Bees can be obtained a variety of ways, but the most common methods for obtaining and populating top bar hives and Warre hives are swarms and packages. Other options include Langstroth and top bar nucleus colonies and splits. Each method has benefits and drawbacks, and here we will give a brief overview of each option. Please follow the links to more information on each method.
Swarms are our preferred method of populating hives. Swarms are the natural method by which honey bees reproduce, and are thus excited to start building comb within their new home. Swarms are also local to the area, and while the opinions vary, we have had the greatest success with feral swarms from our area in Portland, Oregon. Many believe that feral colonies that are living successfully without human interaction and treatment fare better than their counterparts trucked across the country in packages.
Here's a video of catching a swarm and installing it in a Warre hive:
The second most common method of populating foundationless hives is the package. A package of bees is a shoebox size wooden container with screen on both sides containing 2-4lbs of bees (usually 3lbs) and a feeder full of sugar syrup. Bees are added to the packages by taking frames from multiple colonies and shaking the bees through a funnel until the box is adequately filled. A queen - sometimes one that has been artificially inseminated - is put in a cage and then hung in the center of the package.
Packages are more common in the United States than in other parts of the world. The packages are usually created in the southern United States in areas where there is little to no winter, and then shipped via truck to bee suppliers in northern states.
Due to the methods used to fill the packages, the artificial insemination of queens, environmental impact of shipping the bees and the low success rate, we believe packages should be used only if other options are unavailable.
Nucleus colonies are miniature hives. In the case of Langstroth Nucleus colonies, they are usually 4-5 frames rather than 8-10 frames found in a normal box. Top bar hive nucleus boxes aren't standardized, but ours are 7 bars wide and can easily be transferred into one of our full-size top bar hives.
A method used by many top bar hive and some Warre hive beekeepers is called the split. In most basic terms, bars including brood, honey and bees are taken from a full-colony and added to a new hive. The queen is either left in the old hive, or added to the new hive. The queenless hive can raise a new queen as long as there are some eggs available. Some beekeepers like buy a queen and add her to the queenless colony, however, we don't use this method as we don't support the methods used to raise and inseminate most queens.