Courtesy U.S. Navy/Eric Dietrich via Flickr
Swarming, though it has negative connotations, is a natural bee behavior—it’s how new beehives are started. The queen and a group of her bees set out from the original hive, seeking a new place to establish a colony. Honey bees that are successful in establishing themselves and surviving the winter in a new environment—be it a tree cavity or wall of a home—are considered to be feral. Whether a recent swarm or feral hive, snagging these bees is one way beekeepers can expand the size of their operations.
To prepare for swarming, worker bees feed the queen less so that she’ll slow reproduction and slim down in preparation for flight to a new location. Seasonal conditions and an abundance of food, along with an older queen’s reduced pheromone production, contribute to the established hive’s momentum toward swarming.
Although many beekeepers are eager to collect swarms, it takes skill, preparation and attention to detail. Experienced beekeepers Shane Gebauer, general manager of Brushy Mountain Bees, Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture Magazine, and Glenn McAlpin provided these tips for feral bee and swarm success.
1. Gear Up
Standard beekeeping supplies—a bee suit or veil, smoker, gloves and a spray bottle with sugar water—are essential equipment for collecting a swarm. Depending upon the location of the swarm, a good pair of limb loppers might also come in handy. You’ll need something to carry the swarm from point A to point B, as well: An empty hive box with at least a few frames, a lid and screen bottom will do the trick for temporarily housing the bees.
"There is an art to finding swarms,” Gebauer says. "It can be frustrating and disappointing if you’ve got the equipment but aren’t successful when capturing and retaining swarms.”
Certain equipment is specific to catching swarms and can help make your rescuing job easier.
"A Hipps Swarm Retriever or cone style traps are among the devices that might be used,” Gebauer says. "There are also cardboard nuc boxes with frames that can attract scout bees looking for a new home to inhabit. The advantage of nuc boxes is that the bees start building on the frames, which can be transferred into a full-sized box.”
Extracting feral bees can be challenging and isn’t for the beginning beekeeper. The process involves knowledge of construction (depending on the hive’s location), bees and their biology. In summer 2013, McAlpin applied his construction experience to extract a hive from an empty 1800s brick home. The bees were established inside a wall cavity near a second-floor window. McAlpin built an alternative hive box, hung it on the house exterior where the bees were entering and exiting, and closed off access except to the box. With patience and a bit of fortitude (the bees created another way into their original hive), McAlpin collected the bees. Using a hydraulic man-lift rather than a ladder, he removed the hive box full of bees when the time was right.
2. Find the Queen
A swarm of bees has its own momentum; bees on the move are energized by the process. Gebauer advises beekeepers to assess whether they’ve captured the queen, which can help keep the swarm in one place.
"If you have an established colony, steal some brood from them and place it in the swarm’s new hive,” Gabauer explains. "Swarms are reluctant to leave or neglect brood. If you don’t have this luxury, putting drawn comb in the hive will encourage the queen to begin laying.”
Gabauer says another strategy is to put a queen excluder underneath the hive so the worker bees can set out in search of food but the queen is blocked from leaving. This approach doesn’t work 100-percent of the time, though, because a queen ready to swarm has slimmed down for travel and might be able to squeeze through the queen excluder. Once she begins laying, however, the swarm is more likely to stick around.
3. Replace the Queen
"Ninety percent of the time, the queen that leaves with the swarm is replaced by the bees,” Flottum says. "As soon as she lays eggs, the bees begin the process to get rid of her. If you let the hive raise a new queen, you will wait while she matures and mates, and it will be six to eight weeks before more bees are mature enough to support the colony.”
That gap is too long for Flottum because it means the bees aren’t productive enough to survive the winter months. Eighty percent of swarms don’t survive the winter if left to their own devices, he says.
Savvy beekeepers engage the bees with a new queen as quickly as possible, giving the bees more time to build up the hive and prepare for the winter months. Swarms already have a particular momentum and drive to make honey so they can survive, Flottum says, and quickly requeening the hive is a strategy to harness all that energy.
McAlpin also finds requeening to be an effective approach with his bees. The feral bees he harvested were very aggressive, indicating the absence of a queen. By acquiring and introducing a new queen, the bees became manageable.
4. Visit the Swarm Early and Often
Flottum recommends beekeepers check swarms—and any new hive for that matter—frequently; it’s the only way to know exactly what’s happening inside the hive.
"Look inside the hive twice a week,” Flottum says. "Learn how the bees are behaving; see if they have enough food. Are their resources OK? Do they have pollen and nectar? I put a pollen patty on the hive—if they don’t need it, they won’t take it. You’ve only spent a couple bucks to be sure they have what they need.”
If the goal is to create an established hive that will survive winter, then feeding is essential, Flottum says. He recommends feeding the bees sugar water, though other beekeepers use honey reserves instead. McAlpin feeds his bees until the temperatures reach freezing. When milder temperatures arrive in January, he adds a candy board, offering the bees an additional food source until spring arrives.
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About the Author: Deb Buehler is a writer who lives in Indianapolis, Ind., with her husband Craig, their two urban beehives, and their dogs, Tucker and Abby. Growing up on a hobby farm inspired her passion for the environment, wildlife, sustainable living and growing things.