HOW TO LURE A SWARM OF BEES

swarm flying

Every spring bee swarms land in my yard. In fact, this week not one, but three swarms descended upon me within a period of just 5 days! You may be feeling somewhat jealous of my good luck at this point…So, why am I so popular and what are the best ways to lure a swarm to your yard?

As with everything in beekeeping, it’s best to try to understand things from the bees’ perspective. So, allow me to go into some detail about what is actually happening when bees decide they want to swarm and how they go about choosing their nesting site before I get into details about the best ways to attract them.

Timing is Everything

Depending on your location, swarming can happen spring through fall. However, bees don’t consult a calendar when they are deciding whether or not to swarm, they judge the proper timing by certain conditions that are traditionally found in the spring and summer. They tend to swarm when particularly fine weather coincides with a nectar flow happening. So even though it is currently February here in Southern California, we are in our second week of perfect summer-like weather and are simultaneously experiencing a significant nectar flow from the recent rains we received. This combination is creating a strong swarming urge in almost all of my colonies. When you start to see swarm cups in your hives, you know it’s time to put your bait hives and swarm traps out!

adv-lecture-1024x1024

Scout Bees

Before a swarm actually departs, it will put a lot of energy into finding the perfect new home. Cue the scout bees! These foragers turned house hunters will seek out ideal nesting locations often spending 30 minutes or more thoroughly evaluating the site. This process can take days and the more attractive a site is to the swarm, the more scouts will appear. Having witnessed this behavior many times in my own front yard, it often starts with one to two bees hovering around their potential home. I can always tell when this is happening because the bees seem to be scanning the surface and entrances very carefully. On one occasion, I even witnessed several scout bees who stayed overnight! If the scouts approve of the site, they will shortly be joined by many more scouts who will all perform the same thorough examination. As the swarm gets closer to “moving day” the number of scouts will surge. I often see as many as a hundred scouts investigating a nesting site the day before the swarm arrives! During this site evaluation period, it is important not to disturb anything or you might dissuade the bees from settling there. Scouts from a single swarm will scout as many as 10 different nesting sites, often narrowing the choices down to two or three by the end.

2015-05-05 14.08.25-1

The Trap 

Much ado has been made about what kind of cavity a beekeeper hoping to lure a swarm should construct. In my experience doing live bee removals, I see swarms move into all kinds of cavities, but they do seem to have favorites. I often joke that swarm catching hopefuls should simply start composting or set up an owl box! There is some research to suggest that bees prefer cavities of a certain volume and lean towards homes with small entrances. Thomas Seely in his must-read book, Honeybee Democracy went to great lengths to test and study swarm behavior and came up with some figures on a swarm’s preferred dimensions. He found that swarms like nesting cavities of that are approximately 40 liters with entrances that are approximately 2 inches. Seely also found that height plays a role in the attractiveness of a nesting site (bees like to nest an average of 21 feet from the ground), but I have caught and lured most of my swarms close to the ground and height makes things more complicated for the beekeeper. So, I am going to advise that you save yourself the extra trouble and set your traps within 10ft of the ground. This brings us to what one should use as their cavity. You can buy light weight swarm traps and mount them high in the trees or even on the side of your house if you want to forgo my advice about height. The light weight quality of these traps is probably their one real advantage. I used one last year and caught two swarms in it. One mounted 20 ft high in a tree, the other mounted to the front of a client’s house, about 15ft up. Some people prefer to build their own traps to precise dimensions, but I have never understood this. The simplest swarm trap is whatever hive you intend to keep your bees in. If you are using a Langstroth hive, a single deep is conveniently close to 40 liters. If you are using a Top Bar Hive, it might be advisable to create a smaller cavity within it using your follower boards. Luring a swarm to their permanent home will save you the trouble of having to transfer them and the bees are less likely to abscond in this scenario since they get to stay in their chosen home.

2015-05-27 13.32.00

The Bait 

Baiting your hives is critical for luring a swarm and I have heard of everything from lemon scented Pine Sol to melted slum-gum. I say, go ahead and try them all! Just don’t overdo it. I once had a student who coated the entire inside of her hive box with lemon grass mixed with beeswax. It was a goopy mess with a scent so strong, it overwhelmed my nose! You only need a small amount of bait to attract your bees. If you use too much, it can have the opposite effect. When using the trap I mentioned before we utilized a pheromone lure in a small vial, but I catch most swarms just by leaving out empty equipment with old brood comb in it. Bees love living in locations where other bees have lived before and if theres already comb inside, it’s like finding a furnished apartment! Don’t worry about how perfect the combs are. I’ve even witnessed swarms who bring in a clean up crew before they move in. Scouts drag out debris and I’ve even seen them chewing away at moldy combs in the days prior to moving day. Keep in mind scout bees must find your trap before they can decide to move in. Bait helps this along, but if you aren’t seeing any bee activity, you might want to consider putting a sugar water feeding station nearby. Seely discovered in his research that most scout bees start out as foragers so, if you can attract foragers to your location, there is a chance some of them may scout your swarm trap!

swarm4

Success

If you successfully lure a swarm, be careful not to disturb them for the first week. When the bees arrive they will immediately start building comb and the queen will start to lay eggs, but new comb and eggs aren’t a big enough investment to hold the bees to their location. A disturbance could cause them to abandon the nesting site in favor of another. If you wait a week, the eggs will have hatched into larvae by then and this will compel the bees to stay even in the face of a hive inspection. After a week I do recommend you look in on your new bees. Not all swarms are created equal. Some are queenless or come with a virgin queen. Therefore, it’s important that you inspect them and search for eggs to verify that your colony is queenright and the queen is laying! Please remember also that bee swarms are always docile at first, but once they get established their temperament can change dramatically (be especially aware of this if you live in an Africanized zone).

23 Comments

Thomas Bickerdike

Lovely Hilary and as we are shivering in our winter here in the UK I can only look forward to me setting my bait hive. I think the scout bees are the best bit of bait hives with increasing numbers and excitement only for it to stop suddenly as you can only guess a local beekeeper has performed an artificial swarm. If the scouts start to dwindle then they have chosen another site over my bait hive, the very cheek of it. I would say for me I get about five good responses from scout bees before I get a swarm and last year managed to catch one arriving on a time laps camera. This swarm had scout bees at the hive for about six days and at one point clearly defending it, perhaps from other scouts. Don’t know if you have seen this activity. Keep up the good work.
Ps I have linked your post on record keeping to my beekeeping associations news letter.
Thomas

Reply
Hilary

Good info. I am not sure if I have seen them be defensive before, but once I had some scouts spend the night in a hive. It was the most bizarre thing. There were 10 of them. They stayed the night, but the swarm did not end up choosing my bait hive. I think it was because I kept opening it up and messing with it. Lesson learned!

Reply
Thomas Bickerdike

I had a situation once, loads of scout bees extremely excited and it all happened very fast, one morning. I had to go out for a few hours and on my return about twenty bees just sitting at the entrance hardly moving with only occasional flights around the hive. These bees stayed with the hive for over a week and slowly dwindled to nothing. I put this down to a swarm was in a tree close by and as the scouts were at the bait hive a beekeeper collected the swarm very fast probably at the point a decision was made and the scouts were stranded at my bait hive. It was a bit sad to watch them as they looked completely lost.

Reply
scottsailors

Thanks for this! In my opinion this is so critical to successful and sustainable beekeeping. Think about it, if you lure and hive a swarm of bees, you have not only obtained free bees, but you have obtained bees that successfully over-wintered in your region! These are the bee genetics we want! We want THESE queens more than we want queens we purchased from a commercial beekeeper, who, in-turn, purchased them from who-knows-where in another part of the country. We want the genetics that THIS queen will produce. We want to successfully keep, and then split, THESE hives. Ultimately, we want to be keeping, and reproducing, bees that are acclimated to our region and successfully over-wintering. Just my 1.5 cents’ worth.

Reply
scottsailors

Oh, I also wanted to say “thanks” for the tip about not disturbing them until they are at least feeding larvae. Excellent point. Without that tip, I would have probably disturbed them too soon. Also, since I use all 8-frame, medium-depth hive boxes, my bait hives are going to be two stacked boxes with frames of resources in the bottom box, and foundationless frames in the top box to give them a sense of space to expand. There will be a 5/8″ hole in each box to provide an entrance for each box. Any thoughts about that design? Thanks again!

Reply
Hilary

Oh, this highlights something that could be working to my advantage that I hadn’t realized. I use foundationless frames, which is an obvious preference of wild bees. So on the frames that don’t contain comb, there are just empty frames with comb guides. I think if you are using foundation, the volume of the cavity probably isn’t as appealing. I think using two 8 frame mediums is probably enough space, you might event try 3. Too much space seems to be better than too little.

Reply
scottsailors

Aha. I just did the math, and two 8-frame, medium-depth boxes have over 50 liters of space inside. So, that might be a good set-up. I have frames of resources to put in the bait hives because I had a hive with lots of resources that swarmed in late October here in south-central Colorado (after my final hive inspection) and I didn’t see that coming. The queen that emerged first must have failed to mate successfully because she never started laying. The remaining bees eventually died of old age. So disappointing. But now I know that late-season swarming is a possibility here and my radar will be up.

Reply
marvinjordana

thank you for all the information you share, I only met you once during a backyard beekeeping meeting about 2 years ago with Less Crowder. It was a pretty magical day. Keep up the amazing work and keep on inspiring other beekeepers.

Reply
Mandy

If you lure them to a swarm box less than 100 feet from your apiary location, and take them offsite to reset their orientation, how long before they can be safely moved back to the apiary and into a hive without the risk that they will return to the swarm box location (in my case up in a tree)?

Reply
Hilary

If you want to play it safe, I’d say a week. It might work with less time, but that is what I have done in the past.

Reply
John L

Hilary….. love your site.

It’s very warm and comforting. I am 63 years old and have failed at beekeeping a number of times over the years, mostly because I am afraid of making mistakes or because I do things on a whim. You make me want to take it easy and not be so uptight about how to do things EXACTLY right. Plus every time I turn around I’m getting solicitations to spend lots of money on new equipment!

I look forward to having fun again. I had 2 conventional hives last year, lost one over the winter (dead queen I think) and now this one is wanting to swarm. I got a store-bought swarm trap yesterday – like yours in the 4th photo. I will be putting it out this weekend as well as attempting my first split. Of course I have opinions from a bunch of beekeepers about what to do and what not to do…. all slightly different… LOL.

Oh well here goes.

P.S. Good advice:

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.

Amen. ”

~ Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971).

Reply
John L

How can you tell if a swarm has a laying queen since you can’t remove the natural comb to inspect it?

Reply
Hilary

I don’t understand what you are asking. Do you mean when you catch a swarm in a lure and they build comb? In that case, I would remove the combs and transfer them to frames and I would check for eggs/larvae during the process.

Reply
The Apiarist

Hi Hilary
I populate my bait hives (swarm traps) – which are just a simple brood box – with one old, black, frame against the side wall and then fill the rest of the box with foundationless frames (http://theapiarist.org/bait-hives/). This keeps the space open to meet the optimal criteria that Seeley defined, it gives the bees the opportunity to start drawing comb in the right place immediately, and it doesn’t matter too much when you first go and check them. If you are away, or forget a bait hive, they build the comb on the removable frames anyway. The box needs to be sited so that the drawn comb is perpendicular obviously.
I don’t think I’ve ever waited a week to inspect them. I usually check for a laying queen early morning or late afternoon a day or two after they arrive. I the queen is mated they’ll have eggs by then. If it’s a cast then checking early or very late won’t disturb a queen returning from a mating flight. I almost always try and treat them for mites before there’s sealed brood. It’s a great opportunity to get them when they’re broodless.
Best Wishes for 2017
David

Reply
Jen

Caught a swarm using lemon grass oil in a medium 10 frame Langstroth super, with 2 frames full of old comb and the rest foundation-less frames. Reduced entrance to 2 inches. Can’t wait to meet my new hive on inspection day. It’s like opening birthday present. Yay for swarm season!

Reply

Buzzing to say something?