Most honey bee colonies swarm each year. Bee swarms are both a blessing and a curse to beekeepers. A blessing if they came from somewhere else and maybe a curse if they just left your own hive. 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, it’s time to learn how to catch a bee swarm.
Catching a Honey Bee Swarm
Most new 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 bee the mass of bees swirling in the air before setting down.
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However, sometimes they just surprise you and you are like – “Hey, what’s that? Oh heck, its a swarm!”
The time spent in harvesting a swarm is well spent. Normally containing anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 bees, the swarm represents a new start with the capability to grow into a large productive hive.
Generally a bee swarm is not aggressive. It is also a lot of fun to catch them if it can be done safely. While not aggressive, swarm bees can and will sting if they feel threatened.
In the process of manipulating the swarm, stings can happen-so always suit up. The bees do not know your good intentions.
And, they may take being shook out of a tree personally. Wear your protecting beekeeper clothing – at least a hat and veil!
Methods Used to Capture Bee Swarms
Beekeepers employ 2 different techniques for catching a bee swarm. One has a more laid back approach with a little pre-planning . The other involves timely participation on the part of the beekeeper.
- catch the swarm in a swarm trap or bait hive
- catch the bee swarm in it’s transition spot (tree)
Swarm Traps & Bait Hives
It is the wise beekeeper that sets up a few swarm traps near their apiary. These boxes are constructed in several different way and can be left in place all season.
They are a great option for the beekeeper who has to be away at work and cannot keep a constant eye on the hives. Also, perhaps you can catch some wild bees that could add some new genetics to your apiary.
These structures work for you when you can’t be there. Over the years, I have caught swarms in many different types of boxes – in all shapes and dimensions – regardless of what the experts say.
Another way to gather some new bees is to catch them in their transition spot. When a honey bee swarm leaves the mother colony, they will gather somewhere nearby. This is a temporary resting place.
The swarm stays in this swarm 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.
When to Look for Swarms
You may find a swarm of honey bees at any time during the warmer months of the year. Spring is the most common time to see swarming.
This is a natural time of colony buildup. And, Spring swarms have the best chance of surviving due to abundant nectar and pollen.
The swarm normally leaves a hive on a warm, clear afternoon. The queen bee and about half the workers leave their colony to make a new home.
The mother hive is not left empty-though it may seem so to the casual observer. The original hive has queen cells – one of which will become the new queen of the colony.
Checking the Bee Yard
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.
A low hanging swarm may be collected by simply shaking it into a box – or a bucket that you can pour into a hive. Yes, some bees will fly out but that’s okay – as long as you get the queen bee – the others will join her.
How to Catch A Swarm Bees In A Tree
Retrieving a bee swarm from a tree is massive amounts of fun. You can do it, I have many times. 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 tree about 30 feet up in the air? That’s the part about needing good luck.
You won’t be able to catch every swarm as some will be way out of reach. Please don’t risk your life trying to reach bees that are dangerously high up.
Hiving Your Tree Swarm
Place an empty hive box (with bottom board) on the ground under the swarm. The hive top should be off but close by.
I generally like to remove about half of the frames to give more room for the bees. The remaining frames will be placed back in the box soon.
Give the limb a sharp shake and the bees will fall in or near the box. If the queen bee falls in the box, the other bees will join her. After an initial shake, I put the remaining frames in the box and place the 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.
When I have the choice and find the bees on a low limb that I can cut, I do that instead. Then a gently lower the mass of bees into the hive body and shake the cluster off. In most cases, I leave this capture hive sitting in place until dark. Then I move it to my bee yard.
Collect a Swarm High in a Tree
When I have a swarm that is just beyond reach, I am often able to get them with some help. 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. A long telescoping pole with a bucket at the end is 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 and I can bump the swarm inside – then quickly lower the bucket to retrieve the swarm. 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.
How Long to Leave Bees in a Swarm Trap
Some beekeepers like to leave the swarm in the bait hive several weeks. I prefer moving my bees into a permanent hive within a few days. This is assuming you did not use a regulation box as your trap. If so, you are a step ahead.
If the swarm trap is portable, I take it down and transfer the bees into a new hive box. Doing so carefully to avoid hurting bees or damaging my queen. Then, I close up the new box and strap it together so it will be easy to move.
In this case, I do take away the capture box for a few days. This helps avoid confusion with bee returning to the bait hive. Next week – I can place it back in the tree or other catch location.
Leaving the new hive sitting beside the tree (that held the catch box) 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.
What to do 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 degree that day;) when I hive a swarm:
- place some type of feeder on the hive
- give them a frame with a few nurse bees and little bit of brood
- reduce the hive entrance
- place some obstructions in front of the hive entrance
A new swarm hive has a lot of work to do. Regardless of the time of year or available forage, I feed new swarm 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 bee colonies, take a frame from a strong hive with just 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 and helps them return to the proper location. Wait a few days before attempting a new hive inspection.
Swarm Season Equipment
Always be ready during swarm season . I can’t tell you how many beekeepers have lost swarms simply due to lack of equipment!
Always have an extra-deep hive body, bottom board and top with frames and foundation prepared. Or, at least have a similar hive configuration that will provide a temporary home for a swarm.
If you want something portable to keep on hand, consider one of the cardboard nuc boxes. They fold flat and can be stored in the car or behind a truck seat.
In general, swarms are not dangerous. Learning how to catch a swarm of bees is one of the “rites of passage” for beekeepers. This represents free bees that would otherwise be lost.
Most feral “wild” colonies will succumb to mites, disease or starvation within 2 years. Face it, you will not catch every swarm. Try to be a good sport and wish them well as they fly away.