Catch a Swarm of Bees

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Catching a honey bee swarm is one of the most exciting aspects of beekeeping. Of course, you might use traps to acquire bees. Sometimes they enter a catch box and other times that sit down in some weird locations. If you find a mass of bees hanging nearby, you need to be prepared. Bees wait for no man – or woman. It’s time to learn how to catch a bee swarm.

Swarming honey bees flying through air.

I think honey bee swarming is a complicated and yet simple event. Retrieving a bee swarm that has left your own hive is great – if it came from somewhere else – it is even better.

Methods Used to Capture Bee Swarms

Beekeepers employ 2 different techniques for swarm catching. One has a more laid back approach with a little pre-planning. The other involves timely participation on the part of the beekeeper.

  • traps
  • transition spots (tree)

Swarm Traps

It is the wise beekeeper who knowns how to set up a honey bee swarm trap near their apiary. These are a great option for the beekeeper who has to be away at work and cannot keep a constant eye on the hives.

With some experimentation you can find the best lure to attract a swarm to the box. Then, you only have to collect the bees.

Swarm moving into a nuc size bait hive hung in a tree.

Transition Swarms

Another way to gather some new bees is to catch them in their transition spot. When a swarm leaves the mother colony, they will gather somewhere nearby. This is a temporary resting place.

The swarm stays in this transition location for a few hours or maybe overnight. This is the beekeeper’s moment of opportunity to catch the bees easily.

Sometimes a swarm will seem stuck – unable to make a decision on where to move. This is unfortunate because in regions with cold Winters, the colony will die when it turns cold.

Honey bee swarm very high in tree with yellow circle around the swarm location image.

How to Catch A Swarm Bees In A Tree

Retrieving a bee swarm from a tree is massive amounts of fun. Success depends on timing, patience and a bit of luck. Yes, pure dumb luck plays a part. 

When a swarm leaves my hive, will it set down in a small tree close to the ground? Or, will they choose that tall Sweet Gum or Persimmon tree about 30 feet up in the air? That’s the part about needing good luck.

Long mass of bee swarm hanging in a cedar tree.

Hiving Your Tree Swarm

There they are! You see a beautiful mass of honey bees hanging from a limb. It is time to swing into action. Let’s assume the swarm is within a safe distance from the ground – and you will be able to reach them without too much effort.

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Shaking Bees into the Box

1. Suit up in your protective beekeeping clothing. Swarms are not generally aggressive but they will sting. Honey bees sting for defense – and may not understand your good intentions.

2. Place an empty hive box on the ground under the swarm. I use a hive body box with a solid bottom (bottom board) – the hive top should be off but close by.

I like to temporarily remove about half of the frames to give more room. The remaining frames will be placed back in the box soon.

3. Grab the limb that the swarm is sitting on and give it a sharp shake. The bees will fall in a frightening lump in or near the box.

Hopefully some of the bees will fall into the box (and one of those will be the queen bee). Once the queen is in the box, the other bees will join her.

4. After that initial shake, I quickly place the remaining frames in the box and put the hive top back on. If the rest of the swarm does not go in the box within 15-20 minutes, you missed catching the queen. You may need to shake the tree again!

It is natural to have some concern about hurting the bees with this method. I too have had a concern over this. But honestly, I have rarely noticed any problem with the “shake’m out” method.

Cutting a Limb

When I have the choice and find the bees on a low limb that I can cut, I do that instead. This is much less exciting and results in fewer bees flying around in the air.

Gently lower the limb and mass of bees into the hive body and shake the cluster off – and fill with frames.

picture of a bucket mounted on a long pole to catch a bee swarm higher in a tree

Collect a Swarm High in a Tree

When I have a swarm that is just beyond reach, I am often able to get them anyway. A swarm retrieval aid helps me reach a swarm located just a bit too high up.

There are many ways to make a retrieval aid. I used an old “swimming pool cleaning”- telescoping pole with a bucket at the end as my own homemade contraption.

I attached a hinge to the end of the pole and then a plastic kitty litter bucket – this allows the bucket to swing.

Extend the pole up over most of the swarm – bump the limb (swarm) and quickly lower the bucket to retrieve the bees. Some will fly off, some will stay on the limb but some will be in the bucket.

Dump those quickly into the catch box. You only need to get the queen – the others will come down to her.

Due the the left behind pheromones from the bees, some will return to the cluster spot but eventually they find their queen in the catch box.

However, you won’t catch them all. Some swarms will be so high in the tree – you just have to walk away – unless you have a friend with a bucket truck. Please don’t risk your life trying to reach bees that are dangerously high up. 

After the Swarm is Caught

Every beekeeper has a different method of dealing with a newly captured swarm. I am not a proponent of locking bees up inside the hive. I’m not saying it is wrong to do – it’s just not my way.

There are 4 things I always do (unless it 100 degrees that day;)

  • place some type of bee feeder on the hive
  • give them a frame with a few nurse bees and little bit of bee brood
  • reduce the hive entrance
  • place some obstructions in front of the hive entrance

Regardless of the time of year or available forage, I provide sugar water for bees in new colonies. At least for a while and even if it is only using a quart jar-I think it make them like their new location.

If you have other colonies, take a frame from a strong hive with a little bit of brood and some nurse bees (be careful not to move a queen). Lightly spray with sugar water and give the frame to your new hive.

Be sure to reduce the entrance to your swarm hive, they will drop in population for a few weeks. You want them to feel safe.

On the night that I move the box to the bee yard (after dark) some obstructions are placed in front of the hive entrance. 

This can be something as simple as a couple of small tree limbs with leaves. (Anything, a desperate beekeeper comes up with.) My reasoning is that as the bees leave the hive the next morning, they will stop and investigate. 

Hopefully, this triggers some reorientation flights in the bees and helps them return to the proper location. Wait a few days before attempting a new first hive inspection of newly installed bees.

How Long to Leave Bees in a Catch Box

Some beekeepers like to leave the swarm in the catch box several weeks. I prefer moving my bees into a permanent hive within a few days. (If you used a standard box with frames and foundation you are set already.)

Leaving the catch box sitting beside the tree (that held the swarm) until after dark, ensures that all of the foragers will be inside. Once it is dark, I transport the new swarm hive back to the apiary.

Swarm of honey bees in a mass on the wooden support of a grape vine image.

When to Look for Swarms

You may catch a bee swarm at any time during the warmer months. During the Spring season especially, walk out around your bee yard (or apiary) every afternoon. Look up into the surrounding bushes and trees. 

You may see a swarm that is quietly hanging within reach. Or perhaps, you will find one 50 feet up – that’s frustrating.

Most honey bee swarms leave the mother hive between 10 AM and 2 PM. They usually stay in the transition spot for a few hours at least. Perhaps they are still there!

Any time you see a swarm hanging in a transition location, time is of the essence. If we did not see them come out of the mother hive, we don’t know how long they have been hanging there. Don’t delay.

Swarm bees entering a catch box after being captured from a tree.

Final Thoughts

Most beginner beekeepers have their first experience with a bee swarm when they find one hanging in a tree or shrub. If you are lucky, you may see the mass of bees swirling in the air before setting down.

However, sometimes they just surprise you and you are like – “Hey, what’s that? Oh heck, its a swarm!” Don’t just stand there – catch it!