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Honey Bee Swarm Trap Setup

Swarm traps, also called, bait hives are structures that beekeepers use to catch bee swarms. The beauty of this method is that you can catch them even while you are away. Beekeepers who learn the best methods for swarm trap setup may be rewarded with several groups of free bees. Swarming is a seasonal event that occurs most often in Spring. We want to get those traps set up well before Spring arrives.

Getting the Swarm Trap Ready

Honey bee swarm trap placed in a tree to catch bees image.

Most beekeepers try their hand at catching bees at some time in their beekeeping experience. Maybe they will catch a swarm that issues from one of their own hives.  This is actually a great thing because it prevents the bees from getting away.

For some some new beekeepers, catching bees in a swarm trap might be the only way they can get started in beekeeping. Buying honey bee colonies and equipment can get rather expensive. If their budget does not allow the purchase of bees, a free swarm is a blessing.

What is a Honey Bee Swarm Trap?

Let’s get some terminology out of the way first. The terms : swarm trap, bee trap, and bait hive all mean the same thing. There are so many different types of honey bee traps, I could never list them all.

They can be made from many different materials or you can purchase commercial versions from beekeeping suppliers. Buckets, wooden boxes, old hive bodies, nuc boxes and more have all be used to successfully trap honey bees.

A wooden honey bee swarm trap for in a tree image.

Do Bee Traps Work?

Yes, honey bee traps can be very successful at catching swarms. And sometimes, you can catch more than 1 swarm in the same box during the warm season. I think my record was 4 swarms in my favorite trap in one summer.

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However, no bait hive will catch every swarm of bees. You will still some some bees that decide to go out on their own instead of using the free apartment you have fixed for them.

If the scout bees find a location better than what you are offering – the swarm will go there instead. You never can tell with bees. Sometimes, a swarm will even sit down on the outside of other beehives.

A bee swarm on outside of a hive image.

When to Set Up Your Swarm Trap

Set up your swarm trap in late Winter – very early Spring.  Once colony populations begin to grow, scout bees will begin to search out new homes. This can take place sooner in the season that you may believe. Late February works well for me.

If you hear of other beekeepers in areas close to you are seeing swarms, it is past time to get your swarm trap set up in a good spot. It will take a while for the scout bees to find your trap so get it out there.

Of course you can place bait hives out at any time during the warm season. You never know when a swarm may move in. But those early season bee swarms are very valuable because they have months to build up and get ready for Winter.

Best Location for a Swarm Trap

Much research has been completed on the ideal placement of bee swarm traps. If you are looking for data, you will find a wealth of ideas to help you choose a perfect spot.

Of course, remember – our bees don’t read the same books that we do. I have seen many swarms ignore all of these good suggestions:

  • elevate the trap off the ground 6-13 feet minimum
  • face entrance towards southeast if possible
  • have a small entrance 1″
  • ideal space inside equivalent to a hive body or deep box

What should your bait hive be made of?  How large should the inside dimensions be?  Different sizes are suggested as being the best to entice a bee swarm.

I have caught small swarms in large boxes and had huge swarms move into tiny boxes. The problem here of course is that if the box is too small, the bees may move in and right back out the next day.

Having said all that, do not hesitate to set up a honey bee trap because you don’t have the perfect location or perfect materials. You just never know what can happen.

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Most resources advise setting them up higher (around 13 feet or more) off the ground. However, that is too high for me to get down by myself! Do what works for you!

Choose a shady location at that is what bees seem to prefer. Also, you want the opening to the trap to be small – no more and 1-1 1/2″ in diameter.

Give your trap a solid bottom so the bees feel safe. You also need nice lids that are secure but easy to remove-perhaps use screws instead of nails.

A beekeeper making a solid bottom for a honeybee bait hive image.

Honey Bee Trap Setup Quick Guide

  1. Place your trap out 3-4 weeks before the Spring Nectar Flow
  2. Use a large container/old hive body with solid floor and top
  3. Drill a 1″ opening for an entrance
  4. An old piece of honeycomb inside attracts scout bees
  5. Use a commercial swarm lure if desired
  6. Check your traps often
  7. When bees moves in – relocate to a permanent location

Make Your Own Bee Swarm Trap

A common type of bee swarm trap is made using an old hive body. This would be a box that has contained bees in the past.

Preferably, a scuffed old box with traces of comb, propolis and wonderful bee colony smells. If you have been keeping bees for a few years, you probably have one of these laying around. 

If not, ask around and you should be able to find an experienced beekeeper who would give you an old hive body or sell it really cheap.

A used empty hive body an ideal candidate for making a swarm trap image.

Swarm Lures or Bait

Before a swarm can move into your trap, they have to find it. Luckily bees have an extraordinary sense of smell. They are attracted to the pheromones left behind by previous bees, or those in honeycomb.

There are many techniques used for attracting bee swarms. Part of it is making the bees feel at home. This involves not only the size of the bait hive but the smell too.

If you have it , throw a piece of old comb in the bait hive. Yes, wax moth larvae may destroy the comb but that’s okay – it does not represent a significant loss.

An old dark brood comb for honey bee swarm trap lure image.

And of course, you can purchase commercial swarm lure. I find that their quality varies greatly. One of my favorites is Swarm Commander. These lures last for several months.

How Many Frames to Put in Your Bait Hive?

Some beekeepers choose to fill the bait hive with the correct number of frames. A 10 frame box would get 10 frames – at least 1 with old comb (or a lure). The remainder could be frames with new foundation.

I have found that sometimes my traps are more successful if I leave more open space. In these cases, I place a frame or two of old comb in the hive and gently nail it to one side. This is so the frames do not move around when I take the trap down.

A bit of foundation being attached to bottom of inner cover of swarm trap with old beeswax image.

When I do this it seems that the bees tend to ignore the frame and attach comb from the top/inner cover. That’s okay, I don’t leave them there long. I use an old beeswax candle to attach a small strip of foundation to the underside of the inner cover.

Most of the time, the bees will choose that spot to begin building comb. I like this as it ensures that the comb is in the middle of the box and less likely to be attached to sides.

If you choose this strategy, it is even more important to check the trap weekly. We do not want the swarm to waste a lot of energy building comb in that empty space – and they will!

You can not leave them in there very long or you will have a mess in that open space. I used to put a box full of frames in the boxes but I catch more swarms without them.

Bee bait box with frames of old comb to lure in scouts image.

Different Types of Bait Hives

Bait hives do come in all sizes and styles. The deep hive body is common but do not limit your to that option.

You may choose a more “earthy” type of trap made of wood pulp. Or some beekeepers prefer to use a small nuc box or plastic/cardboard one.

Nucs made of wood last for years. But, special cardboard nucs are great to have as well. They can be a bit flimsy but some duck tape firms them up good.

How Many Traps Should You Have?

How many swarm traps you need depends on your space, time and budget. Only have as many traps as you can check often – ideally weekly.

Most are only designed to hold the swarm for a brief time. The new colony will outgrow it quickly.

It is good to have several swarm traps spaced out in different locations or directions from your bee yard. We never know for sure which one the bees will like best.

Scout honey bee inspecting a bait hive image.

Getting the Bees Down !

 It is rare to get out to this box without being accompanied by some of the farm animals- goats, donkeys or barn cats.  Who would have guessed that they knew so much about setting up a swarm trap ?!

Goats watching a swarm box being set in place image.

A bait hive can get very heavy in a hurry. When you are choosing a place for it, think about how you are going to get it down with bees and some honey inside.

I have this box connected to a rope that allows me to raise and lower it with ease. The use of a pulley system is a great idea. Don’t under-estimate how quickly a trap can become too heavy to lift .

Why a Swarm Trap is Unsuccessful

There are several possible reasons for a trap’s lack of success.  Perhaps there were fewer swarms in the area that year. 

Or, maybe the bees found  better accommodations elsewhere – in hollow trees, other traps or the boxing of people’s homes?

Or just maybe, there was something about that trap that the early visiting scout bees just didn’t like. Next season try another trap of a different size or material – maybe change the location a bit too.

Honey bee swarms don’t always choose to go into provided boxes. Often, a beekeeper will find a swarm of bees hanging on a low limb of a tree. These are easily gathered.

But, the swarm can also be hanging in the highest branches of the tallest tree around. This is why I always have a bee swarm trap near my bee yard.

At around $100 per bee family, learning to set up a swarm trap is not effort wasted. If you catch only 1 swarm your investment was worthwhile.

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20 Comments

  1. When you put your swarm boxes up in the spring do you leave them up unti fall.

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Yes I do. Normally, I put them up in early March and take them down in early October.

  3. Tricia Johnson says:

    What’s the approx. diameter of the entrance you made in the box? Thanks!

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Its about 1″.

  5. Do you suggest to use lemongrass oil in the box to attract bees?

  6. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    I have used it Gretchen. I dont like it would hurt – I just tend to have better luck with commercial swarm lure. If you decide to try the LGEO, you only need a few drops repeated every week or two.

  7. Dawn Hopkins says:

    How do you get the swarm out of the round commercial swarm catcher into a hive body?

  8. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    For me, the important issue is to not leave them in their too long. They will begin to build comb. I can take the pieces of comb and using rubber bands, hold them inside empty frames in the hive. I would rather the bees build inside the hive of course. So I try to relocated them within a couple of days.

  9. I’ve spotted a hive in the awning of the house where my daughter lives. The owner will kill them. I have a chance to try to get them now but it’s the end of August.

  10. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Depending on where you live (north or south), It might be a struggle to keep them alive over winter. But, if they are going to kill them anyway – it may be worth a shot. Join my Facebook Beekeeping group if you want and we could advise you from there.

  11. Kelly Frizzell says:

    I am in Saskatchewan, Canada and a first year bee keeper (got my 2 nucs, and one strong hive that I split, so 4 hives in total, in June 2018). and I also have LOTS of extra hive bodies and frames. Would it be OK to set up a trap that is an actual hive body with 10 frames and then if I do catch a swarm, just move the whole thing to where I want them to live? Rather than having to move them out of that box? Or, because you said you think they are more attracted to ta bait box with less frames, just put a couple of frames in and then add more later but still not have to change the hive body – just move the whole thing to where I want it to go and then set up different one as bait again?

  12. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Absolutely, you can use a hive as a bait hive. You may even want to put up 2 in the same general area. One with 10 frames in place and one with only 2 or 3. I have found that swarms like my hives better when there is more open space.

  13. Morris Hensley says:

    I am ready to catch a swarm. All I need is a couple of drawn comb racks. How can I get them?

  14. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Your best option would be to find a local beekeeper (local club – ag extention office? ) and buy an old frame from someone. You don’t have to have old comb – you could use a swarm lure.

  15. You said you put a swarm 50 yards from your bee yard, do you have an issue with the forgeries going back to that spot when you move the swarm to its new location or do you 2-miles away first?

  16. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    No, if I place a frame with a small amount of brood in the box when I relocated it – I’ve had good luck with the swarm staying in the new box.

  17. We have found a bee tree in the woods. Could we entice them into a swarm box or should we leave them alone?

  18. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Sure, You might catch a swarm from the colony. They will not leave their brood inside to come to an outside box.

  19. I have swarm traps in my bee yard spring through fall and catch swarms. Some are my bees others I have no idea where they came from. I wonder if the smell of bee yards will attract swarming bees?

  20. Charlotte Anderson says:

    I think that is very possible Vince. Just like the scent of old comb in a trap lures in scouts.

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