Swarm Call!

a honey bee swarm in a tree

A nice fat swarm just waiting to be caught!

Today I received the first swarm call of the year and just picked them up. I figured an explanation on the ways that I have collected swarms might be useful and/or informational. Swarms are usually quite docile and easy to work with. I’ve seen swarms form on a second story window, on the ground, and the most common on tree branches (from eye level clear up to 30-40 ft up in the air). The biggest challenge with capturing any swarm is getting the queen in the box and then letting all of the other bees follow the queen.

The first thing you will need to do is get your name and number on one or more of the swarm call lists that are around and about. There is a spot here on our website for this. Once you have your name on the list you really just have to wait for a call. While you are waiting for someone to call with a nice big swarm you’ll most likely want to gather all of your equipment so it’ll be ready to go when you do get the call.

pickup truck full of swarm stuff

If you're a dedicated golfer you keep your clubs in your trunk just in case - same goes for swarm collectors!

a rubber maid box used for swarm collection

At the bare minimum you'll need a box to collect the swarm in. I use a Rubbermaid container that has a lid attached.

At the bare minimum you’ll need a box to collect the swarm in. I use a Rubbermaid container that has a lid attached. I will also take along a cardboard box or two since you never know when they might come in handy. I’d also take a veil and any other clothing/equipment that you want for you to feel comfortable working with bees. While swarms are quite docile I have probably been stung more while collecting swarms than when working my hives. Almost all of the stings were due to mistakes I made due to inexperience or carelessness. You can leave the smoker at home, some people will use a sugar water mix to spray the bees down with before working with them. I don’t and really haven’t seen the need to do anything to the swarm before working with them. Some other things that I include in my box of swarm catching equipment are:

 

  • Roll of Duct Tape (tons of uses)
  • Piece of Bug Netting (I use with the duct tape if I’m worried about the bees getting out of the box mostly if I’m transporting the bees back in something other than a truck)
  • Ladder (Bees wont always consider whether your good at climbing trees or not)
  • Feather (I use it to brush off the bees when closing the box, could also be used to brush the bees into the box)
  • Bee vac and 100ft of extension cord

These are the things that I take along with me however if you have anything that you feel might help you get the queen in the box then by all means take it along.

Once you get the call you will want to make sure you get some information before heading out. An address (directions if you need them), phone number and Name are a good start. Also ask whether you will need a ladder to get to the swarm, I would consider taking a ladder anyways since I’ve had a swarm move from an easily reachable position to a much higher location which I needed a ladder to get to. But if I can avoid taking my large extendable ladder I will.

catching a honey bee swarm with a helper

The easiest way I've found and the one that I have used the most is to hold a box underneath the swarm and just shake the branch. It can help to have someone to hold the box while you shake the branch.

I’ve learned from experience that one quick tug or jerk of the branch is usually sufficient to dislodge most of the bees. Shaking the branch up and down repeatedly tends to infuriate the bees, the one time I’ve tried that they stung me multiple times. I’ll shake them once then set the box down and wait for a couple of minutes to see if they reform the swarm on the branch. If they reform on the tree then I’ll repeat the shake and wait process until they start to swarm around the box. Its pretty easy to tell when you’ve got the queen in the box, all of the bees will fly off and start looking for the queen. It is quite a sight to see a large swarm turn into a huge cloud of bees all around you. Then I’ll close up the box leaving the bees a crack or opening to get into the box. The next step is easiest of them all, just wait around for the bees to join the queen in the box.   Generally after about 15-20 minutes the bees will have mostly be in the box and I’ll load them up to take home. You could wait longer but there always seems to be 20-30 bees that are a bit slow and never can find the queen.

 

The only other way I’ve collected swarms was with the use of a bee vac. There are multiple designs and types of bee vacs available on the internet. I use a square container from kitty litter that I’ve drilled three holes. One hole connects to a small shop vac I got from Lowe’s and another connects to the hose I use to collect the bees with. The last hole has another piece of plastic that rotates around the hole so I can vary the vacuum that is generated. I also cut out a piece of foam that sits in the bottom of the container that theoretically will give them a softer landing. The best thing to do to avoid killing lots of bees while using the bee vac is to adjust the vacuum so you are barely sucking the bees into the hose. I use a pool hose because I had one laying around, however a smooth hose would make things easier and probably be a bit less bumpy for the bees. The process is about the same, the bees will generally let you vacuum them up with very little resistance. It is a bit easier to tell when the queen has been vacuumed up however since the bees will suddenly all fly up and form a cloud looking for the queen. A bee vac will most likely be overkill for 90% of the swarms you will encounter but it can come in handy with the other 10%.

bee vac design on beesource.com
pdf bee vac design on beegeek.com

dumping honey bees into a hive

Once you get the bees home it’s as simple as dumping the bees into a box and getting some frames into box for them to populate.

a swarm being hived

Ideally you would give the bees drawn comb however I don’t have any extra laying around so I give them plain old empty foundationless frames.

Some people use a frame of brood from an existing hive to make sure the bees don’t leave before they’ve had a chance to draw their own comb. So far I haven’t had a problem with the bees leaving once I’ve placed them in a hive but it’s something to consider if you’ve got a spare frame of brood lying around. You will most likely want to feed the bees unless there is a major flow happening.

 

These aren’t the only ways to capture a swarm but merely the ways I have used to capture a swarm. Where the swarm is located will also determine the best and/or easiest method to grab a swarm. For instance if the swarm is located on the ground you can just put the box over the swarm and slide a piece of cardboard under the swarm and then turn the box over. The varying circumstances are part of the fun of catching swarms. This will be my second year as a beekeeper and catching swarms, so I’m no expert by any means and I’d love to hear of different ways you have caught swarms.

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5 Responses to Swarm Call!

  1. Pingback: Update your Swarm Removal info | Cookeville BeeKeepers

  2. JD Uker says:

    Unfortunately I have an update on my latest swarm, it just flew off :( I think the swarm may have been too big for the 8 frame medium I put it in. I think I’ll start putting in a frame of uncapped brood from now on in order to try and convince them to stay put.

    • David LaFerney says:

      Bummer – but it happens. 2 8 frame mediums is pretty close to the researched average cavity size that a swarm naturally moves into BTW.

    • Stan Coker says:

      So sorry to hear of your loss, but there will be more. One thing I have found helpful to keep them in the box is to put a queen excluder between the hive body and the bottom board (assuming you are using a bottom entrance. You only need to leave it for a couple of days, but it encourages them to stay in the box long enough to begin making it “home”.

  3. David LaFerney says:

    Great Job JD – thanks for the contribution!

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