Sunday 17 May 2009

YABeeP - Getting your first bees

Page updated May 2012
Once your hive is made and ready you will be anxious to get it stocked with bees. There are several ways this can be done. However, the recent surge in beekeeping has meant that competition for bees is now fierce so you'll have to put in some real effort or pay the now inflated commercial price. You CAN get bees, but you'll probably have to do quite a bit of work to get them. It's not just a case of making a couple of phone calls and sitting back waiting for them to drop in your lap. For ideas on what to do read on:

1. By collecting a swarm
2. by using bait hives
3. from another beekeeper
4. local Bee Keeping Associations
5. from a commercial supplier.

1. Swarms
This is by far the best way of populating a new hive as you will be using bees that are actually looking for a new home themselves, they come ready to set up. It is also the most natural way to start a hive and really great fun to do. It's fascinating to see a swarm's behaviour when regrouping into their tempoary home - read this amusing yet accurate account of a first timer's experiencees.

In the UK the swarm season starts in May and runs right through to the end of August though swarms obtained at the latter end of the season will be far smaller and stand less chance of surviving to get through the winter.
Swarm in hedge.....
(click to enlarge)
The trick to getting a swarm is to be plugged into the right sources; here's where you have to do a lot of work telling everyone that you are after one.

YABeeP is on the police and Local Authority swarm list and will occasionally distribute some swarms to members but we now get very few - you therefore need to make your own arrangements to source your own bees - it's your responsibility. Bear in mind that with the growing popularity of beekeeping there is considerable competition for swarms. a tree....
You therefore need to put the word about to everyone in your own network of friends, work colleagues, etc. that you want a swarm – the more people that know that you're after one then the more likely you are to hear of one. Collecting a swarm is quite easy but if you need help as a member YABeeP will assist of provide equipment.

You should also try contacting your local conventional beekeeping branches Swarm Liaison Officer (SLO) and ask if you can go on their waiting list:
Avon BKA (click on your nearest branch link),
Somerset BKA . Again contact all that are in the radius you are prepared to travel to collect them - this can be a large area with many SLOs so punch some town names into the BBKA Find a Swarm Collector's list.

....even under a manhole cover!
Be prepared for some persuasion to join their their association which may be worth your while as you can join as an associate member if you don't yet have bees. If you admit to being a natural beekeeper then they will probably quiz you as to why you are not using a conventional (national) hive so be prepared. Some branches will even refuse to supply natural beekeepers though thankfully this is changing in most areas as Associations learn more about the benefits of our craft. Some knowledge of conventional beekeeping and being a little economic with the truth of your intentions may be a tactic to use.

The Weston branch SLO is a professional pest controller who sells the swarms he collects, in 2008 it was £20 a swarm but I expect this has gone up considerably now, so you cold make him an offer - contact Mark Tilley 01934 822210.

2. Bait box
Those of you with empty hives already can put these out as bait boxes rather than have them standing idle - get them ready for swarm scout bees by rubbing some beeswax on the top bars and inside of the hive - see below for details. Don't delay, you need to do this early in the year as bees are scouting potential nest sites well before they swarm.

Flower pot bait box
What is a swarm looking for?
Bees are not particular about the shape so use whatever you have to hand, maybe an old wine box, a packing crate, an old draw which you can add a 5th side to with some scraps of wood, etc.. Use your ingenuity and imagination. You can even use cardboard boxes - see this neat idea for waterproofing them from DaDeeP, a sister site in Derbyshire. Always spread your net as wide as you can, using the gardens of friends and family and not just in your locale, ask family further afield to put something out, as long as they are within travelling distance so you can collect it once you strike lucky. The more you get out the better your chances of getting bees. Put out one box and you just might get lucky - put out twenty and you increase your chances by a factor of 20 - that's far better odds!

You can easily make a bait box or use a large waterproof container with a small entrance and prepare it the same way – you can easily and cheaply make a bait box using a large square flower pot that can hold top bars - see photo. Make sure that the top bars you put in your bait box are the same size as those in the hive type you are using to allow you to easily transfer any bees you catch into your hive without loss of comb. If you have a Warré you can use a smaller container or screw the smaller Warré top bars to the underside of a larger bar. Screw them from above so that you can easily unscrew them when they have bees & comb on them!

For a cheap 'quick & dirty' alternative attach a large biodegradable flower pot to a wooden base and hang it up  - see this video:-

Click here for Part 2 of this video.

Increasing your chances of a 'hit'
It is worth bearing in mind that scout bees from a swarm are looking for their ideal home. Here's a list from  Dr. Thomas D. Seeley who has researched this - I really recommend his book Honeybee Democracy. These inlude:
  • a size of 30-40 litres in volume - 2 Warré boxes is ideal. Their minimum requirement is15 litres so use whatever you have which is over 15 and as close to 30 litres. To calculate volume in litres multiply the length x depth x height in centimetres then divide by 1,000.
  • made from natural timber, preferably rough, not planed - remember their natural home is inside a hollowed tree.
  • a single entrance preferably circular and up to 40mm diameter
  • around 15 feet off the ground
  • don't fall into the trap of placing it where you see loads of bees foraging thinking that is a good spot - remember that scout bees search out new hive sites, not foragers - they can be looking in different places for different things.
  • ideally it would be something that bees have lived in before - they can smell the propolis from former colonies residues in the wood so if it was good enough for them......

Obviously you can't always give them this ideal so you will probably have to make compromises. That said scouting bees cannot always find their ideal so your aim is to make your bait box/hive the next best option around.

As a new beekeeper you probably won't have some of the items from their ideal shopping list such as a previously used box, but there are a couple of tricks you can employ. To make the box smell more like a previously used hive you can rub bees wax or propolis on the inside or even add an old piece of honeycomb if you have some. Source this from a local beekeeper who you trust as you don't want to use wax that has disease spores in it. Do NOT use imported wax, wax you don't know the source of or commercial bees wax polish as this could well have disease spores or other contaminants. This is not an idle warning as wax products are sourced from around the globe and often carry American Foul Brood spores!

Some beekeepers will add a few drops of lemon grass oil or other essential oils inside and at the entrance as this is believed by many to attract bees. If you do be very careful in it's use - remember that essential oils are thousands of times the strength of the natural plant that the bees are attracted to and you risk scaring any scouting bees off. Indeed, one of our members believes that it was the essential oils he used that led to his bees absconding after just a short occupation. If you do use these oils I suggest using it on a piece of wood that you put in the box in a plastic bag so it dies not come into contact with the box itself. That way you can remove it if you choose and you won't have impregnated the whole hive. I personally do not use it for these reasons.

Remember that scout bees start searching for new homes a few weeks before they swarm so the longer you have your bait boxes out the better.

Transferring your bees
You also need to check your boxes for occupants regularly. Ideally they should be walked or shaken into your destination hive within a day or two as they start building comb and expending their on-board honey stores immediately. If they have been in the temporary box for more than a couple of days it's decomes more difficult so YABeeP members contact us for advice before doing this. Remember though, it's far better to have a transfer problem to deal with than have no bees at all.

3. Another beekeeper
If you are also in a local association or other bee club ask around your own network of beekeepers. Beekeepers can split strong hives and often sell them on as nucs, they also get to hear of other beekeepers extra colonies and swarms so are definitely worth making contact with – you never know but a friend of a friend may know someone so get talking!

4. Local Bee Keeping Associations
As well as passing on swarms some local Bee Keeping Associations (BKA) will also sell bees though they naturally give priority to their members. It's always worth asking and trying to develop friendly relationships with them.

You need to bear in mind that most local BKAs have no detailed knowledge of our style of natural beekeeping. Some of their senior members are often hostile to it, though I'm happy to say their rank and file membership are much more open minded and don't normally see our methods as being so alien.

As a natural beekeeper you also need to be wary of any BKAs that impose unreasonable mentoring requirements - some of our local BKAs will only allow newbies to have a colony if kept on their apiary for the first season and they may even require that you do so in a national hive. They impose such restrictions because of their 'one size fits all' methodology. Such restrictions are unreasonable and unnecessary so I would avoid any that ask this. Such associations are often quite dictatorial and will require you to manage and treat bees kept on their apiaries in ways that you would not want.

5. Buying Bees from a commercial supplier
Buying bees is an option for beekeepers. There are currently the two options of buying a nuc or a package of bees though the current high volume of demand is resulting in some bee breeders selling confusing the two. It is very important to understand the options so you can ask the seller the right questions.

The better choice - a 'nucleus', or nuc for short, is a colony of bees housed in a small nucleus hive or breeding box. A proper nuc consists of a laying queen and her natural offspring or siblings - in other words a bee hive/colony in miniature. Nucs are usually sold in boxes with 5 or more standard frames of brood and stores for easy transfer to a conventional hive. This makes them easy for conventional beekeepers to integrate into their hives but more difficult to add to a top bar hive (either horizontal or Warré) as to install them one needs to either chop up the frames whilst still covered in bees or shake the bees into their new hive and sacrifice the brood and food stores - either option not being a good fit with sustainable beekeeping! Luckily there are now a few bee breeders raising nucs for Top Bar Hives but they are few and far between. [Update - in our 2011 hive building workshop we have decided to build Warré hives but adapted to allow nuc frames to be easily transferred.]

The bad option - a 'package' of bees on the other hand is a selection of random adult bees scraped into a box (a package) from a viable hive or hives with a caged queen added from an unrelated colony. She has to be caged for her own protection as, until they have had a few days to get used to her and learn her smell, the worker bees would naturally kill her as an alien. There are many problems introduced by mixing unrelated bees. A package of bees comes as a mass of bees in a box without any comb (frames of brood and stores).

Increasingly, again to satisfy current high demand, queens are often imported from abroad. Not only is this a needlessly cruel practice as many queens die in transit without their sisters keeping them warm, but the importation of foreign queens runs a high risk of importing disease and parasites. YABeeP strongly believes that the importing of any bee should be banned to help protect our local species.

Additionally, it is now believed that each bee colony has its own cocktail of attendant beneficial microbes which are genetically adapted to their family line. By mixing unrelated bees this microbial soup is being weakened and hence leading to far weaker bees.

It is also not uncommon for package bees to abscond (pack up and go) in the first week or two as they have no stores, brood or other good reason to stay put - you are at risk of being left with no bees at all despite paying good money for them if buying a package.

Another bad option - a package dressed up as a nuc - Again, due to commercial pressure and the quick profits to be made, some suppliers are putting package bees into a nucleus box with frames and leaving them for a few weeks to build up. They are still unrelated bees with more than likely an imported queen so have all the disadvantages of a straight package.

Consequently, sustainable beekeepers would far rather use a natural swarm to populate our hives. However, we have to recognise that with conventional beekeepers doing all they can to suppress bee's from swarming and the monopolistic stranglehold they have on swarm collection with many Local Authorities it can be quite difficult to obtain swarms. Consequently many sustainable beekeepers have no alternative other than to buy nucs to get themselves started.

Because of the increased demand from the growing number of beekeepers the going rate for a nuc seems to be around £220 - 2011 prices. YABeeP do not recommend individual sellers. We would strongly recommend that you try and find a local supplier who can supply you a naturally grown nuc of local bees. Whatever you do please check that the nuc you are buying doesn't include bees imported from abroad – this is part of the problem for bees today spreading disease and parasites around the globe and is why we have so many problems with the varroa parasite and diseases today!

Whilst it is more difficult to transfer a nuc with national frames to a top bar hive it is possible - see this video of transferring them to a horizontal hive - you really do need to have two people to do this so membership of a group like YABeeP is useful and make sure you have all your equipment ready beforehand - large wood cutters and wire cutters in case the frames are wired. If you prefer to use a Warré hive we would recommend that you build our adapted Warré hive which is designed to make the transfer of bees form a nuc to you hive easy - see this page for details.

Whatever source you use to get your bees, members can always call on YABeeP for help and advice. That's the advantage of belonging to a friendly group.
© Robin Morris - YABeePFacebook smileys

Footnote: This post may also be of interests.

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