How to catch a swarm of bees
There can't be too many industries where you can - legally or even practically - add to your livestock by simply catching wild animals around your town or suburb.
While those operating a commercial size operation prefer to boost hive numbers by making splits from their own stock, for a small scale beekeeper the addition of bees from swarms can be a viable way to add value to their enterprise.
Every year in Perth alone, thousands of bee colonies undergo swarming. For new beekeepers the thrill of catching a wild swarm, boxing them up and watching them grow into a productive colony can be exciting. Heck, even experienced beekeepers still find it hard to resist catching a swarm if they stumble across one.
By catching swarms and relocating them properly, beekeepers provide a valuable service to the community.
What do you need to catch a swarm?
You can capture swarms with much less, but the following equipment is handy to have:
- Beekeeping suit (optional, but recommended for beginners)
- Gloves (optional)
- Hive box; 8 or 10 frame box with base, lid and frames or a nuc box for small swarms.
- Bee Brush
- Small cardboard box; shoe box is ideal
- Torch; red light is best
Every swarm situation will be different so it is difficult to give a perfect blow-by-blow run down on how to do it. However, if you follow these basic steps, the swarm removal should be successful for both you and your new bees.
Assess how long the bees have been in location.
Do this by asking the people who live nearby or by identifying if they have any comb built yet. A freshly swarmed colony of bees will be quite pleasant to work with. When they have swarmed and only just arrived at their new location they do not yet have eggs or larvae to defend, and are therefore less likely to sting you.
We have boxed up swarms with our bare hands and wearing no protective gear and not been stung at all. While we do not recommend a beginner try this, it goes to show that freshly swarmed bees can be pleasant to work with, so long as you are relaxed around them.
On the contrary, once the bees have built comb and the queen has begun to lay, the colony will not be so easy to work with. At this point, the removal of bees will become what is known as a 'çutout.' This requires both protective clothing and significantly more time, effort and equipment. While some of the same principles apply to a cutout, it is a different and more difficult process.
Get the majority into the box, and the rest should follow.
You'll want to identify the main clump and get as many of them contained as possible.
To do this you can place a box underneath the swarm of bees and dislodge them from whatever it is they are hanging onto. There are a number of methods for this, and the best technique will be determined by where they are and how accessible they are.
For clumps of bees hanging off tree branches, giving a quick sharp shake of the branch should be sufficient to dislodge them. For bees on walls, furniture, vehicles, garden equipment etc you'll need to gently brush them into a box. It may help to use a small container such as a shoebox to brush them into first and then transfer them into the hive box.
Lots of bees will take flight and it may seem like they are impossible to gather. However, so long as you gather most of them the flying bees will eventually rejoin the colony.
Once you have got what you feel like is the majority of bees into the hive box, take a step back and observe their behaviour.
Go away for a few minutes, take your veil and gloves off, have a drink. After 5-10 minutes, wander back over and observe what the bees are doing.
If you have been successful in collecting the queen into your hive box you will notice a steady stream of bees waddling into the hive box.
You should also see several bees with their rear ends up in the air facing them away from the entrance and furiously fanning their wings. This is the bees letting their friends know where to go and effectively acting as air traffic controllers guiding them all in.
Should you notice bees streaming back to a different location or leaving the box en masse, then you will need to repeat step 2.
Quite often lots of bees will return to the spot where the swarm was. It can help to collect those bees into a small container per step 2 and place them at the entrance to the hive box, or you can simply just brush them away from the previous spot and eventually they fly off to the new box.
Let them do their thing.
Once you are happy that the bees are streaming into the hive box and it does not appear that they are clustering elsewhere, you can leave the hive box alone and wait for all the bees to enter the box at their own pace.
It can take several hours for them all to make their way into the box, and they won't all return to the hive box until after dark. This is because some of the foraging bees will still be out collecting nectar and pollen. It isn't until after dark that all the bees will have finally returned home.
It should be noted that the hive box you are collecting them in must be placed as close to the original swarm location as possible. This is done to assist the returning foragers in finding their new home.
After sunset return to collect the bees.
Depending on the size of the colony and the weather, they may or may not all be inside the box. If the box is too small the bees may simply not fit inside the box. If the weather is too warm, then the hive may prefer to leave some bees on the outside to avoid overheating inside.
If you return to pick the bees up and there are still bees on the outside of the box, there are a number of things you can try.
Firstly and most simple is to gently smoke the bees and encourage them to move inside the box. This generally works very well, so long as your smoking sends them the right direction. You'll want to start smoking the bees that are the furthest from the entrance and herding them toward it. Be patient, give them time and you should get them all inside.
If there are simply too many bees to fit inside the box then you can try gently brushing and smoking the stragglers into another box. This is not ideal because it creates extra work for you later on as you will have to reunite the two boxes later, however, sometimes it has to be done.
Failing both of those methods, you can still transport the bees with stragglers on the outside of the box. Of course, though, this will depend on your mode of transport. If you have a ute or trailer, this will work well. If you lost your licence from drinking too much mead and are forced to catch an Uber, probably not the best!
Take them away.
So you've boxed them up and convinced the cab driver to let you carry them home. Now you need to plan what to do with them next.
For a beekeeper with multiple hives already, I suggest you find somewhere to place the hive away from your other colonies for at least a couple of weeks. Before adding them to your apiary, you'll want to ensure these new bees do not have any diseases that may affect your existing colonies. For the first-timer, just place the bees where you intend to keep them permanently.
In the first couple of weeks, it may be beneficial to feed them sugar syrup to get them going. However, so long as there is some nectar flow the bees should be fine on their own.
Besides ensuring that the bees have nectar and pollen coming in, the main thing to check for in the first week of having the bees is that the queen is laying. If there are no signs of eggs or larvae after one week, then you may have to consider adding a frame of eggs and brood from one of your other hives so they can raise a new queen. Failing that, you will need to buy and install a queen.
So long as there is a nectar flow and the queen is laying, the bees will build out their new box filling it with resources. Congratulations, you've got your very first hive or a useful addition to your apiary.
As for when to expect a honey harvest, it really will depend on the size of the swarm, their productivity, the season, and what nectar sources are available. For most swarms, you can't really expect to harvest much from them in their first season. It has been done before, but it's generally best to let them build-up for the season and head into the next spring nice and strong.
Swarm Removal Tips
- When collecting a swarm from a residential area, try to avoid the homeowner turning on lights around where the hive box is. This will confuse the bees as to whether or not it's their bedtime and you'll come back to find dozens of bees circling around the lights. Same goes for shining a torch at the hive box. Avoid using light on them at night, or use a red light if you have to.
- To allow the bees to enter the hive box more quickly, leave the hive lid slightly diagonally across the top of the box to allow them additional entrance space.
- Once you have gotten the majority of the bees into the hive box, it is a good time to fill the box with frames. This gives the bees more surface area to cling onto inside the box meaning more can fit in there without overheating each other, as well as it means you don't have to transfer them into a box with frames later. When bees swarm they come prepared with lots of wax flakes ready to build comb quickly, so the sooner you can get them onto frames to capitalise on this, the better.
- With the frames, it pays to install frames with either wax foundation or plastic frames that have been well waxed. This helps the bees get started building their comb, as well as ensures they build it out in the right pattern, as in along your frames, not crisscrossed throughout the box. This makes yours and the bees lives much easier later on.
- When shaking or brushing the bees into their new box, it is very handy to lay a sheet down on the ground under the box. This gives the bees an easier walk into the box, allows you to see where all the bees are more easily, and makes cleaning up after easier. Once you go to leave you can just bundle up the hive and sheet and take all the debris and dead bees with you easily.
- Like us, bees need fresh air to breathe, so when closing up the hive box for transport you'll need to ventilate it. Using mesh-based hives, vented lids or a vented entrance closing system can all aid with this. There are many ways to do it, but just make sure you don't close the box up entirely or they will suffocate and overheat. If moving the closed up hive during the day, be sure to do so in an air-conditioned cabin or first thing in the morning before it gets warm.
- Quarantining of the bees has already been mentioned, but it is important to wash your equipment that was used as well. Be sure to sanitise your gloves, tools, and anything else that was in contact with the bees prior to handling your other hives.
- As tempting as it is, do not disturb the bees too much! If you can, avoid opening up their box for at least the first week. Give them time to settle and establish themselves in their new home before you go lifting the lid. You can observe the flow of traffic at the entrance of the hive and this will give you a good insight into how they are going. Busy bees are generally happy bees.
We hope the above has given you some insight into what to expect when collecting a swarm of bees and how to go about achieving this. If you have any questions comment below and as always feel free to share this with anyone who may be interested.