Finding honeybees for your first beehive

on 16 August 2015

Finding honeybees for your first beehive

I have been approached by a number of new beekeepers who have assembled their new beehives over the winter period in anticipation of becoming a beekeeper for the first time this coming spring. They all have the same question which is, how do I get honeybees and a queenbee installed into my new beehive. This is something established beekeepers often take for granted as they have the ability to split off new colonies from their existing beehives.

For new beekeepers, it can be challenging to source their first colony of honeybees. This article discusses three options to source honeybees to populate new beehives.

Capture a Swarm

Swarming is the natural process honeybees use to procreate and establish new honeybee colonies from existing colonies.  Swarming is the process where approximately, 50% to 60% of the colonies' honeybees and the quean bee, fly out of the original beehive and together, make their way steadily to a temporary resting place.  This is typically a very short flight of not more than 50 meters where they settle as a large swarm on a bush, tree branch or fencepost.  From here, the swarm dispatches scout honeybees to explore the surrounding area for a suitable permanent home such as a hollow tree or the wall cavity of a building.  The duration of this exploratory phase can vary from hours or days depending on how quickly the scout bees are able to locate their new home.  It is during this phase while the honeybees are settled as a swarm that a window of opportunity exists for the beekeeper to capture the swarm by placing it into a beehive that the honeybees will accept as their new home.

The tricky part of swarm catching is to be notified of a swarm and capture it prior to it relocating or making the decision to relocate to a permanent home.  There are many instances where swarms are captured only to have them leave a short time later.  This occurs where the swarm has already located a suitable home and has made the decision to relocate prior to the beekeeper arriving on the scene.  It is therefore important to capture swarms as quickly as possible as the longer they are hanging at their temporary location the more likely they become un-catchable. 

There is a number of ways to be notified of swarms including getting onto the list of swarm catchers with local authorities such as local councils or registering with web sites like swarmpatrol.com.  For beginners who have no swarm catching experience and lack the confidence to do it alone, you have the option of approaching members of your local beekeeping club for assistance.  

Purchase a Nucleous Colony

A nucleous beehive is a small beehive that is a scaled down version of a full size hive and typically is designed to fit 4, 5 or 6 standard frames.  Nucleous beehives are used by beekeepers to split off new colonies from full size beehives.  Their smaller size requires a lower number of honeybees to maintain the hive temperature and therefore, during the spring buildup, beekeepers are able to take a nucleous split off a full size beehive without any significant impact to the original colony. 

A benefit of starting your beehive with a nucleous colony is that it will typically have brood of various stages on board and a number of drawn combs giving your colony a head start.  A potential downside of installing a nucleous colony into your new beehive is that you are transferring frames from another beekeeper's hives which could be contaminated with any number of diseases such as American Foul Brood.  

Joining your local beekeeping club and subscribing to local beekeeping magazines and newsletters would be a good starting point in locating local nucleous colony suppliers.   

Purchase a Package of Honeybees

A package of honeybees consists of approximately 1.5 - 1.8 kg of honeybees and a mated (fertilised) queanbee.  They are available from commercial breeders and are often shipped all over the world in specialised cartons that are designed to enable the honeybees to survive for a number of days or weeks while they are in transit.  Due to the large demand for packages of honeybees by commercial beekeeping operations it is recommended that you order your package early in winter to ensure you don't miss out in spring.

A benefit of starting your beehive with a package of bees is that you are not transferring material such as combs from another beekeeper's operation and therefore it is very unlikely you will be transferring disease to your beehives.  The downside of this approach is that the new colony commences life without any brood, stores or drawn comb, giving them the enormous task of building from scratch.  For this reason, it is important to ensure that the new package of bees is well supplied with nutrition in the form of sugar syrup as a minimum and potentially protein patties depending on the availability of good quality pollen in the local environment.