You can’t be a beekeeper without any bees! Here’s how and where to obtain a colony of honey bees for your apiary.
The Basics of Bee Society
Honey bees are social insects with a structured society. The queen bee is the single most important bee in the hive, but she can’t do all the work alone!
There are three basic roles in the bee community: the worker, the drone, and the queen.
Worker bees are females and are responsible for a variety of activities, such as tending the queen and her eggs, building comb, guarding the hive’s entrance, and collecting food.
Drones are males, and their sole responsibility is to mate with a queen. They are larger than worker bees, but smaller than the queen.
The queen is responsible for all of the genetic traits within a colony. She lays eggs and is the mother of all.
In order for a colony to survive, it needs all three types of bees.
A drone bee (center) is larger than the workers (surrounding), but smaller than the queen (not pictured).
For the beginner beekeeper, buying bees is the easiest and safest way to start an apiary. The two most common ways to receive bees are: package bees or a nucleus hive.
Package Bees: To order a package of bees, contact a local beekeeper supply or local beekeeping association. Most packages will contain a queen, multiple workers, and a feeder filled with sugar syrup. The bee supplier should provide you with information on installing the package bees into their new home and introducing the queen bee to the workers. She travels safely inside a special cage within your package of bees.
The most common method of queen introducing is using the indirect method. The worker bees become familiar with the new queen as they slowly eat their way through the food plug in her cage.
Nucleus Hive: You can also order a nucleus hive. A nucleus (commonly called a “nuc”) is a half-size colony. The most common size is a 5 frame nuc. You are receiving 5 frames of comb, bees, honey, a queen, and brood (baby bees). Purchasing a nuc gives you a jump start in colony growth. However, this approach is a bit riskier than package bees, as the honeycomb can spread pests and disease from the donor hive to your hive.
Consult a local beekeeping association to find out the best place to buy healthy bees in your area.
Finding Bees in the Wild
The clusters of bees occasionally seen in the wild are called swarms. Often, bees will divide their colonies because the growing colony needs more room. Swarming is a natural tendency of honey bees and occurs most commonly in the spring. Collecting a swarm isn’t hard, as the bees tend to be mild-mannered. Regardless, always be sure to wear proper clothing. It may also be a good idea to carry sugar-water syrup and/or a smoker to calm down any ill-tempered bees.
Bees on tree limbs can be collected by cutting the limb and gently placing or shaking the limb inside a container. Bees on a flat surface or fence post can be guided into a container by gently brushing them with cardboard, as you would with a dustpan. They can also be directed toward it by puffing smoke behind them, encouraging them to move in the opposite direction (toward the container). Transfer bees from the container to a hive by gently shaking them toward it.
Bees swarming on a branch
However, sometimes free isn’t always better. Wild bees can carry disease or have weak genetic material. The queen may have been injured or killed and is often difficult to locate among wild bees.
Also, just because you can see it doesn’t mean that you can take it. Some states may have laws about what is considered property, and if the tree limb is on your neighbor’s yard, taking those bees may be considered stealing. Check with your local ordinances before attempting to capture wild bees.
Decide which method of getting bees is right for you based on your local circumstances. If you have a beekeeping association in your area, they may be able to help you collect a swarm of wild bees or know where you can buy a starter colony.
Now that you have your hive and bees, it’s time to learn about future honey collection.
Beekeeping 101: Raising Honey Bees in Your Backyard
Read through our Beekeeping 101 series to get an overview of backyard beekeeping: