How to Start a Beehive without Buying Bees

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When you’re getting started with beekeeping, choosing a source for your bees is one decision that you will have to make at some point – you can buy or gather bees from the wild. Attracting bees to a hive as a swarm is one option that is not so frequently chosen because most beekeepers don’t know how.

A swarm is the bee clusters you see in the wild. Frequently, bees will split up their colony due to over-reproduction or an injured or sick queen and form swarms.

Collecting a swarm isn’t difficult, as the bees are usually mild-mannered because they don’t have a hive with honey or brood to protect. They are sluggish because their honey-guts are full of honey stored from the original hive. However, some colonies may still be aggressive, so you must take all reasonable precautions before working with swarming bees.

How to Start a Bee Hive Without Buying Bees

Swarms normally split from a strong “mother colony” to start a new one of their own. Gathering these wild bees may sound like a big deal, but it is the preferred method of populating a hive and has been used by many beekeepers for ages.

When the bees leave the original colony, they go with the old queen. And because the queen is being replaced with another, she will leave the old hive with some honey and about half of the worker bees (just like a pension plan). The new hive will settle not too far from their original colony and the scout bees will begin work (just like real estate agents) and try to secure a new hive location.

Beekeepers can take advantage of the search for a new location to capture these homeless bees and populate their empty hive. Once you have them settled in, they’ll immediately start building a comb in the new home.

It is usually advisable to capture a swarm that is local to the area they will be kept. This is because they must have survived the winter in that climate since they don’t settle far from the original colony. This strategy ensures that you’ll breed a strong hive. Many expert beekeepers prefer gathering local bees because they usually fare much better than bees shipped from across the country.

So now that you understand swarms, you can use two methods to get bees from the wild. You can gather the bees by yourself or use a bait hive. But first, you have to find a swarm

Swarm season usually occurs between spring and early summer. Contacting your local beekeeping community will increase your chances of finding a swarm.

Also, spread the word and let friends and family know that you are in search of a swarm and you’ll be surprised just how much help you’ll get.

Methods For Gathering Bees From The Wild

Once you have located a swarm and like the proximity to your location, then it’s time to use any of the below methods to populate your new hive.

1. Swarm Catching/Collecting

The easiest swarms to collect are bees on tree branches. All you really need to do is cut the branch and gently place or shake the branch inside a container.

Bees on a fence post or flat surface are not that easy to collect. You will need to guide the bees into the box by brushing them gently with a bee brush or cardboard. They can also be guided to the container by using a smoker to direct and encourage them to move in the opposite direction.

Using a smoker will entail spraying the box with some of the sugar and water solution to attract the bees and keep them in the container. Then placing the smoker in the direction that you DON’T want the bees to go. Sometimes using more than one smoker may be necessary to get the swarm where you want them.

To transfer the bees from the container to your hive, gently shake the container and give them a nudge. Make sure the hive is ready to receive the new bees.

Don’t forget to wear safety clothing. Also, it’s a good idea to take a smoker on your bee collection adventure so that you can calm any ill-tempered bees down.

Here’s what you’ll need to gather bees from the wild:

  • Breathable container made of cardboard or wood (cardboard boxes work just fine!)
  • Bee brush
  • Protective gear
  • Smoker
  • Sugar and water solution in a spray bottle
  • Bed sheet or tarp (light color)

Swarm catching can be an interesting and educational experience for a beekeeper. As a beginner, collecting your own bees will give you a chance to see how the new community is faring and gauge the nature of your bees first-hand.

When you arrive at the swarm location:

First, check the site and position of the swarm. If it is within arm’s reach, then collecting the bees will be a piece of cake. But if it is positioned high-up, you’ll need to use your best judgment to determine if it is safe.

Be careful… The idea of collecting bees for free can easily convince you to push your limits in ways you normally would not. If you have to risk your life or well-being to catch a swarm it isn’t worth it!

If you’ve determined that it is safe to collect the swarm, the next thing to do is put on your protective gear. After that, place a light colored sheet or tarp under the swarm’s location and put your container on it.

Now, gently move the cluster into the box as slowly as you can. The queen will be located in the center of the swarm. It is critical that the queen makes it into the box, because if she doesn’t, you’ll see worker bees leave the box and back onto the branch.

If the cluster is on a wall, fence, or other structure, you can try spraying inside the container with some sugar water solution. This will reduce the chances of flight. Now brush any stray bees with your bee brush and try not to break up the cluster while doing this.

If you want more information about swarm trapping, we have a partnership with McCartney Taylor, an experienced beekeeper who specializes in this technique. He has written an in-depth book/guide surrounding the subject of Swarm Trapping. 

2. Bait Hive

A bait hive is an empty hive that is set up deliberately to attract a swarm. Unlike the collection method, all you have to do is make your bait hive suitable for habitation and place is close to a swarm. Sounds easy right? Well, you have to be methodical about it.

When scout bees find an ideal hive location they report back to the swarm and direct the other bees to the new location. This is achieved with what’s called a waggle dance.

Once they arrive at the new location, the first worker bees in the new hive release a pheromone to direct the swarm into their new home. This pheromone is called the Nasonov pheromone and resembles the scent of lemongrass oil – that’s why beekeepers use this oil in their hives or as a lure.

A common strategy used is to place lemongrass oil inside a container as bait hive. Place the box in a sideways position next to swarm and they’ll move into the box on their own.

Swarm lures typically contain a blend of synthetic pheromones same as those present in a bee worker’s scent gland. They are especially useful in old hives and this may be because of the presence of Propolis in the old hive.

You can imitate this by boiling in water some combs covered in Propolis or even old frames. Place them on the inside of the bait hive as part of your lure.

There are some factors to take into consideration when creating a bait hive:

  • The bees old hive location and structure
  • The size of the cavity where food is stored
  • Well-ventilated hive under a shade is preferable
  • Dry location is more attractive
  • Type of lure used

Using an old hive is pretty effective as the smell of used comb attracts a swarm and the queen will most probably start to reproduce immediately if she is already mated.

Swarms always want to build combs, so include frames of foundation and place the hive on a high surface as bees naturally look for homes that are elevated or high up in trees.

If you observe any scout bees flying near the entrance of your bait hive, then the swarm could occupy it at any time. When you notice increased activity and see bees delivering pollen loads, then you’ll know that your bait hive has been chosen as the new home.

For this strategy to work, you’ll need a hive! We’ve got a range of recommended beehives for sale that you can look at here. And if you’re looking at a beekeeping starter kit, we have featured some of our favourite kits below:

  • Mann Lake – Basic Beekeeping Starter Kit (Pre-Assembled and Painted) – Buy on Amazon
  • Basic Starter Beekeeping Kit (Pre-Assembled) – Buy on Amazon

Final Thoughts…

I hope this article, on how to start a beehive without buying bees has been useful! We do however have some additional information for you to think about:

In some states, laws exist to stop beekeepers from poaching bees located on other people’s property. This one is a no-brainer. If the bees are located on a 3rd party’s property, please make sure to ask before baiting or collecting.

We all like free stuff, but sometimes free isn’t always better. Wild bees can come with their own set of problems like weak genes or diseases. You could have an injured queen or no queen at all.

One strategy used on wild bees (if disease is a concern) is to delay feeding for a few days after the swarm settles in. This is done so that all infected nectar or honey can be used up.

For those who want to learn more about other methods of how to start a beehive, take a look at this article.

Steve Cruise
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