Bee Lining: The Oldtimers’ Way to Find Wild Beehives

M80o93H7pQ09L8X1t49cHY01Z5j4TT91fGfr

Photo by Mark Benz

Honeybees have been domesticated for millennia, but they don’t always rely on the housing beekeepers provide them in exchange for harvesting their honey. Honeybees remain wild enough to survive on their own, and they can do so miles from the orchards and other food sources with which we associate them. Often, they’ll build their hive in a hollow tree deep in the forest.

Harvesting a “wild” bee tree was the way many local people used to get honey and new colonies of bees. In order to obtain the honey and the bees, the tree often had to be cut down and the honeycomb removed, in the process destroying the hive, so it’s not something that should be done today. Honeybees have enough problems, what with mites and mysterious colony disappearances.

But locating these “bee trees” can still be a challenging and rewarding way to combine woodsmanship, map and compass, GPS, and computer skills into one exercise. Purposely finding a bee tree is possible because worker bees have a habit of returning in a straight line to the hive from a foraging area, hence the term “bee line.” I’ll describe below the equipment needed and the methods that I use in what the oldtimers called “lining bees”, a combination of techniques passed down from my father and my own innovations.

Loaded for bees

If you’d like to try your hand at finding a wild bee tree, you’ll need the following pieces of equipment: a bee box (see sidebar on page 29 for directions on how to build one); a 2 × 3-inch piece of empty honeycomb (this can be obtained from a beekeeper); some artificial nectar; a stick about 1 inch thick and 5 feet long, sharpened at one end (you can also use a crowbar); a compass; a watch; a brightly colored hat with sun brim; and a pair of binoculars. Optional are a GPS receiver and a computer with a topographical mapping program (I use DeLorme Topo USA and Topo Tools).

While bee hunting, I like to wear a light colored shirt and a blue hat. I want to be highly visible to the bees, as they’ll be using me as a landmark to return to the bee box the first few times. Also, light-colored clothing seems to attract less attention from biting insects, such as deer flies.

Once you have your equipment ready to go, you’ll need to decide when and where to go bee hunting. Although it’s possible to catch and “line” honeybees anytime they’re actively foraging, I like a warm, lightly overcast day at a time of the season when natural food sources are in somewhat short supply. Bees are much easier to see against clouds than they are against a blue sky, and if the bee’s favorite natural foods are plentiful, they can be reluctant to work your box.

The honeybee’s favorite foods in my area include white clover, goldenrod, and milkweed. I have had my best luck lining bees in late August and early September, when about the only food available is goldenrod and the bees are feeding heavily in preparation for winter. Be aware that although you’re looking for a wild swarm, bees from a domestic hive look and act exactly the same way as their feral counterparts. It’s a good idea to know where people are keeping hives so you don’t spend hours bee hunting, only to find yourself in someone’s back yard at their bee hive.

Just before you go out, mix up a batch of artificial nectar. I use plain granulated sugar and water with a touch of honey. Use about 1 teaspoon of honey for every 2 tablespoons of sugar. Add enough water to completely dissolve the sugar and honey. The mixture should be clear, not thick like syrup, but closer to water. You may need to play with these proportions, as bees can be finicky about what they’ll feed on. Make about ¼ cup of this mixture. Put your piece of honeycomb in the bottom of the box and spoon the sugar water into it until the cells are full. Try not to spill sticky sugar water all over the inside of the box. If a bee gets into it, she’ll have a hard time flying and won’t be interested in returning to your box. Any leftover sugar water can be put into a small waterproof bottle to carry in your pocket, whichyou can use to replenish the comb as needed. Make sure that the artificial nectar mix is absolutely pure, with no contaminants such as insect repellent or gasoline.

Find a field where honeybees are foraging and seek out an open spot with low vegetation, as close to the foraging honeybees as possible, where you can sit on the ground and see the sky in all directions. Firmly drive the pointed end of your stick into the ground here.

To Catch a Bee

You now need to catch a honeybee in your box without hurting her. Keep the center partition closed tight, with the honeycomb full of sugar water in the bottom compartment. Carefully approach a honeybee, and in a smooth, fluid upward movement, sweep the bee off the flower into the box and snap the cover shut – without catching the bee between cover and box. This will take some practice.

When you’re successful, you’ll have a honeybee trapped in the top of your box. You’ll be able to see her trying to get out through the window. Slide open the center partition, making sure not to let the partition (and bee) come all the way out of the box. The goal now is to get the bee into the bottom compartment with the honeycomb and to keep her there long enough that she will start feeding on the sugar water. She will head for any light, so you can cover the window with your hand and wait, hoping the bee will find the comb, or you can shake the bee into the bottom compartment. I do this by holding one hand over the top of the box to cover the window, and using the other to hold the box and the slide open, raise the box high, then accelerate it downward, stopping abruptly. Here’s another time to be careful not to shake sugar water all over the inside of the bottom compartment.

Immediately close the partition all the way and look into the window to see if the bee has dropped to the bottom compartment. If she hasn’t, open the partition and try again. If she has, move over to your stick and gently hang the box on it. Listen to the bee. Within a couple of minutes, she should settle down and feed. Sometimes a bee will refuse to feed, in which case, let her go and catch another. If no bees will feed, there may be a problem with the sugar water mix.

Once the bee has stopped buzzing, open the top cover, then very carefully slide open the partition and leave it hanging just into the box. If the bee doesn’t immediately fly out, sit down on the ground a few feet away, where you can watch the box. If you’re lucky, the bee will emerge after one or two minutes, fly all around the box (and maybe you) for a few seconds, making ever widening circles around the box and you before suddenly heading off in one direction. You must try to keep your eyes on the bee. The direction she takes will point you toward her colony.

The Wait

When the bee leaves the box, mark the time. Remain seated where you are and wait; if she returns, she’ll use you as a visible reference to help find the box. Upon her return, the bee will zoom around you several times, then fly rapidly in a zigzag fashion all around, over, under, and in and out of the box, before going back inside to feed. Mark the time the bee returns. You now have a rough idea how far away the hive is.

The bee will probably keep repeating this feeding routine as long as the box is there with food. Each time she leaves, you’ll get a more definite direction, or “line.” After a few trips, she will do little or no circling when she leaves, she’ll just head straight for the hive. On one of her trips home the bee may call other workers from the hive to help with the new food supply. Continue to watch the bee(s) coming and going until you’re confident of the exact line she takes, and the round-trip time; then take a compass bearing on the line. If it takes under 3 minutes for the bee to make the round trip to the hive, the bee tree is close, probably under a quarter-mile; if 5 to 10 minutes, up to a half-mile; if 10 to 20 minutes, up to a mile. Bees rarely travel more than a mile in search of food. The travel time will vary depending on weather, temperature, and the distance within the tree the bee has to walk to get to the comb. It will also take longer if the bee tries to recruit other bees to exploit the new bonanza.

“Lining”

At this point, if it seems that the tree is close, say 5 minutes round trip or less, you can simply start walking on the “line,” using your compass to keep a steady heading. Check all possible trees within sight of the line as you go. You’re looking for holes in trees and bees flying in the same direction past openings in the canopy. Investigate any tree holes and cavities. The colony will probably be in a cavity in a large or damaged tree, so pay close attention to these. This takes a lot of patience, and it isn’t easy to spot bees coming and going from a hole 50 feet up in a tree. It might also be 2 feet from the ground. Keep your ears open, too. Sometimes it’s possible to hear the bees buzzing, especially if it’s a big swarm.

If the bee takes more than 10 minutes to make the round trip, it will be very difficult to find the colony by walking from the original capture site. Since you know the direction in which the tree lies, try to catch another bee closer to the tree. If you’re successful, you’ll be able to triangulate the two bee lines to find the general area of the tree. I mark into my GPS receiver the two (or more) locations where I catch bees, then transfer these coordinates to a mapping program on my computer. Using this program and the bearings I took, I draw lines and look for the hive at their intersection.

Another method that may help is moving the bee closer to the tree. Once the bee (or bees) is feeding regularly at the box, you can move the box to another open area that is directly on the bee line, such as a road, power-line right of way, or field. The more visible you are to the bee, the better. At the new location, open the slider and let the bee feed, and, as before, observe the bee line. If you inadvertently go beyond the bee tree, or stray too far off the line, the bee will be unable to find the box, and won’t return. If the bee does return, the trip time should be shorter, and the margin of error smaller. If I move the box toward the hive, and if I have several bees working, I like to set up a dish of sugar water at the original site to keep the remaining bees coming, in case moving the box doesn’t work. Just put a piece of sponge in sugar water in a small bowl, and set it up in the exact spot where the box was at the beginning.

If you find the tree you’re searching for, mark the location in your GPS and put it on your computer map. That way, you’ll be able to return easily in future years to see if the bees are still there. If the hive entrance is low enough, you can also take some pictures or video.

Setting out to find a bee tree, and succeeding, is a feat few people get to accomplish these days. It’s good exercise, and you’ll learn something about honeybees and the plant and insect communities in the fields that they frequent. Mostly it’s a lot of fun and one more excuse to get out into the woods.

David C. Brown is a seventh-generation Vermonter who lives in Lincoln.

Share

Photo Gallery

 
Discussion
  1. Larry Blodgett → in Carthage, ME
    Jul 12, 2010

    Reminds me of my dad who often lined wild bees.  We found one huge hive a couple miles out in the woods in a huge tree on a sidehill with no way to even drive to it and decided it was too much work to save.  I remember particularly that he always used anice to attract the bees but I don’t know exactly how he did that.  I also remember that he generally would mark the bee that was working the box with, I believe a drop of liquid white shoe polish.  He would time the bee and determine the distance, then move to another field and try to get another bee from the same hive to give him multiple lines.  This was back about 1960 or so before GPS but we had topo maps and compass and a lot of ambition.  Good article.
    ldb

  2. David C. Sterling → in Granby, CT
    Jul 14, 2010

    Great article—I have had an interest in bee hunting since I was a teenager.  Unfortunately, there are a lot fewer feral bee colonies than there used to be.  However, it is still an exciting sport.  In the past, I have referred to “The Bee Hunter” by George Harold Edgell and “Hunting Wild Bees” by Robert Donovan.  Enjoyed the article!

  3. Bruce Ricker → in Penacook, NH
    Aug 04, 2010

    Bee-line is not always straight from food source to hive. I lined a swarm in Central Maine in the 50’s. My set-up was near a patch of goldenrod in the middle of a 40 acre field in mid September.  I got compass bearing and time and set out to locate the hive.  Lo and behold the bearing and subsequent sightings led me to, and down, a woods road in a corner of the field.  There I lost the trail because I couldn’t see the bees against the trees. Eventually I found the hive, by hearing the buzzing, in a big old brown ash.  The flight path was roughly in the shape of a “J”.  The bees had flown about 300 hundred extra clear yards such that flight through the woods was reduced from 200 yards or so to less than 50 yards. Sure shook my confidence in the preconceived bee-line I had been reading about.

  4. Henry Street → in Sullivan Co./ PA
    Oct 14, 2010

    I saw an old box very similar to the one described in a local museum, labeled “a Queen Cage”. Didn’t look like any queen cage I’ve ever seen before. Thought it might be a bee-lining box. Then found this great article describing the very box. Your plans are almost identical to the museum box. Sounds like fun - will have to make a box and get bee lining with my grandsons - I think they would love it.

    Thanks a lot for writing this article. I do agree that marking the bee would help in timing the correct turn-around time and distance thus calculated.

    Thanks again,

    Henry

  5. Adam Patrice → in France
    Oct 14, 2010

    Thank you Mr Brown for this article, which gave me the basic principals. I was in a hurry to try, so with no bee box, that’s what i did…

    I took the half top part of a big soda bottle as a bee box.
    I made a cardboard cone for covering the half bottle.
    I screwed a plastic plate on top of a broom handle.
    I got a small part of a new sponge so my bottle could cover it. (Rinse the sponge carefully)
    I made the syrup with bottled water and poured it on my sponge.
    I dressed with flashing colors.

    How to use this:
    -I cover the bee and the flower with the half bottle, and when the bee tries to fly to the sky in my bottle, I just place it on top of the sponge bait in the plastic plate.
    -I let her fly inside for a while so that she will run out of fuel (3 to 5 min), then I cover the bottle with the cardboard cone to cut the light.
    -i pull up the cone a little bit to see if the bee has landed and is foraging. Once she has done so, I slowly take the bottle away and am done.

    As time has changed, I use “Google earth” for bee lining, and I look for many lines going to the hive. (Think of what you do and choose the proper spots to be able to use landmarks visible on Google earth.)

    When you have a lot of bees coming, take away your bait and hide it. When flying in search of it, they will run out of fuel and will rush on the bait when you put it back (3 minutes later.) The best is to replace your sponge with another one with almost pure honey because it takes more time for the bees to suck it up. As soon as you have enough bees on your sponge, take the plate (no chock) and move it in the direction you think suitable to get a new direction line. With the bees sucking honey, they won’t move, and you have 3 minutes before they take off. The plate must be at rest on the new spot when they take off. If they fly around for new landmarks before they go to the hive, they will come back. (You may need a few intermediary stops before you reach a suitable spot.) Keep a “bait sponge” in a plastic plate on the ground on the first spot, and on each new spot, so that you can start again if they don’t come back. If you want to continue the day after, the bees will check your spots once in a while, so they will be back not long after you’ve replenished your bait.

    Warning: sponges will take on a bad smell for bees after 24 hours, so rinse them with chlorine/water/water/sugar water and finally syrup before you use them again.

    PS: If your first bee has been flying around to record landmarks, she should be back soon, and then you should do as Mr Brown says. Be patient for her before you catch other bees, or you might be looking for many hives and it will be a big mess on your computer screen. It’s a fascinating process.To finally locate the hive, use your binoculars slowly and carefully to see bees going and coming.

  6. Mary Ann Morse → in Maine
    Apr 16, 2013

    Thanks so much for the article.  I have searched on the net for years for this material and could not find anything, or could I find anyone who knew how to do it.  My father and I used to line bees in the 40’s and I was bored with it as a young child.  I remember it was a Sunday morning venture with that box and chasing bees at his commands.  One day I came home from school and here were several wash tubs on the front lawn full of honey comb.  We were very popular in the neighborhood for a while.  He found the hive quite close to our home in a old maple tree which I never did see.  I would like to start this with my grandchildren some day as I remember the honey and how it tasted.  I also remember that he did not know how to extract it from the comb so we ate it comb and all.

  7. Tommy Hanson → in Lone Oak, Texas
    May 01, 2013

    I have located a swarm of bees been there couple years they have honey and alot of hive how to I retrieve them and not loose all.

  8. MattR
    May 03, 2013

    Hi,

    Just a comment to suggest that people don’t use any honey for feeding bees - there is a risk that honey can contain American Foul Brood spores, and an infected colonies usually have to be destroyed in many parts of the world.

  9. raymond white → in north alabama
    May 09, 2013

    Hell yeah !!!! I’m gonna start makin’ me some honey money !!!

  10. marlo bangaoil → in philippines
    Jun 01, 2013

    Thank you, Mr. Brown, for your article. It gives me some information about wild honeybees. There are wild honeybees settled in the roof of our house and I’d tried once to see how they settled and I saw their honeycomb clinging on the metal roof. I love honey, but my mother wants the bees out from the roof. My problem is how to transfer their honeycomb to a newly-constructed beehive so that they will not go away? One problem is that I don’t know how to distinguish the queen, which some said to be the most important to kept. All I want to know is if you have some tips for me sir, so that I can transfer the honeycombs to the box I made, if I will remove the honeycomb by slicing the comb away from the metal roof, how can I place the honeycomb in the box? I’m thinking it will fall if I just clip it by two sticks or wood. What should I do sir? I hope you can share your knowledge with me about my problem and I wish you the best.

  11. T.J. Morey → in Lewiston, ME
    Jun 03, 2013

    Bees’ disappearance is no mystery, not anymore. Information is power! Bee Informed. (Look up Monsanto Round-up and GMO foods)

  12. Northern Woodlands
    Jun 10, 2013

    In response to Marlo Bangaoil: It’s hard to answer your question without seeing the situation. If you can cut the comb off and hold a big box under it to catch everything, you’ll probably get the queen. Perhaps it would be best to drop the whole thing into an empty new hive and then after they have settled in you could add another hive body with frames and slowly encourage them to move into that one. They might leave your hive and go back to their original location. They have a clear idea of where “home” is and will go there even after it’s been wrecked.

    Much better would be to find a local beekeeper and get him or her to help you.

  13. Norman Carr → in NC
    Jun 24, 2013

    Any time you want to get a hive all you have to do is smoke the hive enough so that it thinks it must move for a fire. That has been a old enemy of honey bees for thousands of years. So when you smoke them, have a hive box sitting there ready to go. This means you must have brood trays in brood box and ideally some full or partly full trays of honey in the top. Also -  very important -  put in a queen excluder, or anything else you feel you need before adding bees. It not only is easier on you, it is not good to go back into a hive once you have bees. Smoke the hive and they will start to look for a new home.You will see several groups of bees around the area forming clusters. Scrap them into your box gently and leave them alone. Come back the next day and they will be in your box, the queen and all the honey from their old hive will in be in your box, too.

  14. Tim → in BC Canada
    Aug 01, 2013

    Roundup is doing to us today what DDT did to us in the 70’s. And GMO foods are allowing that. When they advertise GMO corn is more resistant to weeds its because they have made it resistant to dosing of Roundup. So unfortunately we along with bee’s are ingesting Roundup coated on Corn and other GMO foods.

  15. William C Rupp → in Lakewood, CO
    Nov 01, 2013

    Thank you so much. My father would take me and my brother out to do this when I was about 5. Recently when I talked with my brother about this and looked at the old bee boxes we where not sure how to make it work. I recently started keeping bees which is why we dug out the old bee boxes. Again thanks.

  16. John Burgoon → in United States
    Nov 12, 2013

    Thank you, sir, for an excellent tutorial. We are building some top bar hives for our new property and look forward to trying your method. We saw many honeybees this summer so we know there’s a hive close by. Hopefully it’s wild and does not belong to the winery a mile away…

  17. Jim Shaber → in United States
    May 21, 2014

    At our recycling center there are hundreds of bees feeding in the aluminum can and glass dumpsters.  It would seem possible to track some of these to their home hive.  I’ve wondered if the honey derived from all these soft drink containers was any good.

Join the discussion

To ensure a respectful dialogue, please refrain from posting content that is unlawful, harassing, discriminatory, libelous, obscene, or inflammatory. Northern Woodlands assumes no responsibility or liability arising from forum postings and reserves the right to edit all postings. Thanks for joining the discussion.

Please help us reduce spam by spelling out the answer to this math question
one plus nine equals (3 characters required)