Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Beginning Beekeeping - Getting the Bees

Nothing (besides the veil) will be as damaging to my little effort to remove the "weird" stigma from backyard beekeeping as the fact that I ordered a three-pound box of bees via the US mail. It's only one way to acquire bees ... but it's a weird one.

So how else might you get bees? Well, you may have spotted a feral hive in a tree that you want to ... adopt. There's plenty of online advice for that, and ... good luck to you. Feral bees are likely to be well-adapted to your area. When bees are swarming, they have no hive to protect, making them pretty docile. Some beekeepers have pheromone-baited bee boxes placed around their neighborhoods, to lure feral bees.

One ideal way to acquire bees is by purchasing a nuc of local bees. A nuc (short for nucleus hive) is like a mini-hive - three to five medium frames with bees, a queen, brood comb (comb where the queen has laid eggs and larvae are being raised), and some food - pollen and honey. You simply place the bees into a hive, and they have a running start. But nucs are expensive, and they are sometimes hard to find locally.

Most likely, you're going to buy a package of bees. As my book says, they're an odd product. They typically come with three pounds of bees (three pounds of bees!) and a queen - a queen who is not necessarily these bees' queen. This queen has been assigned to these bees, stuck in a package with them. There's no way to know if she's a young queen, if she lays well, if she's healthy. Furthermore, the bees you buy may have been treated with chemicals that you don't plan on using.

However, it's an easy way to buy bees, and for many beginners, it may be the only option. Ask around if you know any beekeepers, or look at online forums to find apiaries that will ship packages and to get a feel for their reputation. Packages only ship in the spring, and most apiaries only ship on two or three set dates - you'll want to reserve one early, and have your hive assembled and ready well in advance of receiving the package.

When the package does come, you'll get a call like this:

"Ms. Morris. This is the Kirkwood post office. There is ... a box of bees here for you. Please come pick it up."

The box looks like this:

You'll want to pick up the package as soon as possible that day, and place the box outside in the shade. Have some simple syrup (a 1:1 sugar-to-water ratio, by weight) ready in a spray bottle. Spray the bees often while you wait to put them in the hive.

If you're using package bees, start off your hive with just one hive body or medium super. (You may add another hive body relatively quickly once your bees start building comb and laying brood).

Place your bees in the evening, when they're apt to snuggle in for the night (bees sure are cuddly, huh?). This, I swear, is how it goes.

Spray the bees with syrup. Wearing a veil, long gloves, and long pants and sleeves, carefully pry the top off the box. Underneath, you'll see that a can of syrup and a small box are anchored to the top of the box. In the small box is the queen and some worker bees in charge of grooming and feeding her. The queen's abdomen is longer than the other bees', and in my queen's case, she has fewer stripes. Like the worker bees, she is female. The difference is that she was made into a queen bee - although the larva started out the same as that of a worker bee, she was fed a diet of protein-rich royal jelly that allowed her ovaries to develop. The only males in the colony are drones, who are much larger than worker bees, and whose only purpose is to mate with queens from other colonies (hopefully not this queen).

Back to the box: You'll need to remove the small queen box first, without dislodging the syrup can and crushing a bunch of bees. Once you've prised out the queen box, cover the hole left in the large box with a flat piece of wood or something so that bees don't escape (some will; don't worry about it).

The queen box is sealed on each end by a very small cork. Beyond that, inside the box is a sugar plug that further seals her in. (Every configuration seems to vary a little bit, but this is the gist of it, and your box will probably come with instructions, too). You want to pry out the cork that's on the side of the box with the sugar. The other worker bees need to be able to get to the sugar, so that they can gnaw her out of captivity over the course of a few days. Leave the other cork alone - you don't want to let her out immediately.

The empty queen box, five days after placing the package (the sugar has been eaten away)

Once the queen box is uncorked at the sugar side, remove a few frames from the center of your hive body, or your bottom-most super. Place the queen box on the floor (bottom board) of the hive, or across the bottom bars of some frames, with its length running perpendicular to the frames, and with a screened side facing up - you want the other bees to be able to get to her.

Once the queen box is in place, you'll need to place the other bees. Give the box a good knock on the ground (seriously) to knock the bees to the bottom of the box. Carefully pry out the syrup can and set it aside. Now turn the box upside-down right over the hive. Many of the bees will fly out, streaming into the hive. A good many will be left. Give the box several good knocks to try to encourage the others to leave. Not all of them will. I still had probably an eighth of my bees clinging to the box. That's okay. Set the box, opening-up, near the hive entrance. They will eventually leave the box, and will likely fly right into the hive.

Return the frames you took out back into the hive, gently sliding them into place to avoid crushing bees. Replace the hive top. Some bees will be crushed. Don't feel too bad.

Place a feeder in or near the hive, and fill it with simple syrup. To make a 1:1 simple syrup, mix one pound of sugar (about 2 1/4 cups) with one pound of water (two cups). Heat in the microwave or on the stove, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is completely dissolved (this takes about 6 minutes in my microwave, stirring it three times). This yields a little under a quart of syrup.

Leave the bees alone for now, disturbing them only to give them more syrup to feed on. In five days, check to make sure that the workers have freed the queen. Remove a few frames from one side of the hive, and push the center ones out to clear some room over the queen cage. Look to see if it's empty, and if so, remove it. I'm not sure how to trouble-shoot for a queen who hasn't been freed - certainly leave the box in the hive, and call the apiary from whom you ordered your package.

Allen and I just checked on our hive for the second time in 10 days. Although you mostly want to leave a well-established hive alone, there's a lot that package bees have to do in their first few weeks in the hive, and you want to be sure that things are running smoothly. When we checked after five days, the queen had been freed, and the workers had built quite a bit of comb on several frames:

When we checked again yesterday, most of the frames had some comb in them, and several had stores of nectar and pollen (I think).

It's pretty amazing that the bees just take over, and do what they're supposed to do - what they've been doing for millions of years. I was certain in the beginning that some early catastrophe was bound to happen, but now I've got my fingers crossed that if we don't mess with them too much, the bees will keep it all under control.

PS. Here's another image that I stole from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm's catalog - it's useful to have every step explained in a photo:


  1. Cannot wait to get a semi-up-close and personal look at these captains of industry on Saturday. . .

  2. I love this move to more urban beekeeping: there is growing interest in this area in Australia too, and the bee hive looks beautiful : aesthetically pleasing as well as practical.

  3. Thanks, Kim!

    Tim, the bees can't wait to meet you, either. They're all a-buzz over it.

  4. I regret the day that a feral swarm of bees landed in our rose bush, and we just gave them away! We should have kept them. We called the local honey farm and they came out with a box and sort of scraped most of the swarm in there, (took a few days and a couple tries, but eventually they were inside the box) You are right, if you see a swarm of bees without a hive, don't worry, they are very docile. We did get some honey out of the deal. We also got some beeswax and its not filtered or anything, any ideas on how to do that with the least mess?