Where do I get honey bees to start my hive?

Now that I have decided to become a beekeeper, and I know what equipment I will need, I am just curious, where do I get honey bees to start my beehive?

Where do I get honey bees to start my hive?

You can purchase Honey Bees from commercial vendors, buy bees from local beekeepers, by capturing a swarm of bees, and by hunting down a beehive in the wild. Each of these options has pros and cons.

Should I buy Honey Bees From A Commercial Vendor to start my beehive?

You should only buy Honey Bees from a commercial vendor if the vendor is within a few miles of your location.
Buying bees from a distant vendor are hard on the bees from both the shipping experience and climate change.

Pros of buying from a commercial vendor:

  • Not many. Buying honey bees from a commercial vendor is not recommended unless you live in the local area of the commercial vendor.

Cons of buying from a commercial vendor:

  • Most commercial vendors will ship Queen bees, but require bee buyers to “Pick Up At Store” if purchasing a group of bees such as a bee nuc or fully developed hive.
  • Buying Queen bees “out of area” and having the Queen bee shipped to your location almost certainly assures the Queen bee will undergo extreme stress and she will not be acclimated to your local climate. She will lay inferior eggs that will produce an inferior beehive. A much stronger hive will be made if your Queen bee was reared in your specific climate.
  • You will want to start with the most gentle bees available to you. You won’t know the genetic disposition of the bees you are purchasing.
  • Bee nucs are usually made up of bees from several different hives and, after a few days without a Queen, the bees will usually accept a new Queen, but not always. The new Queen is usually introduced to the nuc of bees in a separate Queen cage and is released over time through the efforts of the worker bees. Worker bees will chew at the cage wire of Queens that will not be acceptable to the nuc of worker bees and they will kill her once she is no longer protected by her cage. Queens that will be acceptable to the nuc of worker bees will be fed by worker bees while she is still inside the Queen cage.
  • The disposition of the nuc’s worker bees is not an indicator of what the established hive worker bees disposition will be like. The nuc of bees come from different hives and will die off in a few weeks. The disposition of the hive’s worker bees will be determined through genetics of the Queen bee as she will completely replace the hive’s worker bees in 5 or 6 weeks. You will be in the dark for sometime before you can determine your beehive disposition. Once the hive is established, passing your hand over the top of the open hive will give you an indication of how aggressive the bees are. If the bees point their stingers up toward your hand indicates a more aggressive hive. If they pay no attention to the presence of your hand signifies a less aggressive hive of bees.

Should I buy Honey Bees from a local beekeeper to start my beehive?

Buying Honey Bees from a local beekeeper to start your beehive will be your best chance of success. The bees will be acclimated to your area and you will have a local seasoned beekeeper available to you as a mentor.

Most areas in the United States have local beekeeping associations that meet regularly. Within that association, you will usually find some members that sell nucs, Queens, and even complete established hives.

Pros of buying from a local beekeeper:

  • The bees will be acclimated to your climate from the get-go which will make the hive much stronger.
  • The Queen bee will be laying the strongest bee she can, only limited by her personal genetics.
  • The bees will not be subjected to the stress of a long move.
  • You will have the opportunity to evaluate the potential aggressiveness of the new Queen bee’s disposition by observing the hive of the new Queen’s parent.
  • Probably the most important pro is having access to the person that sold you your bees and having the ability to be mentored by a seasoned beekeeper.

Cons of buying from a local beekeeper:

  • The local beekeeper may not have been inspected and certified by the state as owning healthy, disease free bees.

Should I capture a swarm of Honey Bees to start my beehive?

Capturing a swarm of bees to start your beehive excites even the most seasoned beekeepers. It excites the “hunter’s” rush. Unlike a hunter, the object of the hunt is not shooting and killing but rather captured and nurture to the benefit of both the hunter and the hunted. There are Pros and Cons.

There is more than one way to capture a swarm of bees:

  • One way beekeepers capture a swarm of bees is to receive a call from someone saying “there is a swarm of bees at my house, can you please come and remove them”? The beekeeper needs to be ready for that call, usually in the spring during swarming season. If the beekeeper is not quick enough, the swarm will move on, looking for an acceptable new home. Bee swarms are not aggressive and are easy to capture without danger in most cases, but be careful in areas of the country that are known to contain Africanized bees.
  • Another way to capture bee swarms is to set swarm traps. Swarm traps can be purchased commercially or can be homemade. Swarm traps are baited with bee attractants, commercial or homemade. Swarm traps can be various sizes (and even shapes). They can range from small traps to using a full-size empty beehive as a trap. Traps are most effective if placed in a fence or tree line about 8 feet off the ground, but swarms have been known to inhabit an empty hive with the opening facing a wall just a foot or so from the wall.

Pros of capturing a swarm:

  • The bees are FREE!
  • The excitement of the capture.

Cons of capturing a swarm:

  • You won’t know the aggressiveness of the swarm until your first encounter with them. Be very cautious capturing bee swarms in areas of the country known to be within the migratory areas of Africanized bees.
  • The biggest downside to capturing a swarm of bees and transferring them into your permanent hive is you have no idea the age of the swarm’s Queen. Swarm happens when an established hive becomes overcrowded, the old Queen leaves the hive with about half of the worker bees. A newly hatched Queen remains behind to rule the old hive. Sometimes the swarm Queen is old enough to die over the winter. The best practice is to “re-queen” the newly captured swarm, preferably with a very gentle Queen heritage.
  • Many swarm catchers will use a “capture box” to catch and transport a swarm. Capture boxes can be homemade or purchased already made.

Remember this: a swarm of bees is looking for a new home that can accommodate the entire swarm with room for growth. A big swarm trap can capture a large swarm but a large swarm will not move into a small swarm trap.

Can I hunt down wild beehives and capture them to get Honey Bees for my hive?

Yes, you can hunt down bees in the wild to start your beehive. This technique is for the most avid of beekeepers. It is not overly complicated but it can be quite time-consuming. It involves a special bee capture box, usually a wooden homemade box, slightly smaller than the size of a shoe box.

What is the best hunting ground for capturing beehives in the wild?

The best hunting ground for capturing Honey Bees in the wild to start your beehive would be a Goldenrod field in bloom.

Items to bring to capture wild bees:

  • A stopwatch to time the bees from their capture site to the hive and back to the capture site.
  • The bee capture box, it can be homemade or purchased.
  • A small piece of empty honeycomb that you will be filling with sugar water.
  • A jar of sugar water.
  • An eye-dropper to put the sugar water into the empty honeycomb.
  • A bee capture cover cloth to cover the capture box to prevent distracting light from entering the box once you introduce the sugar water filled honeycomb to the captured bees.
  • An empty jar lid to put Anise extract into to attract the bees back to your workstation via smell (there will be no other Anise flowers in the Goldenrod field).
  • A square piece of wood with a circle cut out the same size as the jar lid with a screen covering the hole in the wood and the wood painted a bright blue to further help the Honey Bee find this wealth of sugar water via sight.
  • Some anise extract to place in the jar lid.
  • A painting kit to mark returning Honey Bees.
  • A sighting compass to determine the direction the Honey Bee flight path to return to their hive.
  • A notebook and pen to record your finding on direction and time of the bee’s flight to the hive and back.
  • A lightweight folding lawn chair, a small workstation platform like a 3 legged stool, and some water. This is going to take some time. And be sure to wear long sleeved shirt, long-legged pants, and some good walking/hiking shoe; you will be hiking some distance through knee high to waist high vegetation in this search of wild Honey Bees.

The Hunt:

  • Once “hunting camp” is set up, capture about 6 bees on the Goldenrod flowers. More than six starts to become too hectic.
  • After each bee is captured, remove the center chamber divider and the light cover from the back of the bee capture box and expose the plexiglass wall at the back of the box. This allows light to come into the capture box and the Honey Bees will move to the back of the box.
  • Re-insert the chamber divider and repeat this process until you have about 6 Honey Bees in the rear chamber.
  • Once you have the desired number of Honey Bees trapped in the rear chamber of the capture box, re-insert the center chamber divider trapping all the captured Honey Bees in the rear chamber. Inserting the chamber divider in the center of the box now allows you access to the front chamber of the capture box.
  • Re-insert the light blocking panel at the back of the capture box and place it on your workstation top.
  • Place the honeycomb on your work table, remove some of the sugar water from the jar using an eye-dropper, and place the sugar water into the honeycomb cells.
  • Place the sugar water filled honeycomb into the front chamber of the capture box for the Honey Bees to drink. You want the Honey Bees to be ready to return to their beehive with all the sugar water they have gathered.
  • Remove the center chamber divider to give the bees access to the honeycomb filled with sugar water. Cover the capture box with a cloth to prevent any light from getting into the capture box and distracting the Honey Bees. Leave the capture box covered for about 5 minutes.
  • You are ready to now release the bees. They will fly around the capture box and anise extract filled jar lid to get their bearing to return to this exceptional find of easy food source.
  • Place the honeycomb on top of the screened anise extract jar lid to make it easier for the bees to find again.
  • Now, wait for the Honey Bees to return to the free meal you are providing. You will know they are the same bees as they will show up empty and drink the sugar water until they have a full load; then they will fly back to the beehive and continue to do this routine until the food source is no longer available. Expect to see a few new bees to show up as well. This means the original bee has returned to the hive, done the waggle dance, and now other bees are making a direct flight to this newly discovered food source.
  • Now that the Honey Bees are returning to your honeycomb, take a soft artist’s brush and apply a small dab of paint on the thorax of the bee. Mark each bee with a different color.
  • Record the direction of the Honey Bee’s flight path to the hive.
  • Record the time it takes the marked Honey Bee to return to your feeding station. If it is 5 minutes or less, the beehive in the wild is within a quarter of a mile from your location.
  • There are 2 to 3 wild honeybee hives for every square mile of forested land.

Be prepared to find the bees that you are tracking are actually not in a wild hive but rather in someone’s bee hive box.

Now that I have found a beehive in the wild, how do I capture them?

Honey Bee hives in the wild can be cut out of the tree or the Honey Bees can be captured, leaving the tree unharmed.

The Cut Out:
If the tree is dead or needs to be removed, just cut the beehive out of the tree and place the hive into your beehive box.

The Trap:
If the tree is desirable to keep, then you will need to trap the bees in the tree following these steps.

  • Make a wire cone out of #8 hardware cloth.
  • Cover the tree entrance with the hardware cloth with the cone part pointing outward so the bees can enter and depart the hive through the cone nose. Make the cone nose big enough for bees to drag out their dead. Attach the cone to the tree with roofing nails. Point the nose of the cone upward, this makes it easy to exit the wild hive but difficult to get back in.
  • Seal any hardware cloth/tree interfaces gaps with more hardware cloth to close any gaps, forcing the bees to use the cone nose as their only means of entering and exiting the hive.
  • Place a bait box next to the cone nose opening and scent bait box at the entrance and inside lightly with lemongrass extract. Keep watching the bees reactions, it may take several days before they decide to move into their new home.
  • As the bees start to move into your bait box (bait box could be anything from a small Nuc box to a full beehive), place a frame of brood into the bait box so the bees will raise a new Queen.
  • Also, place a frame of honey in the bait box for the bees to eat.
  • Once the bees have moved into your bait box, return at night with your bee suit and smoker. Seal the box and move the new hive to its new location.

Happy Beekeeping

Paying It Forward

Robert Donaldson

I am Elizabeth's father, a physical therapist, and someone who has completely landscaped our family home's nearly 1/2 acre lot after losing our home and landscape to the Thomas wildfire in 2017. All landscaping was done to accommodate our wildlife friends, especially the birds and bees.

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