How to inspect a honey bee package

I remember my first bee order.  I was excited and watched and read everything I could about installing bees into my hive.  The one thing that I never even thought about was if the bees I would pick up were healthy. It wasn’t until I was on my way to pick them up that I started to wonder about what a healthy package should look like.  I wasn’t really sure if I would be able to tell.

As I walked into the room with hundreds of boxes stacked on top of each other, the only thing I could think of, was that I wanted one with lots of bees and one with the screen secure and not leaking bees.

Here are the two packages that I chose:

Bee Package

Each package consisted of a screened wooden box, 1 can of sugar syrup, 1 queen cage with a mated queen, 3# of bees and a wooden lid.  The amount of honey bees is dependent on what is ordered,  typically it’s 2 or 3 pounds of bees.

There’s a few things you should look for, when you get your package, before you pay. Once you pay, they are yours, even if they die within the week.  It is assumed that once they leave the beekeepers property it is in your hands to keep them alive and healthy:

  1. Bees should be in a cluster, as seen in the picture above.
  2. A few dead bees on the bottom is ok – you don’t want the package if there is a thick layer of dead bees on the bottom.
  3. There should be more workers (female bees) than drones (male bees) – drones are just a drain on resources. Drones do no work within the hive and they feed on stored honey or get the nurse bees to feed them.
  4. The screen on the box should be secure on all sides – bees flying around in your car is not always appreciated by your passengers.
  5. Bees should not appear swollen – swollen bees can be an indication that you have sick bees.

Once you have picked up your bees you should immediately install your bees into their new hive.  If you can’t:

  1. Store them in a cool place
  2. If weather is hot you can use a fan to lightly blow air through and around the cage – a sign of them being too hot is that they will no longer be in a cluster.
  3. If too hot, you can mist with water or a weak sugar solution on the screen to help cool them off.

I hope this helps you to choose the right package.

~May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places.



Egg to Bee

Not all honey bee eggs are created equal.  Did you know that the length of time it takes a bee to hatch is dependent on whether it is a worker, drone or a queen?

A queen will hatch in 16 days, a worker in 21 and a drone in 24 days.

Egg life 2

Honey bee eggs are very tiny and look like tiny grains of rice.  At only 1mm in length, they are very difficult to see. The best way to see the eggs during an inspection is to lift the frame up and have the sun shine over your shoulder and into the cells.


After 3 days in the egg stage the egg will hatch into a larva.  The pictures below show larva at different ages.


Once the larva reach the right stage, as determined by the nurse bees, the larva will be capped. Below the nurse bees have begun to cap the larva as noted by the rough edges on the cell.

Larvae being capped

In the picture below, the flat capped brood are worker bees and the bullet shaped cells are drones.  Drone cells are normally found along the edge of the  brood pattern.  The picture on the right is a capped queen cell. The bees build a nice big cell for the queen to fit in.

CappedQueen cell

These pupa shown below are drones which were accidentally ripped out of their cells during a hive inspection.  The bees had created burr comb between the upper and lower box, and when frames were removed the cells were ripped apart.


Once the bees are ready to be hatched, they will eat their way out of the cell. Here are two bees being hatched, one is almost all the way out of its cell, while the other is still deep in its cell, but has removed most of the cap that covers it.


Being able to observe bees in all states of development is a wonderful thing.

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places.



Bee biology 101

A hive is made up of both female and male bees. There is a queen bee (female), worker bees (female) and drones (male).

Can you pick out the queen and the 3 obvious drones from the sea of worker bees in the picture below?


There is normally only 1 queen in a hive. On rare occasions 2 queens can be found, perhaps they give off similar pheromones or they both just hatched. I have never seen more than one queen in my hives.

The queen is produced from a fertilized egg.  The cell in which the queen is raised is much larger than all other cells, for she needs the room to grow.  The purpose of the queen is to lay eggs, to produce more bees with the goal to increase the population of the hive so they can forage for food and nectar. The food and nectar is used to feed the larvae and to store for winter.

The queen lives 3-5 years and will only leave the hive during her mating flights, in the 1st 1-2 weeks of her life, and then again only if the hive decides to swarm.

Here’s the queen magnified and a few tips for identifying her:

  • Large thorax
  • Long pointed abdomen
  • Short wings compared to her size
  • Long legs


There are thousands, up to 10s of thousands of worker bees in a hive.  Since all worker bees are female, they are produced from fertilized eggs, like the queen.  What determines whether an egg develops into a queen vs a worker bee is the food that the nurse bees (worker bees of a certain age) feed them.  Queen bees are fed only royal jelly where worker bees are fed royal jelly during the early stages of development and then a watered down version for the remainder of the time. This change in quality of food causes the worker bees to develop sexually immature and they wont, most of the time, be able to lay eggs like the queen does.

Worker bees do all the work in the hive, they attend to the queen, they attend to the larvae, cleanout the cells in preparation for new eggs, and ultimately mature to the level where they become guard bees and then foragers.  A worker bee typically lives 40 plus days during the summer and lives for months over the winter.

Here’s some of the worker bees magnified and a few tips for identifying them:

  • Smallest of the 3
  • Thousands of them in a colony

Worker Bees

During the summer there can be 100s of drones in a hive, during the winter there is zero to a very few.  Drones have only one purpose, to mate with unfertilized queens.  Therefore they are not needed during the winter and the worker bees kick them out in the fall to die.

The drone is produced from an unfertilized egg.  He can drift from hive to hive, where he enters for food and warmth.

Drones live approximately 90 days, or until they mate with a queen. Once they mate with a queen they die.

Here is a drone magnified and a few tips for identifying them:

  • Bigger than a worker bee
  • Stout body
  • Very big eyes
  • Large head


Now let’s look back at that original picture… here the queen is circled in red, the drones circled in blue, and all around them are the worker bees.

Bee biology

The next time you enter your hives, I hope that this will help you to distinguish between the queen, drones and workers.

~ May all your wandering taking you to many wonderful places.

Carniolans, Italians, Russians

Trying to figure out what type of bees you would like in your apiary?

I did some research before I started beekeeping, so I knew that I wanted to start with either Carniolan or Italian bees.  However, finding bees for sale in my area was a challenge.  I ultimately found a person that was giving both 1st time beekeeper lessons and selling bees.  I was pleased that I could get instruction and purchase bees from the same person.  However I did not have a choice of bee breeds, only Italian.  Italians are a nice breed for first time beekeepers. .

The following year I wanted to try a couple of Nuc hives and was able to get Carniolans.  The Carniolans nucs had queens that were born the year before from Illinois overwintered queens.  I like the idea of getting a queen from stock that can withstand our northern IL/southern WI winters. I too would like to someday overwinter a dozen or so nuc hives for selling in the spring, providing local beekeepers with bees that are raised and overwintered in our cold northern Illinois weather.

Now that I have some experience with both Italian and Carniolan bees, I wanted to spend some time discussing the pros and cons of the Italian, the Carniolan and the Russian honey bee. (I threw in the Russian honey bee since it is available in Wisconsin and someday I might want to consider buying a few hives)

Italian Honey Bee


  • (Apis Mellifera Liguistica)
  • Light golden color
  • Originated from Italy, brought to the US in the mid-1800s by Rev. Langstroth.


  • Gentle, easy to work with
  • Great foragers
  • Longer proboscis (tongue)
  • Tend to keep a high number of workers throughout the summer
  • Less susceptible to European Foulbrood
  • Don’t propolize heavily- My carniolans propolize much more than my Italians.
  • Don’t swarm as much as other types


  • Prone to robbing
  • Can be slow to build in spring
  • Maintain a large brood area and worker population regardless of environmental conditions – risk of early winter starvation
  • Orient by color, so they can drift from hive to hive, leading to low populations in some hives & also spread diseases among hives.


  • Mine have struggled to stay alive. One year I started with 2 Italians vs 2 Carniolans, by fall I had 1 Italian and 7 Carniolans, using the same management techniques. This may have just been due to where the bees came from.
  • Overall, I think this is a good starter bee. They don’t tend to swarm the 1st year, so it’s easier to learn what’s happening in the hive vs. trying to learn and managing swarming tendencies at the same time.

Carniolan Honey Bee


  • (Apis Mellifera Carnica)
  • Dark brown to black in color
  • Originated from northern Europe


  • Good at defending against pests while being gentle to beekeepers
  • Great foragers, will fly on colder temperatures, earlier in AM, later in PM & on cool, wet days
  • Good at building/breaking down workers depending on availability of nectar/pollen
  • Less susceptible to brood pathogens
  • Low use of propolis – I have NOT seen this with my Carniolan bees
  • Workers live up to 12% longer than other breeds
  • Not prone to robbing, so diseases spread more slowly in a Carniolan apiary.
  • Good for populated areas
  • Able to overwinter in smaller numbers


  • More prone to swarming if overcrowded, even in 1st year.
  • Lower ability to thrive in hot summer temps
  • Slow to build up in spring


  • Mine created a lot of propolis, sticking everything together.
  • Aggressive but don’t have a tendency to sting.
  • Swarmed the 1st year I installed as Nucs.
  • I found them harder to manage than my Italians, due to their swarming tendency and how fast they would build up and get overcrowded. I was able to create a total of 7 hives from purchasing 2 Nucs.

Russian Honey Bee


  • (Apis Mellifera fd)
  • Dark brown to black in color
  • Originated in the Primorsky Krai region of Russia (eastern Russia)
  • Imported into the US in 1997 by the USDA’s Honeybee Breeding, Genetics & Physiology Lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana


  • Do not build populations until pollen is available
  • Able to shut down brood rearing when pollen/nectar is scarce
  • Able to quickly increase brood rearing when pollen/nectar is plentiful.
  • Tend to be resistant to varroa and tracheal mites
  • Maintain active queen cells throughout the brood rearing season – Workers destroy extra queen cells


  • Expensive
  • Hard to find (Sweet Mountain Farm in WI sells them)
  • Smell different than Italian bees, thus more difficult to requeen Italians with a Russian queen.
  • Takes 36 days from the time a queen starts as an egg to the time she starts laying.
  • Hard to locate queen within the hive.


  • I have no personal experience with Russian honey bees

~ May all your wandering take you to many wonderful places!

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