sustainable backyard beekeeping

Becoming a Beekeeper


Probably the most enjoyable and inexpensive way to start your own beehive is to catch a swarm of bees. The only cost is your time and effort. The price of a package of bees might be up to 200 hundred dollars. I have been catching swarms for more than twenty years, and I find it to be endlessly interesting and exciting, even thrilling—definitely one of the things I like most about being a beekeeper. Many people see a swarm as a dangerous threat. That’s not surprising, I suppose, because most people do not usually see bees when they are out in the open together, existing as a single “superorganism” made up of several thousands single bees. Most of us see bees as individual foraging bees or perhaps as small collections of a few dozen bees, buzzing together as they gather nectar and pollen from the blossoms of fruit trees. Unless we are beekeepers, we rarely get to see bees as a single colony made up of 20,000 or more individuals, living and working together inside a hive (man-made or otherwise). Thus swarms can seem shockingly powerful and intimidating.

However, because swarms have nothing to protect but themselves, they are nearly always docile, especially if approached with calm respect. A swarm is the “offspring” of its parent hive: the old queen mother and many of her daughters leave home together and go out searching for a new home, leaving the new queen (her daughter) and most of the workers back home with all of the comb, honey, pollen, and brood (babies) in the original hive. Colonies that swarm are usually so strong that they run out of room. Sometimes a colony will swarm more than once. Last springtime I had a colony at Garlands Lodge in Oak Creek Canyon that swarmed twice!

If you are fortunate enough to come across a swarm, know that these bees are temporarily homeless and have numerous scouts out looking for a new home. Unless provoked, the swarm is also completely harmless. If the swarm is located in an unprotected place—like hanging on a tree branch—you can be certain that they won’t stay there for long. Once the scouts find a protected place (a hollow log, etc.) and agree upon a single location among several possibilities (sometimes after vigorous debate: see Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy), the swarm will move on to its new home. Depending upon the weather conditions, the swarm’s move to permanent new living quarters might take a day or two.

Besides saving money, swarm catching also helps to conserve local “survivor” genes, especially from feral (wild) hives. Many biologists believe that bees need infusions of this genetic wildness from feral survivor swarms to stay healthy and to be ecologically sustainable. We all know that biodiversity is critical to sustainability, and catching a local swarm to put in your backyard top bar beehive is a great way to support biodiversity. In my classes, we learn how to hive swarms and packages of bees.

Every springtime, I make sure that the local fire department, police department, animal control officers, and pest control companies have my cell phone number. When local folks call in for bee swarm removals, I often receive a call. I gather my swarm catching gear and go out on another beekeeping adventure, never knowing exactly what I am going to encounter.

Late last spring I caught a swarm that is now living in a Golden Mean top bar hive at Mountain Meadow Farm, not far from the Flagstaff (Arizona) Mall. I removed the swarm from the branch of a ponderosa pine tree at the City of Flagstaff’s “Bus Barn” facility, less than a mile from where the bees are now living. Since the swarm likely issued from a hive in the vicinity, I thought it would be good to keep the colony’s genes close to home, living within the local conditions to which they are already successfully adapted. So far this former swarm is doing extremely well. I am also pleased to report that they come from a very gentle genetic stock. Because of the randomness of genetic diversity, feral swarms that become domesticated colonies can sometimes turn out to be a bit too defensive, especially for backyard beekeeping. Such colonies can be requeened with gentler stock.

If you know of a swarm of honeybees in the Verde Valley, Sedona, Winslow, or Flagstaff, Arizona, areas, I am available to catch that swarm free of charge. I can be reached at (928) 600-1193. Although I may at some point get myself involved in honeybee colony removals–like my friend and elder Locy Rogers, the Bee Man of Clarkdale, Arizona, who is a removal expert–for now I do not remove colonies that already possess combs or are in the process of building combs. The presence of combs is the basic difference between a swarm and a colony.  A swarm is “naked”; they have no combs of their own (yet).  I catch only swarms and do not remove established colonies (yet).

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