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How to Attract a Bee Swarm to a Hive

One exciting method of getting free bees is by catching them in from the wild. Some beekeepers get lucky and find a bee swarm hanging within reach in a tree. But, setting up beehive box or bait hive is one get way to harvest wild swarms – even when you are not home. Use these tips to learn how to attract a swarm of bees to your hive.

Worker bees attracting the rest of a bee swarm to a hive image.

Attracting a Swarm of Bees

What is a Bee Swarm?

When a honey bee colony becomes over crowded, about half of the members of the hive will leave the mother colony and build a new home. This is called a bee swarm.

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It is a natural part of the honey bee colony life cycle. All healthy honey bee colonies reproduce in this way at least once a year. Some colonies may cast several swarms each season.

Swarming is one of the most exciting aspects of beekeeping. Beekeepers love seeing bees flying in large masses in the air – especially if they did not come from our own bee boxes.

large bee swarm on post - attracting a bee swarm

While in flight, the swarm seems to fly crazily with no pattern. Yet, they somehow avoid running into each other- for the most part .

The first time is especially exciting for new beekeepers. And, a swarm can seem scary too- if it is your first experience.

Beekeepers Practice Swarm Prevention

Many beekeepers (including myself) try to limit or prevent honey bee swarms . Why? This is because a honey bee colony that produces a swarm – often makes less honey that season.

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Even a colony of thousands has a limited work force and finite amount of time to prepare for Winter survival. Energy spent building the population could have been used to make and store more honey.

However, bees have a different agenda than we do – and swarm behavior is a natural tendency. As beekeepers, we have to work with the natural traits of these fascinating insects. Fighting an instinct millions of years old can be a frustrating experience.

Using Traps to Harvest Bee Swarms

We can not always stop the swarm from happening. But, we can invest some time in looking for them and attempting to catch the bees leaving your own hives.

Collecting a swarm hanging from a tree or large bush is one technique. However, you can’t always be home when the swarm happens. This is where the practice of trying to attract swarms to a trap becomes beneficial.

Small bee swarm entering a bait hive image.

In fact, it is a good idea to set up several swarm traps in various locations. Not every location will be successful. Also, I find that my bees often choose the most unlikely type of trap.

The traps can be made of many different materials. And, we beekeepers can argue all day about which style or size is the best. A hive in which bees have lived previously is very attractive.

I have caught a swarm many times in nuc sized boxes. However, if you want to attract large bee swarms this size may not be large enough. You may miss some bigger swarms that want more room.

Honey bee scout attracted to a pulp swarm trap image.

Pulp Bait Hives-Good for a Season

Some beekeepers like to use the commercially available beehive traps made out of a pulp-like material.  They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. 

It is not a long lasting solution but they are lightweight and easy to handle. I have seen some beekeepers make a swarm trap from an XL pulp flower pot! Though I must admit I have never been able to attract a bee swarm to a pot myself.

Best Time of Year for Bee Trapping

The reproductive season in South Carolina is from March thru September or October. You can adjust that timeline for your climate. This is the most likely times for you to attract a swarm.

These are the months when brood is being produced and drones, or male bees are available to mate with queen bees. 

Do I ever see swarms in February or late October? You bet! Never attempt to say what bees will or will not do, they will prove you wrong. Fall bee swarms are not uncommon either but many of those do not survive.

Attracting Scout Bees Ahead of the Swarm

Swarm traps should be placed in key locations several weeks before warm weather. Scout bees will be checking out possible locations for a new home- well in advance of the swarm leaving.

Some of them may even spend the night in a potential nest site. It’s rather like a sleep-over! 

When you see an increasing number of scout bees near a swarm trap. That may indicate a bee swarm arrival soon. Do not attempt to make adjustments to the trap at this time. Let the them do their job.

Continue to monitor your trap and check back in a couple of days. You may see a swarm move in which is very exciting!

Or, seeing normal foraging flights coming and going may indicate that your trap was successful in attracting a swarm.

Sometimes, these scouts choose locations that we do not want – such as the siding of your home – oops. A good reason to keep cracks in your home sealed.

Old bait hive or swarm trap sitting in a tree image.
What goes up, must come down. Bait hives don’t have to be up really high.

Best Swarm Trap Locations

What is the perfect location for your swarm trap? Well, that subject is open to debate and there are many different ideas.

Most resources agree that a swarm trap with the interior size of a deep hive body is a good choice. And, elevating the bait hive off the ground is good.

Some people get overly-concerned about the height of a trap to catch swarms. As I mentioned before, bees tend to do what they want. They can fly.

I have had great success attracting bee swarms to traps less than 10 feet off the ground. Many folks like to have traps higher – at about 15 ft. Be safe!

You will have a better chance of attracting honey bee swarms if your trap is in a shaded location. A tree at the edge of the forest line is a good choice.

Scents that Attract Swarming Bees

One of the most reliable methods of attracting a swarm of honey bees is to lure them with scent. Several options can be used for scent.

Using Old Brood Comb

Do you have an old frame of used honeycomb? The smell of beeswax will encourage scout bees to check out the location.

Old comb contains bee cocoons, propolis, pollen and honey smells. It doesn’t matter if the comb is old and black – in fact the scout bees make like it even better that way.

Using Swarm Lures to Attract Honey Bees

Many beekeepers chose to use a commercial swarm lure to attract honey bees. These lures contain a synthetic hormone the simulates the nasanov pheromone. They simply get the attention of scout bees.

This is especially helpful if you do not have an old hive box or used honeycomb. Honestly, I use both old comb and lure.

My current favorite is one called Swarm Commander . I use the liquid form (most often) and dabble a few drops at the trap entrance. Repeated every 2-3 weeks. The ready to use vials are simply placed inside the trap.

Homemade Swarm Lures

In addition to purchasing commercial swarm lures you can make your own. Some beekeepers simply use a drop or two of Lemongrass Oil placed on the top of one of the frames in the trap. Be careful – a little bit is enough.

Lemongrass Oil may need to be replaced a bit more often that the commercial stuff but don’t over do it.

Any of these methods can be successful, find out what works for you in your area.

Final Tips on How to Attract Bee Swarms:

It is common to be afraid of making mistakes in beekeeping. That’s okay though – it will happen-everyone has a few beekeeping errors to talk about.

In my Online Beekeeping Class, I tell my students that it is important to not beat themselves up when things go wrong. It is natural to have some failures.

Finding a swarm in your bait box is one of the best thrills of beekeeping. When you learn how to attract a bee swarm and they actually move in an empty hive – you feel like a beekeeping hero!

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