The other day, a child in one of my children’s bee classes asked me if I would run away if I saw a swarm of bees. I smiled and told her, “No, I would run towards them because I’d want to catch them!” In fact, I have done this. I chased a swarm of bees down a residential street in my car and another time on foot! I am often asked by perplexed bystanders and beekeeping hopefuls alike exactly how I “catch” a swarm. You might be surprised to hear that it’s fairly simple. Of course, there are always ways to improve your technique, but I will outline the basics for you and do my best to share some more nuanced tips.
Understanding the Swarm
The word “swarm” is often used incorrectly (in my opinion) to describe any grouping of bees. When in fact a “swarm of bees” refers to a specific biological mechanism the bees employ for the purpose of propagating their species. When a colony of bees becomes large and rich in honey, they divide in two. Roughly 40% of the bees will fill their honey stomachs with honey and leave their hive along with their queen with the intention of setting up a new home. During this phase the bees are often homeless or have just moved into their new home. Once they have been living in a location for a week or longer, they cease to be a swarm and are now more properly termed a “hive” or a “colony”.
Swarm vs. Cut-out
As a beekeeper seeking to catch a swarm, it is important to be aware of the confusion of language between beekeepers and the public. A friend or neighbor may tell you they have a swarm of bees for you to catch, but once you arrive you will discover that this “swarm” has been established for over a year. The distinction is a crucial one because a true swarm is very easy to relocate. A swarm is a group of bees who have not yet built or have just started to build comb. Even a beginner can catch a swarm, but relocating an established colony of bees (often called a “cut-out”) is not an easy task. To do this, you must transfer comb, find the queen, deal with spilling honey all while juggling (probably) angry bees and taking a fair share of bee stings. If you are a beginner, I urge you to walk away from a situation like this. Especially if you are in an Africanized zone. If you don’t know what you are doing, you will likely do more harm to the bees than good and you may be endangering the public. If you are interested in relocating an established colony, you should find an experienced beekeeper to help you. If you are local to the San Diego area, I am available to do this and I also teach a class on the subject.
A swarm of bees is a temporary state and swarms will often land somewhere for only an hour or only a day before moving on to another location. Part of the reason for this is that the queen bee is a poor flyer. If you’ve ever played my Queenspotting game on social media, you know that she has a large body, but only worker bee sized wings. A swarm will often land to rest while making their way to their new home, sometimes staying for quite a while if they decide to investigate alternative nesting sites in the area or if weather conditions hinder their journey. For the beekeeper, this means that when you see or hear about a swarm, it is imperative that you catch them quickly. I’ve often rushed out to capture a swarm only to have it leave in the short window of time it took me to get there.
Capturing a swarm of bees is a magical experience. Despite how many calls I get for swarm rescues, I am still filled with child-like glee almost every time. One of the things that makes the process so enjoyable is that swarms are almost always docile. Established colonies tend to be defensive. They may sting to protect their home, their brood, their honey, but a swarm of bees has no home, brood or honey stores. Therefore, they have no reason to sting. It is also said that swarms are less likely to sting because they are typically full of honey. The workers are carrying a full load of honey in their honey stomach and that makes them “fat and happy”. It should be noted that occasionally you can run across a defensive swarm. Usually these are what we call a “dry” swarm. Meaning, the workers have used up the honey they were carrying inside their honey stomachs and this has made them cranky. It should also be noted that while most swarms will start out sweet, they will almost certainly become more defensive once they become established. If you are in an Africanized area, this change can be dramatic. Initially, there is no way to tell if you are catching an Africanized swarm or not. It can take several weeks before the bees reveal their true nature.
When a swarm of bees lands, the bees form a cluster around their queen. This is called festooning. The bees hang onto one another’s arms and legs like little acrobats. This cluster of bee bodies is an indescribable state of matter. It can wrap itself around branches, wires, or any other obstructions. If you were to stick your bare hand into it, you would feel hundreds of tiny pickings of bee feet, a surprising amount of heat, and the soft beating of wings. When you try to scoop bees from their swarm cluster, they are reluctant to be parted. Often little chains of bees will stretch from your hand to the cluster. When you attempt to catch a swarm this behavior is advantageous and will make it easier for you to transfer the bees from wherever they are into your swarm catching container of choice.
What to put them in?
When selecting a container, make sure you have something big enough to accommodate the size of the swarm you are catching. The size of each swarm can vary from something as small as a baseball to something as big as a couple of basketballs. I find most swarms are about the size of a football. Your container can be anything. I’ve used cardboard boxes, buckets, plastic bags, nuc boxes and full on hive boxes. If the bees are up high and I need to climb a ladder with my container, I will use something light and easy to carry. Then I will shake them from that temporary vessel into a nuc box or full size langstroth hive on the ground. If the bees are close to the ground, I often put them right into a hive box. If you use a bucket, bag or cardboard box, just know you will need to transfer them quickly into a permanent hive once you get them to their new location. If you can put them directly into their permanent home during the catching process, this will save you and the bees some time and effort! This is easy if you are using a Langstroth or Warre hive because it’s a simple thing to seal and move these style hives. I put the bees right into the hive (frames installed), close them up and set them in the back of my Prius. If you are a Top Bar Hive beekeeper your options are more limited because dragging around a TBH isn’t too practical. Your best options for capture and transport are a cardboard nuc box without frames, a cardboard box, or a TBH nuc box designed to match the dimensions of your TBH.
How to get them in?
The object is to get as many bees into your box on the first try as possible. There are several techniques of doing this and the best option can vary depending on the specific situation. Once you get the majority of the bees in it’s likely that you also got the queen in since she is in the center of the swarm. However, if you did not get the queen she will often follow the rest of the bees into the box of it is positioned in an accommodating way. It can also be true that once you get the queen in, the rest will go to her, but there is no need to dig through a swarm in search of the queen.
Clip & Lower – The best way to get a swarm in your box is to lower them in. This scenario is usually possible when the bees are hanging from a small branch. You simply clip the branch and lower it into your box. If you are using a Langstroth or Warre hive, leave the frames in and place the swarm on top of them. They will run down and hang from the tops of the frames. If you put them in and then try to put the frames in afterwards, you will have trouble doing it without squishing bees! Lowering the bees in means virtually none of the bees will be separated from the swarm. A few will fly, but most will stay in formation and then regroup in your box. Some believe this method also makes the bees feel like they have chosen to move, which increases the likelihood that they will stay in the box.
Shake – If the bees are on a branch that is too far our of reach to clip or maybe a branch that is too thick to cut, you can shake them off into your box. This method is quick and if your aim is good, it is effective. However, many bees will fly and many more will fall. Basically, bees will go everywhere and then it will take more time for them to regroup in your box. The majority of them and probably the queen will end up in your box though.
Scoop – When the bees are on something that prevents them from being lowered or shaken, they can usually be scooped by hand. Some even prefer this over shaking because it’s easier to keep the bees from flying. Once you scoop several handfuls, the bees will usually start to move of their own accord into the box. If they don’t, just keep scooping.
Did you get the queen?
When the bees start excitedly streaming into the box and fanning at the entrance there’s a good chance that you got the queen or that they have decided to move into the box and the queen will follow. If the bees exhibit this behavior in a location that is not your box, do some investigating because you might find the queen there!
Wait For It…
Once you’ve got most of the bees into your box, you’ll need to position it in a way that makes it accessible to the remaining bees. The flying bees will return to the original location of the swarm so you will want to place your box as close to the original location as possible. Then you wait. If possible, wait until dusk to close the box and move the bees away. This will ensure that all of the foragers are back and no bee is left behind. If you must take it in the middle of the day, many bees will be left behind. They may find their way back to their mother hive, but they might also stay in a confused, hopeless cluster for several weeks before merging with the infinite.
There are a few additional things some people like to do to help aid the process. The first is to spray the swarm lightly with water or sugar water. This keeps the flying down. The second is to herd bees with smoke into the box. The third is to use smells to attract and deter bees. I use a queen pheromone or swarm lure in the box to draw the bees more quickly and Honey-B-Gone to keep them from clustering in the original location. Honey-B-Gone is especially useful if the swarm has gathered up high and you can’t position your box close enough for the foragers to find.
Do Not Disturb
After catching your new swarm, it is important not to disturb them for one week. This is the amount of time it will take them to build comb and start raising brood. If you bother them before that point, they have nothing to keep them from leaving. They might abscond from your hive. In fact, swarms often abscond even when they haven’t been disturbed! Some tricks for getting them to stay include: using a hive that bees have lived in before, tacking a queen excluder over the entrance, giving the bees some empty comb or best of all giving the bees some open brood comb!