two beekeepers wearing protective gear catching a swarm of honey beesWatching the drama of a swarm departure is one of the most exciting things in beekeeping. Retired Cornell Professor Tom Seeley wrote an amazing book called Honeybee Democracy all about how the swarm's scouts search for a new home and vote amongst themselves about where they should fly. But swarm-watching is just a spectator sport: Catching and hiving a swarm is where you get involved in the game. Explore these methods and tips for catching swarmed bees, what to do after catching a swarm, and tricks for successfully hiving a captured swarm.

Swarm Catching 101

Swarming is the way that one bee colony reproduces to become two bee colonies — these bees have survived a local winter and come into spring strong. Swarms that have been captured may thrive when hived, but consider these factors before making any attempts.

Consider safety first when deciding if you should catch a swarm

First and foremost, sometimes a swarm is just too high to safely collect.  Any work that requires a ladder can be deadly if you’re not careful, and a swarm isn’t worth your life. 

Look carefully at where the swarm has settled.  Are they 8 feet up on a spindly tree that can spare a few branches as you try to cut them down?  Great!  Are they 40 feet up a half-dead poplar tree that you’re more likely to fall out of than safely descend? Not great!  If it’s not safe or practical to collect a swarm, that’s fine. Don’t think you need to catch and hive every swarm in your town.  


If they're so high

you're likely to die, 

then say goodbye

and let them fly!

This goes double when the swarm is one from your own hives. The desperation to recapture them, no matter what, can be very strong because of your emotional connection to them, but remember that at the end of the day, they're just some bees.

How do you find out about swarms that need to be hived?

Many bee clubs have swarm hotlines that are promoted to the public, and Betterbee maintains a free swarm catcher list full of people to contact. Police and local officials may hear of swarms and be happy to pass those calls on to you. Your neighbors may call, if they know you are a beekeeper. And of course, there are your own hives, too, which may swarm.

Questions to ask about a reported swarm

The non-beekeeping public has two major misconceptions about swarms:

  • The first is that they are dangerous blobs of hostile bees.
  • The second is that any aggregation of insects is a "swarm" of honey bees.

The first idea — that a swarm represents an extreme danger to people and pets — is wrong, except in areas where there are Africanized Honey Bees (aka "killer bees"). But fear does motivate people to call for help when they discover a swarm.

The second causes problems for would-be swarm-catchers. To determine whether the insects in question are honey bees, ask some questions before launching:

  1. Are you sure these are honey bees? A cell phone picture will help sort this out, so ask for one if necessary.
  2. Where is the swarm? Big bunches of bees hanging from a branch are swarms. Bees living in buildings may once have been swarms, but are now living in the walls and different plans must be made to remove them. Bees living in holes in the ground or in spherical paper nests hanging down from branches are not honey bees, nor are they swarms.
  3. How long has the swarm been there? This question tells you whether the swarm may be getting hungry, and therefore getting testy, or not.
  4. Have the bees already been sprayed? Sometimes you won’t get the truth because people don’t want to admit this. But you should ask anyway. Bees sprayed with insecticide will die in the long run, and you may not wish to contaminate your equipment with the residues.

How to catch a swarm of bees

Newly swarmed bees are pretty tame; they have no hive to protect and they are full of honey. That doesn’t guarantee they won’t sting if pressed, but they are not aggressive. Swarms that have been waiting around, called “dry swarms,” are often crankier.

Swarm catching is unpredictable: You must go from regular life to swarm-chasing mode in the time it takes to answer your cell phone. Since timing can be critical, keep some basic equipment ready to go to increase your success at snagging a swarm. Some beekeepers even keep basic gear in their cars during swarm season.

Have these tools and equipment items handy as swarm season approaches:

  • At a minimum, you should have a collection container to hold the bees while you get their new home ready: A nuc or a box with frames is best, but even a large cardboard box with a cloth or screen cover will do in a pinch.
  • Keep a beekeeper jacket on hand.
  • Additional safety gear, like your gloves and smoker, protect you while you work.
  • Ladders, ropes, swarm-catching sacks on extension poles, and lopping shears, are all optional, but sometimes useful for reaching swarms up in trees.
  • An old sheet laid on the ground makes it easy to know whether you have captured all the bees from a cluster.
  • Ratchet straps and duct tape keep wooden equipment together for transportation in a car or truck.

What is the best way to catch a swarm of bees?

If you're lucky, the swarm is clustered on something that you can reach from the ground or can be reached using just a stepladder. Above that, stop to think about the risks and the likelihood of success.

The task is to collect all the bees — including the all-important queen — into a container, without injuring them in the process. Ideally, you’ll have a base, a deep hive body with frames, and a top. If you improvise with a cardboard box or plastic tub, you’ll need fabric or a screen for the top to keep the bees from suffocating or overheating. Adding a branch the bees can hang onto in the improvised box is a helpful, short-term solution if there are no frames available.

To get the bees into the container, you have a few options:

  1. If the bees are on a branch that you can cut off, simply set the cut branch on top of the frames in an open hive or inside a temporary transport box.
  2. If the branch is too large to cut, gently scoop the bees off with your hands and drop them into the hive or box. A tolerant helper (with a veil on!) can hold the box close to the cluster for ease.
  3. Sometimes the best approach is to position the box underneath the cluster and give the branch a sharp jerk, letting the bees fall into the box. Lay a sheet down on the ground first, so you can spot stray bees and avoid stepping on them.

You won’t get all the bees in the box at first go-round — but if the queen is in the box, the other bees will soon follow her in. If they all fly back out, you may have lost them, but it doesn’t hurt to try again if you can reach them.

What happens when most of the swarm is in the box?

What you do next depends on whether you have put them in a box with frames, or not. If using a box with frames (even if it’s not the one they will live in permanently), you can leave it on the ground for a while to let all the strays find their way in. If you see bees “Nasonoving” at the entrance, chances are the queen is in the box.

If you’re using an improvised box, even with a branch in it for hang-out space, you need to get the bees into a box with frames as soon as possible. Thick layers of bees at the bottom of a box will quickly overheat. Unless you can arrange to get a box with frames brought to the site right away, you must leave any bees not already in the improvised box behind.

If you must leave the strays and scouts behind, you may return to find them clustered near the original swarm bivouac. Bring a nuc box along to capture those, too.

No time to collect bees by hand? Suck them up!

Sometimes a swarm needs to be caught right away, with no risk for errors. You can usually take some time collecting a swarm from a tree, but not if the tree is in the middle of the local elementary school's playground, and recess starts in 10 minutes! In cases like that, or if you just really want to collect the swarm and be done with it, consider a specially designed bee vacuum like the Colorado Bee Vac.

A bee vac can gently suck up the bees and the queen and hold them in a ventilated transportation box, allowing you to safely and comfortably hive them after you’ve gotten them home. This bee vacuum was designed for cut-outs (removing bee colonies and their combs from the inside of a house or tree) but it works great to collect swarms, too. Check out this video where we used a Colorado Bee Vac to perform a cut-out for a local homeowner.

Transporting a bee swarm

Two Betterbee staffers catching a swarm. Osmar is holding up a nuc box underneath the bees, while Joe shakes the branch to knock them down. Photo credit: Anne Frey

Transporting a captured swarm inside a vehicle can be risky. While running the A/C may be helpful in keeping your bees cool and docile, don’t skimp on safety clothing: Wear your bee jacket or veil while driving. Better yet, move the bees in a pickup truck bed instead.

If you must transport the bees inside your car, close up the hive entrance securely. If moving it in a pickup, you can leave it open. Either way, strap the box together so it cannot come apart during transit. Cover the top of the improvised box with a layer of fabric or screening, and make sure the cover is secure before transport.

How to hive a swarm — and keep it in its new home

When you arrive at your destination, transfer your bees into their new digs. Swarm bees are comb-drawing machines because a large portion of them are at prime wax-making age. So, it’s a good idea to hive a swarm on a full box of foundation. They will draw it out quickly so you won’t need to feed them right away. In fact, letting them use up any honey they may have in their crops to feed themselves and fuel their initial surge of wax making is a good sanitary practice that helps prevent disease transfer.

Quick tip for success: Swarm bees can be picky about their new home, and will sometimes desert it. Adding a single comb with brood, even only a little bit of brood, from another hive to the new swarm’s box may help anchor them. As soon as they smell brood, the bees switch from house-hunting mode to homeowner mode and are much less likely to leave.

Treating captured swarms for varroa mites

Broodless colonies — as a swarm is, to start — are excellent candidates for a one-dose treatment of oxalic acid (either by vaporization or dribbling) to nearly eradicate any varroa mites they may carry. Oxalic acid is only effective on mites on the bodies of adult bees — not those under the brood cappings. As it will take more than a week for the swarm’s first brood to be capped, you have a window for treatment.

While adding a frame with brood changes that treatment timetable, it is still worthwhile. The best donor frame is one with only eggs and very young brood; this one has the closest match to the swarm’s own capping timetable. The second best choice is a frame with only already-capped brood from a hive that is known to have a very low level of mites.

Tips for transferring a captured swarm

As you transfer the bees from the capture box to their permanent home, keep an eye out for the queen. If she’s been marked, it will give you an idea about her age. If she looks particularly slender, with a small abdomen, she may be a virgin queen and still need to go out on her mating flights. Understanding the queen’s status will help you know when to check again to verify that the colony is queenright.

In nature, a recent swarm must quickly create all the comb their new home needs so that the population can rebound and collect enough honey before winter. After hiving your newly captured swarm, keep an eye on conditions and be prepared to add a second brood box — with foundation is fine — if the swarm is strong and there is plentiful nectar flow. For more beekeeping tips and expert information, explore our Instructions and Resources.