Transferring and placing honey bees this spring

April and May are the times to transfer new honey bees to their hives and place their hives in an ideal location.

An apiary utilizing color combinations and unique hive orientations to reduce worker bees from drifting to the wrong colony. It is preferable to raise hives up off of the ground. Photo credit: Susy Morris, Flickr Creative Commons
An apiary utilizing color combinations and unique hive orientations to reduce worker bees from drifting to the wrong colony. It is preferable to raise hives up off of the ground. Photo credit: Susy Morris, Flickr Creative Commons

Spring is the time to transfer your newly arrived package or nucleus bees (nucs) into their bigger home. The process is similar whether you are using top-bar hives, foundationless Warré philosophies or traditional Langstroth colonies, though most commercial bee suppliers will be selling nucleus colonies with Langstroth frame dimensions. If you built a hive with different dimensions, then buying a package of bees might be a better choice.

Package bees

Packages are small cages full of worker bees from large, active colonies in southern states. It is common that these bees are from different colonies. Further, packages include a freshly mated queen protected in a cage. She is also from a different colony. So, nobody knows each other, and there is no comb or brood or eggs to keep everyone busy.

It is important to transfer this cage of confused bees into a prepared hive as soon as possible. A prepared hive should include frames, with or without foundation, and some food of some sort. Place the queen cage between some frames with the exit hole face down, making sure the screen is exposed so the bees can feed her through it. The workers need to become accustomed to her pheromones and will let her out after a few days.

Frames of honey and pollen, or 1:1 sugar water and pollen substitute will help jump-start these hungry bees. Packages are usually cheaper than nucleus colonies, and are easier to use in top-bar hives or other homemade hives with non-Langstroth dimensions.

Nucleus bees

Nucleus colonies, or nucs, are complete, tiny colonies that are generally available later in the season. They usually consist of four or five frames of honey pollen and brood cells in a small box along with a laying queen, eggs, brood, nurse bees and worker bees that are all related. That is why they are not available as early as package bees. All you need to do with a nucleus colony is put it someplace with good spring forage.

You have more time to transfer these bees to a full size hive because they have everything they need for the short term in the nuc. However, many suppliers sell them when they are very full and ready to expand, so make sure you transfer them before they outgrow their home. To transfer them, choose a home location for the hive and transfer the frames from the nuc into the middle of the home hive, or wherever you want the brood nest if you’ve built a top-bar hive with Langstroth dimensions. Be careful to get the queen into the new colony. Leave the nuc next to the home hive for a few days so that foraging workers can figure out all their family moved next door. As they build out new comb, you may consider feeding this new colony to give them a jump-start on getting everything ready to roll for the main nectar flow.

Do you want to provide pollination with your bees?

There are many new growers, small growers and community gardens in Michigan that desire pollination, but may not want to keep bees themselves. These types of pollination opportunities aren’t usually picked up by the large commercial beekeepers, yet provide a great opportunity for small and mid-size beekeepers with two to 20 hives.

Barb Barton, along with John Hooper of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) and Meghan Milbrath of the Northern Bee Network and Michigan State University, have put together an excellent resource that aims to match farmers with an organic philosophy and like-minded beekeepers. Check out the Healthy Food - Healthy Bees Connection.

Hive placement

When placing your hives for pollination or honey production, Michigan State University Extension recommends picking a spot that will be easy to access through the season for supering and mite monitoring. If you plan to overwinter them on site, then you may need to also consider accessibility during the snowy months in Michigan. Avoid placing colonies in low spots. These spots can make packing out heavy honey supers more difficult, and may be in a flood plain. Driving through the country at night with the windows down easily demonstrates the temperature and moisture gradients of low spots. Foggy and cool is not fun for bees. High and dry with a windbreak and access to direct sun from the south and east tends to warm bees more quickly for earlier flying.

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