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Catching the swarm

Beekeepers

"Our hive cast a swarm!!  The first one ever!!  What do I do?"

Perhaps it was the excess of exclamation points, but something told our movie-star neighbor he should skip the advice and just come over to lead the capture.

Spraying sugar water

Our neighbor later told us that this was the toughest swarm he'd ever captured because of the masses of honeysuckle encircling the bees.  Mark had suggested we cut away the vines, but I was terrified this swarm would be annoyed by the activity and leave just like last year's package did.  Luckily, our neighbor had a simple solution --- spray the swarm liberally with sugar water so they'd stay put, then clip those vines.

Peach leaves for bees

He also suggested we smear peach leaves along the inside of the boxes we were going to install the honeybees into.  Since our neighbor had just bought some lemongrass oil on my recommendation, we also dabbed a few drops of that fragrant substance on the inner walls of the hive as well.

Swarm bracket

"Are we going to scoop the bees into a bucket?" I asked.  (Imagine this sentence uttered with the intonation of the classic "Are we there yet?")  We'd very carefully cut all of the vines underneath the swarm, but left one in the middle to make the mass of bees easy to shake.  But into what?

My neighbor didn't like the bucket idea, and planned to instead levitate a hive body under the swarm and knock the bees directly into their new home.  Here's where Mark's ingenuity shone.  "Why don't we put a couple of brackets on the tree, add a board on top, and then put the hive there?"

Hive box under swarm

Swarm bookNearly as easily done as said!  Too bad our hive was a cobbled-together version of Langstroth and Warre equipment since we want the bees to eventually live in the latter but have much more of the former on hand.  It seemed to form a relatively solid container, though.

Unfortunately, the tree grew at a bit of a slant, so there was a good chance the bees would fall into the gap between the hive and the trunk.  Perhaps a bee book would make a good ramp to guide them in the right direction?

Here's where activity got heated and we stopped taking pictures (except the last one below).  Our neighbor and I suited up, I stood on a bucket with a brush, and he stood on the ground with a hoe.

"On three, I'll yank this vine and shake the bees into the hive, then you start brushing any stragglers down," he ordered.  "One, two, THREE!"

Shaking a swarm out of a treeWhoosh!  Bees were everywhere!  Even though bees in a swarm are supposed to be very polite, I was ultra-glad I'd donned a bee suit since I'm positive I'd otherwise have ended up with several ladies stuck in my hair.  I put on the lid, then we stepped back and waited.

At first, we thought we'd been successful, but when I checked on the hive just before dark, the swarm had reformed in the narrow gap between tree and box.  I guess our bee book wasn't as good of a ramp as I'd thought and the queen fell into the gap, then everyone else followed.  Downhearted, I figured the experiment had been a failure, but by the next morning, I'd figured out a solution.

Mark and I headed out to the swarm first thing the next day and I sprayed all the bees I could reach with sugar water.  Then Mark gently eased the second box away from the tree, figuring at least some of the bees would adhere to the surface and end up dangling above the cavity below.  Sure enough, his gentle motion combined with my brushing got at least half of the swarm into the lower box, then we pushed the hive back together.

This time, I was sure we'd failed since bees nearly immediately began clustering between the box and the tree again.  But a few hours later, the bees were streaming into the hive box instead.  I can only guess that, at first, that gap smelled like queen, but as her scent dissipated, the workers discovered the queen herself, ensconced in her new hive.

Golf cart at the riverUnfortunately, this happy sight was not the ending of the story.  On our neighbor's recommendation, we left the hive in place that afternoon so any stragglers would join their queen, and I went off-farm to monitor the quality of our nearby river.  It was a blazingly hot day, reaching nearly 90 in the shade, and perhaps the heat was too much for the bees (or they really wanted to live in that site two miles away).  Because when I came home, the hive was empty, the swarm gone.

So, we didn't catch our first swarm after all, but I did get a lot of hands-on experience and I feel much more confident that I'll know what to do next time.  I'll probably move the hive to a good location right away if we catch another swarm, and I should definitely get our ducks in a row so we always have extra equipment on hand for swarm catching. 

Of course, catching swarms is always chancy, so we'll continue to experiment with setting up swarm traps, the sooner the better.  Honeybee Democracy explains that the scouts who go out looking for a new homesite are usually the hive's oldest foragers, which suggests they may be househunting on the sly for weeks before they leave their old home (meaning that a swarm trap set up the day before a swarm emerges may be too late).  And even though I haven't read any data to this effect, I also wouldn't be surprised if honeybees preferentially choose new house sites further from their home colony, since they'd then have less competition for resources and less chance of catching pests and diseases.  Perhaps bees would be most likely to move into a swarm trap at the parking area, a third of a mile from our other hive?

Our chicken waterer makes care of the backyard flock clean, easy, and fun.


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Wow that was exciting. Sorry the bees left, but everything you do with bees is a learning experience.

I mentioned yesterday that we had caught swarms from the same tree in the past. It's a cedar and they rested about 10 feet up on a limb each time. My hubby cut the limb right above where the swarm rested in each case. We caught the 1st swarm by shaking the bees from the limb onto a sheet. We had a hive with frames installed (included some older pulled frames to make them feel more at home) and the bees climbed in overnight. We closed up the hive and moved it the next morning. We caught a 2nd swarm by shaking the bees from the cut limb directly into the set up hive body (again with some old pulled frames). We still had the sheet under and left it on the ground to allow any lingering bees or bees that fell off to go into the hive. We moved that one the next morning as well. Both of these swarms came from our established hives and swarmed late in the day so it was pretty easy to just wait until dusk to catch the swarms. We used the sheet because my daughter was trying to find the queen to make sure she got into the hive since there wasn't much chance of the bees staying otherwise. She actually located and gently moved the queen into the hive the 1st time. Pretty sure that's when the easier shake them into the hive route the 2nd time. We haven't had problems with swarming recently, but I'm sure that's because it's hard to even keep bees in our area recently. Beekeepers in our area have had at least 50% losses coming out of winter this year. We just installed 2 packages over the weekend. Unfortunately we couldn't get bees any earlier. It's pretty late in our area to install, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I know we'll be feeding them, but they're busy bringing in pollen so I'm hopeful.

The Warre hive does look interesting and I may into that. It seems like less meddling with the bees would probably make them much happier. We're using Langstroth hives now, mainly because that's what others we know were using when we started. We'll might stick with that because there are so many others in our area using this method and it's easy to get equipment in a pinch from someone else when you're in a bind.

I love to read about the daily happenings at your homestead. Happy beekeeping!

Comment by Tee Fri May 17 08:54:57 2013

Sorry your swarm moved on.

I am still a rookie at this but one thing that I have found that has helped me keep new packages and swarms from leaving is to give them a bar or two of comb to start on. If you steal a bar of brood from an existing hive and place it in that has worked even better. They don’t want to abandon the brood I guess. All of my horizontal top bar hives are the same for this reason. I can move things around as needed. This has been both a blessing and a curse. It is convenient but it has also prevented me from making modifications to new hives. I am thinking about making them a little wider but I will have to do all of them or my system will no longer work.

I enjoy reading your blog. I am amazed at how you are able to keep it updated so well. Something I am still trying to get better at with ours.

Ned http://www.newbyshomesteadhideawayfarm.com/

Comment by Ned Fri May 17 09:54:45 2013
Ned --- I think you are totally right --- without foundation, it's more essential to add a comb or two of brood to the catch box. In fact, I was almost considering just taking the top box off the old hive (mostly honey, but perhaps a little brood up there) and putting that on the new swarm --- I'll bet they wouldn't have left if they knew they had half their winter stores already. Yet another thing to add to the list of what to do better next time!
Comment by anna Fri May 17 13:24:50 2013
Hello, there! A reader suggested I check out your site to see what you're up to bee-wise and I'm so glad I did! I'm sorry you lost your swarm. We're almost 3-week old beekeepers and are diving one of our hives this evening in response to a queen and drone cells. We work with top bar hives and have found Les Crowder's book and video really helpful. This all-consuming (that's how it feels so far!) hobby is amazing- ups, downs, spin me around. Best of luck with your bees- I'll be signing up to follow along:-).
Comment by Jane Fri May 17 16:02:23 2013

Hi, Anna--So involving, all that re-hiving of a swarm. Good you still have some left? And very curious about where they went...I wonder if they are over at the Lavender Farm?? For next time, maybe you will want to figure out how otheir swarm (which strikes me as spring house-cleaning) is connected to the last frost. You never had a swarm before? At least these bees were healthy enough to move on out! Looking forward to re-grouping, about the tomatoes:)

Comment by adrianne Fri May 17 16:07:31 2013
I so wish I knew this and it is my fault I didn't "catch it" in time. Oh lordy again! Good luck and good hope!
Comment by Maggie Fri May 17 21:44:34 2013

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime