Catching the Honeybee Swarm

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A swarm in a black sapote tree

In the last year and a half, we have captured 10 swarms. Capturing a swarm is an excellent way to start keeping bees. It’s not as difficult as it may sound and from my experience, not as dangerous as one might think.

Within the last 3 days, I have captured two swarms.  It doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of bees, but what it does require is no fear. It’s easy to overcome your fear of bees if you watch a beekeeper in action. They are calm, move with purpose and respect the bees.

You can’t swat at bees, run from them flailing your arms, breathe heavy, talk loud, or kill them with carelessness. Capturing a swarm requires these things, plus organization and a few tools.

Bees that have swarmed are not as dangerous as bees that are in a hive. They have nothing to defend; no brood, no eggs, no honey comb. In addition, they tend to fill up on honey when they leave the hive, so they will be fat and conserving energy for new hive construction.

A bee swarm is natural. It’s the way bees survive and make more hives. Most of my swarms have actually been from my own hives. A few have not.

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Empty topbar hive

You must be prepared to capture a swarm. First things first, you must have a hive box to put them in. You can use any style of box such as topbar, Langstroth (box type) or Warre (pronounced war-ray). Other things I like to have on hand are two clean (and dry) 5-gallon buckets with lids, a bee smoker, a bee brush, a swatch of queen excluder, a piece of wood or cork to reduce the hive entrance, loppers or pruning shears and personal bee protection gear.

I think protection is a personal matter. Most all bee sites tell you to keep well protected. I say, be as protected as you feel you personally need and are comfortable with. Be aware if Africanized bees are in your area. We don’t have them in Hawaii.

I always wear a hat, have on boots and long pants, a tank top or t-shirt, and I tend not to wear a veil and very rarely put on gloves. I’m okay with getting a few stings and they are never more than a few. If the bees are angry and they are flying at you with the intention of attacking, most certainly suit up. If not it helps to have clear vision and nimble hands. Gloves are bulky and kill bees.

I have witnessed quite a few swarms. They are awe inspiring. The sound, the whirl wind of bees in the air is very exciting. In my experience, a hive can swarm and in 10 minutes, you may not even know which hive it came out of or where it went.  Timing is crucial, otherwise you will need some luck to stumble upon a swarm.

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Bees may be hot or building numbers to swarm!

I can usually tell when one of my hives is about to swarm. You will see plenty bees on the outside of the hive for days. Almost to the point where you will no longer be able to see the wood on the hive box, there will be so many bees. Also, it helps to have the latest knowledge on their condition by physical examination.

If you have no hives and you want to catch a swarm. Spring time is an excellent time to be prepared.  Ask a beekeeper and give them your number. Plenty of times, I am unable to catch a swarm. It would be nice to have some people to call who are interested in them.

You may even call the non-emergency number of your police and fire departments and ask to be put on a call list of beekeepers who will come and get a swarm. People often panic when 3-7 lbs of bees land in their house or yard. Put the word out and you may one fine day get that call.

The main thing that has prevented me from catching a swarm is location. If the swarm is too high to reach from a ladder, on a flimsy branch or unreachable by climbing; best to let them be. It’s not a bad thing to let bees go off into the world.

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Swarm in a starfruit tree

A hive usually swarms very close to the original hive. They like taller trees and branches with some foliage for protection. They tend to remain there a day or up to three days until their scouts have found a place for them to go and start building a new hive. A sunny day with no chance of rain is the best type of day. If it’s about to rain, or raining be prepared to get stung.

Bees will clump up on a branch and keep the queen deep inside to keep her safe. Once you are eye level to a swarm you can either cut the branch they are on or shake the branch into a five gallon bucket. It all depends on the situation.

If they are on only one branch and it’s an easy cut, this would be the preferred method. You must however, hold the branch that they’re on very still as to not let them all spring off when the cut is made and the weight is shifted. You may cut off branches extending from the branch they are on to lighten the weight. Usually, this is a two person job; one who does the cutting and one who holds the branch. Then you must carefully, bring the branch down the ladder not swiping any leaves or branches that will knock the bees off on the way down. You can hold the branch down as long as you tilt it very slowly and don’t make any sudden jolts losing the bees.

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Kathleen cutting a branch to drop into a bucket

Once you are down and have the branch with bees intact, carry them directly to the hive and hold the branch over the open hive and in one sudden rapid deceleration shake them off. Replace the hive cover as soon as possible because all those bees can leave in a matter of seconds. If your hive is small enough and the branch fits inside the hive you can even lay that down inside and replace the cover. You can always go back when things have quieted down and rearrange things. It always helps to have another person helping to put on top bars or frames and then, of course, the lid. Use the bee brush or the smoker to rid bees off the areas where they will get squished by the closing lid.

If any bees spilled off, you may want to examine them for the queen. Bees tend to ball up on the queen, so if you see a strange clump of bees in the grass or a gathering of bees back in the tree you may have missed her. They will follow her where ever she goes.

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A queen excluder stapled onto the hive entrance

A queen excluder patch stapled over the hive entrance will prevent the queen from leaving. I do this in both types of hives I keep; top bar and Langstroth. Reduce the entrance on the Langstroth leaving 1-3 inches of opening where you can place a 3″ x 2″ swatch of plastic queen excluder over the opening. Same as the top bar; staple it over the 3/4″ to 1″ hole covering any openings with a queen excluder.

If you opt for the bucket method, it’s best to hold the bucket directly under the hive and keep the lid near by so that you may close up the bucket as soon as possible. If all the bees fit into the bucket, do this before you shake the limb. If there is overspill they will fall down to the ground or take flight.

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Pono holds bucket while Yagn shakes the branch

If this happens, wait 5-10 minutes and they will regroup at the same limb. Take an empty bucket and do the same as the first time until you are satisfied that you got most of the bees and feel you most likely got the queen.

Take your full bee bucket(s) over to the hive and proceed in the same manner as with a branch except you will be dumping in bees from the buckets instead of off a branch. Have your helper dump the other bucket, if there is one, at the same time. Remember not to leave the bees in the buckets for too long. It will get hot, they will run out of air and they will perish if left too long.

Once your bees are inside the hive, you will want to visually inspect them every few hours during daylight and for the next several days. You will want to look for normal bee behavior before you take off the excluder. That would mean bees coming and going, bees with pollen sacs, and generally looking like they are working.

If you have other hives, similar to the one you just put your swarm into, a comb or two of brood and a honey comb, will help guarantee acceptance of their new hive. Brush off any bees that are clinging to it at first. This can be put in afterwards or at the time you capture the swarm.

Don’t leave the excluder on for longer than three days. Swarms are usually the old queen leaving with the bees but it can be a maiden queen leaving with them and if so, she will need to leave the hive to mate.

Once your bees seem like they are staying, check on them every week by opening up the hive and within a few weeks to a month you should start seeing eggs. Make sure they are building combs correctly and are in general good health and well being.

Beekeeping is a rewarding experience for the ability to work along with the bees and for the rewards of honey and bee products.  Read a few bee books or attend a bee lesson or two and you are well on your way. Each time I go into a hive, I learn something. You will gain experience, it’s not terribly complicated and you can begin with just a swarm and you may end up like me with 10 hives!

Ho! Happy beekeeping!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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