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.
Laws of attraction
Here are some keys to successfully attracting swarms to bait hives:
Swarms prefer boxes that are 10 to 15 gallons (40 to 60 liters) in volume. Smaller boxes don't have enough room, and bigger boxes are difficult to heat and protect. I make my swarm traps 40 liters in size, and they work great.
The box should be filled with frames the same size as those in your permanent hive (I prefer Layens hives), so you can easily transfer bees from one into the other.
Bees coat the inside of their nest with propolis (bee resin). Lemongrass essential oil has a smell similar to their own pheromone. Both smells are highly attractive to swarms. Rub the inside of the box with 1/10 ounce of propolis, and add 0.4 milliliter of lemongrass oil in a slow-release tube so the fragrance is released gradually and doesn't overwhelm the bees.
Place the box at a height of 10 to 15 feet in a tree that stands on the edge of a tree line or woods, in a fencerow, along roads, or in the front or backyard. The box must be highly visible but in full shade to prevent overheating. This helps the scouts locate the box.
Set out your boxes in early spring, about two to four weeks after the first flowers start blooming. Here in Missouri, I set mine out on April 15. In Minnesota, it might be mid-May, and in Georgia it would be in February.
Check your bait hive at least every two weeks. When a swarm moves in, you'll see heavy traffic of bees coming and going. Close the entrance with wire mesh at nightfall after all the foragers have returned. Bring it down from the tree, relocate it to where you want your permanent hive to be, and reopen the entrance. As you remove an occupied swarm trap from the tree, replace it with an empty one, and you'll be able to catch another swarm on the same tree in the same season. You can leave a swarm trap in the tree until fall.
Catching your first swarm is such a thrill! When you have your bees, give them a good home. You can keep them in the bait hive for up to three weeks. After that, transfer the frames into a bigger hive so they can expand further. Choose a durable, well-insulated, easy-to-build, and easy-to-manage hive. I prefer Layens horizontal hives, which require no heavy lifting and are gentle on the bees. This allows them to live a life similar to what they would in the wild, while producing a handsome surplus of honey for the beekeeper.
Starting with local wild bees offers multiple advantages. Swarms are usually much larger — 4 to 5 pounds and free of cost — than commercial packages (2 to 3 pounds, and anywhere from $100 to $150). And locally wild bees are truly adapted to your climate and will stand a better chance of survival. Research conducted in upstate New York showed that the average lifespan of established wild colonies is more than 6 years!
Dr. Leo Sharashkin is editor of the book Keeping Bees With a Smile. He lives on a forest homestead in southern Missouri, where he catches and homes wild honeybees. He holds a degree in forestry from the University of Missouri, and he teaches natural beekeeping at his apiary, around the country, and internationally. Find him at http://www.horizontalhive.com/.