In Part II of our series, we continue our discussion of ways to add honey bees to a new hive. Capturing feral swarms of bees is certainly an exciting and economic method, but requires the right timing and careful planning. Whatever method you use, be sure to keep your safety — and the well-being of the bees — a top priority.
There’s something extremely satisfying about convincing a feral swarm of honey bees to set up shop in the location of your choosing. Of course, purchasing package bees, nucs or even a fully established colony is a quick and efficient way to get started. For some beekeepers, however, the thrill of finding, capturing and providing a good home for a swarm is as rewarding as it gets.
As is the case with almost every aspect of keeping bees, there are as many opinions on capturing swarms are there are workers in a thriving colony. However, to increase your chances of successfully capturing a swarm, there are some basic guidelines to follow. To understand these guidelines, remember to consider why honey bees swarm in the first place.
Why Do Bees Swarm?
In general, bees swarm when their colony grows to the point where their home — whether it is a natural hive or a man-made one — becomes too crowded. During a strong spring nectar flow when food is plentiful a healthy queen can lay an incredible amount of eggs. As these eggs develop and emerge as new workers, the increasing density of the colony triggers swarming behaviors.
Put simply, the queen and a large portion of the existing colony will leave the hive en masse to search for a new home. As the swarm travels, it will often rest on the branch of a tree, surrounding the queen with a dense protective layer of workers. Scouts will then explore the area, looking for just the right cavity that meets their space and location requirements.
This is the point where beekeepers can step in, take advantage of the bee’s natural behaviors and capture a swarm.
How Do I Capture a Swarm of Honey Bees?
As we stated above, there are many opinions on the best way to capture swarms. The best way for you depends your experience in dealing with swarms, the location of the swarm when you find it, and what materials you have available.
Using a Bait Hive
One of the easiest ways is to set out one or more bait hives in favorable locations and wait for the bees to find them. Again, there are many opinions on what makes a good bait hive, but in general it must be the right size and in the right location to attract a swarm.
Swarms in Trees
There are few sites that will get a swarm hunters’ adrenaline pumping quicker that finding a large colony resting on an easy-to-access tree branch. If you are lucky enough to come across this scenario, it is a simple matter to stick the branch — swarm and all — into a bucket. Loosely place the lid over the top, give the branch a firm knock or two to dislodge the swarm into the bucket, then gently remove the empty branch and replace the cover.
Alternatively, thinner branches holding a swarm may be carefully removed from the tree. You use the end of the branch as a handle to carry the swarm to your chosen container. There are also many ingenious methods for capturing these swarms, such as the Swarm Box that attaches to a shop vacuum.
WARNING: Climbing trees is a dangerous activity even without the added stress of concentrating on a buzzing, vibrating swarm of bees or carrying a bait hive. While it can be tempting to go after a high branch holding a large, beautiful swarm, it is definitely not worth falling and seriously injuring yourself. Be smart, be safe!
Swarms on Flat Surfaces
Occasionally, you will find a swarm spread out on a flat surface such as the side of a building or large sign. While it is not as easy as the above methods, the swarm can be gently brushed into a container and transported to your empty hive.
Bring the Hive to the Swarm
Rather than use a bucket or other container to transport the bees, some beekeepers prefer to bring a prepared hive to the swarm and allow them to enter it on their own. The closer you get the better; indeed, many beekeepers report success with gently placing the hive so it is actually touching the swarm. If you have set it up properly, the bees should quickly find the hive entrance and begin moving in.
No matter what method you use, do your best to capture the queen with the rest of the swarm. While it can be next to impossible to identify her in the writhing mass of bees, if the colony does not have a queen it will not survive. Additionally, it is imperative to transport the swarm carefully and securely. Tie down or strap in containers, and make sure the swarm does not become overheated during the trip to their new home.
When Do Bees Swarm?
Knowing the best time to find swarms is key to a successful capture. In general, honey bees do most of their swarming in the spring and may form smaller swarms in the fall. Most beekeepers prefer spring swarms, as fall swarms tend to need more feeding and care before winter sets in.
That said, prime times for swarms vary according to local climate and conditions. In the northeastern portion of the US, spring swarms tend to occur between mid-May and mid-July. In the South, warmer temperatures tend to cause swarms to emerge earlier.
Read the first article in this series, Nucs, Swarms and Colonies, Pt. 1, to learn about using a nucleus colony to populate a new hive.
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