Hives

Starting bee colonies

With annual death rates above 30%, beekeepers often must start new colonies each year. New colonies can be started in several ways. For new beekeepers, the usual starting method will be ieither by purchase of packages or nucs or capture of a bee swarm.

Package bees

Packages of bees are two to five pounds of adult worker bees shaken from one or more spring colonies located in warmer climates. Packages are shipped with a caged queen (normally from different sourced colonies) and a feeder can.

Packaged bee delivery day; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Diagram of package bees; photo by Beekeeping Insider
Packaged bees ready to install; photo by Dewey M. Caron
 

For best results package bees should be hived in the spring months. The queen is left in her cage to be released by the adult bees which are usually shaken from their shipping package directly into a new hive where the caged queen cage is positioned. They are then given a sugar water feeder. The adult population decreases initially until the queen is released from her cage and begins to lay eggs. Initially, queens will lay mostly fertilized eggs, but before long they will seek larger comb cells to lay some unfertilized eggs and produce drone offspring. Replacement worker adults emerge three weeks after hiving and queen egg laying begins. The worker population then begins to grow quickly. It is important to help the colony grow in population and secure enough honey stores to survive the first winter.

Installing package bees; photo by Lawrence John Connor
Shaking bees from package onto the positioned queen cage; photo by The BeeMD photo collection
 

It is recommended to start package bees on new foundation frames. When drawn comb is taken from storage, even after many years of storage, there is the possibility that the bees will come down with American foulbrood (AFB), possibly due to the adult bees in the package having AFB spores in their gut and passing them on to their newly developing larvae. When started on foundation there is a break in brood production so the spores are released outside the colony on defecation flights prior to the beeswax comb being drawn out enough for brood production. Alternately, if equipment (mainly beeswax combs) from an AFB deadout is used, the newly established colony can develop AFB from spores of AFB in the used equipment. When in doubt don’t risk it. Start packages on foundation.

Resources – Package bees

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. 2017. Honey Bees and Beekeeping. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Bulletin 1045: 1-8. https://secure.caes.uga.edu/extension/publications/files/pdf/B%201045_5.PDF

North Caroline State University /A&T State University Cooperative Extension. 2006. How to Install a Package of Honey Bees. North Caroline State University /A&T State University Cooperative Extension Beekeeping Note 2.17: 1-4. https://edgecombe.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Apiculture_Bee-pack-install.pdf?fwd=no

Nuc hives

Nucs are another relatively common means of starting a colony of bees. A nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
(=nucleus, sometimes nook or nuk) colony is a smaller version of a full-sized colony. A nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
may be established with 1- 4 frames of brood and 1 or 2 support frames of bee bread and honey. Often a nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
is housed in a smaller hive body (a nucleusnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
hive). When purchased as a starting method, the 3-5 frames of the nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
are transferred to a standard hive box at the intended apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
site.

5-frame nuc colony; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Nuc colony; photo by Dewey M. Caron
5-frame nucs ready for sale; photo by Dewey M. Caron
 

A nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
grows faster than package bees. Often a second box is added after 3 weeks of initial transfer to a standard hive, depending on the season. Nucs, like package bees, should initially be fed sugar syrup. In some seasons, when started early, nucs can even provide some surplus honey to harvest.

Resources – Nuc hives

Dadant and Sons Nucs, Swarms and Colonies, Pt. 1. Accessed 2024. https://www.dadant.com/learn/nucs-new-hive/

"Making Nucleusnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
Colonies" Youtube, uploaded by Paul Kelly, University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, October 13, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcetzBlK6r8

Swarm capture

Capturing a swarm of bees is another means of starting a new hive. Bees may be transferred from the swarm bivouacbivouac:
a temporary cluster of swarming honey bees intermediate between leaving home and finding a new nest cavity
site (vegetation or a structure) directly into a hive, or the swarm may be captured by shaking the bees into a bucket or convenient vessel and then subsequently transferring the bees into a hive. The swarm doesn’t always stay when hived.

Swarm capture by beekeeper; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Some swarms are more difficult to capture, such as this one in a holly tree; photo by Elaine Timm
 

Swarms quickly develop in the spring build-up when queens begin to fill the available brood comb with eggs. Congestion in the brood area results in inefficient distribution of the essential queen pheromones that hold the colony together. Abundant incoming resources and favorable environmental conditions can then lead to rearing of swarm queen cells and preparations to reproduce the colony unit via a swarm. The old mated queen will depart with one half to two thirds of the adult population, leaving behind developing replacement swarm queen cells, all the resources (except for honey carried by the departing workers in their honey stomach), and the beeswax combs. The departing bees form a swarm cluster at a bivouacbivouac:
a temporary cluster of swarming honey bees intermediate between leaving home and finding a new nest cavity
site, usually within a short distance of the existing homesite. Scout beesscout bees:
worker bees that search for pollen, nectar, water, propolis and, during swarming, suitable nesting sites
search for and inform the bivouacbivouac:
a temporary cluster of swarming honey bees intermediate between leaving home and finding a new nest cavity
swarm cluster of potential new homesites; when consensus is reached the swarm again takes to the air to move into a new homesite.

Swarm bees are excellent in drawing foundation into comb and building parallel combs. Swarm captures may store surplus honey in some locations. However, in the majority of swarm-started hives, as the colony builds strength, the bees usually seek to replace their queen. Most replacement is via supersedure, but early swarm captures may swarm again (especially likely in Africanized bees). Some of these colonies may have a mother-daughter queen condition until later in the season when the old queen is killed by the workers.

Many individuals begin as beekeepers when they happen to hear of a swarm and then capture it. Swarm capture is a good way to replace winter deadouts. Repopulate the equipment from a previous season deadout. A deadout necropsy should confirm that death of the previous colony was not likely due to AFB disease.

Resources - Swarm capture

“Catching a Swarm Part 1” YouTube, uploaded by University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, 18 October 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qJy3lJgTA0

“Catching a Swarm Part 2” YouTube, uploaded by University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, 25 October 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdLLv4E9gGY

Hive splitting

Colonies are routinely split (divided) during spring buildup to reduce the possibility of swarming and to create new colonies to replace colonies lost during overwintering period. Splits can be taken from strong, built-up spring survivors. Splits may consist of one to three frames of brood with one or two support frames (honey and bee bread). The number of frames of brood and support frames taken from a donor colony will depend on the size of the donor colony, time of season, and availability of resources for foragers. Additional nurse bees are usually shaken from one to several brood frames when the split is created. The split should be given sugar syrup to help it establish.

Strong spring colony that can be split; photo by Michael Palmer

The frames of a split can be put into a nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
box (usually the split then is termed a nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
) or hive body. Splits can be kept in same apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
(with some risk of adult bees drifting back to original home colony) or moved to a different apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
. The queenless portion (usually the split) is requeenedrequeen:
to replace a queen; old queens are often removed and replaced by a ripe queen cell or by a mated queen via an introduction cage
with a cappedcapping:
the covering that bees add over comb cells containing fully ripened honey or to cap brood that has reached the pupal stage; bee bread cells are not capped
queen cell or a mated queen in a cage or allowed to rear a replacement queen via emergency queen cells.

Early spring splits should include 2 or 3 brood frames with additional younger-aged adult bees shaken into the split at establishment. But a split is not a one-and-done. The split should be checked the day following establishment and again within a week to be sure enough adult bees are still present to cover brood and the queen is well. The frames of the split might be moved to a larger (standard) box to allow a queen to realize full egg-laying potential.

An alternative use of a split, in addition to creating a new colony, is to uniteunite:
combine one colony with another; opposite of divide
(combine) with another colony once they are fully functional and queenrightqueenright:
a colony with a healthy, worker egg-laying queen; the opposite of a queenless colony
. Uniting can be done anytime during the active season, or the split may be overwintered and used to uniteunite:
combine one colony with another; opposite of divide
with a weaker colony in spring management. This is commonly done by combining a queenrightqueenright:
a colony with a healthy, worker egg-laying queen; the opposite of a queenless colony
colony with a colony that is apparently queenless, using newspaper between the two units to slow the union of adult bees, ensure live queen is not lost, and to reduce fighting.

Middle (blue) box being united to green two-box colony via newspaper; photo by Dewey M. Caron

Virtually all commercial beekeepers split their stronger colonies as a means of making up winter loss. They routinely remove brood from stronger colonies to transfer to weaker colonies during spring buildup. Once a nectar flow starts or just before it begins, they will uniteunite:
combine one colony with another; opposite of divide
weaker splits to colonies to improve success in obtaining surplus harvestable honey.

Resources - Hive splitting

“A Quick and Simple Trick to Saving Small Honey Bee Hives”. YouTube, uploaded by a Canadian Beekeeper’s Blog, 19 January 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQQSVIACyrU

Cart A. 2023. How To Split A Beehive And Create A Second Colony. Beekeeping 101. Accessed 2023. https://www.beekeeping-101.com/split-beehive-create-second-colony

“Uniting Colonies” YouTube, uploaded by University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, 8 November 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UJriteRUx4

Tew, JE. 2022. Combining colonies. Bee Culture. Accessed 2024. https://www.beeculture.com/combining-colonies/

Feral hive transfers

A more difficult means to start a hive is to transfer feral (non-managed colony) bees from a nest site such as a nest started in vegetation or bees living in a tree hollow, building void, or discarded containers. Feral nest transfers are termed cutouts – the parallel combs are exposed and cut out, brood containing combs are pieced into frames and the adult bees vacuumed or brushed from the feral nest and as much as possible placed into a hive. It is a major undertaking. The brood combs are secured into empty frames and the adult bees moved from the hollow to the capture hive. If there is honey it is usually harvested. Removal of bees from a non-standard nest site into a hive is not recommended for beginners; it is a major undertaking that can take a considerable time an effort to ensure success.

Cutouts or transfers of active colonies from a tree or building hollow or from non-standard hives into a standard hive can be very complex. Removal is usually best accomplished when the feral colony can be exposed and the combs cut (especially brood frames - most of the honey is harvested at transfer) and transferred temporarily into frames with comb pieces held by string or rubber bands.

Feral bee nest above window, exposed and ready for removal and transfer to hive with vacuum device; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Bees exposed in wall void ready to be transferred to hive; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Natural nest in a tree; transfer to a standard hive would be difficult; photo by Brian McGinley
 

The longer the occupancy of the hollow or building the more difficult the transfer. Some feral nests at building sites may not be directly located where the bees are observed coming and going from their nest.

Some prefer to use a vacuum device to remove most of the adults before attempting comb removal. There is a trapping mechanism that some use to trap the majority of adults into a capture or "dummy" hive - holding them with a brood frame - by closing all entrances except one exit with use of a wire cone narrowed to bee space through or closely aligned with the capture hive. When the hive is sufficiently weakened, it can be then exposed and the remainder of bees and honey/comb harvested.

If the queen and a good proportion of the nest is transferred, a newly hived cutout might struggle to store adequate resources for the winter, depending on how early or late in the season the transfer is done. Queens may be killed in the process, requiring the bees to rear an emergency queen. The combs moved into frames often need to be replaced following transfer. Chances of stings are elevated and transfers taking much longer than anticipated is common.

Resources - Feral hive transfers

“Relocating a Feral Honey Bee Colony” YouTube, uploaded by UAEX Beekeeping, 22 September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__qtEuI4H80

Hood WM. 1998. Honey Bee Colony Removal From Structures. Clemson Cooperative Extension. Accessed 2024. https://www.clemson.edu/extension/beekeepers/fact-sheets-publications/honey-bee-colony-removal.html

Mussen EC. 2012. Removing Honey Bee Swarms and Established Hives. University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program. Accessed 2024. https://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74159.html

Purchase of an established colony

Yet another means of starting beehives is to purchase an established colony. Sale of bee colonies might be posted to neighborhood sites or posted on bulletin boards. Rural auctions sometimes have bees included in sales. Beekeeping magazines and web sources might list hive sales. Some beekeepers growing their colony numbers buy out retiring beekeepers; often they might obtain right to new apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
sites with the colonies. Caution is advised with this method, as an inexperienced beekeeper might buy someone else’s problems (such as a colony with AFB disease or PMS with high mite numbers, which could lead to deadout in the initial winter season) or be thrown into dealing with full-sized active colonies as opposed to growing in experience and confidence as a package or nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
colony grows.

Resource - purchase of an established colony

Dadant and Sons. Nucs, Swarms and Colonies, Pt. 3: Purchasing Established Hives. Dadant and Sons. Accessed 2024. https://www.dadant.com/learn/purchasing-established-hives/

Purchase of used equipment

It is usually not advisable to purchase used bee equipment if there is an intact comb remaining in the frames. An exception would be purchase of honey supers of drawn comb. The major concern is the possibility of buying frames that are from a colony that died with American foulbrood. It may be difficult to determine a good, fair price. Purchase of honey processing equipment (extractors, settling tanks) and hive boxes, covers, and bottom boards poses minimal risk if they are standard sizes and in good condition.

NOTE: Sometimes an ad for a bee hive for sale is only for empty bee equipment without the bees. Purchase of used bee equipment carries a risk of having an active AFB disease condition if the equipment was from a colony with AFB disease. This also applies to equipment that might have been stored for a period of time.

Establishing an observation hive

An observation beehive is a frame or series of frames kept between parallel panes of glass or clear plastic. Observation hives that suspend a single frame wide are advisable over those of multiple parallel frames. Establishing a maintained observation hive might be an option for individuals in group homes, such as retirement communities or for nature/education centers. An observation hive needs more care than a regular hive.

Four frame observation bee hives; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Observation bee hive admirers; drawing by Lela Dowling
 

Some individuals establish a temporary portable observation hive. It might be used for educational events in schools, as a draw to where honey is sold or to enjoy for special events. A popular observational hive is the Ulster hive, a nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
box with an observation frame second story. The colony is managed as a nuc; when needed as an observation hive, the frame with the queen is elevated to the observation portion above the nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
. Workers can come and go from their hive through a queen excluderqueen excluder:
a metal or plastic device that allows workers to pass through opening slots or wires, but is spaced to keep the queen and drones from passing through.
. The entire unit can be closed to bee flight when used as a demonstration.

Consultant beekeeping

Keeping beehives for other owners is a growth industry. Whole companies have developed to locate bee colonies on private or business property. They hire bee wranglers to care for the bees. Owners usually foot the bill to purchase and cover the expenses to care for the colonies. Corporations are interested in such arrangements as a means of environmental consciousness. The beekeeper may offer education for owners and even harvest and sell honey that might be produced by the bees.

Rural apiary site away from owner's residence; photo by Dewey M. Caron

Purchase of apiary sites

With growth, beekeepers may need additional apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
sites (termed out-apiaries). Sometimes sites, as well bees and equipment, might be purchased from a retiring beekeeper. Otherwise, additional sites 2 or more miles from another site might be secured by visiting landowners within a reasonable distance of existing sites. On occasion, bee clubs will get a request from a homeowner who would like to host a hive. Keeping bee colonies on corporate properties has become a business for some beekeepers.

Bait hives

A bait hive is a method of attracting bees to enable you to use them to start a new colony. A bait hive is an empty structure designed to be attractive to scout beesscout bees:
worker bees that search for pollen, nectar, water, propolis and, during swarming, suitable nesting sites
leaving a hive preparing to swarm or that leave the swarm bivouacbivouac:
a temporary cluster of swarming honey bees intermediate between leaving home and finding a new nest cavity
searching for a new homesite. Beekeepers usually entice bees to bait hives with a combination of old beeswax comb, flower odor such as lemongrass extract, or with the scent gland extract released by scenting bees (swarm lure).

Bait hives may be bee hives (nuc boxes or standard 8 or 10 frame boxes) or paper, wooden, or plastic boxes of various designs. An advantage of using a standard box or a nucnucleus:
also called a "nuc;" a smaller colony of bees usually with three to five frames. Nucs are splits (divides) made from larger colonies. Nucs are purchased as a method of starting a new colony or as a resource to use to bolster weaker colonies. See more information about nucs <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3093#standard">here</a> and <a href="index.cfm?pageID=3417#nuc">here</a>. 
for a bait hive is the ease of transfer of a captured swarm to a standard hive. When using non-standard capture boxes, such as the flower pot shown in the illustration below, the bees need be transferred as soon as possible to standard bee equipment before they have time to build parallel beeswax combs. If comb is built then they can be cutout and pieces and held in frames at transfer.

Using a nuc box baited with a single aged drawn comb as a swarm bait box; photo by Dewey M. Caron
Bait hive suspended from a tree; photo by Chris Corich
Bait hive capture in corrugated flower pot; note parallel beeswax combs; photo by Robyn Underwood
 

Bait hives should be hung in elevated areas at least 10 feet high and visible to the bees. NOTE: Some do not hang but simply place a baited hive within apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
- swarms are known to enter empty stored hive equipment.

Check bait hives every few days during swarm season to transfer captures to a more convenient location or to standard hive equipment. It is good practice to put any new hive in an area isolated from the rest of your bee hives to be able to check for disease, temperament, and productivity of the new hive before adding it to the established apiaryapiary:
a place where beehives and beekeeping equipment are located; also called a bee yard. An out-apiary is a site away from the owner’s residence.
. Swarm captures are excellent comb builders but will likely replace their queen within the first few weeks.

Resources - Bait hives

Seeley TD, Morse RA, and Nowogrodzki R. 1989. Bait Hives for Honey Bees. Cornell Cooperative Extension Information Bulletin No. 187. https://ecommons.cornell.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/6a183063-f398-4552-b4dd-f14a9488faed/content

Caron D. 2006. Bait hives. Mid-Atlantic Apicultural Research & Extension Consortium Publication 3.7. https://canr.udel.edu/maarec/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2010/03/BAIT_HIV.pdf

Ostrofsky M. 2017. Get your bait hives ready. Bee Culture. Accessed 2023. https://www.beeculture.com/get-bait-hives-ready/