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Wherever there are honeybees people want to find wild bees. These can be in swarms or wild nests. Beekeepers want to transfer the bees to hives, and honey hunters want to harvest the honey and perhaps the wax. Collecting wild bees is still a useful way to set up or expand an apiary, in addition to the possibility of dividing colonies. In Cape Verde, modern beekeeping started by collecting wild honeybee colonies in the mountains. The combs were transferred to hives by fixing them to top-bars or frames with wire or string.
Before you can transfer a wild colony to a hive you have to find it! Honey hunters and beekeepers in different countries have invented several ways to find wild bees: some of the methods are described here.
Firstly bees can be detected from the sound of buzzing in front of their nest. This method is only effective if you are very close to the nest and there is little ambient noise.
A place from which a colony has been previously harvested or transferred will often attract new swarms because of the smell of wax. It can be useful to take a look at these places from time to time.
A more fruitful way is to find foraging bees and to follow them to their home. In dry areas and seasons honeybees have to collect a lot of water, to dilute the honey and for temperature regulation in the nest. If there are colonies in the neighbourhood bees can be found collecting water at wells or washing places. After a worker bee has filled her stomach with water she flies straight home and if you are alert you can see in what direction she goes.
Some honey hunters are able to detect and follow bees' droppings on the ground to locate a nest.
Catching a few bees and tying a coloured thread, strip of paper or grass to the bees will help you to see them better while they are flying. Or you can colour them harmlessly using ochre powder. The bees are easiest to follow when light sky is behind them.
Urine on moss, or salt water with perfume has been used to attract bees. Another good bait for bees is to heat a stone in a fire and place honeycomb on it. Waving branches in the air after dipping them in the melted wax can disperse the scent. If there are bees around they are soon attracted by the smell. Within half to one hour there will be a steady stream of bees flying between the bait and their nest. The hunter can then follow this line.
Sweet smelling oils, for example anis oil, can be used to attract the bees, but to establish a bee line some sugar water or honey may be also used.
Another method is to catch some bees and release them one by one. Bees that have been feeding are put in a special box or trap and given more to eat in the box. The bee hunter releases the first bee, and follows its flight direction towards its home. After a while the hunter releases the next bee from the box, to check that they are still going in the right direction. This can continue until the nest is found or the box is empty. The boxes can be made from wood or horn, and equipped with a screen, a grid or a perforated section in the end where the bees will gather in their attempts to get out into the light. This enables the hunter to collect more bees in the same trap and to release one bee at a time by opening the door slightly. Often the box may have a small hole to allow the release of bees one by one. Matchboxes can be also used in the same way.
A more sophisticated method is to release bees from two different places with a few hundred metres between them. Using a compass the flight direction of the released bees can be checked and lines drawn on a map: where the lines cross you will find the colony provided the bees are not from different colonies!
A bird, the Greater honey-guide Indicator indicator lives in savannah areas of Africa. This bird has developed a special co-operation with honey hunters. By whistling and fluttering its wings, it leads the hunter to bees' nests and as payment receives a honeycomb after the harvest.
You can read much more about finding bees in
CRANE,E (1999) The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. Duckworth, London, UK.
DONOVAN, R E (1980) Hunting wild bees. Winchester Press, Tulsa, USA.
First published in Bees for Development Journal 60