When you capture a swarm of bees, you end up with free bees. Free bees are always a good idea!
Why Do Bees Swarm?
Every spring, bee keepers wait for the swarming season. Swarming is the natural process of creating new colonies of honey bees. New queen bees are hatched inside the hive in the spring.
However, a hive can only have one queen. Sometimes, if more than one queen hatches in a hive, the queens fight it out and whoever wins is in charge. Other times, the older queen will take off with the percentage of the bee court that’s loyal to her. The swarm is the part that goes off in a hissy to find a new place to set up their own colony.
Other types of swarming behavior can occur, but that’s usually the narrative.
Can You Prevent Swarming?
Some bee keepers circumvent swarming by simply watching for signs of it and splitting the hive to give each queen her own collection of worker bees. This is done by taking a queen and placing her in a brood box with a collection of workers. (A brood box is two times deeper than a honey super and allows lots of room to encourage a large population of baby bees.) To learn more about the specifics of that, watch this.
This is a great idea for two reasons.
- You prevent a swarm of bees from escaping your hive. A swarm of bees can be a potentially scary thing if you live in a neighborhood surrounded by people who aren’t too happy with stinging insects to begin with.
- The second reason is that you have two hives that will produce honey, where once you had only one. Free bees are an awesome way to celebrate spring.
Learning how to prevent swarming and how to split your hive is a great skill to have. Should you fail to do that in time, learning to capture a swarm of bees is also a good skill.
The Reality for This Homestead Bee Keeper
Every year I promise myself I’ll get down to the hives and make sure I split them in time. I’ll find a new queen, toss in some brood racks and honey and be all set.
And, every year I get caught up in pruning or planting and end up watching half my hives take off to parts unknown. Which is exactly what I did this year except that my swarm had the decency to settle in my yard.
Unfortunately, they made a home nestled in the maze of trumpet and honeysuckle vines above our small pond. I was undaunted, though, and after my daughter came rushing in to tell me she saw the swarm settle, we both suited up and went out to get those bees!
Equipment you Might Need
Some basic equipment you need to capture a swarm of bees:
- Protective clothing, gloves and a bee veil
- Bucket with lid
- Extra hive components like brood boxes, empty frames, frames with honey or a feeder with honey water, extra top and bottom board
- Hand tools like a limb saw, garden clippers, bee brush and your hive tool
Some people can work with bee without any special clothing. My husband and a lot of other men I know have this ability. I wonder if it’s a guy-pheromone-hormone thing. But my daughter and I aren’t among those people. So, we covered up with long sleeves and pants, plus our veils and gloves.
Be Careful of Africanized Bees
If you’re not sure where the swarm came from, especially if you live in the southern U.S. or South America, it would be prudent to check for occurrences of Africanized bees in your area.
- You can Google the term “Africanized bees” and your location to pull up current information.
- You can also reach out to your local bee keeping groups to discuss how these bees may or may not be effecting your community.
Africanized bees are much more aggressive, often dangerously so, than other honey bees. Always be cautious when approaching a swarm of bees, but reconsider collecting them if you’re concerned they might be Africanized. To learn more about Africanized bees, click here.
The Mishap Collection in the Vines
Again, I point out that, with vigilance, you can prevent your hives from swarming. If you keep an eye on them and split them yourself, there’s no need to do battle with a bunch of vines and tree limbs. If you can, make time to monitor you hives closely in spring.
On this day, because I let them swarm, my daughter got a large bucket with a lid and I dashed off to get my bee tools and clippers.
I knew I was going to have to cut away some of the vines, but I hoped I could get at the queen without too much trouble. It looked like a very substantial amount of bees was on the outside of the vines. I clipped and removed some branches and then began brushing, very gently, the bees into the bucket.
Asses and Readjust the Plan for the Swarm
As I did so, I realized that the bees had settled all over inside those vines and that there was no way I was going to get them out of there in their entirety. I also realized that there was no way I was going to be able to hack through all those vines to cut them out.
Resolved, I went and dumped what I had into an empty brood box with some frames and honey, hoping that I had the queen in the middle of what I’d brushed off. A few days later I went to check and, no joy. The bees had left and joined up with the crew I’d taken them from.
A few days after that, we checked the vines and the swarm had taken off. I mention this part of the adventure because I want you to know that not everything works the first time you try it. Sometimes you do the best you can and your efforts fall flat. That’s just the homesteading life.
Maybe I should have called this article:
“How to miserably fail at catching a swarm of bees”
But, I thought, “How to capture a swarm of bees” might inspire more confidence.
Turns out, though – sweet, sweet bees – the swarm re-settled in our pine tree and on an easily accessible branch.
This time, we came back out with a bucket and a lid and simply cut them off the tree in a big bunch. To calm them, my husband smoked them. I usually use honey water because I struggle with maintaining the smoker.
We then gently placed the branch over the bucket and knocked them in, securing the lid as quick as possible.
If we’d have just a bit more clearance, we could have simply knocked the bee clump into the bucket, but there just wasn’t room in all the branches. The bees cling together so its a relatively simple thing to knock them as a big clump – just be as gentle as you can.
This bee keeper removed this swarm with his bee brush – watch here.
After the Swarm was Captured
We set them up in their new brood box with some honey frames to feed the queen and court while they set up a nursery for new bees. A few days later we had the beginnings of a thriving colony!
They immediately started drawing out comb and laying brood and gathering nectar and all other wonderful manner of bee activities.
Should a Newbie Capture a Swarm of Bees?
Capturing a swarm is something a newbie bee keeper should try doing, if they’d like to. If you have a swarm you don’t how to handle, you can contact your local bee keepers association and they will have someone that can help you. Sometimes there’s a fee but most often the bee keeper is just happy to get free bees.
If you’re going to do it, the first thing you need is a partner. It’s always much safer to work bees with a partner.
Aside from that, just make sure you have your regular bee keeping equipment:
- protective clothing
- bee brush
- smoker or honey water
- hive tool
- bucket with a lid
A Word on Smoking Before Collecting
Many bee keepers use a smoker tool to smoke their bees, masking the alarm pheromones that the worker bees typically send out when something disrupts their hive. There’s also an indication that bees assume the hive is on fire and gorge themselves on honey in preparation for making a new hive. To learn more about why a bee keeper smokes the hive, click here.
So, you may want to smoke your bees before capturing the swarm. Since I’m the Anti-Fire (I can’t keep a fire going to save my life), I use honey water in a spray bottle to distract the bees. Bees are extremely fastidious little creatures and covering them in honey water makes them fussy. They want to be clean, so they stop and wash themselves off before figuring out what you’re doing.
To make honey water mix 1/4 part warmed, raw honey and with 3/4 part filtered water in a spray bottle.
Save the Planet, Capture a Swarm of Bees
In these days, when the honey bee is under attack on so many fronts, stepping into this seasonal dance and securing a swarm of bees in order to provide it protection and love in your bee yard is a truly charitable thing to do. It’s good for mankind and the pollination of the world at large. Plus, you get free bees. Score.
Cover image gratefully attributed to this Wikipedia Commons user.