. Boil water and sugar together in a 1:1 ratio (one cup water to one cup sugar) over the stove until boiling. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature (do not use hot!). Place some in a spray bottle and the rest in your feeder of choice - read below.
STEP FIVE | When the bees arrive, lightly mist them with the sugar syrup. Most people recommend placing the bees somewhere protected, like your basement or garage, for an hour after they arrive. This ensures that they calm down after their trip - this helped us out a lot because our bees were pretty jostled on the bumpy country roads! They were not super happy when we opened the back of the car. Spray and wait. If you feel they are calm, then it's time to hive!
STEP SIX | It's time to hive the bees.
- Prepare your hive by removing the covers. Remove 5 of the 10 frames (or 4 of the 8).
- Spray the bees with more sugar water. Do not drown them; you are simply weighing them down a bit.
- Slam the box of bees down on the ground or another hard surface about 2-3 times. You want them to all fall to the bottom of the box before you remove the sugar water can.
- Remove the sugar syrup can. You may want to have a small piece of wood on hand to cover up the opening. You do not have to do this, but it can help out if you are nervous along with keeping the bees from bustling out. Toss the can aside.
- Remove the queen cage. Place her somewhere safe like your pocket.
- Slam the box of bees down again, as they will be all riled up. Turn the box over, with the open hole facing downwards, and dump the bees into the empty portion of the hive. You will need to be forceful, not all may come out, just get as many out as possible. Place the box aside near the hive. They will eventually fly out.
- Put the removed frames back into the box gently. The bees will move aside. If you are having trouble getting them to move (they will cluster up, especially if it is cold), brush them aside gently with your bee brush.
- It's time to prepare the queen! Her cage should come with a metal clip to attach her to the inside of the frames. There will also be a small cork inserted to the top of her cage. With a pocketknife or screwdriver, gently remove the cork and cover the opening with your thumb. If she flies out, you'll be in trouble! The hive needs a queen. With precision, squeeze a mini marshmallow into the place where the cork was. She will eat through this for the next 2-3 days, which gives her time to release pheromones to introduce herself to the hive. It is a natural, self-release for the hive!
- With the metal clip or a paper clip, hang the queen cage onto one frame either in the center of the hive or where the bees are clustering. Wedge her in between the frames to make sure her cage doesn't fall. Make sure it is in a comfortable position so that she may climb out.
STEP SEVEN | Once everyone is settled and into the hive, the queen is given her marshmallow and place in between the frames, it's time to pack up. You'll want to feed your bees. There are several ways to do this. You could use a frame feeder (it replaces on frame in the hive), an entrance feeder (not recommended as it heats up fast and can be a mess), a top feeder (it's looks like an empty honey super that you fill from the top without disturbing the hive) or a mason jar simply over the inner cover's opening. I was planning on using a top feeder and still am... But it has been so cold that I am currently using a mason jar over the inner cover.
All you do is place the inner cover (which has a hole in the center) over the top of the deep box. Fill a mason jar with sugar syrup. Make some small holes in the lid of the mason jar with a knife or screwdriver. Put the lid on with the ring. Place the mason jar feeder over the opening on the inner cover. The syrup will not drip out like crazy. Place an empty honey super around the mason jar to protect it from the wind. Place the out cover on top.
STEP EIGHT | Close up the hive. Make sure everyone is inside comfortably, though there will be a few stragglers flying about. If you have an entrance reducer, you'll want to put that in the hive's entrance (at the bottom) to the one inch opening. By having a feeder on top of the hive (meaning it's not within the frames of the deep box) you can check it daily to make sure they have enough sugar syrup. Other than this, do not open the hive for one week. Don't do it! Leave them be.
I will share the next steps in our next blog post, when I open the hive again! It was an amazing process, and I am so glad that I did it. As you can see, I did not wear my full suit... and I was stung four times. Three on my back and once on my head. Ow! They didn't actually hurt that badly (though the one on my head did... a lot, actually. Thinner skin there!) and I was glad that it happened. Get it over and done with is my way of thinking. John said it was "initiation" - ha! Hoping this cold weather leaves so we can get onto the year's flowers!