Ed Lafferty (Fruit Hill Apiary) and I installed two packages of bees at Rhode Island College on April 13. If your hives do not survive the New England winter, this is how the majority of beekeepers reboot their colonies: commercially bred packages of bees shipped up from Georgia or other southern states.
Under the thin wooden cover a can of sugar syrup is suspended; this is their food for the interstate journey. To one side of the can is a queen cage. The queen and three or four attendants are sequestered in this small screened box for the trip. It protects the queen while at the same time allowing the rest of the bees to pick up on her pheromones. Three pounds of bees are clustered around the queen cages in each of these packages.
These are essentially artificial swarms, and as such, the bees are quite gentle. They do not have a hive to protect and will put up with some pretty rough handling. Instead of using smoke to ensure calmness, Ed sprays them with some sugar syrup. They then lick the syrup off of each other instead of taking to the air.
Step one in the installation is to pry off the wooden cover and remove the syrup can. This allows access to the queen cage which is typically stapled to the box with a piece of plastic strapping.
One end of the cage has a hole drilled into it which at this point is plugged with candy (seen on the right hand side of the photo below). The bees will eat through the candy to release the queen once they are installed in the hive body. First a nail is used to pierce through the candy to give them a head start. These packages included “marked queens” which have a dot of paint on their thoraxes. There is a two-fold purpose to this; first, it makes it easier to spot the queen amongst all the other tens of thousands of bees in a colony. Second, a color code system is used to let the beekeeper know what year the queen was installed.
Ed attaches the queen cage between two frames using a small nail.
At this point all pretense of finesse goes out the window. The most expedient way to get several thousand bees from one box to another is to simply dump them en masse. As noted earlier, they are not aggressive even in the midst of such upheaval. I was not stung during this operation despite my relative lack of protective gear.
Three or four frames are removed to make it easier to get all the bees into the hive body.
After all the bees are unceremoniously tumbled into their new home, the center frames are replaced and the hives are closed up like normally. Feed is placed above them. In two or three day’s time the beekeeper will check to ensure that the queen was released from the cage. At that point he or she can remove the empty queen cage and respace the frames, or release her manually.