Animal HousingInsects

An Adventure with Bees in Guatemala

This is a story of young permaculture practitioners with big dreams, a gang of plucky volunteers, and a wiley Mayan bee man doing the proverbial waggle dance with nature’s best pollinators, in an attempt to monopolise their golden liquid treasure for ourselves. The story takes place in Guatemala, in an extinct volcano that has inverted after collapsing under its own weight. The volcano is now filled with water, forming lake Atitlan. Our little Eden is nestled on the southern slopes of the mountains that surround the lake, a place we know of as the yoga forest.

It all began before the rainy season; this is the time of year that the wild bee hives are harvested in Guatemala and then again six months later. We have around 6-7 wild bee hives living in cracks and crevices of the cliffs and trees in the yoga forest.

Our aim, apart from collecting honey, was to start some hives in boxes so that we could have a greater harvest of honey. When using a man made hive it is possible to cause far less disturbance to the bees by taking combs that only contain honey or combs containing very few larvae. The addition of a queen excluder prevents her from laying in all the combs. This is simply a board with holes drilled in it that are only big enough for the workers to fit through. Thus combs that are not accessed by the queen are filled with honey and no larvae. With this technique bees can quickly replenish their losses without a depletion in the workforce.

So we began our adventure by creating a bee box, refurbishing an original Guatemalan model which is similar to a top bar hive but with straight sides, as apposed to tilted.

This is the refurbished hive. You can see it has a roof with an overlap for
protection from the rain, a landing board beneath the entrance hole
and bamboo legs coated in axel grease to protect against marauding ants.

We then took old honeycomb from a previous harvest and attached it to the frames inside the hives. The old honeycomb is a framework for the bees to start to build their new comb upon. People often buy manmade starters; we decided to use this technique instead because acquiring starters here was unlikely, so we tied the old comb to the frames with a string. Our Guatemalan bee man, Juan, who is our expert, seemed happy enough with our efforts at this.

Haley placing the frames complete with comb into the new hive

Robin and I prepared an area for the new bee hive. We removed all the brush and small trees to provide an open flight path opening out to East, South and West with a cliff blocking north. The area is up on the cliff above the yoga forest facing the lake. It has access to water and is private and secluded.

The wild honey harvest began

The bee man Juan, and Noe, the forest guardian, set fire to logs and had them smoking and smouldering in a bucket. Then they donned their protective gear, which was nothing more than nets pulled over their hats and gloves and thick shirts and trousers.

Petrona preparing Noe for the honey harvest

They used smoke to confuse the bees whilst they sawed open a tree and took out the delicious golden honeycomb piece by piece — the bees swarmed frantically around them, buzzing loudly and ferociously.

Juan and Noe sawing open the tree and smoking the bees to harvest the honey,
the smoke helps to disorientate and subdue the bees.

I stood by watching with amazement that they were not getting stung to death before a bee saw me and proceeded to chase me as I ran screaming up and down the forest garden terraces, until it finally caught up with me and stung me on the face. After realising it wasn’t that bad I went back to the hive and was rewarded with a piece of comb oozing with the best golden honey I have ever tasted. The comb was also loaded with pollen and I ate that too — it tasted so rich; the very best nature has to offer.

We got a couple of buckets of honey from that hive. The bees swarmed all around us for the rest of the evening occasionally stinging people and in particular the dogs, one of which is ironically named honey. But that was not the hive from which we sought our true quarry — which was a queen bee.

To catch a queen or grow one

A few days later Juan the bee man and his friend Pedro returned and harvested another hive. This time it took all day as they had to chisel into the cliff to get the comb out. I made myself a makeshift bee suit in the hope I could get some good snaps and I did.

Here is Juan in the sweltering sun and smoke chiselling into the cliff,
as bees swarm incessantly around him.

This is my makeshift bee suit. Jeremy’s hat and some plastic mesh with a head
scarf and waterproofs; Jeremy nonchalantly eating in the background.

This beautiful golden piece of honey comb was
bequeathed to me by Juan the bee man.

Today our main priority was the queen, the plan was to capture a queen and relocate her to a man made hive in the hope the bees would swarm to her and we would have ourselves an occupied hive. But it turned out the queen was too deep inside the cliff. So instead we took some brood comb, this is comb that contains the bee larvae. The idea was that a new queen would be born from this comb, because some bees would leave the original hive to care for the comb, the larvae of which would be fed royal jelly — allowing some of them to transform into a queen. These queens would fight to the death and the survivor would raise the offspring of the new hive.

This method is tried and tested and known to work. We attached the brood comb to our frames and hundreds of bees followed.

This is the exposed hive after Juan had chiselled away much of the rock

The bees begin to swarm to the hive once the brood comb
had been transferred to it

One of the many pots of honey we acquired that day

The onslaught of unwanted dinner guests

All was going well and the bees started to use wax to secure the combs properly to the hive. But then over the next few days something terrible started to happen. Large black wasps noticed the hive and started feeding on a piece of brood comb that had been left outside the hive to attract the bees. The wasps mercilessly pulled the larvae out of the cells and devoured them. The bees would try their best to fight them off. Individuals would launch into one-on-one combat with the wasps but would end up tumbling off the flight board together because as the bees tried to sting the wasps the wasps would decapitate them with one snip of their mandibles. Juan reassured me all was well but I kept watching in horror as wasps breached the entrance of the hive. Bees would come tumbling out locked into a fatal embrace with the wasps but the wasps kept winning.

The wasps taking the larvae out of the comb and eating them, observe the
wasp back centre. As the days went by less and less bees were coming
out of the hive, so I began to lose hope that the bees would survive.

Capturing a swarm

Then just a few days later we could hear a deafening buzzing sound coming from near the kitchen in the yoga forest. Thousands of bees were forming a swarm around a tree branch about 20 feet up.

After about 20 minutes the swarm settled on the tree branch in a cluster. This was a golden opportunity to finally gain our own swarm. Hope was not lost and we were in luck. When swarming, bees are incredibly docile and can be captured and transferred to a hive with minimal if no stinging, depending on how long they have been swarming for. These bees had just settled so they were prime for capturing. Jeremy bravely donned a protective head net and began to climb the tree whilst we made him a net on a stick to catch the swarm.

Jeremy preparing himself for the ascent

The bee swarm clustered on a branch

The swarm forms a tight cluster around the queen. If the swarm is knocked they will fall off a branch and remain clustered around the queen or will fly back to her to reform the cluster. Jeremy gave the branch a sharp knock whilst holding the net beneath it and most of the bees fell off into it.

The bees in the net after the branch was knocked

Putting the net into a box so the bees can be contained until night fall

Immediately after capture the bees flew of out the box
and back to the original branch

The bees back on the original branch

So Jeremy sawed off the branch and lowered it down with the bees still clustering and buzzing around it. I gave it a sharp knock and the majority of bees plopped into the box whilst the rest buzzed frantically trying to find the queen again.

I had bees crawling all over my arms — their buzzing sounded incredibly threatening as I covered the box with a towel, yet I did not suffer even a single sting. Many of the bees continued to swarm around one section of the branch, perhaps because the queen’s scent was still present. So we put the stick in the box to make sure we had her.

Bees still clustering around the fragment of branch

Gourmet holding the fragment of branch covered with docile bees

Eventually all the bees found their way into the box and formed neat clusters hanging from the inside. We had captured a whole swarm of bees successfully, now we just needed to keep them somewhere cool and shaded whilst we built a new beehive.

Hiving in the Night

We had only a few hours for preparation as the bees needed to be hived that very night. The new hive we built was better than the last one, with an extra small entrance hole so that the bees could easily protect it from wasps. We also used wax from the harvested combs to glue neat strips of comb to the frame inside the hive. These would serve as perfect starters for the bees to base their combs on.

So we set about making some more superior wax comb starters using comb from the hive we had just harvested. We believed the bees we had caught were from this hive, and thus would feel right at home with their own comb.

We made wax from the combs and used it to glue strips
of comb to the wooded frames

Hold the comb in place whilst the wax sets

The finished product. The bees will continue to make cells from this strip

The new and improved hive in place

At about 11pm we finally finished the hive and seven of us steadily began climbing the winding path that leads up onto the cliff where we had prepared an area for the bees. As I climbed the towel slipped off the box and the bees began to wake up — they began crawling up my arms, buzzing loudly. Everyone hung back so the light from the torches did not disturb them further. I turned off my torch and made my way up the rest of the treacherous steep path in the dark with the box, this involved climbing up a ladder and negotiating trees roots before finally navigating my way over a steam onto the cliff where the bees would be based. It had begun to rain but this was good because it helped to calm the bees.

We lifted the lid from the bee box and I removed the towel completely and shook the bees off the towel and they fell into the box with a thud. Then I shook the rest of them out the box and into the hive. Many of them fell on my trousers and I found myself crawling with bees, by now they were buzzing loudly and angrily and I felt myself getting nervous. But remembering what Juan said about how your pheromones affect them I calmed myself before quickly replacing the lid of the bee hive and triumphantly making my way back down the mountain in the spring rain. When we got to the bottom we all hugged and jumped around for joy that we had captured a swarm and hived them in a night. Then I received my first sting! And I realised I still had bees down my trousers….

The next day I merrily went about my business in the garden until Mark came running up and told me the bad news that the bees had absconded…. I am not sure why they left but there are a number of possible reasons. Those being that they did not like the smell of the wood in the hive because some of it was pine or because the honey and wax we used was possibly not from their hive and they fled for fear of causing offence to other bees. (Bees are only allowed to enter other hives if they are carrying nectar.) Otherwise it could be because we had put the box in an unfavourable location.

Mark and the volunteers had also checked the first hive and had found the horrific truth awaiting inside — maggots, or some kind of larvae, poured out of the hexagonal bee cells, and the hive stank of rotten flesh. It was very sad — it was over for the brood comb and the bees caring for it. So in true permaculture fashion I fed the wasp larvae to the chickens that thoroughly enjoyed them.

Here are the grubs hatching out of the cells. We are not sure if they were
parasitized by the wasps or whether these are fly larvae. Either way the
chickens enjoyed them

Days later Mark spotted our bees swarming on another tree — this time twice as high as the tree before and over a large ravine. No one had the guts to go after them this time. For now the bees have defeated us but we will not give up. I shall get my queen and one day soon we will have our own hives.


  1. i Would really love to know why the bees left. I posted this story in the hope that someone could provide me with information. Anything you can offer would be appreciated. Thank you

    1. Honey bees love pine. I had bees in Guatemala and pine is one of the wood they love. I was not there to see all the contributing factors, but the the pest in the combs added to the hive had a lot to do with.. Next time make sure the combs are not contaminated..

  2. Catherine,

    Instead of putting down foundation comb – real comb – just purify and put down a film of beeswax on the bottom inside of the frames to help the bees start making their own combs. I’d sanitize the hive, then try again. I think you kind of hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that the bees left most likely due to the fact that the comb was parasitized by wasps or flies.

  3. I admire your just-do-it approach. The way you use any old net to protect your face, where here in Britain we suit up with all kinds of armour, and the rapid way you put together a hive, melted wax to stick comb to bars etc is the kind of practical skill that so many people lack these days. The hive on its legs looks solid and practical.

  4. Hey Catherine,
    Lovely story you tell.

    Is there lemon grass oil to be bought where you are now? If you put a couple of drops of this oil on a napkin inside a small plastic bag and cut one of the corners of the bag so the smell can get out, then it will attract the scout bees of swarms.
    The bees are looking for a cavity of 40 liter, knowing this you can make swarm traps aka bait hives. They prefer older wood over new wood, a bit of old black comb and the lemony smell from lemonbalm.
    Put the bait hive a some meters up in a tree, preferably along a fence or road. Bees use geografical features like this to navigate and will faster find the hive.

    Then articalute why you want the bees to move in. Why you want to be around them…

    Greetings from dandelionflowering Sweden.

  5. Well, that’s a bummer.  You have a LOT of reading to do.  The only animal that is more studied than the honeybee, Apis Mellifera, is the Human being, Homo Sapiens.

    I suppose what you’re looking at there is what we call SHB larvae.  Small Hive Beetles are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa, and usually don’t make more of a problem than the extra work the bees have of cleaning out the eggs, but are highly destructive to Bombus, or Bumblebees.

    The answer you would need to have here is to keep the bees in a container that is “just right.”  Having too much space to patrol makes it difficult for the bees, easy for the SHB.  As the population of bees increase, you can add more volume.  Once the beetles start hatching, they climb through all the comb fouling the honey, pollen, and brood there, SLIME everything, and make the nest so foul the colony thinks it better to find a new place to go.

    Here’s video I took last year after one demoralized colony let the beetles take over.

    I trap swarms regularly.  I’ve caught 6 this year out of 10 traps.  If you can get Lemon Grass Essential Oil, put a few drops around the entrance, and some in a ziplock type sandwich bag on a cotton ball.  Close and seal the bag, place inside the hive without cutting, poking, or anything else.  You will need to refresh the lure every few weeks, or buy swarm lures which will last a whole season.  The LGO will percolate through the pores in the plastic.  Remember, bees have a smeller that’s better than a dog’s.  Just because you can’t smell it doesn’t mean they can’t.  I’ve put the traps high up in trees and find most caught just a few feet from the ground, however I do like to place them with the entrance facing downslope so it seems like the hive is up high to the bees.

    I can go on for pages on trapping swarms.

    I am quite certain you’ve hit on the best scheme for getting your bees to build the comb straight!  You will have to make sure you’ve put the comb in right side up.  I usually tie mine in with strips cut from a plastic bag, they’ll chew it off and carry it out the front when they get to it.

    Start them in a smaller volume.  Around 1500 cubic inches, or 20 liters is a good start.  Here’s plans for a “nucleus” box, what we beeks start our colonies out in so we can manipulate them better.

    The outside dimensions aren’t important but the inside dimensions must be kept right.  Top bars of 1.25 and 1.5 inches or 32 and 38mm width for brood and honey respectively.  Boxes can be built from any wood you have around.  Color will be important, Guatemala has enough direct sun that absorbed heat can raise the inside to cooking temperatures.  Using #8 hardware cloth (8 wires to the inch) as a floor will help if you can get it.

    Now you should look into finding information on raising the stingless honeybees, natural pollinators for tomatoes, that exist in your area.  Traditionally kept by the Maya as a sort of “pet” under the eaves of the house.  They’re endangered, and need assitance as they’re being pushed out by the more economically advantaged honeybee and habitat destruction.

  6. Hi Catherine,

    The small hive beetle is the most likely sounding culprit. It was originally from Africa, but has since spread to America and Australia, so it could possibly have moved south to your location. It will be quite visible scurrying about on the comb.

    The foul smell may possibly be the beetle larvae excreting in the honeycomb. I’ve read that it is quite distinctive. The bees don’t like it either which is why they absconded.

    You can remove some beetles from an infected hive by setting corrugated cardboard strips which the beetles move into. Replace them regularly and burn them.

    The beetles can also hitchhike with swarms, so they may have been already present in the swarm that you collected? The larvae also pupate in sandy soil which is nearby to the beehive, so changing locations of the hive to a more clay-ey area may not be a bad idea (if possible).

    Also, I’ve read that the more you open and inspect the beehive, the more it provokes the existing beetles in the colony to lay eggs. Stored comb hanging around is asking for an infestation. Keep it in sealed containers if possible. It has been suggested that the beetles can travel over 15km in search of comb!

    It is always a good idea to use new beekeeping boxes and frames, but a good way to sterilise existing equipment is to singe / blacken it thoroughly with a blow torch. Also if you’ve just painted it, leave the paint to cure for a few weeks before using the equipment as fresh and curing paint fumes annoy bees.

    By and large, I reckon people expect too much and take too much from honey bees. Pretty much most things that people do to a colony stresses them and a weakened colony is more susceptible to disease or predation. Bees are quite docile and hard working when they’re not being annoyed…

  7. Thanks for all your useful comments i hope the first hive didn’t have hive beetles, apparently it smells like rotten orange peel when they are present. But this distinctly smelt of rotting flesh, although the larvae looked the same.
    i think a lot of you might be confused by my article, i in fact had two hives one that i started with brood comb, then i constructed another because we found the swarm in the tree. So we hived that but they left the next day. Can anybody tell me why they may of left?
    im also now looking into creating habitat for the native mayan stingless bees because we have a lot around. I also now have a successful hive now and i will be writing about it soon.
    thanks again for your help

  8. I am at Lake Atitlan right now and have been thinking about bees. I’m a beekeeper in Minnesota but am moving to the northwest of Guatemala. I wondered what kind of beekeeping they do there. Do you know. I was thinking about starting some top bar hives as this seems easily reproducable by locals.

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