Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
So you’ve spotted a swarm of honeybees. Now what? In this blog post, I discuss some of the basic considerations when you consider capturing a swarm.
What is a Swarm?
A swarm is simply a gathering of honeybees, clinging together around the queen while scouts look for a new home. Swarming is a honeybee colony’s natural instinct to expand and preserve the species. As the colony begins to fill the available nesting space, the bees prepare to divide. A new queen is raised while the old queen departs with a group of bees. This departing group congregates in a readily identifiable mass on a tree branch, post or some other structure. Swarming frequently happens in the spring so the bees have all season to build and store up food for the winter months.
Don’t worry about finding swarms. When friends and neighbors find out you are a beekeeper, they will call you when they see one. Your challenge is to determine if you are ready to capture a swarm.
On our farm, we have seen two swarms already this year and were able to acquire one. To successfully capture and hive a swarm, it is prudent to be mindful of a few steps.
Scout the Location
First scout out the location of the swarm. Swarms will often remain in one place for a day or so but it is best to move quickly. It is disheartening to gather all your equipment and gear, load everything and arrive at the location to find the swarm has already moved on. When assessing the location, think through how to safely gather the swarm. Start with access. Are you able to reach it with a well stabilized ladder or from the back of a truck? Perfect. If you are considering balancing your ladder on top of your pickup, don’t. As wonderful as it is to capture a swarm, it is not worth personal injury or risk.
Also consider how far you will need to carry the hive once you have the swarm inside. You can place a swarm in a nuc (short for nucleus) box which will be lighter to carry. If you are using a ten frame box with bottom board and cover, this will be heavier and more unwieldy.
The swarm we captured landed on an Autumn Olive shrub about three feet off the ground next to a pathway. It was as if the bees were begging to be placed in a hive.
Gather Tools and Equipment
You will need some basic items to capture a swarm. As noted above you can use a nuc box or a swarm trap. At a minimum you will need frames, a box, lid, bottom board and liquid feed. Don’t forget to wear your protective gear. Even though a swarm contains bees at their most docile with no honey or brood to guard, they still have stingers. As you bend, reach and clasp you could inadvertently pinch one of the bees and get stung.
We loaded the ATV with a single hive box containing ten new frames of wax coated foundation, a solid bottom board, an entrance reducer set to the smallest opening, top feeder, heavy sugar syrup, inner cover and outer cover. For ourselves, protective jackets with netted hoods and gloves. Given the location of the swarm we also included loppers and pruners in the tool kit.
Gather the Bees
Depending on the location of your swarm, you may shake, cut the tree branch, or brush the bees into the box. Work deliberately without sudden movement that will startle the bees. If you are working with a partner, talk through each step so both know what the other’s role will be in this operation.
After we stationed the bottom board and box of frames below the swarm, one of us held the branch while the other cut. Once the branch was free, we placed it across the top of the frames. The bees started crawling over and down between the frames. A gentle shake or two and a gentle brush removed the bees from the branch. This step felt very much like installing a package of bees. After about 15 minutes the majority of the swarm was crawling on the frames, into the entrance and along the side of the box.
Once the majority of the bees are in the box, place the cover and load for transport. Common wisdom suggests taking the new hive a considerable distance from the parent colony to ensure they will stay where you place them. Another option is to close up the hive with a piece of screen for a few days until the queen’s pheromones permeate the hive. Add the feeder style of your choice and fill with a 1:1 sugar syrup. Continue feeding until the bees are bringing in sufficient nectar and pollen to meet their own needs.
Our open box and bottom board were lifted as one unit into the back of the UTV and slowly driven to the new location. Top feeder, syrup and covers were added, securely weighing down the covers with a brick. Since this location was far enough from the parent colony, we used an entrance reducer turned to the smallest opening. This helps the bees defend their hive until they are well established. Our swarm appeared calm and accepting of their new home. Since they have to build all new wax on the frames, we will feed syrup for three to four weeks.
Catching a swarm is a beekeeper bonus. An additional colony is added without the added expense.
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