Jan. 26, 2023

Dealing with Package Queens (110)

Dealing with Package Queens (110)

The queens that come with packages today seem to be different that those we could get five or ten years ago and we think that points to some changes need to be made regarding a simple concept – Patience. It would appear that it’s taking a bit...

The queens that come with packages today seem to be different that those we could get five or ten years ago and we think that points to some changes need to be made regarding a simple concept – Patience.

It would appear that it’s taking a bit longer for the worker bees in the package to become accustomed to this new queen, and patience in every aspect of introducing them in their new home is a good idea. There are many possible reasons for this… the environment in the colony she was living in has changed, the colony she is being moved to isn’t the same and the presence of the many viruses that bees may have is having an influence. In a word, patience for this is a very good thing.

Listen in as Jim and Kim explore these changes, and what you can do to reduce the chance of failure in getting her up and running.

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


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Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2023 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 110 – Dealing with Package Queens


Kim: Jim, it's good to see you again. It's going to be package season and I went back and looked at some of my older books, even some of the books that I was involved with, and I don't think people give enough attention to queens and packages now because they're still working with how queens were 40 years ago. Tougher, better, something different, less fragile. What do you think?

Jim: Yes, I don't want to be mysterious Kim, but things have changed. Queens do seem more fragile. Their output's good, selection's good, breeding is good, byproduct is good, but I just used to say three to five years.   Kim, I can't get three to five years out of a queen. Now I get one to two, so something's changed, hasn't it?

Kim: Yes. I think something has.


Hey, if you know that going in, you're less likely to make the common errors and even less likely to make fewer common errors and have better luck with your package. Hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Today we're talking about a tiny aspect of dealing with a package once you get it home, and it has to do with how you treat the queen.

Introduction: You are listening to Honeybee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honeybee Obscura hosts Kim Latham and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long-timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honeybees.

Jim: That's an interesting start because you said when you get it home. You know Kim in some cases, the queen's not even in the package when I picked her up. Normally she is, but I bought packages twice, maybe three times in the last 10 years or so, and you buy the package of bees and they hand you the queen in a cage, and the deal was you know she's alive because you can look at her and see that she's fine.

There's that odd twist right there. Most of the time the queen is in the package and you can't see her until you get home, but on occasion, there's a difference technique where the queen is handed to you that makes the package more flighty and noisier, I think, but at least you got the queen there and you know that at that moment she's alive, so you start that way with it. Was she alive or dead when you got the package? That was important to know.

Kim: Yes, definitely important because if she's not alive, at least unless you get it by mail, you go someplace to pick it up and she's not alive. At least you got somebody right there to deal with that can help you fix the problem, but I haven't heard of getting a package without a queen and then having the queen, and what that takes off the table is those two or three days, maybe even longer, that the bees and the queen had a chance to get used to each other.

Jim: That's right.

Kim: That would shorten the time they needed to get acquainted once you got it home so there's another thing if you get a package and you get a queen outside the package, just figure out you've missed those say three days, probably maybe four, that they haven't had a chance to get used to each other. It might even pay to ask the people that you're getting the package from if they can tell you when these packages were made up back in California or Georgia or Florida or wherever, because that'll tell you how long they've had to get used to each other and depending on how long that is, it will affect what you do once they get home.

Jim: I completely agree with you and I don't know that I like that queenless package idea. I didn't mean to get off on this Kim. Right off the bat, this topic's going the wrong way. I didn't mean to get off on this, but here's the deal. It's about a 25, 30-mile drive back to the supplier, so part of me said, I got the queen here in my hand, she's alive. Good deal because if you get home, open the package up and there's something wrong with the queen, the ultimate thing wrong with her is that she's dead.  Then back in the car, you do go for a 50-mile round trip drive to go back and get a queen. I guess I would probably prefer to have the queen in the package just because that's what I have the most experience with.

Kim: Yes, I think one of the things that you mentioned that has changed is the relationship between the bees and the package and the queen. I'll take two steps back here, and I'll say because of commercial queen production anywhere, the health of queens has evolved and I think the varroa and the colonies that she came from has an effect on that and if there's no varroa, you got to believe that the wax on the combs that she came from has been exposed to varroa control chemicals and maybe other chemicals, so you've got a queen that's already been subjected to some level, probably already been treated or subjected to some level of pesticides in her life, which every time you look at it, people are saying yes the longer these are exposed, the less healthy the insect is and if a queen is in a colony that's been exposed. I don't know. How often do queen producers swap out old comb? I wonder. See that's another thing so I guess assume the worst. When you get that queen, because if you assume the worst, then everything you do will better prepare her for her future life. Does that make any sense?

Jim: Yes, it did. It makes as much sense as we know because we're sounding mystical here, Kim, that queens have changed. They're not what they used to be. We probably just offended every queen producer in the country, but something is different. The queens don't last as long and I don't know of anything else other than varroa, and its related viruses that have had this cataclysmic effect on the hives so that's just my go-to boogie bear. Varroa is doing it. The chemicals that control varroa is doing it. I don't know what it is Kim. Maybe I've just forgotten. Maybe in those 35, 40 years ago when you could call the queen producer up and say, "Hey, the queen's dead." The bees didn't accept her, and then they send you another one. Maybe I'm just living in that world and we had more queen failure then than I remember. It was just masked by the fact that replacement queens were readily available.

Kim: That's a good point. I sometimes have trouble remembering what happened 35, 40 years ago.


Jim: Yes, I remember things the way I want them to be, I'm afraid. Not the way they really were. I don't want to go back, Kim. I like beekeeping today just like it is even with varroa, but things were different all those years ago, and I keep measuring it against that standard, and that standard is irrelevant now.

Kim: I'm going to guess it's also just a little bit glossed over. Like you said, I remember the good stuff, the bad stuff, not so much. Here's another thing with that queen. Once you get home and you've read all the books and watched all the videos and how to get the bees out of that package and into your hive, the last thing that they tell you to do is to get the queen installed, and there's always the instructions on how to take the queen cage, depending on which kind you got the wooden block with the holes, with the three cavities in it or the plastic one with the one tube coming out.

How to position that so that all of the bees in the hive can come right up to the screen on that cage or the side of that cage, touch that queen through those holes with their antenna, or at least get really close enough to do that, and after three, four days, all the books will tell you she should be ready and then they tell you what behaviors to look for to make sure that she's ready. I'll go back to long ago and far away. I remember that and three days was usually good. After three days because the queen had some time in the package before you got her, and then you put her in your colony for three more days, and so they've had that whole time to get used to her. I'm beginning to wonder if she is different enough now because of as you said, the varroa chemicals and the other things and the wax that all of those bees are living in your colony. I wonder if that's beginning to interfere with the ability of the queen and the bees in the colony to get to know each other.

Jim: I got no idea, Kim.

Kim: Yes, I believe.

Jim: I guess I can sit here and guess. Every beekeeper's wax isn't old. I guess we need to put in the disclaimer there. If you're using old comb, how old is it? if you're a beginning beekeeper and you've just got foundation inserts, none of this is for you. I guess it depends on the beekeeper's particular situation.

Kim: Yes. Well, I guess my first thought is if you've got comb from a colony you had last year, or you bought a nuc or something and you've got comb if you can make sure it's as clean as it can be and as new as it can be, that just takes one level of stress out of this process of getting her introduced to the rest of the bees. Given that you're using a clean comb and you've waited three days, and then you've bit your tongue and your fingers with your hive tool, because you want to wait at least one more, you make it four and even five. There are some people who will say, wait a week before you go and look and see how the bees and the colony and the queen in the cage are getting along.

Jim: I agree with the uncertainty. I don't think it's natural to have a queen that's mated in a cage - that was never in her psyche, but since I can't readily replace this queen, the only way I can get her from California or Georgia to my bee yard is in a cage. She's got to be caged or beekeeping as I know it won't exist. The thing that you have not mentioned yet is patience.


When you say add another day, you're talking to a guy who wanted to release them almost a day after I got them. Everything beyond three days, I'm just burning up to get that queen out of that cage. I don't disagree, I just don't really know what the right thing to do is in every case. Some small points, Kim, that I've routinely have begun to do in the last seven or eight years is systematically save everything about that queen cage. If I'm releasing her directly and you pop that cork out, then I don't let that cork just go flying over in the grass that cork goes in my pocket because if something goes horrifically wrong, I want to be able to reverse that procedure, put her back in the cage.

Now, there's all issues there. Are you wearing gloves? Are you good enough to do it? Let's just say you can do it. I'll put her back in the cage and put the cork back in. If something didn't taste right, something didn't feel all right, the bees look weird, I'll put her back in the cage, and then we'll go, as you said, another day. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I want to add this too. Sometimes I use a hive tool and snap out that staple that holds the screen in. Well, then I've destroyed the cage. Yes, Kim, I actually have a common stapler out there, I can repair that cage if it comes down to it. It's just my doomsday plan to keep them having to get in the car, race 26 miles up the road to find out, “No, we don't have any more queens.” It's just my doomsday plan for trying to see if this introduction process can go as well as possible.

Kim: Hold that thought a minute, because we got to sponsor. I want to hear something from.


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Kim: All right, Patience there definitely, and being prepared. I'm wondering here, this is. I'm brand new. This is my first package and the first time I've been in a beehive, is capturing that queen possible? [chuckles] Am I going to stick my hand down in that hive and try and grab that bug and pull her out of there?

Jim: Yes, no, you're not, I wouldn't recommend that if you're brand new, first day, first everything, don't try to put that queen back in the cage if that's where you're going.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: If that's what you're saying, no. If you're an experienced beekeeper, if you've done this several years, maybe, but if you're brand new and all you got is 10 frames of foundation or 10 foundation inserts, probably not a good idea to be handling that queen and doing anything with her.

Kim: The other thing to think about when you're doing this is I'm taking this queen out of the package. I've done everything that all the books and videos show me how to do, and I got a plastic cage and I can open one end and I got the queen out because she was suspended from the can in the middle. Now I open the end and I can just take that package and literally pour those bees into the space between a couple of frames that I've made in the middle of that box. Now I've got the queen who's been exposed to those bees for some period of time, and I get her mounted between two frames, however, depending on the type of queen cage you have. I'm looking and things are good and I close it up and I go home and everybody tells you that when you come back and look and I said before, a week is probably a safe time to do this. When you go back and look and everybody says, are those bees trying to tear that queen apart still? Would you recognize that if you saw it?

Jim: Well, Kim, one of the things I always look for when that queen is out of the cage is - are they doing anything more than feeding and nurturing her? Caressing her, licking her? If you see bees tugging at her legs, if you see bees chewing on her wings, if you see bees standing on top of her, and heaven forbid if you see a bee arch that abdomen into the sting position, then you need to get that queen back out of there. She's not being accepted. Something's not right. Those are the things I'm looking for. Is that the question you were asking me?

Kim: Well, go back a few minutes while she's still in the cage, what kind of behavior are you seeing?

Jim: Oh, same thing. If the bees are attacking the cage and they're clinging to it, if you can't take your hive tool and just brush those bees off that screen or off that plastic cage, if they're just hanging onto the cage and to each other, then that's that balling reflex where they're going to cluster around the queen, overheat her and kill her. Basically, if you were asking me while the bee is still in the cage, no, they're going to treat that cage the same way they're going to treat her.

Kim: That's the assumption I made. I use that word carefully, but that's the assumption I made, is that they would be trying to attack her through the screen, through the plastic, the wall, and the plastic cage. What that tells you is, I need to continue to protect her in this cage for, and then you used the word before, patience. How many days? How long? Are you going to go in there every day and see if that behavior's changed or you give them a 2, 3, 4-day time to be alone?

Jim: 2, 3, 4 days. Right. Then keep checking. I got to tell you, the devil in my life is always in the details. What else is happening in my life during that time?

Kim: Yes.

Jim: If there's other issues that are affecting my time availability, then you may look at four days and saying, I can release them or I can start the release process on the fourth day, and then I got to be gone two days or whatever. Sometimes other factors affect that four-day thing. If I'm living in pure beekeeping and there's nothing else in my life interfering, three to four days, I think for me would be minimum. Then beyond that, I'm going to do that cage thing. Kim, with the cage thing where the bees are clinging to the cage, it won't be an all or none. You may say, well, 95% of the bees are fine. Except there's two bees here who just can't accept this queen still. Well, I'm sorry, then she's got to stay in the cage until that count is universal and all the bees are accepting her, there's no bees still clinging. Then I'll add another day but that patience, like you keep bringing it up, by now I'm just on fire to get that queen out of there.

Kim: [chuckles] If you plan it so that once you get her in that cage into the colony, you just put those bees in. If you plan your life outside of beekeeping such that you're going to wait a week before you check and then you may have to wait another three to five days after that. If your schedule is going to take you out of town for some gap in there and you're going to miss it, you got to plan for that. Patience, again, is, I'm thinking, give it another day.

Jim: Give it another day, I don't disagree with that.

Kim: Yes, okay.

Jim: If in doubt, give it another day.

Kim: There you go. Well, that's one of the things about packages that I think like we said, queens are different today or it seems that they're different today than they were 30, 40 years ago. They're more tender, they're more fragile, they're coming from colonies that more than likely had poison in them, and they're going into colonies that more than likely have some poison in them. Their environment has changed which is going to make you change what you do compared to what we did quite a while ago. That book you just picked up was written five or six years ago, even that has changed in that short period of time. I think we should have named this  segment “Patience.”

Jim: I didn't even have time. You said, "Arrange your schedule, we're out of time here now." The best thing you can do is release that queen and leave town because after you've waited four, or five, six, you said seven days, by then I'm just burning up. By the time I've waited that long and then I finally get her released, I want to know if she's all right. Well, you're supposed to wait three to five days or longer before you go back in that colony. There's that patience thing again. It would be a good thing for me to release that queen and then me leave town. I'll stay out of that beehive and give them a chance to resolve this situation.

Kim: Okay, well, I think that's it. That's a detail that I think needs better attention on beginners’ classes, and beginner level books on the queen because the queens today aren't the same bugs we had 5, certainly 20 years ago, so use patience. What are queens, $50, $60?

Jim:  They're routinely $35 to $40.

Kim: Is one more day worth $50 let's say, and that's what you got to judge.

Jim: It is to me.

Kim: Yes, there you go.


Well, I think we can pick this up maybe later down the road and look at some of the other things in package installation that have evolved since you and I started out. I guess I just want to make sure people know that things aren't quite the same as they were and what you can do to help make it so that they work out okay.

Jim: I agree, I agree.

Kim: Okay, well, I'll see you next time.

Jim: I'll be right here waiting for you, buddy. I'll be patiently waiting, patiently waiting.

Kim: Okay.

Jim: All right, bye-bye.

Kim: Thank you, sir.


[00:24:07] [END OF AUDIO]