How to Be a Backwards Beekeeper
1. Catch your own swarm instead of buying one.
Like native plants, the theory is that locally adapted feral bee colonies are more robust, healthy, and able to resist local stresses than whatever industrially-produced bees you might buy through the mail. How do you catch bees? When they swarm, which is likely to happen any time during the warm seasons, all you have to do is find a swarm, trap it in a box, and then transfer it to your hive box. They will make themselves at home.
You can also post on Craigslist, advertising bee removal services. Other people will probably pay you to humanely remove their bees. A third option is to set a bee trap. This is simply an empty box of some sort, sprayed with either queen bee pheromone or lemongrass oil, which attracts honeybees. If you’re lucky and patient enough, eventually bees will move right into your box and it’s as easy as that.
The first question beginner beekeepers will probably ask is, “What about killer bees? How do I know I’m not capturing a killer bee swarm?” Ms. Askren, who regularly assists in wild colony cutouts, dismisses the whole “killer bee scare” as a figment of a fear mongering media’s imagination. “You should be afraid, but only a little. Honeybees sting and it hurts,” but they’re not going to kill anyone, Ms. Askren assures. “If you’re working with bees, you need to gear up,” but beekeepers needn’t worry about “killer bees.”
“Bees only sting when they’re afraid you’re going to destroy their home. Beekeepers call it defensive action. Non-beekeepers call it aggressive behavior. If you have a swarm, they are very unlikely to sting. In that swarm they know they’re homeless and waiting for instruction from the queen. Some colonies are more aggressive than others, but any bee colony will protect itself, with stings, when attacked. This is the nature of bees. They don’t go out looking to kill things.”
2. Don’t use any foundation.
According to The Idiot’s Guide to Beekeeping, most people who keep bees are not even aware that beekeeping without foundation is possible. No one told the bees they need foundation and they’ve been building their own just fine in the wild. The natural method is to use starter strips, which is an 1/8th inch strip of wood coated with wax which runs along the top of each comb frame. It simply provides a guide for the bees so they don’t draw comb at strange angles, which would be inconvenient for the beekeeper.
Ms. Askren uses comb she gathers from bee cutouts as a guide for her bees. A “cutout” is beekeeper terminology for removing established hives built in walls or other places that need to be removed. “One of the big benefits is you get comb that bees have already built and it’s very useful in building a new hive or expanding an old hive,” she advises. You can simply tie the comb to the frame with string or rubber bands, which the bees remove once they are established in their new home.
However, it’s not a perfect science. In one of her hives, Ms. Askren’s bees built comb so randomly that it was impossible to inspect the hive. “With the next boxes, I started out with a frame of cutout comb and then an empty frame and then a frame of cutout. On the empty frame, they built straight comb.” And that’s been her method ever since. “Some colonies just build straight, others don’t.”