Swarming Season & How to Collect Swarms

Hello Beekepers!

Hello all and hoping both you and your bees are keeping well.

Word is probably out that you’re keeping bees, so be prepared for the phone calls. “There are bees flying around the eaves of my home and we’re afraid to go out. Could you help?” It’s totally up to you whether you oblige. I’ve travelled sometimes to find that the flying insects are wasps! I’m often reluctant to take swarms as I have no idea of their origin or health status. However, I am lucky to have another apiary where I can site them until I’m sure that they’re okay.

Say you come across a swarm nearer home. Maybe they could be your own bees? They might be hanging off a tree branch. Maybe they’ve clustered and are on the ground? (I actually hived a swarm last year that had settled very comfortably in a compost bin. Ingenious!)

So, what do you do?

Collecting a Swarm – Equipment

You’ll need appropriate equipment:

  • Protective clothing
  • Smoker
  • Smoker fuel
  • Queen cage (just in case you’re lucky enough to spot her majesty)
  • Hive tool
  • Secateurs
  • Water sprayer with a fine nozzle. I fill this with a solution of 1 part sugar to 5 parts water or you can just use water.
  • Receptacle, e.g., a strong cardboard box or an empty nuc. I’ll refer to it as a ‘box’
  • An old light coloured bed sheet
  • Adhesive tape

Collecting a Swarm – Timing

The best time to catch a swarm is as soon as you find out about it. They often only stay in that location for an hour or two. Sometimes they can stay there for several days. The girls will have gorged themselves on food prior to leaving their hive and this renders them much less likely to sting. However, if they have been at the swarm site for a few days prior to your intervention, they may well be feisty. Take nothing for granted. Wear your protective clothing and I often spray them with a little of the prepared syrup.

A swarm settled in a tree.

Collecting a Swarm – Collection

The method of capturing the swarm depends entirely on where the swarm has clustered. You might also need a ladder for accessibility, but always be aware of your personal safety. The allure of free bees can easily influence you to take chances. Risking your health and safety isn’t worth it. There will be other swarms, of that I’m certain.

Your main aim is to collect the entire cluster and, of course, the queen. She should be in the centre of the cluster and, after you’ve captured them, you will know within minutes if she’s present or not, as the bees will move so as to relocate her. If this happens, let them recluster and try again. Assess the situation and have a plan of action.

  • The first move is to place the sheet below or near the swarm location. Now what?
  • If the cluster is hanging from a branch: you could just shake the bees into the box which you’ve placed below the swarm. Say you can only access them by climbing a ladder, you can cut the branch and carry the whole cargo down and then shake them into the box. Remember that if it’s a prime swarm, it could be quite heavy. You then take the box with the bees in it and gently turn it upside down on the sheet which you have already spread on the ground. Okay, you should have most of the bees captured, but there are always stragglers, i.e., scouts and foragers. Prop up the box with a piece of wood or even a stone which is a few centimetres in diameter so as to give the stragglers access to their sisters in the box. This might take about 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t use smoke at this stage. When you’re confident that you have the cluster, gently turn the box right way up and close it. Ensure that they have adequate ventilation. You can then smoke around the general area to get rid of the bee pheromone scent.
  • If the cluster is on a fence, or similar: first spray a little of the sugar syrup or even water. This makes it more difficult for them to fly but certainly does not harm them. Then use the bee brush to brush them into the box. As you know by now, I rarely use a brush but in this case it can be very handy. A leafy twig will do the same job and is much more natural as most bee brushes are made from nylon fibre. In this situation, it might be easier to place the box over the swarm and they will usually just climb upwards into it. Again, you might use a gentle persuasion by spraying a little syrup onto the box bottom but this may not need to be done. They are attracted to the darkness. Again, when safely in the box or nuc follow as per previous instructions.
  • If the cluster is on the ground: tilt the box sideways towards them. You could put a few drops of lemongrass oil on the box to act as a lure. Again, follow the aforementioned directions.
  • After gathering the cluster, close the box, ensuring that bees can’t leave it. Use adhesive tape if necessary but always ENSURE ADEQUATE VENTILATION. If perchance, the day is really warm, you could put the sheet around them to keep the sun’s rays at bay.
  • Transport them gently to avoid squashing and killing them.
Swarms can congregate in the strangest of places!

Collecting a Swarm – Now What? 

Hiving your swarm is best done in the evening when the girls will not be anxious to go out flying.

You can transfer the swarm directly into the new hive. You first block the hive entrance and remove all the frames. Shake the cluster into the hive. You can then start to gently replace the frames into this hive. Take care to avoid squashing bees. It’s also really handy if you have drawn frames (hopefully this very topic will be dealt with in detail at our next meeting on June 15th). Once all this is done, replace the crownboard and roof and open the entrance a little.

All newly captured swarms should be fed 3-4 litres of 1:1 syrup solution.

Another alternative is to use a swarm board. Don’t panic! This is only a piece of plyboard slightly wider than the hive and should be long enough to reach from the hive entrance to the ground at not-too-sharp an angle. Cover this board with the sheet; this helps you see the bees more clearly and the sheet deters them from crawling underneath the board also. The box with the bees can then be placed onto this board upside down. Having removed the cover, the bees should walk up the board and into the hive. I often put a mug or two of the bees into the new hive and this seems to encourage them to follow. It’s really nice to see queenie during any of the procedures. If I do, I cage her and it makes the rehiving process much easier. To safe guard the possibility of them absconding (which can and does happen on some occasions) you could use a thumb tack to place a cut-to-measure piece of a queen excluder over the entrance. This enables all the colony to come and go except queenie. However, perhaps queenie isn’t mated? Only leave this temporary excluder in situ for a day as queenie will be travelling on her mating flights and will need to be able to leave the hive. The syrup you’ve given them is also a reason for them to settle into their new home.

I generally treat the swarm for varroa if I have no idea where they came from, and, coincidentally, this is a good time to treat because they are broodless. I treat 3 days after they’ve been hived. You could, at a later date, send a sample for disease analysis. The last thing you want is to be introducing disease into your apiary. Most beginners don’t have an out-apiary where you can site them until you’re sure that they’re okay. Be vigilant.

June Tasks

June is a busy month. Swarms or not, your bees and hive(s) need to managed correctly.

  • 7 day inspections
  • Ensure that your bees have access to water.
  • Keep a close eye on their stores. I never harvest any frames of honey at this time of year as the bees might and could need the food. Sometimes at this time of year there might not be a whole lot for the bees to forage until the Summer plants start yielding and the bees can be left with very little to eat. This is often referred to as the June Gap. If you think that stores are low you could feed them a 1:1 syrup solution. Feed in the evening time and please don’t be sloppy. Dribbles of syrup spilled on the ground or on hives can lead to robbing and we don’t want that. I’m delighted to say that I haven’t had to feed the girls to combat this gap for a few years now.
  • Make sure that you have supers ready for when the flow is in full swing. I’ve seen supers being filled in 2-3 days when there’s a really good flow. Given our weather patterns, we see this all too seldom!
  • Keep an eye on your bait hives for any sign of life.
A swarm in mid-flight.

Coming Up – June Meeting

Our next meeting will take place on Wednesday June 15th, commencing at 7.30pm. Keep an eye on your email for further details closer to the date.

In the meantime, enjoy life and let the bees fascinate you.

Thou art a miser, thou busy busy bee
Late and early at employ
Still on the golden stores intent
Thy Summer is reaping and hoarding is spent.
— Robert Southey

Beir bua agus beannacht,

Mairead Love & the team at FABKA