Attracting a Bee Swarm to a Swarm Trap
Hoping to catch a honey bee swarm this year? Me too! You may get lucky enough to find a swarm hanging in a tree. Many of us set swarm traps or bait hives too, But what can we do to attract honey bee swarms to them?
What is a Swarm?
When a colony becomes crowded, about half of the bees will leave the mother colony and build a new home. This is called swarming. It is a natural part of the honey bee life cycle.
Swarming is one of the most exciting aspects of beekeeping. Beekeepers love seeing bees swarm in the air.
The bees seem to fly crazily with no pattern. Yet, they somehow avoid running into each other- for the most part .
The loud buzzing sound is surprising. Once you hear it a few times, it become easy to recognize in the future.
The first swarm is especially exciting for new beekeepers. And, a swarm can seem scary too- if it is your first experience.
Swarms do get us excited but seeing one does not always fill our “beekeeping hearts” with joy.
Many beekeepers (including myself) strive to prevent swarming of our honey bee colonies.
This is because a honey bee colony that produces a swarm – often makes less honey that season. If honey production is your beekeeping goal, you need a strong colony with a lot of bees.
However, bees have a different agenda than we do – and swarming is a natural tendency. We have to work with the natural traits of our bees.
How to Catch Swarms
We can not always stop the swarm from happening, so it is a good idea to try to catch the bees before they leave your property.
One swarm prevention/management technique is to put out bait hives or swarm traps. These boxes can be made of a variety of materials.
Our goal is to entice the new swarm into choosing one of these boxes. Then we can later move the swarm colony to a permanent hive.
Preparing Swarm Traps
Swarm traps can be made of many different materials. And we beekeepers can argue all day about which style or size is the best.
You may choose a more “earthy” type of swarm trap. Or use a small nuc box or plastic/cardboard one to catch a honey bee swarm.
Small Hive Boxes Can Be A Useful Tool
Do you have a nuc box? This is a small hive box that is half the size of a regular 10 frame hive. Every beekeeper needs to keep a nuc on hand.
Nucs made of wood last for years. But, special cardboard nucs are great to have as well.
They make quick work of catching a swarm. And they will last for several months as a temporary swarm catching box.
I have caught many bee swarms in nuc sized boxes but you may miss some bigger swarms that want more room.
Swarm Traps In Place Before Bee Swarms Begin
Most honey bee colonies swarm during good weather. A fair day seems to be good traveling weather for bees. Swarming is also more likely in times of ample forage.
Spring is the biggest swarm season. In my region, I see the most bee swarms during late March, April and through May.
This means that my swarm traps are out by mid February. Bee colonies prepare to swarm. This risky endeavor is not done on a whim.
Weeks before the swarm leaves the colony, scout bees will be checking out possible locations for a new home.
It is important to give the scout bees time to find your swarm trap. You may have a swarm move in immediately but this is not the normal thing.
When Bee Swarms Occur
Honey bee swarming can happen at any time during the “reproductive season”. The reproductive season in South Carolina is from March thru September or October.
Do I ever see honey bee swarms in February or late October? You bet! Never attempt to say what bees will or will not do, they will prove you wrong.
Warmer than normal weather in early Spring can speed up swarming. Fall swarms are not uncommon either.
So I tend to leave my swarm traps in place until late October. Some years, I forget to bring them in for Winter.
Scout Bees Are the Realtors of The Bee Swarm World
The bees in a colony perform many different jobs. And these jobs change as the worker bees age. A small percentage of the worker population will serve as scout bees.
In addition to searching for food sources, they serve another function. Scout bees are given the task of searching out a new home for the swarm.
We want them to really like the size and placement of our bee swarm traps. If your goal is attracting honey bee swarms, your target is to attract the scout bees first.
In the weeks before the old colony swarms, the scouts begin to investigate possible new homes. Preparations are going on inside the colony too.
Weeks of preparation go into the process of issuing a swarm. During this time scout bees are out looking – and hopefully at YOUR bait hive or swarm trap.
Some of the scout bees may even spend the night in a potential nest site. It’s rather like a sleep-over!
A forager will come and go from a hive site with determination. If you see numerous bees buzzing around the entrance of your swarm trap, seeming to measure – thats a good sign.
When you see an increasing number of scout bees near a swarm trap. That may indicate a bee swarm arrival soon.
A Favorite Bee Swarm Trap Setup
We can find bee swarms residing in many different locations. From the expected, prepared swarm trap to the unused gas grill on your neighbor’s porch. You just never know.
My favorite type of swarm trap or bait hive is an old hive body. A used hive body has the smell of bees!
Old wax and propolis scent remains in the wood. A bee has a much stronger sense of smell than us. They can smell wax from far away.
I like to use a solid bottom. Unlike a normal solid bottom board, I actually nail a flat piece of wood to the bottom of the hive body.
My trap will not be used by the bees year-round. I will transfer them to a permanent bee box.
Honey Bees like darkness inside their hive.I add a tight-fitting top that can be easily removed (with screws-not nails) and a small 1-inch hole drilled in the hive body about 2 inches up from the bottom.
The small entrance gives the bee swarm a feeling of safety. They are better able to protect a small entrance from robber bees.
Pulp bait hives can be useful for attracting honey bee swarms too.
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!
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 catching swarms in traps less than 10 feet off the ground. Many folks like to have traps higher – at about 15 ft. Be safe!
Getting an empty swarm trap up in the tree is one thing. Will you be able to get it down with 10-20 pounds of weight inside?
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.
If you catch a swarm, replace the trap quickly. I have caught several swarms with the same trap over a season.
And don’t forget swarm trap maintenance. Each season, check your trap to make sure it is in good shape.
Using Scent to Lure Swarming Bees
One of the most reliable methods of catching a swarm of bees is to lure them with scent. No, you can not buy queen bees and put them in the trap to attract a swarm.
Do you have an old frame of used honeycomb? The smell of wax will encourage scout bees to check out the location.
In my experience, I have had better luck using just 1 old frame with comb in my swarm trap. When I filled the box with 10 frames, I caught fewer swarms.
So, I put one frame in the box and lightly tack it to the side (this is so it won’t move and squeeze bees when I am getting it down).
This method requires you to monitor the swarm trap often. When the bees move in, they will begin to build honeycomb from the top of the box. I don’t expect them to use the old frame, it is just there for scent.
Other beekeepers like to use 1 frame with old comb and fill the rest of the space with empty frames. The empty frames contain a small 1-inch strip of beeswax foundation in the top wedge.
This method preserves the feeling of space while encouraging the bees to build within the frames.
Any of these methods can be successful, find out what works for you in your area.
The Best Lure to Attract A Honey Bee Swarm
Many beekeepers chose to use a commercial swarm lure to attract honey bee swarms. 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.
Catching the Bee Swarm
- Place your swarm trap out 3-4 weeks before the Spring Nectar Flow
- Use a large container/old hive body with solid floor and top
- Drill a 1″ opening for an entrance
- An old piece of honeycomb inside attracts scout bees
- Use a commercial swarm lure if desired
- Check your swarm trap often
- When a swarm moves in – relocate to a permanent location
Do Swarm Traps Always Work?
No. Catching a swarm of bees is a lot like fishing. You put forth your best effort and hope it works. Sometimes it will not work – so we try something different.
Beekeepers love setting up bait hives or swarm traps. Why? Because the effort of trying to catch bee swarms is small compared to the value of a new colony.
If one of my hives swarms, I would like to catch them before they leave my property.
And if a wayward swarm passes through from somewhere else, I would like to catch it too! A swarm that did not come out of my hive. Free Bees!