Installing Bees in a Top Bar Hive

Our bees have finally arrived!  Thankfully, installing bees is an easy and simple task, so if you have a hive putting the bees into it should be a breeze.

This is how your bees will arrive with USPS.
This is how your bees will arrive with USPS.

Believe it or not, bees usually ship through the US Postal service.  They will arrive to you in a wood and wire box, in a large clump mostly clinging to the top of the box.  There is a square of plywood at the top of the box that you will have to remove before taking your bees out.  Inside the container, under the plywood, should be a metal can which holds the food the bees have been eating since they left their origin.  You can lift out the can and slide the plywood back over the opening so that they do not escape.

feeder
Removing the travel feeder.

Before your bees arrive make sure your hive is prepared.  With a top bar hive, separate the middle 8-10 bars and block them off with the follower boards.  The bees aren’t ready to take up the full hive yet, and leaving them with that much space will encourage them to swarm.  You also need to install a feeder in one of the empty sections of the hive.  For more on how to make a feeder for a top bar hive, check out our post here.  It is recommended to put the feeder in before installing the bees, so I would do that the evening before their expected delivery.  One other important step is to block two of the three hive entrances because there won’t be enough bees to defend all of them at first.  It’s fairly easy to block them using a cork.

The bees won't want to let the queen out of their sight.
The bees won’t want to let the queen out of their sight.

When you open up the bee box from the postal service, you’ll see a yellow strip coming out of the hole in the top of the box.  This is where your queen is – hanging in a small box, separated from the colony.  The first step to install your bees in the hive is to lift the queen out by the yellow strip and examine her to make sure she is alive.  Her colony will cling to her and swarm around her, so you’ll need to brush them away gently to get a good look.  Check to see if there is a cork in the end of her box, and if so, remove it.  Behind the cork is a candy seal which the bees will eat through to release the queen.

The queen now gets attached to the middle bar of your top bar hive, inside her box.  This should be the fourth or fifth bar in the section that you’ve got cordoned off with the follower boards.  It is usually easiest to secure the queen using a paperclip or something similar attached to her strap and then wrapped around the top bar.

Ready to put the queen in the hive.
Ready to put the queen in the hive.
Attach her to the middle bar of the hive.
Attach her to the middle bar of the hive.

Once the queen is in, it’s time to put the rest of the colony into the hive.  This is the most exciting part of installing a colony of bees.  It is important to remember through this process that bees aren’t usually aggressive if they do not have a hive or honey to protect, and are particularly docile after being tossed around by the postal system for a few days.  As you can see, our hive was installed without gloves or a veil and we managed to walk away without a single sting.

I let my partner do this part.
I let my partner do this part.

You now remove the plywood from the hole in the bee container and turn the whole thing upside down over the area of the hive that the queen is in.  I would remove all of the top bars except for the one the queen is on while putting the bees in, and then replace them once they are in.

To get the bees to into the hive, you are going to need to shake the box so that they fall over the hole, and slam the box gently against the hive to loosen any stuck bees.  The bees will fall to the bottom of the hive, and start to crawl about and find their way up to their queen. Replace the bars so that the hive is covered, brushing any extra bees down into the hive as you do so.

Replace the top on the hive, and leave the box which the bees arrived in near the entrance to the hive for the day, so that any stray bees can find their way to the colony.

Framing the window with beeswax.
Framing the window with beeswax.

To make sure your bees feel at home in their new surroundings, it’s recommended to have a piece of old comb hanging inside the top bar hive so that it smells beelike.  In our hive, we framed our window using beeswax and hope that it has the same effect.  This, along with a healthy queen, will help prevent the bees from swarming or abandoning their new home.

Another important thing to remember is to not keep opening and closing the hive as the bees are settling in, as tempting as that is.  They need at least 3-5 days to get accustomed to their new home, and if a person is constantly inside their space, they won’t like it and likely will swarm.  The only reason to open up the hive the first few days is to refill their food supply — more on that in our top bar hive feeder post, here. That’s the beauty of this hive design, however: with the window, you don’t have to disturb the bees to keep an eye on them as they settle in.

Put the top bars back in, cover the hive, and let the bees make their home.
Put the top bars back in, cover the hive, and let the bees make their home.

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