There is no getting around the fact that starting a beehive from scratch can be an expensive proposition. Many new beekeepers want to keep their start-up costs as low as possible, from building their own beehives to paying reduced prices for their bee colony. While the price of bees ranges from supplier to supplier, an estimated amount one can expect to pay for a queen and three pounds of bees is around $120-150. If this seems like an amount you either cannot or do not want to pay, then capturing a swarm of wild bees in the spring is the best way to go for beekeeping on a budget. In this article, I offer some tips on how to start a beehive with wild bees so you can cut down on beekeeping costs!
One of the most important things to remember is that bee numbers are declining at an alarming rate. For this reason, ascertaining the safety of the bees should be your top priority whenever you are attempting to catch a swarm. Joining your local beekeeper’s association can also help you with tips and tricks to protect bees. Improper methods of collecting the bees can easily lead to the death of many of them (if not all) so following these instructions will help to make sure that does not happen.
What Exactly is a Swarm?
Often, bees will leave the mother colony because the queen has been injured or is sick, or because of overpopulation. These clusters of bees who leave form swarms, which then go looking for new places to start their own colonies. Since the swarms do not have young or honey to protect, most often they are mild-mannered. When they leave the hive, they also fill their honey guts with honey, which often makes them sluggish and easier to catch!
Once landed, the bees completely form a cluster around the queen. This process is known as festooning. Each bee hangs onto the legs and arms of the others, and they can wrap themselves around any shape. Since they do not like to be parted from their cluster, this behavior makes it advantageous for you to get them into the container you have prepared.
What Kind of Equipment Will I Need?
You will ideally have your hive, or hives, already set up in the perfect location. Somewhere that does not get a lot of traffic is best if you do not have access to an open area like a field. You can either purchase a hive kit or build one yourself if you are handy. Most beekeeping beginners choose to go with the Langstroth style of hive, rather than the top bar hive, but this is a personal choice.
When it comes to protective clothing, the most important element is the veil. This will protect your face and head from stings. Gloves are the next item on the shopping list. You can either purchase specialty gloves for beekeeping or the type of gloves used for washing dishes will also work. Finally, a beekeeping suit will help to protect the rest of your body from errant stings. Even though getting stung is par for the course with beekeeping, it’s wise to do whatever possible to avoid them.
You are also going to need some type of container to put your swarm in. In this case, use a hive box that is currently empty or a special collection box. You can purchase the collection box or use any household cardboard box if it has either mesh vents or air holes.
Optional items that you may need include a bee vacuum, scent lures such as lemongrass oil, and sugar water in a spray bottle.
Where to Find Wild Bees
You can find wild bees nearly anywhere – even in cities! For capturing swarms near residential areas, many municipalities will keep a list, often known as a local swarm list, of beekeepers who are available to remove swarms in the spring. Usually, these swarms are searching for a suitable area to make their homes in or near public areas, buildings, and private homes. Almost everyone is familiar with the hum of a colony as they gravitate toward eavestroughs and other warm areas. Since most homeowners prefer the bees to make their home somewhere else, it is essential that you get your name out there as a resource to relocate unwanted swarms.
In recent years, experts estimate that somewhere around 90% of the wild bee population has been decimated. Much of this is because of the lack of food sources for the bees, such as wild plants. Saving the bees has now become a worldwide effort. You can help by collecting swarms, as you are solving the homeowner’s problem and gathering the bees you need to start your beehive with wild bees.
If you know where to look, you will find wild bees in most locations. This makes starting beekeeping naturally a simple thing to do. Taking a stroll through nature should give you a good measure of what is flying around in your area. Sheltered areas such as hollow trees are one of the bees’ favorite spots to nest. Keep in mind that simply following a buzzing sound may not lead you to honeybees, but instead to nests of hornets or wasps, so spend a little time observing what is flying in and out of your target area (and check out this article if you find bees in the ground and want to know what they are!)
Catching a Swarm
Now let’s get down to what you really want to know – exactly how to start a beehive with wild bees! There are a couple of different methods that you can use to accomplish this. The one you ultimately use will depend on exactly where you find your bees.
Swarming is not a state that is permanent. The queen is a notoriously bad flier so whenever the bees need to rest, the swarm lands. If you see an immobile swarm, they may simply be taking a break. They might, however, have stopped because something about the area piques their interest. In this case, the swarm will stay in place while scout bees go out to investigate. Note that sometimes a swarm will disappear within an hour. You need to have your equipment ready to go at a moment’s notice!
The best, quickest, and safest method, for both you and the bees, is to lower them into your container. This works best when the bees are on a low branch that you can clip off and lower directly in. When you lower the swarm in this manner, most of the bees will get into the container on the first try. There will be some that will fly but they should shortly regroup with the others. Clipping and lowering also makes it virtually certain that the queen remains within the swarm.
Sometimes you will find a swarm that is either too high up or situated on a branch that is too thick to be cut easily. When this happens, shaking the swarm is normally done. To shake a swarm, you should lay a light-colored sheet beneath your container, and the container should be placed directly underneath the swarm. The purpose of the sheet is so you can see any bees near the container before you step on them!
This method is quick, and if you have decent aim, one good, firm shake should be all you need to dislodge the swarm. There will be lots of bees that fall and fly though, so it can be time-consuming to wait for them all to regroup in the container. If the queen is in the container, the rest will eventually follow. You can also use your bee vacuum to catch any loose bees without harming them.
Swarms will sometimes be found on objects that can’t be cut or shaken. When this is the case, scooping is remarkably effective. This is done by hand and is exactly what it sounds like. Gently scoop the bees in your hands and transfer to your container. Bees don’t like to be separated, so once you have scooped a couple of times, the remaining bees will often follow on their own. To be sure you have captured the queen, observe the behavior of the bees. You want to see them dancing around excitedly, streaming into the container, and starting to fan out. If they are doing this somewhere nearby, but not directly in the container, look around that area. That’s likely where the queen is present!
Nothing says beekeeping naturally like baiting and this is the most passive form of catching a swarm. You can bait your empty hives, or you can actively search out a swarm to bait. Lemongrass oil closely matches the scent of the Nasonov pheromone released by the first worker bees to arrive at the new hive. This pheromone directs the rest of the swarm to their new home. Dipping cotton swabs/balls in lemongrass oil and placing them at the back of the container/hive will lure the bees in. If you are baiting in a hive, leave the bees for a day or two. You need to see if they settle into their new home. They might move on, and if they do, leave things as they are for the next swarm that comes along.
If you are baiting into a container, do not remove the container until after sunset. Part of responsible beekeeping means making sure you get all the bees possible and waiting until after the sun sets to allow scout bees the chance to return to the swarm. You can now bring your bees home and release them into the prepared hive first thing in the morning.
For any of the above methods, you can also spray your container with sugar water. This helps entice the bees in. You can also gently spray the solution onto irate bees to assist in calming them down.
Final Thoughts on How to Start a Beehive with Wild Bees
There is nothing like the excitement of catching a swarm for the first time! You will find that it is an easy thing to do once you have tried it. Just remember: use your full protective gear when you get your first hive stocked. If you are beekeeping on a budget, you will be off to a great start by using a wild swarm. Plus, the more experience you gain, the greater number of hives you will feel comfortable handling!
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