Find Local Honeybees for Wild Honey

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Honey-tree hunting is an age-old craft that — quite
simply — involves following wild honeybees (Apis
mellifera
) to their colonies, which are usually found
in hollow trees. Besides providing you with a fine excuse
to spend some time in the outdoors, such a search
can — if successful — yield gallons and gallons of
free, natural sweetener and can even give you a chance to
capture a hive of bees for your own backyard apiary. You
don’t necessarily have to live deep in the back country to
hunt up a honey tree, either, because wild bee colonies can
be found in suburbs and cities as well as in rural
areas in every part of the United States, Mexico and
southern Canada.

The early spring months, when the first major honey flow of
the year begins, provide good opportunities to track bees,
since the insects are still “winter hungry” and can easily
be lured by scents. The hunting season lasts as long as the
insects are still flying, which is a period of
about six months throughout most of the country, and even longer
in the South.

Baiting Honeybees

The bee hunter has to discover the trail to a honey tree by
observing a foraging worker bee because, when the
industrious female has collected a full load of nectar,
she’ll head straight for home. The fundamental tactic,
then, is to note the direction in which the pollen-packing
lady flies and, by making a series of such observations,
eventually determine the location of the bees’ home. It
sounds easy when it’s put that way, but — as you’ve
probably guessed — there are a good many subtleties to
the craft.

For one thing, a bee may visit several hundred flowers
before heading back to the colony, and keeping track of her
during that round of activity would be both difficult and
time consuming. The best way to solve this problem is to
provide your own source of “nectar” . . . a 50/50 mix of water and ordinary sugar.

Given such easy pickings, the honey-makers will fill up at
your nectar station and then head straight back to their
tree . . . and they’ll keep returning for more, too!
However, before you lure bees to your sweet bait, you
should be sure you’re operating in an area well away (at
least two miles) from any known beekeepers, or the
nectar-laden insects may simply lead you to a domestic
hive.

Try to start your hunt in an open space where the bees are
already foraging (it’s difficult to establish flight
direction in a dense forest of mature trees). Once you’ve
chosen a good spot, set out a shallow dish of sugar water
with wood chips floating in it for the bees to land on.
When a worker locates the food, she’ll return to the colony
and tell the others of her find by performing a dance
pattern that gives them explicit directions to the bonanza.
Soon hundreds of bees will swarm around your offering,
flying back and forth between the dish and their home.

It may, of course, take the insects a while to discover the
bait, particularly if only a few are working your area. If
that proves to be the case, you can announce your offering
by the use of such scents as anise, sweet clover, or
bergamot, which you might be able to purchase in your
drugstore. (Anise oil — for one — has a very strong
aroma, though, so it’s best to dilute your supply by mixing
together two ounces of alcohol, two ounces of water, and
one dram of anise oil and shaking them vigorously.) Don’t,
however, add the scents to the nectar itself, as they might
be harmful to any bees that eat them. Instead, put a few
drops on a handkerchief, or on a twig full of leaves, which
you can wave about in the air and then place near the
sugar-water supply to attract your prey. (Plastic
“backpacking” bottles with attached caps are ideal for
carrying both bait and scent.)

Collecting Honeybees for Domestication

A quick method of collecting bees involves the use of a
bait box. Traditionally, these are flat and look much like
cigar boxes, but I’ve developed a vertical
design — shaped more like a milk carton — that I
think is easier to use (especially when bees are working
such low-lying plants as white clover and dandelions).

The box can be made of almost any kind of scrap wood that
you might have around, although I favor 3/8-inch plywood. Its
outside dimensions are roughly 4-by-4-by-9 inches, and there are
two inside compartments. The lower chamber is approximately
6 inches high, and is connected to the upper room by a 3/8-inch-wide
slit. The bee trap is left open on the bottom, and its
upper side is fitted with a glass- or plastic-covered exit,
which allows light to enter and attract the bees into the
top section.

After the bee-catcher has been assembled, paint the outside
white to make it more visible to returnees, but don’t coat
the interior, since the insects seem to prefer the texture
and smell of unfinished wood.

When you’re ready to hunt down some winged foragers, put a
piece of honeycomb (buy it from an apiary supply company or
a beekeeper) sprinkled with sugar water in the upper
chamber, and cover the top opening with a piece of clear
glass or plastic held in place with a rubber band. Then
find some bees that are working low-lying flowers, place the bait box over a blossom with a bee in it
and press the container against the ground, trapping the
bee in the lower chamber. Allow about 15 seconds for the
insect to be lured to the light coming from the upper
chamber, then pick up the box and trap another bee. Once
you have 10 or 20 workers in the box’s second story, cover
the “window” with some opaque material and let your trap
sit for five minutes . . . to give the bees time to settle
down and start feeding. That done, remove both covers from
the upper section and allow one (or several) of your
well-fed captives to emerge.

Establish the Beeline

Whether you’re using a bait box or a sugar-water dish,
carefully watch the flight of each bee as she leaves.
She’ll first lift off and fly in circles around the bait,
in order to get her bearings and to fix the location of the
free feast in her mind. As she flies, the circles will get
bigger and bigger, and then — zing! — she’ll be
gone. It’s easy to lose sight of your quarry at that point,
so make a mental note of the direction of each bee’s
departure, relative to some landmark (perhaps a tree or a
building). After observing several such paths, you can
determine an average heading. That’s your beeline.

Because the outgoing insects always circle before
departing, it’s sometimes easier to establish the general
direction of the colony by moving a few yards away from the
bait, where you can keep an eye on arriving foragers.
They’ll be coming in a straight line from their home until
they get very near the bait . . . at which point they, too,
will begin to circle.

Eventually, after studying a number of comings and goings,
you’ll determine your beeline, and the honey tree should be
somewhere along that line. You’ll still have to
figure out just where. One way to do so is to relocate your
lure several hundred yards down the beeline toward the
colony. There, reestablish the direction — again using
either your sugar-water dish or a bait box — to get a
fix from a point closer to your target. (The best time to
relocate is when you have some 10 to 20 bees working the
bait. When using a box, trap the remaining bees inside by
covering the bottom during the move.)

If the feeders don’t return to your bait within 20 minutes,
they probably aren’t going to, perhaps because you’ve gone
past the bee tree. Should you get no action, then, just go
back to the previous location and catch another load of
bees. This time, move only half as far along the
beeline — before trying again — as you previously
did.

Another way to go about locating the colony is to mark a
bee, using a piece of chalk and a small artist’s brush.
Just wait until the insects are busily working the bait,
then scrape a little chalk dust loose, moisten it with
saliva, dip in the paint brush, select a bee that
appears to be particularly engrossed in the sugar water and give her a swipe or two across the top of her
abdomen. Then note the time of your target’s departure and
return, and figure that it takes about 5.2 minutes — on
the average — for a bee to fly one-quarter mile.

Finding a Honeybee Colony

Timing flights and establishing bee lines will still give
you only the approximate location of a colony, but the
final search for the tree itself can be sped up if you
keep the following facts in mind: Wild bees tend to make
their homes in the rotted-out centers of living trees that
(normally) range from 18 inches to 60 inches in diameter. The preferred
tree type is highly variable and will depend largely on
where you live. In the South and Southwest, black gum trees
and live oaks are popular nesting places. Farther north
you’ll find that oaks, poplars and maples are the most
common choices for bee dwellings.

Once the insects’ home base is identified, most folks
remove the honey by cutting the tree down. That means, of
course, that — unless it’s on your land — you’ll
have to get permission from the owner. Try offering
a share of the honey and/or firewood in exchange. (In very
big trees, the colony may inhabit only a hollow limb that
can be cut off, leaving the rest of the woodland giant
intact. Before doing so, make sure that the branch
isn’t being used merely as an entryway into the trunk.)

Don’t start chopping, though, until you’re sure the area
has plenty of other old, large, dead or dying trees that
can be used for nests and dens by birds, animals, and bees.
The natural processes that create a usable hollow tree are
mighty slow compared to the workings of a chain saw! If
there are no substitute wildlife homes in the area — or
if the bees have taken up residence in a rock
formation — it’s better to use a nondestructive method.

One such technique involves coaxing the bees to take up
residence in a “real” hive, then inducing them to rob their
old home of its honey so that you can take your share. This
rather involved procedure is detailed in my book Hunting Wild Bees.

If you do encounter a situation where you can cut down the
tree to lay larcenous hands on the bees’ precious,
hard-earned golden treasure (and/or capture the bees),
remember that these relatively mild-mannered little
creatures can be transformed into raging demons. So,
before you begin any such operation, cover up! Bees can
sting right through slacks, so put on two pairs (made of
sturdy material) and tie them snug at the bottom.

You should also wear several shirts, a pair of gloves that
cover the wrists and a head net. Commercially made “bee
bonnets” can be purchased at apiary supply houses, but I’ve
gotten by with a turkey hunter’s camouflage head net. Care
must be taken, however, that the veil doesn’t come in
contact with the face, because bees have an uncanny way of
finding such places. Make sure, too, that your headgear is
sealed around the neck. Finally, it’s wise to avoid dark
fabrics (including denim) and clothing made of animal
fibers such as wool or felt. These materials seem to
incite bees to attack.

Of course, you’ll need something to put your honey in, too.
I’ve found that lightweight plastic buckets are good for
this purpose, since they can be stacked one inside the
other when empty and are easy to carry. The amount of
container capacity required will depend on how lucky a find
you make. A bee tree can contain anywhere from no honey to
(on rare occasions) 15 to 20 gallons. Be sure you take
along a large metal spoon to dip up any honey from combs
that may be broken by the tree’s fall, and a large, soft
brush to whisk away the bees from slabs of honeycomb.

Removing the Bee Hive

Before you tackle the task of felling the tree, calm the
bees down by smoking them. (Smokers can be bought from bee
supply houses, or — perhaps — borrowed from a
neighbor who keeps hives.) If the colony is too high up to
accomplish this easily, the smoking should be done as soon
as the tree is on the ground.

It’s preferable to fell the bees’ habitat with a chain saw
rather than an axe if you have a choice. Smoked bees will
often remain surprisingly calm when a saw is used, while
the repeated thumps of an axe usually excite them. Whatever
method you employ, try to drop the tree as gently as
possible — letting its own branches, other trees,
and/or an uphill slope break the fall — since a jolting
crash will smash the honeycomb, kill bees unnecessarily,
and create a general mess.

If you’re not planning to capture the insects, the easiest
way of removing the honey is to split a rectangular slab
out of the side of the fallen tree, using an axe or chain
saw and wedges. First try to figure out the extent of
the cavity. This can be done fairly accurately by looking
up the bottom of the felled tree, peering through any holes
and splits, and tapping on the trunk. (Make the very best
estimate possible, or you and your tools could end up
covered with honey.)

The slab that has to be removed will probably be 36 to 60 inches
long and 10 to 18 inches wide, depending on how much of the
hollow is suspected of being inhabited. Make the top and
bottom cuts first, then connect them with longer cuts
running lengthwise down the trunk. Since the second pair
will pass close to the mass of bees and honeycomb, every
effort should be made to keep the blade out of the cavity.
It’s better to err on the shallow side than to cause
needless bee and brood deaths and loss of honey by slicing
too deep, especially since wedges can always be used to
help pry a slab free.

Once the interior of the colony is exposed, lift the sheets
of honeycomb and put them in your containers. (Keep the
filled pails covered, or they’ll soon be alive with bees.)

From the time the spring honey flow is fully off and
running until midsummer, you can safely remove most of the
bees’ store of honey, since they’ll still have time to
replenish the supply before winter. However, in late summer
or early fall, at least 40 pounds (in mild climates) and 80
pounds (in areas with harsh winters) should be left inside
the tree to insure the colony’s survival during the cold
nectar-less months. Also, leave any brood comb (the cells
that contain larvae) in the tree, and the queen bee if you
find her. (Should you inadvertently remove the queen,
however, the colony will raise a new one. . . provided
you’ve left some young brood.)

Now, replace the slab and tie or nail it into place,
plugging up any holes with boards, pieces of bark, or
stones to keep out the rain. In other words, do your best
to help the colony survive, and you’ll have your very own
natural apiary that can be visited once or twice a year for
honey extraction. (All you’ll have to do then is remove the
previously cut slab, help yourself to some honey
and put the cover in place again!)

Domesticating Honeybees

Should you decide to take the insects home for your apiary,
cut the fallen tree up into sections (they’re called “bee
gums”), each 18 to 30 inches long. Then give the bees an hour or
so to calm down and return to the various gums. Once that’s
happened, staple some fly screen over both ends of each
section, and you’ll have portable logs with all the honey
and most of the bees sealed inside. Take care, though, to
transport the gums as gently as possible to avoid
damaging the comb.

Once the pieces are safely back home, you can transfer the
bees to a commercial hive from which the inner and outer
covers have been removed. To do so, take the screen off
each tree section and split the log in half, exposing the
comb inside. Lift out the pieces of comb, one at a time,
and brush the bees into their new home. Then separate the
comb into honeycomb (for you) and brood comb (for the
bees). Be very careful not to injure the queen when you
move her. Once she accepts her change of address, many of
the worker bees will tend to stay put. Secure the brood
comb in the four center frames of your hive, using elastic
bands. Then replace the covers and leave the bees alone. By
nightfall, most of them will have moved into their new
residence.

To extract the honey from the comb you’ve kept for
yourself, place a fine strainer over a large bowl,
break off pieces of honeycomb and crush them with
your hands. Drop these wadded-up balls into the strainer
and allow them to drain. The result of this delightfully
gooey exercise will be a bowl full of natural honey and a
strainer full of sticky beeswax. You can purify the latter
material by dropping the balls of crushed honeycomb into a
pot of boiling water, causing the wax to melt and float to
the top. At that point, set the pot aside. As the beeswax
cools, it will harden on the water’s surface and can be
easily removed to be sold or made into candles.