With the hive set to go and all appropriate gear purchased and waiting, it’s now time to buy bees and install them in the hive. This is the most fun, and most challenging, part of the process. The process begins by locating a source for your bees. There are two major ways of doing this: purchasing or trapping a swarm. Purchased bees can be obtained as either a package or a nuc (short for nucleus colony.)
Bee packages typically come in 3 pound and 5 pound sizes. For backyard beekeepers, the 3-pound size is sufficient. Costs of a package of bees vary from just under $100.00 to $200.00 depending on breed, apiary hive practices, etc. Apiaries typically begin taking orders for bee packages in November or December. If you’ve not ordered by January or February, you’re probably out of luck until the next bee-ordering season, unless you decide to try to catch a swarm.
Nucs are typically only available for Langstroth hives. They contain frames, queen, and the bee colony with the start of hive resources such as comb and brood. Populated nucs are available for around $300.00. Just as with packaged bees, nucs need to be pre-ordered in the winter and sell out quickly.
Catching a swarm occurs in late spring or early summer, but is challenging and not recommended for beginning beekeepers. For the first year, purchasing a package of bees is suggested.
There are several factors to consider in locating a source for your bees. First, you need to decide if you’re going to purchase a package or nuc or if you’re going to trap a swarm of wild bees. Purchasing a package or nuc is certainly easier, but means you may not get locally raised bees, among other cons to be covered below. Trapping a wild swarm, though difficult, does ensure local bees with a high probability of long-term survival.
Purchasing a Package or Nuc
Bees can be purchased from apiaries and breeders. If opting to obtain bees this way, there are two choices. Most common, is a package of bees. A nuc, or nucleus colony, is basically a small colony of bees in their own mini hive box. Most apiaries have populated nucs only for Langstroth hives, but specialty shops are beginning to come out with nuc boxes for Warre and Top Bar hives. Hopefully soon they’ll be selling them populated with bees.
Package of Bees
With a bee package, the queen and bees are not related. Apiaries breed queens separately from the drones and workers. To create the package shipped (or picked up), the apiary workers take one of the queens, maybe an attendant or two, and put her in a cage. They then go out to the bee yard and scoop up bees with little or no attention paid to the ratio of workers to drones and dump them in the package. The queen is kept separated in the cage because the bees view her as an intruder until they become used to her pheromones.
Packages of bees are usually available via pick up or USPS shipment. You’ll need to look at suppliers closely. Not all will ship bee packages and those that do often have select areas for doing so. If you’re going to pick them up, you’ll need to pick a supplier within a reasonable driving distance. Bees can’t survive in the package for too long, so no overnight trips and no plane rides.
When looking at bee suppliers, you’ll want to do some research. More expensive does not necessarily mean better bees. Not all apiaries use the same hive management techniques or offer the same breeds. Here are the questions I ask when looking for a bee supplier:
- Where are they currently being raised?
- What hive management techniques are being used (chemicals, foundation/no foundation, etc)
- Small cell, natural cell or large cell
- Is the queen marked?
- What breeds are available? Can you get "mutt" bees?
The answers will vary depending on what you’re looking for, but at a minimum, try to get bees that are as local as possible.
Typically bees are sold in 3 and 5 pound packages. A 3-pound package contains between 10,000 and 12,000 bees, which is the right size to start off any backyard hobbyist. When the package arrives, it will contain the bees, the queen in her separate cage, and a large can of feeder syrup. The bees will be clustered around the can and the queen cage will be hanging from the top.
Some beekeepers spray the bees through the screen sides before prying off the package lid or smoke them. Whether you opt to do that or not, be sure you’re in your bee gear before opening the lid with a pry bar. Underneath the lid will be the top of the feeder can and the string or metal piece attaching the queen cage to the package. Being careful not to let the queen cage fall in, remove the feeder can (a small pry bar is very helpful for this) and shake off any bees while pulling it out. Quickly replace the lid and set the feeder can aside. Then pull out the queen cage and replace the cover again. If, for some reason, your queen did not survive the journey, contact your supplier immediately for a replacement.
The queen will still need to be kept separate from the other bees for a bit longer. You’ll notice a small piece of cork on one end of the cage. Remove this (using a fine thread screw like you would a corkscrew in a wine bottle makes this easier) to reveal the sugar candy underneath. As the bees become used to the queen, and she to them, they will eat through this and release her. Place the queen cage in the hive (for Top Bar hives, tack the queen cage to one of the bars using the string that had attached it to the package.)
No matter the hive style, the next part is basically the same. Remove enough frames or bars to create space to dump the bees (Langstroth: recommend 5 frames, top bar/Warre: recommend 10 bars.) Once this space is created spray the bees one last time if you so choose, then, holding the lid on the package, “boink” your bees. It sounds just like what it is. Hold the lid and give the package a firm whack against the ground. The bees will fall to the bottom and easily pour into the space in the hive.
Five days to a week after installing the bees, do a hive inspection. The queen should be free. If not, release her by either removing the candy or pulling the mesh off the front of the queen cage, being careful not to crush her. There should be wax making in process.
Nucs are a mini-colony containing frames, queen, and the naturally occurring number of drones and workers. Typically, they’ve over-wintered and have some of the natural hive resources. Nucs are usually sold by the same apiaries as package bees, though some apiaries will sell only one or the other. Unlike a package of bees, the bees in a nuc are family.
Typically nucs contain 5 frames. When purchasing a nuc, be sure the frames are the same depth as the hive you’ll be using. To install the bees, remove the corresponding number of empty frames from your hive and install the nuc frames. Be sure to install the frames in the same order as they were removed from the hive. The wax the bees have built fits together like a puzzle.
While they are easier to install and are a started colony complete with some wax, nucs do have some disadvantages. If you’re concerned about hive management and want to have control over chemicals, food, etc., nucs take that away from you as the bees have lived for a year under someone else’s care. They’ve over-wintered somewhere. That’s a great start, but if it’s not somewhere local, it can also mean the bees are ill prepared for where your hive is located.
Trapping a Swarm
Contrary to Hollywood portrayals, bee swarms are not deadly, ferocious killers chasing humans. Instead, a bee swarm is the way in which bees naturally expand their hive. When the bees, collectively, perceive that they’re outgrowing the hive space, they make a new, additional, queen. When the queen is mated, the hive splits. The bees that leave are called a swarm. Trapping a swarm is the most natural way of obtaining bees, but it’s not easy.
First, you need to know where to find one. Swarms typically occur in late spring and early summer. To avoid spending time driving all over looking for a swarm, you can get your name on call lists with local beekeeper associations, pest control companies, and other places people in your area might call if they’re “being invaded” by bees. Being contacted is only a small part, however, you also need to know how to catch the swarm.
In most circumstances, the swarm will collectively land 1 to 20 feet from the ground about 50 to 100 feet from their original home. The swarm remains in this location while scout bees search for the area for a new hive, a process that typically takes anywhere from 1 hour to 3 days
Always wear protective bee gear when catching a swarm. Although a swarm is fairly docile, it is still an unpredictable mass of bees that may negatively react to your presence. Ideally, a bee swarm will be within arms reach, but if you’re comfortable on ladders swarms located higher up are quite obtainable by the same method.
In addition to your bee gear and a ladder you’ll need a box similar to the banker’s boxes accountants and lawyers use to store their files, a light colored sheet or tarp, a bee brush, misting bottle filled with water/sugar water, and pruning shears.
Lay the sheet on the ground directly below the swarm. Hold the box under the swarm to do a size comparison. If it looks like the swarm is too big for the box, clip away some of the branches and set them on the sheet for later. While still holding the box, give the branch a firm shake to knock the majority of bees directly into the box. Be sure you’ve got a firm grip on the box – the bees are heavier than you might think.
Set the box on the box near where the swarm originally landed. Assuming you’ve captured the queen, the remaining bees will bring themselves into the box as you watch. The sheet helps you to see which way the stragglers are moving. If, by chance, you missed her, the bees will leave the box and recollect on the branch. If that happens, don’t panic, just give them a few minutes to settle and start again. This video shows the process quite well.
If it’s possible to leave the box overnight, you’ll ensure that you’ve captured any bees who were away from the swarm at the time of capture. Once all the bees are in the box, secure the lid.
In some instances, bees will swarm on a fence, a wall, a mailbox, or other non-branch surface. While this makes the bees a bit harder to trap, it does also mean they’re usually within arms reach. The only difference in the process is that instead of shaking a tree branch, you’ll mist the bees with water or sugar water (to make it less likely they’ll fly away) and use the bee brush to slowly and carefully brush the entire swarm into the box, starting with the largest part of the clump as that is likely where the queen resides.
Once you’ve got the entire hive in the box, it’s time to transport them home. If the bees are going to remain in the box for longer than an hour, they’re going to need ventilation. Poking a few holes in the lid of the box accomplishes this. Don’t worry – the bees are not going to fly all over your vehicle, they’re going to hang in the swarm, but if you’re concerned, some cheese cloth or other mesh can be taped over the holes. Also, tape down the lid of the box so it doesn’t shift.
Unless you’ve used a nuc to hold your newly trapped swarm, the bees are going to have to be installed in the hive the same day you bring them home. Otherwise, your efforts were for naught and you’ll have to start again.
Bait and Wait
Using a bait hive is far less nerve wracking from a physical safety standpoint, but there’s also no guarantee it will work. To attract a swarm, you’ll need to provide them with certain incentives. The material of the trap, or box, doesn’t seem to matter, but it does need to be about 8.2 gallons (3 liters) of free space. If it’s too big or too small, the bees will look elsewhere. With the exception of a 1-inch door, the entire trap should be closed.
It helps to elevate the box about 5 to 10 feet in the air. To further attract the bees, you’ll need to provide them with the scents that say “home” to them. Brood and queen are most important. While you can use brood comb from a previous hive, it may attract moths and, unless it’s from a known hive, has the potential to spread certain hive diseases as well. You can purchase tubes of nasonov pheromones (the pheromone worker bees use to orient forager bees back to the colony) from beekeeping catalogues, but they’re quite expensive. Queen pheromone smell is easily emulated with some lemongrass essential oil on a cotton ball.
Check your trap daily as the bees will need to be placed in the hive ASAP, just as with trapping a swarm in a field. When you discover bees in the trap, wait until after dark, when all the bees will be home, plug the opening with a cork, face cloth, paper towel, etc. and bring it to the bee yard. Bees will need to be installed in the hive the next morning.
Hiving a Captured Swarm
There are two methods most commonly used for transferring captured swarm into a waiting hive. First, dumping bees. This is similar to the “boink” method for transferring package bees, except a swarm has a lot more bees than a 3-pound package and the box is a lot larger. It’s likely you’ll be unable to boink the box, but you can still carefully remove the lid and dump the bees into empty space waiting in the hive. You may need to shake a few times to get the largest clusters to fall. You want to be sure to dump as many bees as possible into the hive to ensure the queen is one of them. Leave the box near the entrance of the hive, the rest of the bees will find their way in.
The Long Walk
Make sure the hive is prepared to receive bees through the hive entry. Top on, frames or bars ready, any other prep work you plan to do should all be complete. Since swarms bring food with them when they leave the hive, feeding should not be necessary. Using a large sheet (perhaps the one from when you captured the swarm,) create a ramp from the ground to the hive. Dump the bees out of the box onto the sheet. You will need to keep watch that the bees don’t go off the sheet sideways. This method takes a little time, but the bees will march themselves right into the hive, as seen in this video.
If you used a nuc to capture your swarm, allow the bees to live in the nuc for a few weeks to a month and then follow the hiving procedures above for a purchased nuc.
No matter how you obtain them, getting bees into the hive is the most challenging aspect of the process. Things can, and do, sometimes go wrong. Nearly always, it’s completely fixable.
The worst thing that could happen would be receiving a dead queen in bee package. This rarely happens, but if it does, do not panic. Call the vendor. Reputable apiaries will overnight a replacement to you, often free of charge. The bees will be alright with this slight delay in having a live queen, but make sure to keep the new queen separated for a time just as the package bee instructions above indicate. If you’re capturing a swarm, taking the precaution of watching to be sure the bees enter the box, rather than leave it, will ensure you don’t miss the queen.
If you drop the queen cage into the package, don’t feel you have to stick your hand in through the small hole to retrieve it. Instead, boink and dump your bees first then pull the queen cage out of the pile that lands in the hive.
In some instances, the bees do not chew through the candy to release the queen. If, after a week, she’s still trapped in the cage, manually release her by either removing the mesh front or the candy piece. Be careful not to crush or drop her outside the hive in the process.
Whether purchasing a hive or nuc or capturing a swarm, getting bees into the hive is the most exciting, and challenging, part of bee keeping. There’s a huge adrenaline rush with the boink and dump moment and a big sigh of relief when, a day or two later, you see the bees still flying around the hive entrance. It’s also the moment all your non-beekeeper friends and neighbors will think you’re either brave, crazy, or both. It’s the moment when you very quickly connect with your bees. You’ll know if the bees are more docile or more temperamental simply by how they react.
If you’re transferring a nuc, the moment is different. The adrenaline rush is replaced with joy and excitement of installing a functioning bee colony and its resources. It must be done in careful order and is currently only available to Langstroth hive users. Some manufacturers are now making nucs for top bar and Warre hives, so it’s likely only a matter of time until they’re available as a populated unit.
Walking the bees into the hive is a slow process and doesn’t prevent the bees from being dumped out of the box in which they were captured. It does, however, give you a chance to observe the hive mind in action.
Things sometimes go wrong, but are almost always fixable. With the bees happily settling into their new home you’re well on your way to being a beekeeper.