Starting Over or Getting Started Right as a Natural Beekeeper

It is heart wrenching to lose a hive. The silence of your backyard when the bees are gone makes you want to cry. But you can also look at it as an opportunity for a fresh start. If you are just getting started it is easy to doom yourself to frustration by making uneducated choices.

The best thing I can suggest to someone starting over or starting out is to get local bees that are already adapted to your specific micro-climate. A wild swarm or a cut out from a feral hive in a nearby house, outbuilding, or tree would be ideal. These are bees that are already survivors. Wild swarms are genetic gold, the are already toughing it out on their own with no “help” from humans. They are shrugging off all the contaminates, pollutants, and chemicals that we love to spread everywhere. In short they are barefisted back ally urban bees who can take a licking and keep on ticking.

You can set up swarm catchers in an area with existing hives. You can be on the lookout for feral hives and spread the word that you are available for swarm removal. This is cheap but uncertain because swarms may not find or like your swarm catchers, and you may not be able to find a feral hive to cut out.  If you do find a hive it might be 30 feet up in a tree or require a contractor to remove from a building or to repair the damage caused by removal.

The next best option is a swarm or split from a local natural beekeeper. You can buy a split or nuc (a small queen-less hive that has queen cells in it so the workers can raise a new queen) from a local chemical free beekeeper. You want to specify a split with viable queen cells, not just fresh brood. Workers can raise a queen from fresh brood but this is an emergency queen who often has a short life span and is weaker than a born queen. This is a certain but expensive option.

You can buy a working hive from a local chemical free beekeeper. This is more expensive and may not be an ideal set up for naturally managing bees as you are paying for whatever equipment the other beekeeper likes to use or more likely wants to get rid of.

As a last resort buy splits or nucs from local conventional beekeepers. Not the best plan since the queen was raised on contaminated foundation and subjected to who know what kind of chemical cocktails in her tender formative days. This might be marginally cheaper than buying from a chemical free beekeeper, but will cost you many times over in the long haul.

All of these are vastly superior options to shipping in unknown bees who are adapted to another climate. These bees are bringing with them diseases that will surely be passed on to local bees and contribute to the cycle of loss for everyone. Mail order bees may be cheaper or easier to find, but they are one of the principal drivers behind catastrophic collapse and are not a practice that natural beekeepers should be supporting.

No matter what route you chose to acquire bees it is all going to be wasted if you slap them into a hive full of contaminated foundation. Let them build their own natural comb free of chemicals and sized to meet their requirements. Anything else is asking for trouble.

My recommended approach to getting started would be a combination of a split from a local natural beekeeper and actively looking for swarms and feral hives. This combination approach gives you a guaranteed hive right away in the spring and a possible back up hive as well. If you don’t get a swarm the first year you may generate one of your own from the purchased hive in the next couple of springs. Either way you are securing the future of your beekeeping with a second hive with superior survivor genetics.

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  • Those feral hives/swarms are getting difficult to come by.  I haven’t seen a wild swarm (one that didn’t come out of my hive(s) or some other nearby beekeeper’s hive(s)) for years.  I know they are out there but are increasingly few and far between. 

  • Actually bought two nucs (minihives with queens) this past spring and was able to harvest 14 pints of honey in the Fall while leaving more than adequate for the Winter in spite of attempts by a local bear to cash in.  Fortunately the electric fence around our stand saved them several times.

  • Gerald, I think that feral hives are more common than you think. Most folks won’t spot a hive 60 feet up a tree, but almost everyone knows about one in a wall, attic, shed, or fence. 

  • Tightwad

    I’m getting a nuc next weekend can I us the deep broad box that I have to us them fondationless Are they to deep to us them this way? I’m going to go to smaller ones when I get a chance to get them. But now I have two deep broad boxs ready but I do have two small suppers I can us as the broad boxs. Thanks.

  • You can use a deep, but I would read my post on the recommended hive.

    http://www.backyardecosystem.com/backwards-beekeeping/best-hive-for-backyard-beekeeper/

  • Specifically putting some bacon on the electric fence helped the bear learn to stay away from the hives. Peanut butter works with keeping deer out of the garden.

  • mthannigan

    I am new to beekeeping–a local bee guy set me up with bees
    and a queen in a Langstroth box in the beginning of May. The bees are
    very active and 7 of the 10 frames are loaded with eggs and larva as
    well as some cells filled with what appears to be honey. Other cells
    are filled with a clear liquid and still others are filled with
    something else–I have no idea what! I have some questions about natural beekeeping:
    1. The bee guy told me to feel the
    hive sugar water since this is a new hive, but after reading your
    advice, I’m thinking I want to stop. Will that be dangerous to the new
    hive? I’m in Southern California and there are a lot of plants in bloom
    right now, but I don’t want to stress the bees. They suck down a quart
    of sugar water every three days!
    2. The frames are pretty full–only the 2 outer frames are empty–should I be moving the not full frames to the center?

    3. Should I add another box–a super–to the hive soon? If I want to continue on in a foundationless manner, how would I do that?

    4. When adding supers, will the bees just naturally go up into the new box or would I need to move one or more of the frames into the empty box as encouragement?
    Thanks so much for your help. I’ve been learning about this on the internet and there is a lot of confusing information out there!

  • mthannigan I think I was able to answer everything in this new post

    http://www.backyardecosystem.com/backwards-beekeeping/q-a-new-beekeeper/

  • Michelle

    Hi. I’m new to bee keeping too and I have a question. I’m setting up a top entrance hive and going foundation less. My question is when I add new boxes, do I add them to the top or the bottom?

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