One of the challenges for new beekeepers is how to expand their number of colonies without buying in new bees.
For example, if your existing bee colony is strong and a swarm splits off with a queen, will the bees move into an empty hive you place nearby?
Will An Empty Beehive Attract Bees?
An empty beehive will attract bees if it has previously housed bees or if the beehive is carefully prepared to entice them to make it their new home. You can capture new swarms from your own colonies or attract roaming swarms looking for a new hive location.
Expanding your beekeeping operation means increasing the number of bee colonies you keep. You can enlarge your number of colonies in several ways.
- Buy new swarms. This method requires buying a live colony from a supplier who ships the bees to you, and you house the new colony in your empty hive. The transport process can be stressful for the bees, and colonies and queens have been known to die en route.
- Offer a bee removal service. Removing problem bees that have moved into undesirable locations can be a suitable means to expand your bee colonies. This method is hard work and requires some experience which many new beekeepers do not possess.
- Entice bee swarms into empty hives. This is my preferred method and attracts bees to move into an empty hive without the extra work of performing a problematic bee removal or the cost of buying a new swarm in from a supplier.
Using an empty beehive to attract a new colony works very well. Still, you need to know a few beekeeping tricks to make the empty hive more attractive to the bees and place your empty hives in the right place at the right time.
How To Attract Bees To An Empty Hive
There are two types of empty beehives that you are likely to have on hand; a brand new hive that has never housed a bee colony or a used hive that bees have previously occupied.
If you are a new beekeeper, chances are your empty hive will be brand new, requiring a little more work to make the hive seem like a hotel to a bee colony!
If you can obtain an older hive from a fellow beekeeper, you should do it! This used hive will increase your chances of attracting a new colony.
Bees prefer previously occupied beehives because they will have residual scents of beeswax, honey, and propolis embedded in the wood. In my experience, these remnants from previous bee occupations dramatically increase your chances of enticing a new swarm into an empty hive.
Nevertheless, whether you have an old or a new hive, it will need some work to make it attractive to bee scouts and roaming swarms.
Preparing An Empty Hive To Attract Honey Bees
You can use several tricks to make the bees more interested in your empty hive. The first part of the process is to get the scout bees to investigate the hive to assess its readiness to accept a new swarm.
I use the following strategy to prepare empty hives to attract bees.
Use An Old Frame With Comb
Place a frame inside the empty hive that has the old comb still intact on the frame. If the frame also has propolis in it, this is an added attraction.
The scent of the wax and propolis on the old frame attracts the scout bees to investigate the hive as a potential home for the swarm.
Position this frame in the middle of the empty hive. The other frames should only have wax foundation starter strips at the top of the frame instead of the regular full wax sheets. This gives the new swarm space to cluster around the queen on the central frame with the old comb.
Honey bees seem to like starter strips better than full wax sheets. Experience shows that they will draw out wax comb on the frames with starter strips before using any frames with a full sheet of wax foundation.
Paint The Hive With Bee Bait
Most experienced beekeepers have seen how working with beeswax, propolis, and honey out in the open will attract inquisitive bees to investigate. They cannot resist the smell of these beehive components!
I create my own bee bait for empty hives by melting down some beeswax and mixing some propolis and waste honey from the previous season to form a sticky syrup-like mixture.
Use a clean paintbrush and paint this mixture while it is still warm onto the tops of the frames, the internal walls of the hive, and outside the hive’s entrance.
When the sun warms the hive, it will release a scent from this mixture that will attract scout bees to investigate the empty beehive. The mixture smells very inviting, and if the hive meets the criteria the bees are looking for, the scout will call the swarm over to move into the new home.
Scouts will also evaluate the hive to check it for defendability, sufficient space for the colony, and the inside of the beehive is dry. Therefore, I usually reduce the size of the hive’s opening until a colony has taken up residence. The smaller entrance increases the dependability of the beehive from the scout bees’ perspective.
I find that entrance reducers like this are the most versatile and scientifically designed to suit what bees prefer. (Amazon)
Smaller entrances are easier to defend in times of stress. A new colony must build up its numbers to become strong enough to guard against intrusion.
Position The Empty Hive Correctly
Scout bees prefer an elevated position for the colony and will search at higher altitudes for a new home. In addition, an elevated position makes the hive more secure and safer from predators.
My swarm-catching strategy is to position a prepared hive in a tree about 10 to 12 feet off the ground or even on the roof of my house.
Although this is a good strategy to increase the chances of catching a swarm, I have had swarms move into an empty hive 3 feet off the ground. Still, the beehive was previously occupied and had all the scents to attract scouts.
Using A Bait Hive
Bait hives are somewhat different from an entire beehive. If you have spent some time around beekeepers, you may have heard them referring to bait hives as a nuc (pronounced “nuke”), which stems from the term Nucleus hive.
What Is A Bait Hive?
A nuc or bait hive is usually a cut-down version of the Langstroth brood chamber hive. Where a Langstroth brood chamber can hold up to 10 frames, the nuc typically houses 5 frames.
As you gain experience as a beekeeper, you will inevitably start to build your own beehives, including nucs. When you start building your own nucs, experiment and make some 5-frame nucs and some 6-frame nucs.
I have had better success using 6-frame nucs than 5-frame nucs, and other beekeepers in my region have had similar results. The reason for this is unclear, but my feeling is that the elongated design of a 5-frame nuc makes it more difficult for the bees to manage the internal temperature and airflow in the hive.
Adding the extra space for the 6th frame makes the shape of the nuc more square, promoting more even temperature distribution and easier air movement throughout the hive.
This conclusion is not a scientific fact, but the only deduction I can make from my own experience is using 6 and 5-frame nucs.
Another advantage of bait hives is that It’s easier to place a smaller nuc in an elevated position to attract a swarm of bees than a full-sized beehive.
Once the colony has moved into the bait box, they will be left alone to become established and start to build comb and raise young before the beekeeper transfers them into a full-sized hive.
How To Know If Bees Are Interested In A Bait Hive
You will know that bees have found your bait hive or empty beehive when you see one or two bees investigating it.
You may initially see a solitary bee arrive at the entrance and walk into the hive. After a few minutes, exit the hive and fly away. This is a scout bee looking for a new home for the swarm.
Typically the single bee will be followed up by a few more bees that will buzz around the entrance for a few minutes, with several individuals entering to inspect the premises. Finally, some of these bees will fly off to inform the bulk of the colony of the new location.
As the rest of the colony arrives, you will notice an increase in the number of bees flying around the bait hive. When the queen arrives, she may sit outside the entrance, and the bees cluster around her. She will then walk into the hive and position herself on the central frame with the old comb, and the rest of the bees will follow her into the hive.
Attracting bees with an empty hive is not difficult but does require some knowledge to make the hive more appealing to bees looking for a home.
Many beekeepers use this as the preferred method to increase their colonies cost-effectively. Late winter is the best time to prepare your empty hives to have them ready and in position in early spring to catch the spring swarms.