I thought that I would take a moment to write a little about transport times as it is a frequently asked question to us from numerous clients. Interestingly enough the questions are asked for several different reasons and the answer may be meaningful to the beekeeper or it may be of little value. Each year we get the same question from one of our experienced clients, "When were these put in the package?" He asks this for the simple reason of queen management. I think that he has a firm understanding that up to a point, the length of time during transit is not a significant piece of data to have. The transport time is of small value compared to the information gained from the question of "how long has the queen been with these bees?" Most beekeepers wait for bees to become accustomed to the new queen and give her a period of 3 days before turning her loose in the hive. One of the advantages that we have is that we actually see the crews go out in the morning and return with the bees. We know which packages were filled with which queens on what day. Our experienced client now knows that he can turn the queens loose tomorrow.
Let me explain why the question of transport times is not all that valuable. Here are two extremes of transport times that have roughly the same answer:
The first case, the queens were pulled from the breeders queen bank in the morning, bees were shaken into the package at noon, the package was placed on a jet to Alaska in the evening and arrive at the destination point in the morning. "The transport time is one day."
In the second case, the package could be picked up at a supplier's loading dock in the morning, placed on the plane in the evening and arrive in Alaska the next morning. "The transport time is one day." Both of the examples are true. The difference between them is that nobody mentions that prior to picking up the package, the bees sat in the warehouse for several days. Yet the transport time is still one day.
The question can now be raised, Does it really matter? Surprisingly the answer is "not really".
Two factors really overshadow the question. First is how long has the queen been with the bees, and we have addressed that in the start of this article. The second factor is what is the history of the package and its components.
I would rather have a package that is a week old and properly cared for than a package that is rushed to my hands in a stressed condition. The big reputable suppliers of package bees know how to properly care for package bees and have the facilities built to care for them. I tend to write about the things that my supplier does simply because I have seen it. I make the assumption that all of the suppliers on his scale do the same or a similar thing. Smaller suppliers probably do not simply because of the cost of infrastructure. When I write that "My supplier does this..." it should not be taken that he is the only one or that the others don't do the same - it simply means that I have seen it. For sure he runs a big operation and the big operations have things like air conditioned package bee holding rooms, their own queen breeding programs, specific crews with specific tools and equipment directly related to package bees. Smaller operations simply don't.
The method of transport is also a significant factor hidden in the question of transport times. Over the years I have seen or have spoken to those who have seen bees transported in the unheated cargo holds of airplanes, in the overheated cargo holds without adequate airspace, as well as in totally enclosed cargo pods. On the ground I have seen them transported on flatbed trucks in the open air, overheated U haul vans, and shipped as regular cargo in tractor trailers. All of these methods have similar transport times compared to the ideal method of transport in specifically designed climate controlled trucks or trailers, and climate controlled air cargo holds.
Package components also play a factor: At least one supplier of package bees to Alaska does not produce their own queens. This may or not be significant depending on how the queens are cared for during the time that they are pulled from the breeder's queen banks and the time that they are placed in the packages. Remember that the queen is the engine of the hive and how well she runs can make a huge difference in how your hive performs. A package bee supplier who does not produce his own queens may simply drive across the valley and pick up enough queens to fill his package orders for the next day from a queen breeder. There is nothing wrong with this practice as far as I can see. The queens can be well cared for if being transported by a beekeeper. On the other hand if the queens are mail ordered from the breeder, there is no control over the conditions of transport for the "engine of the hive". Studies have shown that there is a drastic reduction of fertility in queens that are overheated or chilled during shipment. Be cautious of suppliers who have no control over the components of the package or the conditions of transport.
We believe that the best packages a customer can receive are the ones that all of the components are of known quality and the transportation from the hive to your hands has been carried out by beekeepers familiar with the intricacies of the transport process. The simplest and cheapest way is simply to send packages through commercial freight companies but it is far from the best way as there is no oversight of how the packages are treated during shipment.
Instead of asking your supplier "How long was the transport time?" instead ask "How long has the queen been in there" and "How long did you have your eye off the ball?"