Installing New Bees (In a Kid-Friendly Apiary)

The girls at Hutchison School love their bees. Not only is it their mascot, but the school's resident honeybees play an integral role in the academic programs. Harvesting honey is everyone's highlight, and the girls are fascinated by the intricacies of bee colony life. 

When I started at Hutchison, there were just two hives. The boxes were starting to fall apart, and the bees were showing signs of aggression. I knew I wanted to expand the apiary, help calm some of the bee aggression, and update the bee's lodgings to make it more kid-friendly, but I wasn't sure of the best way to do this. Luckily, my dear friends Rita and Richard Underhill of Peace Bee Farm are bee experts and consultants. Richard is a Master Beekeeper. They came over to Memphis a few weeks back to help me come up with a plan. 

First, we decided to get rid of the ten-frame medium hives and switch the existing colonies over to eight-frame medium hives. Each medium frame of honey weighs about six pounds, so the smaller and lighter we can make our equipment, the better it is for our kid-beekeepers. We also decided to get two new packages of bees, and we ordered eight-frame equipment for them, too. 

The hives arrived first, and one of our third grade classes signed up to come help put the hives together. The girls installed beeswax-coated plastic foundations into wooden frames and painted the hives. 

Next, the bees. We ordered two three-pound packages of Italian honeybees from Bemis Honey Bee Farm in Little Rock, Arkansas. Last Saturday, we drove to Little Rock to go pick them up.

When you order bee packages, they usually come in a small box, like you see below. There's a little cell inside for the queen and her attendants, and a can of corn syrup with holes punctured into it to slowly feed the bees during their journey to their new homes. 

On Sunday, Richard and Rita met me at Hutchison to help install the bee packages and try to diagnose what was going on with those aggressive bees. (More on that later.) Richard also moved the frames from the existing ten-frame hives into the eight-frame hives. 

Here's how we installed the bee packages:

First, we placed the bottom boards of the hives on their platform and then put one box on top of that. We sprayed down six of the frames with a spray bottle containing sugar water, then placed them in the box, leaving a gap in the middle.

Richard spraying new foundation with sugar water

Richard spraying new foundation with sugar water

Leaving a gap to install the bee package

Leaving a gap to install the bee package

Next, we turned our attention to the queen. She was in a little wooden and mesh wire box with a sugar candy plug, topped with a cork. She was definitely sending off some strong pheromones, because her little cage was covered with layers of attendants. We pushed them aside gently to make sure she was okay. She was plump and marked with a yellow dot. 

Richard inspecting the queen cell (covered with attendants!)

Richard inspecting the queen cell (covered with attendants!)

Then, Richard showed me how to place the queen cage in the new hive. We took the cork out of the end of the cage that had the sugar candy plug. We gently probed the candy to make sure that it was soft and pliable enough for the bees to chew through it. Then we placed the cell snugly in between two of the frames at an angle, with the candy facing up. Richard explained that you keep it facing up so that if an attendant bee dies, it doesn't fall down and block the queen's exit from the cage. 

Installing the queen cell at an angle

Installing the queen cell at an angle

Richard removing the sugar can

Richard removing the sugar can

Shaking three pounds of bees into the new hives.

Shaking three pounds of bees into the new hives.

Once the queen was safely ensconced in the hive, we took the syrup can out of the bee package, turned it upside down over the gap in the hive, and shook it like a bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup. The bees came tumbling out into the hive. It took several good shakes!

Then we placed the final two frames into the hives and placed a feeder on top of the hive. We filled the feeder with sugar water to help nourish them while they expend lots of energy building out their new honeycomb. We placed plastic mesh floaters in the sugar water to help the bees access the syrup without drowning, then placed the inner and outer covers directly on top of the feeders. And voila! A new hive is born. 

I'll feed them once a week until they've drawn out their comb. Over the next few weeks, I'll add another brood box, then a queen excluder and a honey super. I opened up the hives today to check and make sure they got the queens out. They did. I noticed an unusually high population of small hive beetles in one of the hives, so I'm keeping an eye on that as well. 

Do any of you keep bees with kids or students? What do you do to make it kid-friendly? 

Happy growing, 

Mary Riddle

Richard Underhill, Master Beekeeper, and the Hutchison Apiary

Richard Underhill, Master Beekeeper, and the Hutchison Apiary