Catching a Fall Swarm of Bees
Finding a Fall swarm of bees is not as uncommon as you might think. Though not the prime season for honey bees to swarm, it can still happen. Members of a Fall swarm face more perils than those from earlier in the year. Late season swarms have a reduced chance of surviving through Winter. So, what’s a beekeeper to do when we see a small swarm in a tree with leaves that are changing color?
Swarms are exciting. As beekeepers, sometimes we love seeing them and other times…. not so much. If fact, despite the excitement of starting a new hive- swarms can be a major pain.
The late Summer or Fall swarm is not a bonus that is likely to result in a healthy beehive – for that season.
And, we often wonder if the effort to collect it is time well spent. But, most of us do it anyway – because we are beekeepers.
Special Challenges of Late Summer Swarms
There are several reasons that a late season bee swarm may not be a great opportunity. The major issues are related to the fast approaching time of cold weather.
Winter is coming soon. As the days grow shorter and cooler, foragers will not be able to collect as much food. Colony population drops but lots of bees and lots of food are both needed to build comb.
Can the swarm build up enough to survive? In many cases, it will not. Also, if the Fall swarm came out of one of your own hives, that hive too is now at risk.
The colony that swarmed (the mother hive) must make a new queen from queen cells left behind and rebuild the colony population before Winter.
However, the Fall hive will sometimes throw one or two small swarms. This leaves the beekeeper with a dilemma and the future of swarm and mother colony uncertain.
Why do Colonies Swarm Late in the Season?
Well, do we really know why bees do anything? Sure we see patterns and understand why bees react to certain stimuli.
Hundreds of years of study have taught us much as some aspects of bee life. But, we still have so much to learn about honey bee behavior.
Bee researchers are not certain why colonies throw Fall swarms. These swarms are different from the reproductive swarms that happen early in the season – and often much smaller.
We do know that small late season swarms have an almost 0% chance of survival without beekeeper intervention. Still, there is some merit in catching these small ones if possible.
An Extra Queen for Emergencies
Even if the beekeeper does not intend to overwinter the small swarm, there is still some value in catching it.
If a queen is present, the small colony can be help in a nuc box for a while. The queen and even her bees may be needed in another colony that is queenless and weak.
In this way I can attempt to save the bees in the swarm, even if they don’t become a separate, stand alone hive.
My Fall Honey Bee Swarm- A Beekeeper Dilemma
It is late September a year or so ago, I see a small swarm in a tree. I do not know if it has recently issued from a hive or has been up there for a week or so . It is the size of a small cantaloupe at best !
As the Beekeeper, I am faced with a decision. This swarm has almost no chance of building into a viable winter colony.
Bees need several months of good foraging to build comb, grow population and store winter food.
And, it may still be necessary to combine smaller colonies together before cold arrives.
Using my Bucket to Catch the Swarm
The first thing- get the bees out of the tree. Remember the mated queen may be worth the effort. Even if she is not the greatest queen in the world, as long as she is mated, I could put her in a queen less hive.
Using my “bucket on a pole” I reach up about 12 feet and bump the limb to knock many of the bees into the bucket. These bees are quickly dumped into a box containing 5 frames of drawn comb.
This is called a NUC box and is half the size of a regular 10 frame Langstroth hive. It is a good idea to match the size of the box to the bee population. A large box would be too much room for this small swarm to defend.
Do I have the queen ? YES I DO. A few minutes later, the queen is inside and some of the bees that I dumped in have come outside to inspect.
I make a couple more bumps with the bucket – dumping bees in front of the nuc box. Some go inside – some fly up in the air. I need to get enough bees in the box for them to realize the queen is in there and not in the tree.
Then, they begin to “scent” at the front signaling their sisters to come down. I am seeing more bees at the front door ! They are scenting to call down the rest of the bees still on the limb!
A temporary feeder jar with some sugar water is placed on top. The small swarm does not have enough bees to fight off robbing attempts-help them out.
Once most of the swarm is inside, the entrance is reduced to a tiny opening – approx 1 inch in width.
Hopefully the bees will realize this is the best chance available for them and stay in the box provided. Once dark falls, I move the box to the bee yard.
For this particular very small swarm I will investigate my options. As with any swarm, they may leave my box.
Ok, I can say I tried to save them. As I tell students in my online beekeeping class – you can’t save them all!
Recap of Fall Bee Swarms
Honey bee colonies that swarm during Spring buildup are called reproductive swarms. They have a better chance for survival. They are reproducing the colony at a time of growth and food surplus.
But when bees swarm in Fall and must start over from scratch, their survival is unlikely.
In fact, both colonies are at risk? We don’t know for sure why bee colonies do this risky behavior.