With the hive finished all that was left was to wait for the bees to arrive. There are many options for ordering bees. You can get a Nuc, which is basically a small hive with a queen and her brood of worker bees, complete with frames of comb. In many ways this is the best option because you get a cohesive hive that is used to working together and already have comb built. The problem is, Nucs are designed to go into standard Langstroth hives, which are the more common type of hive used in commercial beekeeping. To move the nuc into a top bar hive you have to cut the comb out of the frames it comes in, cut it to the right shape and size to fit in the top bar hive, and somehow attack it to the top bars. And you have to do it all while bees are swarming over it.
The other option is to order what is called a “Package” of bees. A package of bees is just that, a box with a bunch of bees and a queen in it. It is a wooden box about the size of a shoebox with screened sides. There is a can of syrup for feed, and cage to keep the queen separate. A typical package contains around 10,000 bees. The problem with this is that the bees are not necessarily from the same hive, and the queen is not the queen of the hive. There is also no comb so the bees have to build everything from scratch. Fortunately, bees are pretty adaptable, and their instinct is to make sure they have a queen. So during the time the package ships, the bees bond with the queen and form a hive.
I ordered a package of bees from Beeweaver out of Texas. I chose them for a couple of reasons. While you can actually have bees shipped via the mail or UPS , they offer the option of having them trucked to pickup locations around the country. One of the pickup points was Spring Hill, KS which was only 30-40 miles away. They also have been breeding them for mite resistance which hopefully means that I won’t have to treat them for infestation.
I got a call from the pickup point early in the morning and went to pickup the bees. I strapped the package into the passenger seat of my car with the seatbelt and drove them home. I have seen several videos of beekeepers working without any protective gear and had planned on doing the same. However, in a rare moment of lucidity I decided that opening a box of 10,000 stinging insects probably wasn’t a good idea and went ahead and put on a hood and some gloves. Turns out this was a good idea.
The process of “installing the package” in the hive is fairly simple. You pry the feeder can out of the box. Then you remove the staple which holds the strap that the queen cage hangs from. You lift out the queen cage, which will be covered with bees trying to cluster around her. Then you brush the bees off the cage. The cage is small box with a screened side so the bees can still feed the queen. One end of the cage has a plug made from hard sugar candy and a cork in it. You remove the cork by screwing a wood screw into it and pulling it out. Then you hang the cage from one of the top bars. The bees will eat the hard candy in a couple of days and release the queen from the cage. With the queen hanging in the hive you then take to box of bees, turn it over, and simply shake the bees into the box.
It isn’t particularly difficult to do any of this. However, when you’ve never done it before, it can be pretty intimidating. From the moment you pull the syrup can out of the box, bees begin buzzing all around you. They also don’t want to be separated from the queen and resist efforts to dislodge them from the cage. For a long time beekeepers have been using smoke to “calm” the bees. The natural beekeepers that I’m basing my practices on though don’t like using smoke and instead spray the bees with sugar water. I did spray them with the sugar water several times which had some effect. Even so, bees were aggressively buzzing about me and bouncing off my hood during the whole process. There were still quite a few bees in the package that simply didn’t seem to want to let go, so I placed the package on the ground in front of the hive entrance and got the hive closed up. Within a few minutes bees were going in and out of the hive. Several would stand in the entrance and fan their wings which is to send the smell of the hive and the queen out to attract the bees. The remaining bees in the package all went into the hive over the next hour or so. I also noted them carrying dead bees out of the hive which I took to be a good sign. Quite a number of bees die in transit, so when I dumped the bees in a bunch of dead bees ended up in the bottom of the hive. Bees regularly clean dead bees out of the hive, so hopefully this meant they were accepting the hive as their new home.
During the process one bee did manage to get inside my hood, but fortunately did not sting. When I got back inside and removed the gear I did find several stingers embedded in my gloves and a few in my shirt. So I’m glad I chose to wear the gear. Hopefully once I get a little more experienced and comfortable with what I’m doing I won’t need it, but for the moment I hope to avoid unnecessary stings.