Spring of Swarms – How To Safely Capture a Bee Swarm.
Bee swarms have an undeserved reputation. They’re seen as dangerous, and non-beekeepers often find them pretty scary. In fact, bees are usually at their least threatening and most docile when they’re swarming, because their stomachs are full of honey and they don’t have a hive to defend.
A swarm isn’t just any old grouping of bees. Swarming is an integral part of the reproductive process for bee colonies. When the colony becomes too large, the queen is replaced, and the original queen leaves the hive with around half the worker bees and a large amount of honey. The swarm will land on a tree or other solid structure near the old hive, and start scouting for a new one. Because they’re already looking for a new location, this is the ideal time to capture bees and put them into one of your hives.
Capturing a swarm isn’t usually difficult, providing you’re organised, kitted out, and know what you’re doing.
Here’s how to do it properly:
Assess the situation
Before you even think about capturing bees, you need to make sure you’re actually looking at a genuine swarm. Non-beekeepers often mistake wild hives for swarms, and attempting to relocate an established hive is much more difficult.
If the group of bees has started to make honeycomb in their new location, they’re no longer seen as a swarm. Check this, and assess to see whether the bees seem calm – are they coming and going frequently or flying around the cluster? Are they quiet and calm or buzzing in an agitated manner?
It’s also important to look at the location of the swarm. If it’s low to the ground and in an open area, capturing it should be fairly simple. If it’s high in a tree or in heavy vegetation, it will be more difficult. Make sure you’re not taking unnecessary risks – it’s better to leave the swarm than fall off a ladder.
When you’re sure you’re dealing with a swarm, you need to act quickly. Swarms don’t settle in one place for long – they may leave in a day or a couple of hours.
Get your gear sorted
The right gear is essential whenever you’re dealing with bees. Swarming bees are generally pretty docile, but it’s still important to protect yourself from stings with a hat, veil, and gloves – if not a full beekeeping suit.
For the actual capture, you’ll need something to hold the swarm. A large, breathable cardboard box or bucket will do, or you can use a purpose-built wooden nuc box and avoid having to transfer the swarm to a new hive straight away.
You’ll also need:
- A light-coloured sheet or large piece of fabric
- A bee brush
- Weights or stones
- Clippers or secateurs
- Lemongrass oil or bee pheromones – optional
- Spray bottle with water or sugar water – optional
- Bee smoker – optional
Securing your swarm
The goal is to get the majority of the bees – including the queen – into your container, then make it accessible and give the rest of the swarm a chance to follow. The bees will be clustered around the queen, so if you capture the largest part of the bunch you’re likely to get her too.
Firstly, spread out your sheet near the swarm cluster, and weigh it down with stones or weights so it doesn’t blow away. Then, if you’re using lemongrass oil or bee pheromones, dab inside the box now.
There are a number of methods for actually getting the swarm into your box. The one you choose will depend on the location and size of the swarm. Some beekeepers spray the swarm with water or sugar water to calm them down before the transfer, while others use their smoker to help the process.
Clip and catch
If the swarm is hanging from a small branch, simply position the box underneath and clip the branch off with your secateurs.
Shake and drop
Alternately, if the bees are on a larger branch, you can hold the box underneath and gently shake the swarm. This has the disadvantage of disturbing the bees, which may mean some fly away before they get to the box.
Grab and go
If you can’t position the box underneath the swarm, you may need to move the bees by hand. Wearing gloves, gently scoop large handfuls of bees into your container. Once you have transferred a few handfuls, the remainder of the bees should follow.
Once most of the bees are in your container, you need to make it accessible – without letting the bees escape. This is where your sheet comes in. Set up your box or container on the sheet with the top mostly closed, with a small opening. Position the container so the opening is facing the ground, but slightly propped up on a stone so bees can still enter.
Leave your container or box in this position for at least an hour, if not a couple, to make sure most of the bees have a chance to rejoin the swarm.
Home to the hive
The final step is taking your swarm home. When you’re satisfied that most of the bees are inside your container, close it, pop it in the car, and head home. But be quick – you don’t want your bees to overheat on the way.
When you’re home, it’s time to transfer the colony to their new hive. (If you used a nuc boxfor the capturing process, you can skip this step.)
Gently move the bees into their new home, close it up, and leave it alone for at least a week. This gives your new bees a chance to regroup and start making comb without disruption. After that, treat them as you would any hive.