Catch and Keep Wild Bees

Learn how to catch a wild bee swarm and relocate them safely to your hives. You’ll save a bundle of cash by capturing wild bees instead of ordering a package or nuc, plus you’re more likely to get healthy bees that are adapted to your climate.

| July/August 2018

Beekeeping begins with the bees. Everyone wants to start off strong with new bees that are healthy, productive, and resilient. But are you sure that's what you're getting? Most of the bees sold commercially are mass-produced under highly unnatural conditions. The queen bee is fed sugar syrup to accelerate her egg-laying, and when her "sugar babies" mature, they're given chemicals, fed more sugar syrup, sold by the pound, packed in boxes, and shipped with a new queen that was also raised this way.

Just a couple of pounds of packaged bees will cost you upward of $100 plus shipping, and it's often recommended that you medicate them to get them through their first winter. Yes, they may produce honey, but they're completely dependent on you and their genetics aren't necessarily a good match for your local weather and conditions. Most of the bees sold in the United States are southern strains, poorly adapted to colder climates throughout much of the country. Besides that, bees you purchase this way come from a very shallow genetic pool that was selected for traits that are desirable to beekeepers (honey production, gentle disposition, etc.), but which may be detrimental to their survival. Remember Winnie-the-Pooh talking about "the wrong sort of bees" that "make the wrong sort of honey?" He may have had these bees in mind.

The alternative would be to obtain local bees adapted to your conditions. "Populate your hives with local bees, and the results will speak for themselves," wrote Georges de Layens in his book Keeping Bees in Horizontal Hives: A Complete Guide to Apiculture. So where do you buy local bees? The good news is that you don't have to buy them.

Let them come to you

When European honeybees were first introduced to America, they easily naturalized. They adapted to the nectar flows of local plants and developed resilience by coping with the challenges in their new environment (weather, predators, and disease). You can still find this "survivor stock" in the woods, and even in urban areas where colonies live inside walls of buildings. Just as birds occupy birdhouses, honeybee swarms will move into larger boxes (called bait hives or swarm traps) hung on trees in the springtime.

Bee colonies multiply by splitting into two or more parts — casting swarms. The colony raises a large number of young bees and a new queen. When the nest becomes overpopulated, the old mother queen and half the bees fly off. This swarm will temporarily settle on a branch or some other object, forming a living "beard," and send out hundreds of scouts to find a new home. When scout bees discover your swarm trap box attached to a tree, it looks to them like a perfect tree hollow, so they'll bring the whole swarm with them to occupy the box. You don't even need to know where their original nest is located. A swarm can travel miles in search of a new dwelling.

Attracting swarms to bait hives is an ancient practice that works. I've never had to buy a single bee to populate my 40 hives. For every two swarm traps I set out, one will have bees move in. That's a 50 percent success rate, but other beekeepers are even more successful. A man named Robert in Idaho once told me that he built six swarm boxes, put out five, and had the huge blessing of attracting 15 swarms! The arrival of free bees can be overwhelming. One of the students in my natural beekeeping class caught 53 swarms in one summer.

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