Updated on October 26th, 2020
It’s spring and your new bees are ordered. Now you need to know how to install your bees and start prepping for their arrival.
We’ve suggested you start with a nuc as a new beekeeper. Nucs are simpler to install and will be less intimidating to a beginner.
If you’re getting a bee package, installation isn’t especially difficult. It does require more handling of the bees increasing the chance of an error.
Before Your Bees Arrive
Have your hives set up before your bees arrive. You’ll want to get them into their new home as soon as possible so be prepared. You do not want your bees in a shipping box for any longer than necessary.
Make sure you:
- Have a suitable location selected. You’ll set up the hive in this location from the start. Your bees will orient themselves to this spot and you don’t want to confuse them with an early move.
- If you want to paint your hives, do so well in advance of installing your bees. Give the paint adequate time to cure and off-gas to limit the bees’ exposure.
- Get your entire hive set up: bottom board, brood box with frames, entrance reducer, inner cover and outer cover. If you’re using deep boxes you only need one to start. (If your bees are coming in a nuc, you will almost definitely need a deep box.) With medium boxes, you can start with one box but will need to add a second hive body sooner.
- Have 1:1 sugar syrup and a feeder ready for the bees. Package bees can use the help to get started drawing comb. Even a nuc that already has some drawn comb can benefit from some assistance. Also, have some of that syrup in a sprayer if you get a bee package.
- Pollen patties are also helpful in getting your colony established. Have some available.
- Remember to wear your protective gear. We’ve found bees to be generally docile at this stage but you should play it safe. A bee sting on the face how to start your new hobby.
- Despite the warning to wear protective gear, you may want to go without gloves if you are comfortable doing so. Handling the frames, etc. is easier barehanded. If you go barehanded, remove any rings in case you get stung and your hand swells up.
- Have your hive tool handy. You’ll used it to separate and lift nuc frames or for opening your bee package.
- It’s unlikely that you’ll need your smoker but have it lit and ready before you begin working with the bees. We used a smoker on our first nuc but it was probably overkill. If you opt to use it, a few puffs into the nuc when you first open it should be adequate.
- To facilitate freeing the queen, a small nail or toothpick and some marshmallow or fondant may be used (as explained below).
- Have rubber bands available to attach the queen cage to a frame.
- Plan to install the bees later in the day. They will settle down in the hive as night comes on.
As described in another article, a nuc is a temporary, mini-hive usually consisting of 5 frames with comb, pollen, nectar and bees (workers and queen).
Installing from a nuc is simple which is why we think you should get your first bees in a nuc. The queen has already been released into the hive body and was accepted by the bees.
Since the nuc has frames, all you need to do is lift the frames out of the nuc and put them in the middle of your hive. Then place enough additional frames on each side of the nuc grouping to complete either a 10-frame or 8-frame box.
Use the entrance reducer set for the smallest opening. If robbers try to take advantage of your weak colony, the small opening will be easier to defend.
Here’s a video of our first nuc installation. (I sped up the video so it’s a bit shaky and we sound like we’ve been sucking on helium balloons…but you’ll get the idea).
Installing a Bee Package
In a package you’ll receive a box full of bees, a caged queen and a can of syrup.
Queen cages can vary a bit. Ask your supplier how the cage is arranged so you’ll know how to release the queen properly.
The box you get will probably be one of the two pictured below: a wooden cage or a plastic “Bee Bus”. They are similar but you’ll find a few advantages if you get a Bee Bus:
- The wood boxes have some solid sides while the Bee Bus is ventilated all around. The extra ventilation makes travel easier on your bees.
- Wood boxes only have an opening where the syrup can is installed. In addition to the can opening, a Bee Bus can be opened completely on one end. This larger opening makes it easier to shake the bees out and into the hive.
- To retrieve the queen, you need to remove the syrup can. Pry the can up from the wood box with your hive tool. The Bee Bus will have some recessed openings where you can grab the can with two fingers and pull it up.
- The wood vs. plastic material may carry over to the queen cage structure also.
Despite these structural differences, installation with either box works the same way. You may encounter slight variations such as how the queen cage is accessed.
There are a few methods you can use to get your bees in the hive that we’ll go over.
For either method, take time to understand the following the steps. Examine your package closely. You may need to make minor adjustments to the process based on your package.
Bee Shake Out
This is the method you’ll see a lot of experienced beekeepers demonstrating on YouTube.
Step 1 – Remove the outer and inner cover of your hive. Also take out 3 or 4 frames give you a space where you will dump the bees.
Step 2 – Spray the bees lightly with some sugar syrup. They won’t fly around so much if their wings are dampened.
Step 3 – Shake the package so the bees drop to the bottom. This will separate many of the bees from the syrup can and the queen cage making both easier to remove. It’s okay to give it sharp bump on the ground or on top of the hive to shake them free.
Step 4 – Using your hive tool, remove any wood or plastic lid the syrup can but keep it handy to cover the opening when you remove the can.
Step 5 – The queen cage is most likely suspended from the top of the box with a strap. The strap hangs through the same opening as the syrup can. The strap may be attached to the top of the box. If so, free the strap but be careful not to let the cage fall into the bottom of the box. (It’s not a disaster if it falls; it’s just more work.)
Remove the can using your hive tool if necessary. Remember to hold the strap so the queen cage doesn’t drop.
Set the can aside with the feeding holes on top. This will prevent the syrup from leaking on the ground or the hive.
Pull out the queen cage and close the opening with the lid you set aside in Step 4.
Step 6 – Inspect the queen to make sure she is alive. There may be a few attendants in the cage with her. One end of the cage should have a cork or other plug in it. The entrance beneath the plug should have some sugar candy in it.
If there is sugar candy, use a small nail or a toothpick to create a small opening in the candy. Be careful not to injure the queen on the other side of the candy. This will give the bees a headstart in freeing the queen.
If there is no sugar candy you have 2 options:
- Put some marshmallow or fondant in the hole.
- Replace the cork for now. In this case you’ll need to come back in a few days and remove it to free the queen.
NOTE: Hold the queen cage over the hive body while you handle it. In the event you remove the cork and there is no candy under it, the queen may fall out. If she falls out, you want her in the hive body. (Been there, done that!)
Step 7 – Attach the queen cage to the middle of a frame with the screen facing outward. If there are attendants with the queen, you may want to tilt it upward. This will prevent a dead attendant from blocking the exit.
You may be able to attach the cage using the strap that held the cage in the package. Even so, I’d use a rubber band or two to secure it in place.
Assuming you’ll use a top feeder, do not place the queen directly under the inner cover opening where the feeder will be. In the event of a leak, you don’t want the queen to get drenched.
Step 8 – Place some pollen patties on the top bar of the frames.
Step 9 – Give the bee box a good shake to move the bees away from the opening. Remove the cover (or in the case of a Bee Bus open one end). Place the opening over the hive where you removed the frames and shake bees into the hive.
Particularly with the wooden box you may need to shake and shift from side to side to get most of the bees out through the small opening.
There will always be some bees that don’t shake out of the box. Place the box in front of the hive with opening facing up. The bees will find their way to the queen on their own as they pick up on her pheromones.
Step 10 – Place frames back into the hive.
Step 11 – Put the inner cover on.
NOTE: Be careful when replacing frames and the inner cover. A small amount of smoke can be used to move bees out of the way to avoid crushing them.
Step 12 – Set up your feeder over the opening of the inner cover. When you turn a feeding jar or pail over, do so away from the hive. Some syrup is sure to drip out before a vacuum seal holds it in place. Keeping those drips away from the hive reduces the chance of robbing.
Step 13 – Place another hive body over the feeder to enclose it. You’ll need either one deep or two medium boxes for this. The outer cover goes on top. A stone, brick or ratchet strap can be used to secure the cover.
Step 14 – Give the bees outside the hive some time to make their way in. Once most of the bees are in, put on the entrance reducer with the small opening available to the bees.
Variation On The Shake Out
You can install the bees without completely shaking them from the package. This method is less agitating to the bees and might be more comfortable for you as a newbie.
We like this method. Shaking the bees might cause them to swarm all around. When you’re new to beekeeping this is very disconcerting. Calmer bees are more fun to be around.
It varies from the shake out method as follows:
Follow Steps 1 through 8 above but push all the frames in the hive to one side. The space left in the hive should be wide enough to fit the package box.
Step 9 – Shake some bees out of the box on to the top bars of the frames. Place the box with the remaining bees in the empty hive space with the opening upward. The bees will make their way on to the frames following the queen’s scent.
Continue with Steps 10 through 14 above.
Once the bees are in the hive, leave them alone for 7 days. Observe their behavior outside the hive during this period.
After a week, open the hive to check on the queen. If you had a candy plug, odds are the cage will be empty meaning the queen was released into the hive.
If the cage is empty, remove it and close the hive back up. Your work for this day is done.
If the queen is still in the cage, check to see how the bees are clustered on the cage.
- If they are gently attached and docile then you can assume they have accepted her. Remove the plug carefully and push the opening into the hive entrance. This will keep the queen in the hive and reduce the chance of her flying off.
- If bees are clustered tightly on the cage and appear to be biting it, they have not accepted the queen yet. Place the cage back and wait a few more days before checking again.
Once you know the queen is released, remove the cage from the area. It will still have the queen’s scent on it. You don’t want it attracting the bees.
After Release of the Queen
The bees are in your hive. You know the queen is released. Now leave them alone for 10 – 14 days.
I know you’re dying to get in there and poke around, see what’s going on. You should only go into the hive to refill the feeder during this time or add a pollen patty.
Since you’re a newbie, you need to provide food for the bees to draw out comb for the queen to lay eggs.
After about 2 weeks, it will be time for your first inspection. Light your smoker, don your beekeeping outfit and grab your hive tool.
Puff a little smoke into the entrance. Remove the outer cover, extra hive bodies and feeder. You may need your hive tool to pry up the inner cover.
Puff a little smoke under the inner cover and wait a few seconds. Then remove the cover and you’re in the hive.
Odds are the bees have not yet made their way to the outer frames just yet. A few bee may be on it but probably no comb. Remove one of the end frames giving yourself room to easily remove other frames.
Place the removed frame on its side or on a frame hanger if you have one.
Starting from that end, pull out the next frame for inspection. You’re looking to see if there is any comb on it. If there is, look for eggs, nectar, pollen or capped brood.
Put the frame back and move to next one. Work your way across the hive until you’ve looked at each frame. Be careful replacing the frames. Give yourself room to lift and replace them without rolling the bees.
With a hive this new, some of your frames are likely empty and some may have only the beginnings of comb. You’re looking to see that they are drawing comb and signs that the queen is laying eggs. Keep an eye out for the queen. She will be easy to spot if she’s marked.
At this time, you may see a decline in the colony’s population. Older bees are dying off and not yet being replaced by new brood. In a few more weeks you should see the population growing and the hive begin to grow.
When the population begins to grow and the season progresses, you can remove the entrance reducer. Your colony is better able to defend itself and robbing is less likely with plenty of foraging material available.
As natural sources of food become more plentiful the bees may stop using the sugar syrup. I would stop feeding as soon as you see this drop off.
Some beekeepers like to feed continuously in the first year. We’ve had no problem if we stop once the colony is established. We want them out in the wild.
A light misting of the frame foundation with sugar syrup will attract the bees to it. Some beekeepers think it helps the bees get used to the plastic.
Lemongrass oil is used in swarm traps to attracts bees at it mimics a queen’s pheromones. Since you have brand new equipment, a couple of drops of lemongrass oil may help the bees adapt faster to their new home and keep them from absconding.
If you’ve opted to go foundationless, be very careful when inspecting the frames. Comb that is not attached to the frame on all sides can easily fall. When comb is only partially attached, hold the frame upright during inspection. (See the accompanying picture.)
Why do the bees need to eat through candy to release the queen?
The bees need time to acclimate to and accept the queen before she can be released among them. If the queen is released to soon she may be killed.
In a bee package you have no idea of how long the queen cage and the bees have been together. Forcing the bees to eat through candy should provide enough time for the bees to accept her.