Starting A Hive
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A colony hived from a package of Starline hybrid Italians.

left bee Honeybees come in many strains. Here in the U.S., strains from Italian or European honey bees are the most popular. There are strains known for their gentleness, as well as honey gathering or wintering abilities.

Hives can be started in many ways, from hiving a swarm that issued from another colony, starting a hive from a package of bees, or intentionally splitting an established hive (making two hives out of one).

Unless you know a beekeeper that will give you a call when one of their hives swarm (or are already a beekeeper), you'll probably have to start your first hive with package bees. I will only discuss hiving a colony from a package of bees, and will leave hiving a swarm for another article.

There are many great books out there that will go into more detail. If you're starting a hive for the first time, and what you discover here sounds like something you would like to do, I strongly suggest you look into one or more of these books for the information they contain. You might even wish to look up and join your local beekeeper's association. The knowledge and contacts found there will quickly pay healthy dividends in your quest.

Package bees are bought from a breeder, which there are many of in the U.S. If you are starting with a package you can find many of these suppliers listed in one of the beekeeping magazines such as Bee Culture or American Bee Journal. It's best to order your bees in December or January to arrive about a week or two before the Dandelion starts to bloom in your area of the country.

left bee Before the bees arrive, you'll want to make sure you have a hive built and ready for them, along with at least a few necessary pieces of equipment to work the bees with. Besides a hive you'll want to make sure you've got at least a veil, and perhaps a pair of leather gloves. Although you won't be using them to hive the package, you will want to also get a smoker, a hive tool and perhaps even a bee suit (white coveralls that the veil zips to).

In the U.S., a hive's basic parts consist of a bottom board, an entrance reducer, supers for the brood nest and honey storage, frames for the supers, an inner cover and a "telescoping" outer cover. Telescoping outer covers have sides extending down around the edges of the inner cover and about an inch or so of the top super, which helps keep weather out of the hive. There is also a style of outer cover that does not use an inner cover, a style referred to as a "migratory" cover. It's used by most migratory or commercial beekeepers as it allows hives to be stacked closely together on a truck or pallet (the sides sit flush with the edges of supers).

An entrance reducer is a 3/4" thick block of wood as long as the entrance, with two 3/8"-tall openings (one 1/2"-wide cut on one side and a 4"-wide cut in another). This block is used to close the entrance to a smaller width depending on need. The smallest width is usually used for newly hived colonies from packages or swarms as it gives the bees better control in guarding the entrance from intruders.

A bottom board has a 3/8"-3/4" rails on three sides. These rails keep the "supers" off the floor and provide an entrance for the bees into the hive. Supers are no more than wooden boxes that have no tops or bottoms. That way they can be stacked on top of each other and the hive can grow in size as needed. Inside these supers are frames of wood that sit in rabbets cut in the top ends of the super so the frames sit flush with the bottom (in the U.S.).

Frames don't extend to the top of the super however, but about 3/8" shy of it. This allows for what is called "bee space". In 1851 a beekeeper, Rev. L.L. Langstroth noted that honey bees allowed themselves 3/8" between combs. If a hive had a 1/4"-3/8" space it wouldn't be filled with comb. Anything over 3/8" was filled with comb. He took this "discovery" and created the first movable-frame hive and is called by many the Father of Beekeeping.

There are four sizes of supers that are predominantly used in the U.S. A "deep" super is 9 5/8" deep and usually used for the hive body, or where the bees raise their young. There are also medium and shallow depth supers that are used by beekeepers for the honey to be stored by the bees in. Deep supers could be used for this as well, and are by many commercial beekeepers, but can weigh 70 lbs. or more when full of honey! There's also a very shallow 4 3/4" super used by some specifically for comb honey production.

Inside the supers the frames are placed with sheets of beeswax that have been imprinted with the hexagonal pattern of comb. The bees use this "foundation" to start building their cells for the queen to start laying eggs, or for storing honey and pollen. The foundation not only gives them a head start, but as they add wax and build the cells it helps the beekeeper as the comb is built straight and predominantly with the correct size cells for raising worker bees.

Once the combs have been drawn out in the frames, the frames of comb can be used over and over. This increases your surplus of honey as the bees have to eat honey to secrete the wax flakes to build the comb with. The less honey they have to eat to build comb, the more you can take off as surplus in the end!

On top of your stack of supers the inner cover (with an oblong hole in the top) is placed as well as an outer cover that seals the whole hive up. There are other things that beekeepers use that can be added to a hive, such as hive stands, slatted racks, queen excluders and pollen traps to name a few, but the basics are there.

left bee Package bees are shipped in a wood cage that is screened on two sides, and usually come in 2, 3 or 5 lbs. sizes. Inside the screened cage of bees (about 12,000-14,000 them in a 3 lb. package) is a much smaller screened cage with the queen bee and about three to six "maid servants". As well, there is a small can of sugar syrup which the bees feed from during shipment. The servant bees in the queen cage are there to feed and care for the queen. Queens don't feed themselves. Once they've mated their sole duty is to do nothing but lay eggs.

When the bees arrive at your post office (yes they do send bees through the mail), you'll no doubt get a call early in the morning from the post office staff wanting you to come down right away and pick them up! Once you've picked them up and brought them home, mist them down with a little sugar water (1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water) and place the cage in a cool, dark area until later that day. A plant mister works great for this job.

Wait until late afternoon, an hour or so before sundown, before you hive a package of bees (sooner if you have two or more packages to hive). This gives them that night to settle into their new home, and lessens the chance of them flying away.

To hive a package you take your bottom board (entrance reducer in place) with a deep super placed on top, and with nine frames of foundation (or comb) inserted and the covers nearby you're ready to go. Although you normally start with ten frames in a super, since you put the queen still caged into the hive, you make room for the small cage by using only nine. Split the group of frames in the middle (four on one side and five on the other).

If you haven't already, now is a good time to "suit up". Although when hiving package bees or swarms the bees are not inclined to sting (they have no hive to protect yet), it's always a good idea to at least have your head and face covered with a veil. Nothing is more unpleasant than getting stung on the face (or scalp!).

Spray the bee cage one more time with the mister containing sugar water, as this helps lessen their flying around even more and keeps them busy licking themselves clean. The can of syrup (blocking the cage opening) is held in place by a small slat of wood. Remove the wooden slat and pull out the nails or staples that hold it in place. Re-cover the can with the slat, and while holding it down give the cage a strong "tamp" on the ground so all the bees fall to the bottom of the cage. Take off the slat, pull out the can of sugar syrup and remove the queen cage. Put the slat back over the hole created by removing the syrup can to keep the bees inside.

Most queen cages come prepared with small pre-drilled holes in the top to insert L-hooks so the cage can be hung between two frames, and a larger whole filled with "bee candy" and plugged with a cork (so the package bees won't eat it out during shipment). Insert the L-hooks (or small nails bent into an "L") into the top. Remove the cork plug and with another small nail carefully punch a small whole through the candy to help the bees get started.

Queen cages are usually screened on one side. With the candy-plug side up, and the screen side perpendicular to the frames, hang the cage between the separated frames and snug all the frames together in the middle of the super. If you were to leave the candy-plug down, and one or more of the attendant bees dies, they may fall over the hole and trap her inside. If you leave the screen side parallel to the frames, she's not as accessible to the other bees and a number of bad things can happen. Remember... candy-plug up and screen side out!

Now that you have the nine frames and the queen cage snugged together to ensure proper spacing, remove three of the outer frames from the set of five frames and set them aside. You will dump the majority of bees out of the package into this space before replacing the frames back in the hive body.

With the queen cage in place you can turn your attention back to the package. Mist the bees one more time with the sugar water, and while holding the wooden slat-cover securely in place tamp the cage on the ground just as you did before. Remove the cover and pour a good amount of bees over the queen cage and the rest down between the frames around her, and the space created when you removed the three frames. You will probably have to tap the sides of the cage with your hands as you're doing this to get all the bees out. Even then there will still be some bees that just won't seem to come out of the cage. Set the cage, wooden end down, on the ground with the opening pointed towards the hive entrance and they'll join the hive that evening or early the next morning.

With all the bees dumped in the hive you'll see them crawling down amongst the frames and many of them starting to line up at the entrance with their butts pointed up and fanning their wings. This releases a pheromone from a special gland just under the second to last segment on the top of the abdomen, called the Nassanoff Gland, that tells all the other bees that haven't come inside that a home has been found!

Gently replace the three frames removed ealier, making sure you don't squish any bees in the process. Usually, by supporting the frames as you lower them into the hive the bees will move out of the way and on to the frames. Make sure those frames are snug against the other frames or the bees won't draw out the foundation into comb properly. With that done, slide the inner cover over the super so as to not crush any bees that might be on the edges of the hive body, place the outer cover on top and your done!

left bee I take it one more step, however. As drawing out the foundation into comb takes a lot of honey (which there is none of already in the hive), I feed my bees sugar syrup to help get them started. Instead of placing the outer cover on top of the inner cover, put an empty deep super (no frames) on top of it. Take a half-gallon plastic pail that has a screened hole in the lid (or little holes punched in it) and fill it with sugar syrup (2 to 1 ratio of sugar to water) medicated with Fumidil-B. The medication is used to help prevent a bee disease called Nosema, which is a stress disease that can cause dysentery (and snail-mail can be stressful!).

NOTE: I feed a "thinner" syrup in the spring (1 to 1 ratio of sugar to water) to bees that are already established in a hive, or are being hived onto frames of already-drawn comb. The thinner syrup more closely mimicks a spring nectar flow, thereby spurring the bees to start increasing brood rapidly so that by the time the natural spring nectar flow arrives, the hive population has increased enough to maximize the harvest. However, when starting a package or swarm of bees on new foundation (as well as for fall feeding), I use the thicker 2 to 1 ratio syrup as less processing of the syrup is required. The bees use ten pounds of honey to create one pound of wax! For bees drawing comb from foundation, the less processing needed helps them to create comb more rapidly.

Some beekeepers use plastic gallon jars that food condiments are packed in for restaurant use as feeders. Filled with sugar syrup and having tiny holes punched in the lid, these work very well, too. There are other feeders on the market, ranging from in-hive division board feeders, hive-top feeders and the Boardman-type entrance feeders that ship with many "starter" hive kits. All have their uses, and any of them except the entrance feeder would be adequate. Most agree that entrance feeders aren't really the best feeder to use when starting a hive in that not only is the one quart jar too small (requiring constant refilling), but being placed on the outside of the hive the bees will stop feeding on cool spring nights.

Using the feeder described, turn the filled pail upside down with the screened hole over the oval hole in the inner cover so the bees can feed off the syrup, and place the outer cover on top of this super. The bees don't have to forage for nectar to use in building their combs, the sugar syrup mimics a honey flow prompting the bees to quickly raise a maximum amount of brood, and they are medicated to keep them healthy!

Don't disturb the bees for at least another seven to ten days. You can refill the feeder pail if needed, but don't go in the hive body or the bees may reject the queen and actually kill her. After that time, open the hive (remember to use your smoker first!) and check to make sure the queen was freed from her cage. If she hasn't, find out why. If the candy-plug hardened, open it up a bit more with a small nail and close the hive back up for another seven days. If she was set free, remove the cage and check the frames that were next to it. You should find comb drawn out and little white eggs and larva down in the bottom of the cells. You might even see the queen moving from cell to cell laying them!

Once you're able to confirm you have a good queen laying plenty of eggs and have removed the queen cage, slide the frames together and add the tenth frame of foundation at the end, aligning the frames in the middle of the super. Close up the hive and keep feeding them sugar syrup until they won't take it any more (which is likely if there is a good honey flow in progress as bees will take sweet nectar over sugar syrup if there's an abundance of it).

left bee With an established hive you're well on your way to discovering the joys of beekeeping. For me, it's much more than just bringing in the honey at the end of the honey flow, it's the bees themselves. If you're like me you'll likely be opening your hives once every 3-6 weeks to see how they're doing. It's a fact that the more you disturb your bees the less honey you'll get from them. They have to spend time sealing up the cracks with propolis (bee glue) when you separate the supers. If you leave the hive open too long (especially on cooler days) brood may die, decreasing their work force and so on. However, there is no better way of learning about bees than by experiencing them!

By observing your bees you actually learn how to spot the queen on the comb surrounded by her troop of attendant bees, and see her laying eggs. You'll see what the larva look like in their various stages before they are sealed over to pupate. And nothing is more exciting than seeing a bee break out of its brood cell and crawl out onto the comb for the first time! You'll learn what the drones look like with their fat butts (and no stingers). You'll learn how to tell the moods of your bees and so much more. But, only if you observe them!

And, you don't always have to go into the hive to learn either. I've learned as much outside the hive as inside. Kathy (my wife) and I enjoy sitting out beside our hives and watching the bees go in and out. You can tell if brood-raising is strong if there's a lot of bees bringing in loads of pollen. Lots of pollen coming in means lots of babies being fed! You'll learn a lot about the flowers that bees visit, too. Before I started keeping bees I had always thought all pollen was yellow. The bees proved just how ignorant I was. I've seen yellow pollen, golden pollen, white, grey, light green, orange and even blood red pollen being brought into the hives.

When you do open the hives, you don't have to go all the way down into the brood nest either. When putting shallow supers on for honey storage, I usually put the supers with frames of foundation or empty comb underneath the ones that are already full. I found that this gives the bees a little more room above the nest (relieving congestion) and they don't have to travel as far to store the honey. "Bottom supering" as it's called, also allows me to peek down into the brood nest to see how things are going without actually disturbing the nest too much.

left bee Once the bees have built up a surplus of honey (which means they have more than enough for themselves) you can start pulling honey off the hive for yourself. Throughout the season, when I just can't wait for some delicious comb honey I'll pull a frame out of a super and replace it with a frame of foundation. After a strong honey flow, or in the fall I'll pull the surplus honey off the hives, being sure to leave the bees plenty to get through the winter and into the following spring above their brood nest.

I'll take this honey, and using an electric "decapping knife" slice off the caps from the honey comb into a "decapping tank". This tank has a grill that will let the honey drip from the cappings into the bottom of the tank. It will then flow through a valve before being strained. Before I got one of those tanks I used a large baking pan, repeatedly shoveling the cappings into a bucket as needed. The cappings, even after draining through the grill for a day are still loaded with honey. Kathy and I jar this and eat it up just like comb honey!

With the cappings removed from the comb, the frame is placed in an "extractor". The extractor is a round stainless steel (or super heavy-duty plastic) barrel with baskets inside attached to a vertical rod. The rod extends through the top of the extractor and is attached to pulleys or gears. The baskets spin inside the tank when a hand crank is turned (more expensive ones are motorized).

The frames are placed in the baskets, and then spun around until all the honey comes out of the combs by centrifugal force. At the bottom of the extractor is a valve that when opened honey literally pours out of. I place a bucket with a strainer under the valve, and working together I'll spin and Kathy will watch the straining or vice versa. If you don't have a helper I strongly advise leaving the valve closed until you're ready to strain as you would be surprised at how fast a bucket can fill up!

After all the frames have been extracted and the honey has been strained it's time to clean things up. If there's still a little light left outside, I'll take the supers containing the still slightly-dripping comb and put them back on the hives (above the inner cover). I like to do this in the late afternoon as it doesn't cause as much frenzy and keeps the bees busy that night cleaning everything up. They'll clean those combs dry and put the honey down below, leaving me with clean combs to store in a couple days.

When the extractor is completely drained I take it outside and hose it down inside and out real good. Afterwards I then hose down the area in the yard where I cleaned the extractor so the sweet water is diluted so much that it won't attract bees, ants or other insects.

I keep the strained honey in five gallon buckets, putting lids on the buckets and the decapping tank while letting them set for several hours at least (or preferably a day or two) to let all the microscopic air bubbles from the extracting and straining process rise so as to not create a layer of "foam" on top of the honey in the jars (for cosmetic reasons only).

All that's left at that point is filling the jars, sticking on labels if you have them, and enjoying the efforts of your bees!

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Some people are allergic to bee venom and can incur serious medical problems if stung. You should always consult a doctor prior to keeping bees. I assume no responsibility or liability for accidents, injuries or damage caused by the use, or misuse of the information provided. It is intended for educational purposes only!

I hope I've been able to answer a few of your questions on starting a hive with package bees. If your curiosity was nudged enough to look further into beekeeping as a hobby, even better! A few books I highly recommend can be found listed on the Niche on the Net! main honey bee page under Beekeeping Books. big bee

Copyright © 1999-2001 David D. Scribner , webmaster. All Rights Reserved.
Last Updated: January 25, 2001