April in Oregon, here west of the Cascades at least, usually means the beginning of SWARM season. Swarm season for many of us is the most exciting time of the beekeeping year.
But swarming is not the only reason to be excited. It is also the time of year when beekeepers are receiving their newly purchased bees. These bees usually arrive in the form of 3-pound packages or nucs. The bees have been ordered a few months before from a variety of suppliers located all over the US. Receiving these new packages or nucs can be as exciting as catching a swarm—especially for those unfortunate folks who are still waiting to catch that first one. To those folks I say, “Don’t give up.” As long as we have honey bees, we will have swarms. And each year that you continue to keep bees, your chances of catching that swarm improve. So hang in there, your turn is coming.
Now back to the Packages and Nucs. A few years back, one of my beekeeper friends received one of those Packages of bees and installed them as per directions into a ten-frame Langstroth-style box. He placed the caged queen between two frames in this box, shook the remaining bees from the package into the same box, and closed it up for the night. He then added a feeder filled with sugar syrup. The next day he meandered out to the bee yard to have a look at the new hive. After watching the hive entrance for a few minutes and not seeing the expected bees coming and going, he sensed something was wrong and opened the hive for a closer look. Whoa! Every single bee was gone . . . vanished! No trace. Except one. There in her tiny little cage was the queen. The only bee left in the box!
How could this Happen?! What would cause a package of bees to leave a perfectly good hive box, stocked with sugar syrup, and furnished with the latest in hive hardware!!? —not to mention leaving their newly introduced queen still stuck in her cage? What kind of bees would do this? One possible answer to this mystery lies in the process of the building of the Packages themselves.
If you have never had the opportunity to watch or participate in the package-building process, you are missing a real treat. If you ever have the chance to go and witness this event, grab it; it is worth the effort. For those folks actually working on the process, it is pure work. For the bees, it is pandemonium, but the end result of this event is the nice tidy little packages of bees that you bring home to install in their new home.
The package-making process involves a large box, of sorts, made from wire mesh to contain a large amount of honey bees. Into this box is inserted a size large funnel made of metal, or similar material, which provides a slick surface for the bees to slide through on their way into that box. The box and funnel are moved from bee hive to bee hive in the commercial beekeeper’s apiary. At each hive, workers choose a few frames of bees and, after checking to make sure the frames do not contain the queen, they then shake the frames over the funnel mouth. This causes the bees to slide through the slick funnel and into the mesh box.
The process is repeated until the box, which may contain a hundred pounds of bees, is full. The full box is then moved to another area where the bees are scooped out with a scoop that holds about 3 pounds of bees. The scoop is emptied into the funnel again, though this time the bees are sent sliding into the wire-and-wood travel box which you eventually receive and take home to your apiary. (I apologize at this point to the commercial beekeeping profession for my oversimplified description of their package-making process, a process they take very seriously and carry out with the utmost care and consideration of the honey bees.)
The above process is coupled with the little-known fact that as many as 20 percent of all bee hives might, in April and May, contain multiple queens. Yes, it is true. During these spring months, when a colony is preparing to swarm, it may contain more than one queen. Usually they are mother-daughter queens and it is a temporary situation due to bad weather that forces the swarming colony to wait for clearing before completing the swarm process. The daughter queens are much smaller and less distinctive than the larger mother queens, which makes these virgin queens more difficult to see. I believe they can easily slip past the beekeepers preparing the packages for shipment.
Herein lies one possible reason for the absence of the bees in my friend’s hive. When he installed his package of bees, it contained an extra queen! A battle might normally ensue between the two queens in this scenario, except for the fact that the one queen was contained in the small cage. So the bees in this case, not being able to attack the caged queen, may have opted for another alternative, which was to abscond or swarm.
What if this situation were to happen to you? What would you do? I have given it some thought and decided I probably would not complain to the company selling me the package. What could I say? “Hey you guys sold me two queens for the price of one, so I want my money back.” Naw . . . that might not work.
I must point out that a nuc does not have the problem described above. The nuc is normally made with a laying queen which is not caged and has already been accepted by her hive mates. The nucs are more expensive, however.
Happy Swarm hunting, and may your packages have only one queen!