Bill Lewis addressed our January meeting, discussing packaged bees and preparations for spring--which for all practical purposes, in our part of the country, is underway.
Bill's a local, commercial beekeeper who is getting out of the business. He's now "down to 40 hives." When he spoke to us a little more than a year ago, he had about 600. (To put this in perspective, he mentioned commercial beekeepers with around 15,000 hives.)
Bill prefers bees with known genetics. While he believes that feral bees are becoming more docile (as mentioned by Cal Poly Pomona's Mark Haag during Q&A after Melody Wallace's November presentation), "you never know when the temperament will turn." Rather than exploit feral populations, Bill likes to establish new hives using both splits from existing hives, and packaged bees. His favorite supplier is Pendell Apiaries, a Northern California outfit which supplies Cordovan Italian bees, with marked queens for the beekeeper's convenience. (Cal Poly Pomona Beekeeping Workshop attendees will recall that the golden Italian bees are the favorite in that apiary, as well.)
"Not that I'd recommend it"--kids, don't try this at home!--"but I've worked Italian bees without a suit."
Practical details followed. This is not a complete account, but emphasizes some helpful tips.
Installing Packaged Bees
When you open a package of bees, look for the queen cage. You'll see a
cluster of bees on it. It will be sealed with a cork, or not at all. If it's sealed with a cork, leave that in place.
One side of the queen cage will be wire screen. Sandwich the queen cage between two frames in the hive you are moving the bees into, so that this screen does not face either frame. Other bees must have access to the queen. Now you can shake the rest of the bees into the hive.
The easiest way to do all this hive manipulation is at dusk, wearing a red headlamp. The bees will tend to stay put, rather than flying around.
Come back and open the hive again on day two or three after adding the bees. If the queen cage was sealed with a cork, remove it, sliding a finger over the hole to prevent the queen's escape. Then plug the hole with a small marshmallow. This will hold for two to three hours.
Newly introduced bees will need supplemental feeding. Bill prefers feeder frames to entrance feeders, feeling that "entrance feeders attract too many other things."
A 2:1 sugar/water syrup (by weight) has better shelf life, but newly introduced packaged bees won't need to find water to dilute a 1:1 sugar syrup mixture. New bees haven't mapped out local resources yet, and may not know where to find the water they need. Bill likes this thinner syrup in spring, too; but the thicker 2:1 mix is good for winter. If there are no problems, a new hive can go through a gallon of syrup in a week.
In 10-14 days, inspect to verify that the queen has been released from her cage and is laying eggs.
Testing for Varroa mites is a critical part of follow-through when establishing a new hive. There won't be many at first. If you install your packaged bees in April, test no later than June; and treat by the end of June.
Because some hives have gotten ungainly--Bill mentioned a five-box hive in our Sanctuary--and there's a lot of eucalyptus in the neighborhood, in bloom right now. Hives can be getting crowded!
Basic preparation is to have empty frames ready to replace the ones you will remove from parent hives: that is, the hives providing the brood and worker bees you'll use to get your new hive started.
You may take your brood frames from a single parent hive, or from more than one. In any case, you'll want six frames in a 10-frame box: one or two frames of eggs, and the rest with capped brood, with the worker bees shaken off. Arrange these in the middle of the box, flanked by four frames of honey. Replace all the vacancies with empty frames.
Next, put a queen excluder on top of the open parent hive. Put your newly assembled box on top of the queen excluder, so that workers are free to come and go. Put on a lid, and do something else for a few hours.
When you come back , there will be plenty of worker bees in the top box. Remove it from the parent hive, and give it its own lid and bottom board.
Presto! You have your new hive, be it ever so humble.
If you keep both hives in the same apiary, and put the child hive in the parent hive's location, many field bees will come to it. Keep an eye on it, because it may need another box in one to three weeks. "You might get a super of honey before you get any new [packaged] bees."
Back to Known Genetics
You've got to give Bill credit for consistency on this point, which an explanation of splits brought him back to! If you allow the bees in the new hive to raise their own queen--which they're happy to do, left to their own devices--plan to replace her with a commercially raised queen in April.
Why? To maintain known genetics!
And why wait for April? Because commercial raised queens are not available to the likes of you and me until then. Demand created by almond pollination comes first; but this has died down by April.
There is some fine print: Queens are available from Hawaii all year. However, they cost more to ship, and most of them are already spoken for.