The Thrill of Beelining
Reading Time: 4 minutes
If you are looking for a hobby that gets you out in nature, requires patience and determination, and has all the thrills of a treasure hunt, then beelining is for you.
Beelining is the art of finding wild honeybee colonies. It has been practiced since prehistoric times. In the days before apiaries were common, beelining wild colonies might be the only way to secure a source of sweetener for enterprising woodsmen. Bee trees were either marked for ownership and then raided sustainably year after year, or simply chopped down and cleaned out.
Today, beelining is practiced more for sport than for honey, but that doesn’t mean the thrill of the chase is diminished. The hunt requires just as much skill as in times past. Above all, beelining highlights the remarkable methods of communication and navigation employed by bees.
Beelining is an inexpensive sport requiring a minimum of equipment: a watch, compass, markers (paint pens or a watercolor set with a fine-tipped brush), a bee box, and bait. A field notebook is helpful as well. Some people also bring a small chair, flagging, and a map of the area. Oh, and patience. Don’t forget patience.
Most bee boxes are homemade. It is divided into two chambers with a removable sliding divider between the sections. The front chamber has a door on hinges that can be snapped shut. The rear of the bee box has a small window, with a sliding window cover.
The purpose of the bee box is to capture a small number of foraging bees. Bees are captured in the front part of the box, then trapped in the back chamber.
The best time to beeline is when temperatures are above 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Early in the season (when bees are hungry) or later in the fall (when forage is scarcer) are times bees are more likely to respond to bait. As Dr. Thomas D. Seeley puts it in his charming book Following the Wild Bees, the starts and ends of honey flows are best for bee hunting.
Start by locating a place with many nectar-bearing flowers and lots of bee activity. Rather than waiting (often hours) for bees to randomly find the bait, many beeliners actively capture bees off flowers using the unbaited bee box. Once the bee is in the front chamber, she is drawn toward the back chamber because of the light from the window. In this manner, it’s a fairly fast thing to capture eight or 10 bees.
Nearly as important as capturing the bees is deciding where to release them, for this is the point the true beelining starts. It’s best to release them where you have a clear line of vision of at least 100 feet in every direction.
With all the bees in the back chamber of the box, put the bait in the front chamber. Then cover the back window with a cloth (to cover the light from the window) and bait the front chamber with something irresistible to bees such as honeycomb laced with sugar syrup, often lightly scented with anise.
Then open the divider between the front and back chambers. Give the bees several minutes to glut themselves on the bait, then open the front door of the bee box to release them.
When the bee box is empty, repeat the process of capturing bees in the empty box, trapping them in the rear chamber, baiting the front chamber, waiting for the bees to glut themselves on the bait, and releasing them. “By repeating this capture-and-release process,” advises Seeley, “you multiply your chances of success in establishing a beeline.”
When the bait-laden bees are first released from the box, they will perform some slow aerial maneuvers to memorize the surrounding landmarks. They will also blunder around, trying to zone in on the location of the hive from their current location. It will require several repeat visits to the baited bee box before the bees can go in a straight line between the bait and the hive — the true beeline.
At this point, the bait should be freely available outside the bee box. (Some people place the bait on a brightly painted piece of wood or cloth to resemble a flower.) The bait will attract more and more bees as word gets around.
After several visits, it’s time to mark the bees. Seeley recommends selecting about 10 girls for marking with different colors or color combos. These marked bees become the scouts. Watercolor paints and a fine-tipped brush work best. Don’t use more than a pinhead-sized drop of paint. The best targeted spot is the fuzzy spot on their thorax between the wings, but it’s not always easy to hit the mark.
Watch the marked bees carefully as they rise and head for home. Make a note of a landmark toward which they’re flying — a tree or rock or something — then take a compass bearing of the landmark, and write this down in your notebook. Different bees may not follow the same precise path to their nest, nor do bees always make a true “beeline” toward their nest, but may veer in response to terrain and slope. For this reason, having data from multiple bees over multiple trips will narrow things down.
Bees fly at about 15 mph. Timing how long it takes a marked bee to return to the bait will help determine how far away the nest may be (keeping in mind it takes about two minutes to drop her payload when she arrives at the nest). Seeley’s rule of thumb is this: If the bees are gone between two to four minutes, the bee tree is very close (possibly within sight). If the bees are gone between five and nine minutes, the nest is less than a mile away. Ten and 15 minutes, the nest is far away but still findable. Much longer, and the task is probably hopeless.
During the process of tracking the bees’ timing and direction, move the bait closer and closer to the direction the bees are flying. This will help narrow both the distance and the direction to the nest.
Can you understand why beelining is the ultimate in nature’s treasure hunt? It takes a cool head, many calculations, and patience to find the gold.
If you decide to take up the sport of beelining, it’s best to follow the advice of people who have actually done it, rather than written about it second-hand (guilty!). Dr. Seeley’s book is one of the best modern guides available, though there are several older mid-century (or earlier) manuals that are just as enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
Originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.