The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Honey Bee Biology

Tree-Climbing for Swarms: Doing It Carefully and Correctly

- April 1, 2015 - Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

Climbing trees to retrieve swarms with a ladder is not for everybody. It requires comfort with heights, a keen sense of balance, concentration on every movement, and planning every maneuver well ahead. And above all else – always expect the unexpected. I started climbing trees for swarms when only a kid, learning to use ladders, saws, and rope wisely, little by little, accumulating a swarm-catching wisdom that comes mostly from experience. To be sure that was hard-won experience.

Some swarms land in trees too high up or out on branches too far out to retrieve. And what is my catching limit? It’s not defined. But I know it when I see it.

In other situations, catching the swarm up in the tree can become complicated and time consuming. In Figure 1, I was working up in a pine tree. My bow saw and branch cutters were hung in the ladder, for easy access. I had the branch with the swarm cut off, which shook most of the bees off. Now with the branch wedged in others, I was waiting for the bees to cluster back on the limb. With the bees back on the branch, I finally retrieved the swarm, taking the branch down the ladder, but it took most of the morning. Still, it was a big swarm, worth saving.

This next swarm landed in a difficult place. It was about 30 feet high, surpassing the reach of my extension ladder. The trunk of the oak tree was only a medium size, which made the ladder unstable when leaning against it. Why? Because the top rung leans against the tree trunk, letting the top of the ladder wobble. Or worse still, the ladder might slide across the trunk while I am on it. A creepy feeling to be sure. (On a larger tree the upper sides of the ladder lean against the trunk, keeping it more stable.) Adding to the swarm-catching difficulties, the branch with the bees was slender and would not support much extra weight. And to make matters worse, the swarm had landed near the end of the branch, well out of reach even if one could climb that high up the tree. No matter, I still felt I could catch this wayward swarm by cutting the limb with the bees and carrying it down the ladder.

First, I needed to remove some branches under the swarm. They might interfere with bringing down the bees. I planned to bend down the swarm branch. The bees would roughly follow the red arrow in Figure 2, when I partly cut the branch at the orange arrow. As I extended the ladder at intermediate lengths, I placed it against the tree and removed more lower limbs. I repeated the process until the ladder was at its full extension. In this position, I lashed the top rung to the tree. Tying the top rung to the tree made the ladder very stable because the supporting rung could not slip across the tree. The base of the ladder was pushed into the ground so it could not kick out. Now the ladder was stable.

Even standing on the highest rung, definitely not recommended, I still could not reach the swarm. Nevertheless, I could reach where the swarm branch joined the trunk. With a slender branch, and with me standing too high on the ladder, getting to the base of the branch was actually better than getting to the swarm. I could make a partial cut near the base of the branch and bend it so the swarm swept out an arc towards the ladder, moving like the hour-hand of a clock from the three o’clock position to the six o’clock position (see Figure 3). The trick is to know exactly where to make the partial cut near the base of the swarm branch. It sometimes helps to bend the branch a little to see where most of the stress will occur, that is, where I think the breaking-point will occur, then make the cut there.

With my large long-handled pruners, I slowly started to cut the branch (see Figure 4). As I pulled the handles together, I watched the jaws slice into the wood, being careful not to …