Nature Beekeeping in the Tri-Lakes region (part 2) Swarm Capture

Beekeeping in the Tri-Lakes region (part 2) Swarm Capture


I had intended to discuss a different topic entirely for the second article in this series; however, fate had other plans so the subject of this article is “swarm capture”. The picture above was taken on June 4th in the morning. I had received a call from Lazarus Fields, the PPBA Swarm coordinator, who asked me to capture a swarm at a location near my home. When I arrived, the swarm had chosen this pine branch as a temporary stopping place until they could find another home. This is typical behavior for honeybees during the spring and is their way of propagating the species.

In the spring as the weather warms, the queen for each honeybee colony (whether feral or captured) will increase her rate of laying eggs. As the brood hatches and the colony grows, it is quite possible that the available space will be filled with pollen, brood, and honey until there is no more room to expand in their present home. At that point the queen reduces her rate of laying eggs and the colony begins preparation for swarming. Some of the recent female eggs are selected to be new queens and their cells are converted to ‘queen cells’ and given ‘royal jelly’. At some point, the ‘old’ queen and a portion of the worker bees ‘decide’ to leave forming a swarm. Those bees that remain will continue to care for the new queen cells. It will take about 16 days for a new queen to grow and hatch. The first new queen to hatch will search for any unhatched queen cells and kill her sisters. Note: the queen bee’s stinger does not have a barb so she can sting repeatedly, not like her worker bee sisters.

The swarm takes flight and moves en masse to a temporary landing spot; e.g. a tree limb, a fence, a wall, etc. which may be only a few feet from the original colony or up to about 3 miles away. From that spot, ‘scout’ bees will explore the surrounding area looking for a suitable new home. The scouts will soon report back and when another decision is reached, the swarm will again take flight and move to their new home. The decision about a new home can happen very quickly, so call quickly when you see a swarm. ( The PPBA Swarm coordinator’s phone number is 765 425-1940.) The pictures below were taken in El Paso County and provide examples of bee swarm behavior.

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Photos above courtesy of Lazarus Fields.

Witnessing a swarm in motion is another of those exhilarating experiences in beekeeping. It is very noisy and can be frightening to those who are not familiar with honeybees. Swarms are typically NOT aggressive. They have no brood or home to defend. They typically gorge themselves on honey just before departure and are concentrating on (#1) protecting the queen and (#2) finding a new home. As long as you don’t try to squeeze the bees, they should remain calm. Many beekeepers do not wear ‘protective’ clothing when handling swarms because they are so calm.

There are many ways to capture a swarm. (Do a search on YouTube for “Honeybee swarm capture” and see how many ‘hits’ you get.) My preference is to use a homemade “bee vacuum”. (See photo. Contact me for details on construction of the bee vacuum.) I use a standard shop vac connected to one side and a lengthy vacuum hose connected to the other side. The box is actually an old hive box that I modified for its new use. I added covers on both sides and used weather stripping to seal the edges. The flow of air is regulated on the shop vac side by an opening which can be adjusted. The requirement is for the air flow at the tip of the small hose to be strong enough to pull in bees but not so strong as to cause injury to them. The volume of the chamber inside the bee vacuum is very large to further reduce the flow of air and to provide space to hold a very large swarm. I prefer the bee vacuum method because the queen is never separated from the worker bees (which protect her) and all of the captured bees are easily transported to their new home with minimal stress. (FYI, the swarm captured on that day was taken to a PPBA member who had signed our ‘swarm capture list’.) Typically, there are several dozen worker bees which are not captured. They will simply go back to the original colony or find another colony.

The beekeeper must have a hive ready to accept a captured swarm because the colony cannot survive for very long without access to water and food. Building a hive is a task that requires time and will be the subject of a future article. For now, I will assume that the hive is a Langstroth and is ready and placed in an apiary, which means that it will have solid support and be level side to side with only a slight downward tilt from back to front. IF YOU HAVE old frames where comb is built, that will reduce the time required for the colony to establish itself in this new home. However, swarming also triggers the instinct to make wax and build new comb so new frames are acceptable.

To ‘install’ a swarm in your hive, it is best to wait until late afternoon, but before nightfall. The setting sun triggers a bee’s natural instinct to enter their new home and begin building comb. Wear protective gear! Many of the bees will begin flying as soon as they are released and they will be confused and disoriented. Position all required items nearby so that your movements will be minimized. Remove the outer and inner cover of the hive and three to five frames from the center. Have your bee brush handy! Open the bee vacuum and dump the cluster of bees into the center of the hive using a sharp jerking motion to dislodge the majority of the cluster at one time. Most of the bees will immediately cluster around the queen and move into the recesses of the hive. Begin brushing the bees (not using fast motions, but slow and steady motions) which remain inside the bee vacuum toward the hive box. When the bee vacuum is (nearly) empty of bees, remove it from the immediate area.

Understand that many bees will be flying around the hive at this point. They do not recognize this box as ‘home’ just yet and they are confused about where the queen is right now. However, you should soon be able to recognize the appropriate behavior. Assuming that the queen was near the center of the main cluster, she will make her way into the hive and probably climb onto one of the frames. The worker bees will surround her and begin to ‘fan’ to spread her pheromones throughout the hive and the surrounding air. As you add the other frames, the bees will line up along the top and also begin to ‘fan’. If a significant group of worker bees landed outside the hive, you may witness a ‘march’ when they realize the queen is inside the hive. They will climb to the entrance or over the sides and move toward her as a group and it looks much like a parade.

I usually wait a few minutes to allow the scent of her pheromones to attract as many workers as possible before re-assembling the hive. This time can be used to add a pollen patty or sugar water if you planned to give them a ‘boost’. When all preparations are completed, use the brush to clear the edges of the hive box. Place the inner cover, then the outer cover being careful to avoid squashing bees if possible. Place a weight on top of the hive to hold the outer cover in place. The worker bees who have discovered the entrance will line up there and begin to ‘fan’ and the remaining flying bees should soon (before dark) land and make their way inside.

Make an external inspection of the hive the next morning, but do not open the hive for a few days at least. It will take that long for the workers to clean and prepare the frames. Building comb takes time as well, especially if the frames are brand new. Comb must be in place and structurally sound before the queen will begin laying eggs again. During that time the foragers will be flying in and out of the hive bringing pollen, nectar, and water to build the colony’s supply of ‘stores’. See if you can spot the bees bringing pollen into the entrance; that’s always a good sign. Remember that new honeycomb is very fragile if not supported from two or more ‘anchors’ and can be easily damaged by simply tilting the frame slightly. Handle frames very carefully when you finally do an internal inspection. Look for the queen, but also look for other signs of her activity, like new eggs. If you had the equipment and materials and chose to add them to the hive at installation, you should check regularly (about every three days or so) to ensure that sugar water and/or pollen patties are being consumed as they should. Less time searching for food means more time for caring for the brood. After 7 to 10 days you should be able to see larvae in some cells and soon after that, the brood could be ‘capped’ or sealed in wax.

I hope that you have enjoyed this article and I would love to hear comments or answer your questions. Next time, more about preparation of the hives and apiary.

My email address is below if you wish to contact me directly.

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