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An Introduction to Capturing and Installing a Swarm of Bees

Are you a new beekeeper or about to be one? Let’s start with a simple statement about capturing a swarm of bees.

Don’t do it!

Did we get your attention? We thought so.

To be honest, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule and there are new beekeepers who have taken the big step of capturing a swarm for their first bees. But, compared to a package or a nuc, capturing a swarm has more unknowns and, without help from a more experienced beekeeper, there are more risks involved, in terms of achieving a positive outcome. So, while we’ll certainly respect the new beekeeper who takes the swarm path, we’re just saying that a package or nuc is a more predictable way to kick your beekeeping off successfully.

Bees that swarm are usually on their way to some new digs. At the time a swarm is captured it is usually in a temporary location, while scout bees look for a more permanent place. They are not overly defensive because they have neither brood or honey to protect. Those are positive characteristics that will help the capture of the swarm.

But regardless of this reality, we do not recommend capturing a swarm as the way to obtain first bees, for a new beekeeper.

The first time you deal with bees is fascinating and somewhat nerve wracking. It is a time when you will want to be organized and move things along on your terms. A package or nuc offer just those benefits – an orderly, methodical way to move new bees into a new home. As such they are great options for the new beekeeper.

Bee swarm on a tree branch

A swarm is, by definition, less predictable. That doesn’t necessarily mean more chaotic – though that can certainly be the case. As we hinted above, the bees are often more peaceful than package bees. But the location of the swarm, the race of bees and other important factors cannot be easily determined ahead of time. These variations and others are why we recommend a package or nuc for a new beekeeper, with a view to experiencing the capture of a swarm in the future.

But, with all that in mind, let’s take an introductory look at the process of capturing a swarm, just to provide you with a sense of what is involved.

Note: As with most things in beekeeping, there are many ways to capture a swarm. The approach described here is illustrative of one situation and method and, providing the basic principles are followed, alternative methods may be equally successful.

How Do You Locate a Swarm?

One normally doesn’t just stumble upon a swarm of bees. If you are in search of new bees and you DO stumble across a swarm, consider yourself very lucky!

Here are a couple of reasons why you might find yourself wanting to capture a swarm:

  • Your own bees swarmed. This is something you can hopefully avoid, but if your bees have reason to swarm they will do just that. You may be able to retrieve them and install them in an additional hive. From one colony, comes two.
  • You were informed of a swarm. It’s possible to register for alerts when swarms are located and need removal. You have the opportunity to be the fearless hero, braving the swarm and saving the neighborhood! Or…. you simply come along, use your swarm-capturing techniques and drive away with new bees. But some will still see you as the superhero!

What Are the Advantages of Capturing a Swarm?

FREE BEES! But, truth be told, that is probably the least important aspect of a swarm. You are interacting with nature, not as a commercial entity. There are other more important benefits, such as the bees being, by definition, local and thus adapted to local conditions better than “shipped packages”.

In comparison to buying packages or nuc from afar, this is actually a significant advantage of capturing a swarm and not to be underestimated. Then again, for many beekeepers – especially those who plan ahead – finding local packages or nucs shouldn’t be too difficult.

Oh – and there’s the the superhero thing!

What Are the Disadvantages?

Bee Swarm

Compared to a package or a nuc, the primary challenge will be the logistics. Bees don’t particularly care about the convenience of their location to mere humans. So while the perfect location – for us – might be a shoulder-height branch on a tree, the bees might choose the eve of a house. A whack of a branch or risking life and limb up a ladder – the bees don’t care!

Thankfully, the most common locations are, indeed, quite convenient. The landing place for a swarm, in relation to its original home, is often about 50 feet away. The height, too, is often reasonably convenient for beekeepers.

When to Capture a Swarm

The most likely times for swarming are from spring to early summer. If you have registered your interest with local beekeeping clubs, you may be busy at this time!

What You Will Need

The basic equipment you need is simple and includes a large tarp, a box to capture the swarm and a bee brush. Depending on the location of the swarm, some gardening shears may be helpful too. The box should be contained (otherwise your journey home will be quite interesting!) and ventilated.

And don’t forget your protective clothing. You can easily locate videos on the Internet of unprotected beekeepers capturing swarms. But consistent with our philosophy to not invite problems where they need not be invited, wearing protective clothing will allow you to focus on the job at hand.

The more relaxed you are the more chance you have of being successful.

Capturing a Swarm

Preparing for the Capture

After assessing the location, your challenge is to find a way to get the queen into your box. The most straightforward scenario is a swarm on a convenient branch and we’ll use that here as an example.

Spread out a tarp underneath the swarm, weighing down the corners with rocks if there is a chance of wind blowing it up.

Capturing the Swarm

Assess whether you think the size of the swarm will allow it to easily fit into the box. If so, you may decide that the majority of the swarm may be compact enough to have it drop into the box. In that situation, you can position the box under the swarm and whack the branch. The swarm will hopefully fall as a single mass into the box. Your goal here is to get the queen into the box, because the other bees will follow.

After hitting the branch and assuming a majority of bees are in the box, the next step is to “clean up” i.e. to collect as many of the remaining bees as possible.

Place the box on the tarp, with an open side on the ground so bees can easily access it. Then step back and wait.

The swarm will follow the queen, from her pheromones. This provides a simple way to assess whether you have been successful in getting the queen into the box. If you have, then you will see the bees gradually “march” towards the box, where the queen sits.

If the queen is not in the box, the bees will let you know. They will march towards her. Just try it again. The bees might not be on a convenient branch now, but if you can gently find a way to get the queen in the box you are on the right track.

If the swarm is not on a conveniently shakable object (such as a tree branch) then dislodging it into a waiting box may not be an option. In this situation, you may need to gently brush the bees into the box. The key, again, is to ensure the queen is in the box. If she is, the majority of the swarm will follow.

Transporting the bees is fairly straightforward
Depending on your level of comfort that the box will hold all the bees, you may wish to wear a veil if the box is in the car with you. Drive slowly!

Installing in Your Beehive

Back at base, it is helpful if you had the foresight to set up a new hive. If not, that’s fine but work reasonably quickly to do so. The box with the swarm can get hot quickly and you want to introduce your bees to their new home as soon as possible.

Place the tarp in front of the hive, as close as possible to the front (which should have no entrance reducer at his point). The tarp should “ramp up” to the hive, providing a walkway, of sorts.

Shake the bees from the box onto the tarp, as close to the entrance as you can. Then watch.

Remarkably, you will see some bees lining up at the front of the hive, fanning an orientation pheromone as a guide to the others. The rest will then do the march and eventually find their way into the hive. It is a thing of beauty!

It’s important to emphasize again that a package of bees or a nuc are strongly recommended for the new beekeeper as a way to obtain and install your first bees.

On the other hand, watching a swarm capture – regardless of your experience – is fascinating and educational. Consider tagging along with a member of your beekeeping club, to watch them capture a swarm when they get the call. It’s a fun experience!

The difficulty of a capturing a swarm can vary considerably, depending on swarm size, location, weather conditions and so on.