A hallmark of beekeeping
Swarming, a complicated bee behavior
A swarm of honey bees is a biological wonderment. For most people who don’t keep bees, a single encounter with a swarm becomes a lifelong memory. For the established beekeeper, hiving a swarm is an economical moment — free bees. For the public, it’s a spicy moment of danger and fear — a bit like stumbling across a snake (though most snakes are completely harmless). It’s frequently a time for a beekeeper to be a hero and save the community from a “threatening danger.” There’s not a beekeeper in the land who hasn’t savored the thrill of the public moment when a swarm was successfully hived and “all civilians were spared.”
Getting a swarm of bees is an excellent way to either get started in beekeeping or to increase colony numbers — so long as they are not swarms from some of your other colonies. The most obvious problem is the unpredictable timing of a swarm opportunity. One year may bring more swarms than anyone wants while the next year may bring nothing. This erratic nature makes it hard to develop apiary expansion plans.
Some basic swarm biology
When a swarm issues from a hive, roughly half the worker bees, a few drones, and the old queen go with the swarm. A swarm in transit is truly a rite of spring. Watching a swarm move is akin to watching the minute hand on an analog watch move. If you are specifically watching it, it appears that the swarm is not moving; but if you look away for a bit, run to the car for equipment, or talk briefly to bystanders, you’ll be surprised how far the swarm has gone when you look back to it. The issued swarm will normally set up a bivouac site and will stay there from a few hours to a few days. All the while, scout bees are searching for new home sites.
Bees finding potential living accommodations will return to the hanging cluster and waggle-dance on the outer layer of swarm bees. At some point, a cluster decision is made concerning a new site, and the swarm is off, and “off” at a speed considerably greater than that seen during the first phase of the swarm. A swarm can really move along if it chooses.
Initially, at the new site, the alighting bees resemble a swarm. If the beekeeper gets a call at this point, the game has changed. This swarm is no longer eagerly looking for a home site but has made a conscious choice on a new abode. If the caller says, “A swarm has just landed on the side of my house and is going into the wall beside the chimney” — forget hiving that swarm. It’s already “hived” itself. You would then follow the discussion for “Removing bees from a dwelling,” which is a totally different subject.
Many beekeepers got their first start in beekeeping because of an opportune swarm. Maybe they came home from work one afternoon and there it was, hanging on a low limb. Or with a lot of fanfare and much community noise, maybe a neighbor was about to spray a swarm with insecticides and you, the unknowing future beekeeper, felt an infantile apicultural stir, and asked for it (not having a clue what you were going to do with it). Boom! A new beekeeper was born.
Or how about this scenario that I have encountered? A swarm of bees had moved into an overturned bureau drawer in a scrap pile. The property owner found it, kept it, and turned it into a hive. But … years later, the bureau drawer still comprised part of the lower hive with standard beekeeping equipment stacked above it.
Every beekeeper has their own special swarm story. When you get a swarm call, I would suggest asking the following questions in no order of priority. No doubt, you too will have questions of your own.
How long have the bees been there?
One of the unique characteristics of a swarm is its docility. Normally, most swarms are in a good mood — but not always. If the caller saw “thousands of bees land on a bush back by the barn just a few hours ago,” they are describing a swarm that should be easy to hive. The bees have just landed, are not defensive of the swarm location, and are probably still well fed with food they took for the trip.
Alternatively, if the caller says something like, “They have been there for four days. I thought they’d have left by now,” or worse … “I tried to spray them with an insecticide but I couldn’t kill all of them,” the beekeeper should be aware — if you show up, empty hive equipment in tow, there’s an excellent chance you will meet hostile bees. If you suspect they are not a happy swarm, mist them three or four times during a 30-minute period with thin sugar syrup. Wear a veil and other protective equipment as necessary and admonish gawkers to stay a safe distance away. Indeed, I would suggest that you wear a veil anytime you are working bees — any bees — not just swarms. I should listen to my own advice.
How high off the ground are they?
Nothing brings out the acrobatics in an enthusiastic beekeeper more than a high swarm. Picture this — a beekeeper, beneath a tall tree, on the top step of a ladder, in the back of a pickup truck. The beekeeper is reaching, at full arm’s length, with a paint roller extension pole trying to dislodge a swarm. Yes, I’ve done that and I’ve stood by while others tried it.
If you look at this situation logically, the most I would be saving is the price of a 3# package — maybe $140. For the potential cost of the emergency room and subsequent medical procedures, I could buy a small bee operation. But I suppose it’s the challenge of the moment. I know the feeling.
Another clever, but questionable technique is to shoot off the high limb with a rifle. The problem with that procedure is that it sounds like a Light Infantry firefight, which tends to upset the neighborhood. Spoiler alert — just because you shoot the limb, or worse, shoot the clustered bees, the swarm will not necessarily come to the ground. Most likely the swarm will just reassemble itself near the broken limb.
Yet another technique bound to bring attention to the scene is for the beekeeper to attach a nylon monofilament line to an arrow and attempt to shoot the arrow/line contraption over the limb, then use the line to pull a rope over the limb. If all that works, you would then shake the limb with the rope, and have bees rain down on you.
As in the previous example, rather than go in your hive, the swarm will probably fly right back to the same spot. However, nothing ventured — nothing gained. Sadly, if they are really high — completely out of reach — go home and wait for another swarm call.
Are they, in fact, honey bees?
When it comes to bees, the public seems to think they have entomological skills, mainly because most people, sometime in their life, have been stung or bitten by some angered insect. I think what’s happening is that the frantic caller is willing to say whatever it takes to get you on the job. Nevertheless, you must ask, “Are you sure they are honey bees?” To which the indignant caller will attempt to impress you with their understanding of beedom.
My brother recently got a call from a landowner on an eight-acre plot. The caller explained that the bees were in an oak tree and that the nest entrance was a hole in the ground that was completely across the acreage. Now to any beekeeper, the possibility of a honey bee nest having its entrance hundreds of yards away is laughable, but to the concerned landowner, it’s all in a day’s work. (This was not even a honey bee swarm. It was obviously two nests — one of honey bees in the tree while the other was yellow jackets.) What beekeeper has not unintentionally driven miles to get a swarm of hornets? If you think the offending insects are not honey bees, for civility’s sake, I will always recommend being polite and then being gone.
Are they the caller’s to give away?
“Are they yours to give away?” may seem like a strange question. Years ago, I went to hive a swarm only to find that the caller was feuding with a neighboring beekeeper over a property line. The caller thought that “the bees had gotten away” and that by giving them to me, that was just one less hive to worry about.
I did the civil thing and asked the neighbor’s wife, whose beekeeper husband was at work, if I could have the swarm. You know the answer. No, but … would I be willing to hive the swarm for him in his absence? I had to rummage in their attic around Christmas decorations, outgrown clothes, and boxes of old magazines to find the required bee equipment. I hived the swarm for the absentee neighbor and made my departure with a new question for my Swarm Questions list.
The hiving box
What should the swarm capture box have in it? Bees find old bee equipment and old combs attractive. If you can have — at least — a couple of frames of drawn comb in a used box, you’re off to a good start. I frequently use 4-frame nucs only because they are smaller and lighter. An old state apiarist, now long departed, once told me that, in a pinch, he successfully used his veil as a bag in which he could transport a swarm. While interesting, I don’t think that I could recommend that use of a bee veil.
The moment of capture
Alright … you’ve gotten the call, asked all the right questions, gotten all the right answers, made the trip to the swarm site, talked to the homeowner, and found the swarm to be hivable. What now?
First, as nearly as you can, put a hive body, with an attached bottom, or some other container beneath the swarm. “Beneath” may be a few inches or a few yards away, depending on your swarm luck that day. Then give the limb a couple of hard shakes1 … and then watch everything break loose. Bees everywhere. Normally, a blob of bees drops to the hive while all the other bees take to the air. Almost immediately some bees return to the original site, some bees seem lost and fly randomly, while others will seem genuinely happy with your accommodations.
In general, it’s a moment of uncertain biological confusion. Almost everything hinges on the queen. If she went back to the original swarm site, assuredly, the bees in your box will, after a while, return to …