The most daunting thing about getting into beekeeping is how to obtain your first batch of bees. Most aspiring beekeeping are held back by this one dilemma. Equipment isn’t hard to obtain. If you are handy with a table saw and hammer you can make your own boxes fairly easy, and frames and protective equipment are cheap to purchase. Most of this site focuses on how you can make or obtain all the equipment for cheap. However, the most expensive item a new beekeeper makes is a package of bees. There are a lot of risks buying a package of bees. What if it gets lost in the mail? What if the queen dies in shipment? How do I install them and release the queen properly? And all these unknowns come with a big price tag. So in this article I’m going to take you through how I got my first bees and it cost me absolutely nothing!
First I got my equipment ready. I made a few deep boxes and bottom boards and a few 5-frame EZ nucs (see Initial Equipment page for more info). I bought some frames, a smoker and a veil. I was basically a beekeeper minus the bees. So then I started setting bait hives. To understand how bait boxes work you must understand how bees swarm. Swarming is the natural reproduction of a hive. When a hive is well established and has enough stores for the coming year they will naturally begin preparing to swarm. Nurse bees will start building queen cells and raising several queens. Before these queens hatch, the existing queen will leave the hive with around half of the population. I’ve never seen a swarm leave the hive, but I’m told it’s an awesome sight. Some say you can feel the energy in the air. Anyway, the old queen and half the bees leave the hive and then cluster on a branch or object. The old hive is now on it’s own. One of the queens will hatch out and become the queen of the old hive. She’ll take a mating flight about 9 days after emerging and come back and start laying eggs at about the 2 week mark.
Back to our swarm that left the hive. Before they even leave scout bees are already out looking for a place for this swarm to live. That is where your bait boxes come in. You want to entice these scout bees to bring their family and move into your box. Basically you need to be a bee real estate agent. It has been shown that bees prefer a home around 40 liters (Seely, Morse & Nowogrodzki – 1914) It just so happens that a copy box is about that size! The next thing in a good bee home is furniture. Bee’s need something to attach comb to, and it just so happens that a copy box will accept 2 deep frames from corner to corner. These frames can be foundation-less with a starter strip rubbed in bees wax or they can be foundationed frames, but be aware that wax foundation can invite wax-moth and rodent infestation. The last thing your real estate will need is a little air freshener. Bee swarms naturally give off a pheromone that has a lemony smell. It is hard to explain until you have smelled it. Lemongrass oil is a very good mimic of this pheromone smell and will work to attract scout bees. After you’ve had bees for a while you can also use queens you are “retiring” to make a swarm attractant, but for newbies lemon grass will work.
I bought a small bottle on amazon for around $4. A few drops of this liquid on a cotton swab is all it takes to freshen up the new house and start attracting potential clients! You know what they say about real estate: “Location, Location, Location”. Getting your bait boxes up off the ground is important and mimics the fact that most natural hives are in tree hollows. I use the copy box method under porches and even in the rafters of sheds. Set out your bait boxes around March and the more you have set the better your chances are. Most of the country sees their swarm season peak in May, so get those boxes out there early. It takes luck and patience but there is a chance you’ll see bees working your box right after you set it out. Hopefully, within a few weeks you’ll have a swarm. Be sure to check them every day because you don’t want them making a lot of comb in the bait box, they need to save that for the hive you have ready for them. Speaking of the hive you have ready, go ahead and set it up and put some lemon grass oil in it. You never know, a swarm might move into it and make your life really easy. Click here to read more about my copy box swarm trapping experience.
If you don’t have time to wait on bees then swarm trapping may not be for you. You might also be thinking that you want a certain strain of bees, but don’t let that stop you from swarm trapping. It is much cheaper to catch a swarm, install it and then buy a queen in the breed you want and re-queen your newly caught hive with it. A few months after re-queening your hive population will be the new queen’s offspring. It is just like buying a split in a certain breed, only a lot cheaper! I personally, like the fact that I got into beekeeping entirely on my own. I’ve learned a ton from others on the way, but getting bees was done all by myself. Plus it’s also a cool story to tell people when they ask where I got my bees!