Honey Bee Biology

Swarm Catching: Experience from the Field and High in the Trees

- May 1, 2018 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

swarm of bees

The swarm season of 2017 started earlier than I expected. Swarm season typically begins well into April here in Piedmont Virginia, although one often hears about an unusually early swarm. At the end of March, news of my early swarm arrived.

The sun was low in the sky when a truck arrived at the house. I knew the driver. He had previously had bees in his country house. The colony had taken up residency behind brick masonry, a difficult and expensive place for removal. The bee flight from the entrance had been sparse. I recommended waiting for the colony to naturally expire. Then my friend could seal the hole, which he did the first spring he saw no bee flight (after a period for robbing to remove any honey stores, but before swarm season, when a new colony could reoccupy the site).

Now a swarm had landed on a fence post by his cattle pasture and near his house. The natural thought would be, Here come the bees for my house again. To save time, I followed him in my bee truck, and he took me through a gate and into a pasture. We homed in on one line of fencing. Sure enough, the swarm had clustered on the flat side of a half-post (see Figure 1). Any hope quickly vanished of merely shaking the bees into a hive.

Here is the situation that confronted me. Darkness was coming quickly and it was becoming cooler. I could not return tomorrow, so the swarm catching had to happen before sunset. I needed to get the bees off the post and into the hive without spilling them into the grass. Bees scattered in the grass would chill and die. Trying to brush the bees off the post and into the hive below would be a disaster. Warm bees from the cluster’s interior would fly out, land in the grass, and cool down in the shadows. Many would be lost. In the coming darkness, I would be left wondering–Where’s the queen? Somewhere in the grass?

On the floor of the bee truck, I found the solution to my problem–a small plastic drink bottle, in need of minor modification. With my pocket knife, I cut off the spout top and discarded it. That left an open-top cup for gently scooping the bees off the fence post (see Figure 2). I had the top-bar hive beside the post, open at the top, so I could pour in the bees. I removed the bees from the bottom of the cluster, and worked upward.

The goal was minimal bee disturbance with each scoop. I let the edges of the cup go into the cluster parallel to the chains of bees. When the cup overflowed with bees, I gently broke the bee chains (called festoons). Most of the bees in the cup only felt the release in tension from the festoons. Then, moments later, they were in the hive, finding its attractive empty combs. That transition is much more tranquil than brushing the bees off the post with a bee brush. (In general, brushing irritates bees.) In a few minutes, I had scooped most of the bees off the post. However, I was not done.

Swarm catching is essentially queen catching. It does not matter if most of the bees are in their new hive. It does not matter if hundreds of bees scent fan at the entrance of the new hive and the other beekeepers with you agree that the queen must be in the new hive. Sure, those are very hopeful signs–but they are not conclusive. Because if the queen happens to be spilled on the ground nearby, we know the bees will not stay in the new hive. After about 15-20 minutes, the bees will realize the queen is not with them, and the swarm will erupt from the new hive.

Back by the fence post in the fading light, I checked the last remaining bees for the queen. They were difficult to remove because of the fence wires. Then I looked through the grass around the post for any single bees, or a small group of bees, which could be the queen and a few other attendant worker bees. Quite often the bees will find a lost queen first, so look for any small clump of bees. Convinced I was leaving only a couple dozen workers from a three-pound swarm, I closed up the top-bar hive, taped the bars in place, and put it behind the cab, which is a standard position for traveling. My friend was glad to see the bees off, and I was happy to get an early swarm.

The previous bee season has a strong influence on the following season. In the spring of 2016, I witnessed the full force of this fact. I checked my apiary that had been making cotton honey the previous summer. I had moved those hives (about ten) to southern Virginia and put them in a shady place among huge fields of cotton. This versatile plant is well known for its soft durable fiber for clothing. Less well known is that cotton produces honey.

Cotton honey is light in color, has hardly any taste, and crystallizes fairly quickly. Cotton honey alone is usually not regarded as a table grade honey, although it can be blended with other honeys to achieve a uniform product. For me, cotton honey is all for my bees, since our fall nectar flow is so weak. My top-bar hive colonies had gained an average of 60 pounds on cotton, and their bee populations had become exceptionally strong.

Those good cotton conditions from the previous summer carried over to the following spring. When I checked that apiary, those colonies were almost a month ahead of my other colonies, which were still building queen cell cups, most with no eggs in them. In contrast, the cotton colonies were launching swarms. One colony had swarmed–gone for the woods. Another swarm was in a tree. Some colonies had sealed queen cells. They were ready to launch swarms at any moment. About half of the colonies were crowded with bees, but had refrained from building queen cells for swarming.

Already late afternoon and traveling in the truck without my equipment for splitting colonies, I figured (and hoped) the colonies with queen cells would not swarm that day. The swarm in the tree might not move, although I have seen swarms enter my bait hives as late as 7:00 p.m. I decided to retrieve the long extension ladder from the house and ….