Packages, they’re all about that queen

Packages aren’t primarily about the bees in the package

Buying bee packages has been done for so long now that most people in beekeeping think it’s always been that way.  In the history of beekeeping, it’s actually still a relatively new thing.  Ultimately though, all of those bees from different colonies aren’t there to build a new, cohesive colony among themselves necessarily.

They are there to help build a strong colony.  They are there to provide a high population to gather resources and build a nest that is conducive to establishing a genetically cohesive colony.

The Queen is bringing her own colony with her

Queens are often shipped with bee packages, but not always.  It’s not necessary to ship a queen with a package because any queen that is sent along is almost guaranteed to not be the same genetic line as the bees in the package.

The queen, whether purchased with the packaged or obtained some other way by you, is going to establish a new colony of her own genetics using the bees in the package as the startup team.  The mated Queen you choose will get busy laying eggs to establish her colony while the package bees set up shop, so to speak.

Selected traits make your Queen more valuable than a package

Apiarists who are focused on establishing a line of selected traits that will be highly successful in their area will likely be raising their own queens or purchasing from a breeder they have investigated and trust for the traits they desire.  Those selected queens will be the real beginning of the colony that “owns” the hive you place them in.

After the larvae emerge and begin taking over duties, they will raise any new queens from the eggs laid by that Queen.  Eventually, every bee in this hive will be of the same genetic line as the selected queen.

Packages are about a strong start in a small box

What the initial package bees are is the startup crew.  They essentially exist solely for the purpose of providing a large enough workforce to forage, build the nest and care for the initial eggs and larvae of the selected Queen.  After a certain point, that hodge-podge crew will die out entirely leaving only the offspring of the selected Queen.

The package bees play a vital role in establishing the new colony.  Keep in mind though that they are not themselves ultimately the end result colony.   This places even more importance on the qualities of the Queen you obtain that into the hive with the package bees.

The package bees pave the way and never get to see the the end result

After the new package is installed into a hive, they will get to business right away.  It’s usually a good idea to feed a newly installed package heavily with 1:1 sugar syrup as soon as possible to help them get started on nest building and getting energy to go out foraging.  Depending on the quantity and quality of nectar available at the time of hiving a package, it’s est to continue to make sugar syrup available until they stop taking it.  They know what they want and when there’s enough of it to stop bothering with the “fast food” you provide.

If you have some relatively clean and drawn out combs, using a few of those in the initial hive box at installation of the package will also help the bees get a more successful start and make them more efficient.  Also know that you shouldn’t add too much space to the hive stack right away until they expand to the point of needing more boxes added. keeping the space as manageable as possible also increases the bees efficiency in building and maintaining the new nest.

Swarming And Varroa Infestation

In an interview on a German podcast about a year ago, Dr.Tom Seeley made some interesting points during the interview that I, as a self-proclaimed “Organic” beekeeper find very interesting and supporting of some of the points I often make in my own presentations and classes.

This isn’t to say that Dr. Seeley is an Organic beekeeper or that he claims to be, but from a research point of view he has made certain observations which to my mind, certainly seem to support some Organic beekeeping ideas.

One of the points Organic beekeepers make is that when at all possible, we want to mimic or emulate successful practices and behaviors of honey bee colonies that are feral or wild as opposed to doing things that might work contrary to “bee nature”.

Honey bee swarm in a tree. Image by Tony Sandoval

In this particular discussion, Dr. Seeley makes the point that swarming in a honey bee colony can actually have a positive effect on reducing Varroa mite populations in the nest.  This is accomplished primarily due to the exit of the large number of adult bees during the Primary swarm.  It is further impacted by the consequent lack of eggs being laid and there being a period of being brood-less in the hive in between the exit of the prior mature Queen and the beginning of the new mature queen beginning to lay eggs.

All in all, Dr. Seeley says that when a colony is allowed to swarm naturally, approximately 60 to 70% of all the adult bees in the hive depart with the prime swarm.  That number is a result of the facts that about 50% of mites are phoretic, meaning that they are parasitize adult bees instead of being in cells parasitizing larvae and capped pupae.  Of all those approximately 35% of all mites are removed from the nest because of the departing swarm.

File:Varroa destructor on the head of an emerging bee (5048710240).jpg
Varroa destructor on the head of an emerging bee By Gilles San Martin from Namur, Belgium [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
There can be a further reduction in mite population after a prime swarm departure due to the exit of after swarms, grooming behavior of remaining bees and lack of bees to parasitize due to not enough bees remaining to sustain a population of mites.

In terms of Organic hive management, this supports the practice of preferring to do splits in the Spring and Fall to reduce mite populations as opposed to using chemical treatments be they toxic or non-toxic chemicals.

Another interesting comment he made was that the practice of beekeeping by humans is contrary to the natural evolution of honey bee colonies which have evolved to excel in two areas due to Natural Selection.  Those two things being survival and reproduction which obviously go hand in hand.Beekeeping by people, by and large according to Dr. Seeley actively works to inhibit reproduction and suppress swarming.

Beekeepers tend to try to control reproduction and inhibit it by controlling drone populations (one of the common methods of controlling Varroa) and by inserting already fertilized, inseminated queens.  In regards to suppressing swarming, it is a common practice among beekeepers to manipulate hive boxes, especially in the Spring, to try to minimize or eliminate the chances of colonies swarming out so as to keep the hive population large for obtaining a larger honey harvest over the season.

Suppressing swarming is also a method used by many beekeepers as a way to try to keep larger populations inside the hives, thereby keeping more bees present to “work” the nest and keep pest populations down through the bees own nest behaviors.

It’s certainly some interesting information from a very well-respected and trusted bee researcher.  Even if one doesn’t consider themselves an Organic beekeeper, the knowing how swarms affect Varroa populations in the hive can certainly bee good to know about.

Listen to the “Radio Milkwood”podcast for more of the roughly 12 minute interview with Dr. Tom Seeley.

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