Watching the drama of a swarm departure is one of the most exciting things in beekeeping, but that’s 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.
Swarming is a reproduction method used by bees to split 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.
Don’t be foolish about itl: Some swarms will put themselves beyond reasonable reach — they are not worth huge personal risks. 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. They are still just bees.
Many bee clubs have swarm hotlines that are promoted to the public. 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.
The non-beekeeping public has two major misconceptions about swarms:
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:
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 can 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:
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 overheating. Adding a branch the bees can hang onto in the improvised box is a helpful, short-term solution.
To get the bees into the container, you have a few options:
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 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.
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.
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 from another hive to the new swarm’s box may help anchor them.
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.
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.