One way to obtain yourself a healthy honeybee colony to put in your hive is to catch a swarm.
While this might sound daunting, catching a swarm is entirely doable, and there’s many ways to go about it.
Swarming is an optimistic act, and usually an indication that the colony has outgrown its hive space due to a good season causing the colony to expand.
At this point, the colony will raise a new queen, and once she’s ready, some of the colony will leave the hive in the form of a swarm, clustered around one of the queen bees, to go find another hive space while the rest of the colony, with the other queen bee, stays behind.
The advantage of catching a swarm and using that to populate a new hive are multiple…
- Locally adapted, successful genetics – typically, a swarm is full of healthy bees, and that’s why they have swarmed in the first place. By default, you know that these bees thrive in your area, and have managed to avoid major disease or mishap within their previous hive.
- It’s free! – unlike purchasing bees, catching a swarm costs you only preparation time and a fair bit of adrenalin on the day. Often you will see ads in local papers by beekeepers offering swarm removal – because they know the value of a free, locally adapted colony
- High likelihood of healthy bees – when you catch a swarm you are obtaining *just* the bees to house in your hive – there’s nothing else in the swarm. So unlike a package of bees, or a nucleus hive, the chances of these bees starting off in your hive being disease free is very good – no small hive beetle or chalkbrood can come across in a swarm.
As for how to obtain a swarm, there’s various options…
Catching a swarm with a bait hive
This is the most passive way of catching a swarm – put up some bait hives in likely places, and cross your fingers. Bait hives need to be checked regularly, so close to your home is best.
When honeybees swarm, they send out scout bees ahead to find a suitable home, who report back to the main swarm following along behind until a suitable place is found. This is why you will find swarms occasionally in places like clustered on tree boughs, letter boxes and on fences – that’s the main swarm resting while the scout bees do their thing.
The idea with a bait hive that that you are providing an awesome solution to this particular swarm’s needs – namely a great place to establish a colony.
A one-box warre hive is perfect for this job – put your u-bars in with starter strips, site the hive somewhere likely, and cross your fingers.
There’s also a host of bait hive plans on the internet, but if you’re Warré beekeeping, using a hive box makes the most sense.
The image above shows Cameron Wild’s bait hive design – a swarm box with a limited entrance (and a door to allow for easy moving to a more suitable apiary site once the swarm are inside) with a Warré box ontop, where the colony will hopefully establish.
The idea with this design is that once the swam arrive, they will start establishing in the top box, and the bottom bait hive part can be easily removed with minimal disturbance to the bees above. Nice one, Cameron!
Where to site your bait hive
Bait hives do well up above head height, for a few reasons – partly because it’s out of everyone’s way, and partly because when bees are swarming, they tend to fly overhead, not down at ground level!
A site about 2-4 meters off the ground is ideal – the top of a carport on on a roof area is perfect
That said, make sure your bait hive is somewhere you’re able to get it down from, if and when it’s full of bees!
As an extra allurement, you can add a swarm bait to your bait hive – the idea being that the scout bees will detect your bait hive and be attracted by the smell, and then decide that your bait hive is just what they were looking for. Your options are to go the natural route, or to get a pheromone-driven one from a beekeeping store.
Natural hive baits include:
- Lemongrass – oil or fresh plant, rubbed inside hive
- Lemon/Melissa Balm – fresh plant rubbed inside hive
From the natural beekeepers we know, the results of using a swarm baits are… varied. Some think they’re a waste of time, others swear by them.
A note that if you do use swarm baits, make sure they’re at least 100 meters from any existing beehives.
Here’s a post about our friend Steve Williams, a home beekeeper who successfully caught a swarm by placing a bait hive on his carport.
Other (more pro-active) ways to catch a swarm
So the OTHER way to catch a swarm is to do just that… catch one.
Typically, when bees are swarming they are at their least aggressive – their imperative during swarming is to protect the queen and find a new home before the energy in the form of honey in their bellies runs out.
So unless the bees consider you to be endangering the queen, they should ignore you, for the most part.
Catching a swarm depends on where it is – if it’s 20 meters up a tree, it probably is not for you. But if the swarm is on a bush, or on a low-hanging branch, it can be as simple as giving the branch a sharp knock, while a sturdy cardboard box is placed underneath it. Once the majority of the swarm is in the box, cover it and leave a few holes for the rest of the swarm to enter into.
Once it seems that the vast majority of bees are in the box, seal it up and transport that box to a suitable empty hive. Undo the box, leave it at the hive entrance, and cross your fingers. Alternately you can deliver the swarm to the opened top of the hive, on the top bars, and the swarm should crawl down into the hive (a bit of smoke may be helpful here).
There’s a great post by the Hand To Ground crew about catching a swarm from a clothes line and installing it in a waiting warré hive.
There’s also calico swarm catchers that you can get – a bag on a pole with a hinged lid – that are intended to dislodge swarms from tree branches into the bag, then the drawstring at the bottom of the bag can be loosened to let the swarm into the top of a waiting hive.
As with anything, if you’re not confident you can do it by yourself, don’t. Get advice, read lots, and assist and learn where you can, before you try and catch a swarm yourself.
Many amateur beekeeping associations have ‘swarm lists’ of folks who can be called apon to remove swarms – might we recommend that you find someone who’s happy for you to tag along and build your confidence for catching swarms this way.
Its also possible sometimes to buy swarms from swarm catchers – again, find your local bee club and start asking around.
- Swarm Traps and Bait Hives: The easy way to get bees for free McCartney M Taylor
- The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism Jürgen Tautz
- Honeybee Democracy Thomas D. Seeley
- Natural Beekeeping with the Warré Hive – David Heaf
- All our Natural Beekeeping resources
Big thanks to all our natural beekeeping network who contributed photos to this post – Cameron Wild, Hand to Ground Emily, Steve Williams, Paul Ward and Michelle Bowe.