Building a Bait Bee Hive: A Case Study in Thrift


Like most of our burbsteading endeavors, it was one of Neil’s engineer friends who talked him into beekeeping. If it weren’t for his ilk, we wouldn’t raise chickens or tap our maple trees, either.

Our garden, chickens, and maple sugaring didn’t start as attempts to save money. Rather, they fit the bill for the types of hobbies we like. That is, activities that aren’t too expensive, produce something, teach useful skills, and are kid-friendly and outdoorsy. Neil (and his engineering buddies) sit in cubicles all day and sometimes don’t get to see tangible results from their labor. I suspect this is one reason they tend to gravitate to productive, hands-on, organic activities.

Neil joined the bee bandwagon first and foremost to have a hobby in common with his friend. They took a class together, read library books, talked to other beekeepers, and went to purchase bees & hives off Craigslist together. This brings me to another hobby criterion: it should fit well into our existing social schedule. Of course it doesn’t have to be a shared hobby, but those are great! Bouncing ideas off fellow burbsteaders and sharing resources has led to some good times and beautiful frugal friend synergy.

Free Bees?

Beekeeping, like many hobbies, can be very expensive or quite economical. Buying one complete bee hive, with bees, costs around $375. Just the bees are around $100. Neil wasn’t willing to shell out that much for a tag-along hobby, especially since the bees can die so easily and we’re not spending a ton of honey as it is. It’s too much of a gamble.

When we say we pretend to be poor, we don’t for one minute think we’re living like those truly in poverty. We do find it very helpful to pretend we don’t have $375 available to get into beekeeping, and see where our research, creativity, and DIY courage take us. If we can find a reasonable cheaper solution, we will.

Through Neil’s research, he learned that you can catch a swarm of bees instead of buying them. Don’t worry, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds. In the spring, the new queen bees, along with lots of drones, will separate from their hive in a swarm. They can build their own hive, but will take up residence if they find a move-in ready bait hive.

A bait hive is pretty simple and cheap to make. Neil made it using scrap wood, and it took a couple hours, with the assistance of our son and his bee buddy. It’s basically a wooden box made to fit the hive frames, and some bee food to attract them. Our bait hive is currently in a tree in a friend’s yard next to woods, wildlife, and a field of clover and thistle.

It remains to be seen whether we’ll catch a swarm. But since we have next to nothing invested in this project, we don’t care too much whether we catch one or not. If we succeed, we’ll need more bee boxes, which can also be made from scrap wood.

Free Honey?

A friend who kept bees while growing up assures us it’s a great hobby for kids—something I wasn’t too sure about since my son acts afraid of ants sometimes. It’s already helping him overcome fear; he went with Neil to buy his friend’s hive and walked through a wall of bees, and even responded calmly when one landed on him.

Bees are also awesome for pollinating the garden, so it’ll be a true burbstead synergy if we could reap that benefit. We don’t use tons of honey, but we often top my homemade yogurt with it, and sometimes use it in homemade granola, granola bars, or just on peanut butter sandwiches. Local honey is said to help with seasonal allergies. It would also make a good gift for certain friends and family. And I’m a Blistex addict, so I’d be willing to attempt some homemade beeswax lip balm.

If all goes well, we’d expand the burbstead and maybe even save some money. Worst case, we’re out a few bucks for the bee frames, and some fun hours with a friend. Either way, beekeeping represents our philosophy of burbsteading, our hobby criterion, and our thrifty approach to potential new costs. Pretend you don’t have the money, and see what creative solutions you can come up with.

Stay tuned to find out if we catch a swarm!

Anyone have experience keeping bees? If not, what is a way you’ve found to do what you want to for less?

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43 Responses to “Building a Bait Bee Hive: A Case Study in Thrift”

  1. Mrs. PIE says :

    OK, I’m onto this when we make our move to the mountains! Thanks for sharing details, I think I need to hit up google and youtube and get prepared!
    One quick question: if and when you get a swarm, will you need to use protective clothing? I imagine it would be pretty easy to cobble something together if so

    • bee buddy says :

      So I actually made a veil from some leftover screen I had in the garage. Works great.

      Loved the article. So if you get a swarm, are you going to build your own hive too?

    • Kalie says :

      I’m not sure if your question is for us or Mrs. PIE, but if we get it together to build hives ahead of time, we will have them for if we catch a swarm. If we catch one before we make them, we might need to buy them.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m glad you’re also interested in this hobby. We’ll definitely keep you posted! For now we are not planning on any special clothing, but if needed we are more likely to “cobble something together” as you said, than to shell out for pricey new gear.

  2. The Green Swan says :

    That’s an awesome hobby! I’ve never heard of someone taking that up before except from the documentary I watched on Burt Shavitz (maker of Burt’s Bees). But just this weekend my wife and I were at the farmer’s market and we saw a local with a whole bunch of “bee” bi-products including honey, candles, etc.

    Best of luck with catching a swarm! I look forward to hearing more.

  3. Holly says :

    I think having bees would be fun if you didn’t mind taking care of them! I do love honey =)

    • Kalie says :

      I’d be nervous about doing bees by myself, but Neil is braver than me and also seems to love keeping things in the yard alive!

  4. Ms MoneyPennies says :

    My Best Friend grew up with honey bees (her dad was a keeper) and I was always jealous how a) she was never afraid of bees and b) she always had tons of honey at her house. Good luck with your bee adventure ! 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      How cool that your friend’s father did this. I’m sure that was interesting to witness as a kid. I hope we catch one so we can taste the honey; I imagine it’s different from what we buy at the store.

  5. Hannah says :

    Is your son old enough to appreciate read aloud chapter books? If so, it might be a perfect time to introduce him to The Secret Life Of Bees which is one of my top ten books of all time.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for the recommendation; if I remember that book correctly it might be a little intense for him now, but we will keep in it mind for the future! Maybe I’ll read it again this summer 🙂

  6. Our Next Life says :

    Can’t wait to hear if you catch a swarm! Either way, it’s worth making your own lip balm from beeswax — it’s SO easy and cheap, and lets you avoid all those icky petroleum products that are in your Blistex. And you can easily build a shelter for mason bees so you have pollinators whether you catch honebees or not — a good, kid-friendly project. You also reminded me that we have a maple tree at our rental property… now I’m starting to wonder if we could tap that. Something else to look into!

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for the ideas; I’ll look into the homemade lip balm and the mason bee shelter. We do have lots of bees in our yard since it’s more clover than grass. We do love a good kid-friendly project! I would absolutely recommend tapping your tree; you might get enough syrup for a whole year.

  7. Jack says :

    A friend once had a swarm take up residence in his chimney. We found a local beekeeper who came a take them away for free.

    “Free” bees for him. Bee-free chimney for us.


    • Kalie says :

      Apparently this is a somewhat common scenario–I just heard of it from someone else today, too. That’s a great symbiosis!

  8. Tonya says :

    What a fun hobby, and hey if the start up is not that much, even better. I’m terrified of swarms of bees, so I think I would be very bad at this, but it’s always cool to have hobbies that produce something. I think I’ll stick with my garden. lol!

    • Kalie says :

      I’d be terrified of a swarm of bees, too. Neil is braver than me, and I think the fact that they are mostly contained in the box makes a big difference. I hope your garden is a success this year!

  9. Josh says :

    Pretty cool you guys are able to do this. At my old job (the railroad) we would occasionally have rail cars with dry sugar leak a lot of sugar. Some local beekeepers would offer to clean it up for free to feed their colonies. One day one of the keepers said bees would travel several miles to our railyard just to eat the sugar.

    Part useless trivia but part I understand that beekeeping can be a pricy hobby.

    • Kalie says :

      Very interesting! It’s amazing how far bees can travel. We are definitely trying to keep costs down but it can be very expensive, depending on how you approach it.

  10. DC YAM says :

    Very cool! I hope this experiment goes well for you. We had wasp problems the past Summer and after dealing with them I’d love to have some bees walking around our property instead!

  11. Jaime Donovan says :

    It sounds really fun but I’m scared of bees…

    • Kalie says :

      I’m hoping lots of exposure will make our kids less afraid of bees. I was worried about the kids at first but Neil assures me it’s not much different than all the bees that are already in our yard.

  12. Our Frugal Escapades says :

    This sounds like a really great project to take on as a family and will be a terrific learning experience! From what I hear, bees are slowly becoming extinct so this is also good for our environment.

    Funny story! When I was a kid, I was so afraid of bees. Then I stepped on a bee hive in my backyard and got over a thousand bee stings. I don’t recommend you try this with your children, but it worked for me. Now I’m no longer afraid of bees!

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, honeybees are dying off so hopefully we can help keep some alive.

      Wow, I’m impressed you can refer to that memory as a funny story! I’m glad you got over your fear of bees–I think some could go the other way.

  13. Francesca - From Pennies to Pounds says :

    I was going to ask about the clothing as well. Do you think it would work? Also don’t they use some sort of steamer thing to relax the bees when extracting honey? Just some thoughts 🙂 I hate bees!! Lol.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, smoke has a sedative effect on bees. Neil is planning to use protective clothing that he already owns, not a special bee suit. I’m not super afraid of bees but I’m not planning to extract the honey–he is braver than me!

  14. Prudence Debtfree says :

    I’ll be very interested to see if you catch a swarm : ) That is some serious DIY hunter-gatherer-man thing your husband is doing! I like your philosophy – if it doesn’t work out, no bit deal. If it does . . . Let’s see what happens.

    • Kalie says :

      “DIY hunter-gatherer-man thing”–that’s a funny way to put it. That is definitely what’s going on! We’ll keep you posted on the outcome.

  15. R says :

    I’ve been a beekeeper for several years. This is most likely stealing someone else’s colony.

    • Kalie says :

      I have a hard time believing bees would leave a healthy hive for a different home. We are hoping to catch a swarm in the woods.

    • Tracy says :

      Hi – We are also beekeepers, and it’s very, very unlikely that this would constitute “stealing someone else’s bees.” Healthy hives swarm in the spring (or even several times throughout the year); half the bees stay behind, and half leave to start a new hive somewhere else. If a beekeeper doesn’t properly manage his/her hive and it swarms naturally before a split is done, then the bees are fair game (they’d end up in a tree, chimney, etc. otherwise).

      Katie – I just came across your blog today, and I’m totally diggin’ it – I think we have a lot in common. We get most of our bees from swarm calls – our city has a hotline setup that people can call when they see swarms or hives in their yards, and we are on the call-down list. You generally have to drop what you’re doing and head over quickly to be able to catch them, but once you do it’s very, very easy to get them into a cardboard box and then a hive. They consume large quantities of honey before leaving the hive, so think of them as “fat and happy” at that point. My husband doesn’t use any gear except for a large soft-bristle brush and gloves (sometimes) to sweep the swarm into a box. Once you get the queen, the rest follow 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for weighing in on this, Tracy! Your answer is exactly how I understood swarming to work, but I’m not a seasoned beekeeper–yet. That’s good to know about swarm calls, and the gear or lack thereof for catching the bees. A friend of ours said he used to catch them in a trash can from the woods when he was a kid. We have bees guarding our bait box right now so hopefully that’s a good sign.

    • Tracy says :

      Ack, I mean Kalie. Sorry!

    • Kalie says :

      No problem, I get that all time 🙂

  16. Amanda says :

    Great to hear about your bee keeping endeavor so far, Kalie. I was considering it this year, but the price of start up was more than I wanted to spend. I should have done more research – I had no idea you could catch a swarm in that manner. Thanks for sharing!

    • Kalie says :

      Sounds like we are on the same page about this hobby. It sounds fun if we can keep the cost down. Yesterday we had some scout bees checking out the hive. We’ll see what happens!

  17. Dividendsdownunder says :

    This is a very cool idea, I hope it goes well for you. It sounds like a very wholesome project to do, plus you’re saving the bees.

    One thing I would worry about, is during winter – would the bees try to find refuge in your house..and then decide to stay in your house?


    • Kalie says :

      Thanks, we also hope it’s a success. And yes, honeybees are dying off so we’ll try to take good care of them if we get some.

      The bees winter in the hive. They form a “winter cluster” where they huddle together to keep warm, and they have all the food they need stored in the hive.

  18. Harmony says :

    This is so cool! Please post a pic of your beehive at some point 🙂

    It reminds me of the stories of some old relatives (no longer with us) who had a bunch of beehives and the bear that broke into the shed where they stored the honey. My dad used to try to scare us by pointing out the claw marks.

    I would love to try this out someday.

    • Kalie says :

      Ah, yes–Neil whisked away the bait hive to our friends’ house before I could get a picture. I will post some soon. We have guard bees at the entrance, so that’s good news.

      I’d be scared by claw marks! I’m pretty sure we don’t live near any bears, though.

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