"WHAT IS A BEE SWARM?
Swarming is the honey bee’s method of colony reproduction. The old queen and about half of the worker bees leave their former nest and seek a new home, usually in the spring but sometimes at other times of the year when local conditions permit." from UC Davis Integrated Pest Management Website
I've been keeping bees in my backyard in Silicon Valley, CA for seven years. Mid April through May is peak honeybee swarming season. There are several beekeepers in my area and a good number of wild hives in local trees. This is great, but it also produces many swarms. Collecting swarms is a great way to replace or increase colonies and it encourages local, surviving hives to thrive. Other beekeepers, many who are members of local bee guilds, have taught me the basics of getting swarms. In the past few years, I've collected up to 15 swarms. (Yay!) Some are swarms from my hives, others are wild swarms that neighbors call me to retrieve. My skill does not include retrieving bees from inside walls or other structures. Those jobs are best left to the professionals.
Step 1: Where Are They?
When a colony of honeybees swarm, they are everywhere! A loud buzzing sound hums all around. It is scary at first, then fascinating as you realize they don't care about you. The bees are looking for a new home. I've collected swarms from fences, tree limbs, tree trunks and even lawn chairs.
The bees settle into one place protecting their queen, waiting until scout bees find a better location for them to make a new home. They may stay for minutes then fly away, or wait for several days. But usually they are looking for a protected location for a permanent place to live.
There have been a few times when I've been setting up to collect the swarm, and then poof, they all fly away... (that was me, the funny lady in the white outfit running down the street thinking I would find then again, nope)
At time the bees have settled so high in a tree that I cannot reach them. No bee retrieval is worth a trip to the hospital because I fell off a ladder.. oh, but so frustrating to see them way up there and not be able to reach them.
Fortunately, most of the swarms are relatively easy to reach with a ladder.
Step 2: So How Do You Get Them Down From the Tree?
Most swarms I retrieve are on someone else's property. The first step is to discuss what I plan to do. Collecting a swarm is a great opportunity to educate about honeybees. Most folks and their kids are very interested. Many of them have shared these great photos of the process.
I've made a special "bee motel" out of a cardboard box. It has taped mesh windows and a flap at the top. Wearing my beekeeping suit, climbing a ladder placed under the swarm, I position the box under the swarm. Next, grabbing a hold of the branch that the swarm is on, a quick and firm shake of the branch will usually drop the bulk of the bees into the box. Within the cluster of bees is the queen. She is the most important bee in the group. If she is in the box, the rest of the bees will eventually join her.
Experience has shown me that patience is important. No amount of shaking or brushing, or coaxing will get all the bees into the box until they are ready. I leave the box on the ladder or ground near the swarm. Before dusk, most of the bees look for shelter for the night. The box is closed and taken to it's new home.
Step 3: Where Else Will Bees Swarm?
Sometimes swarms will be very polite. Notice the photo of the swarm on the lawn chair. Because it was near the ground, I placed an empty hive body near the swarm. The hive body had frames with bees wax and smelled like a nice place to call home.. certainly better than a plastic chair. Note in the video, the bees are marching right into the box! Some of the bees stayed on the chair so I shook them into the box to join the others.
The best swarm is one that goes directly into a existing, but empty hive body. This is a wonderful thing.
Step 4: To Their New Home
Once the bees are safely in the box, the lid is closed tight and the bees are taken to their new home. I put them in the trunk of my car and drive home. Yes, bees do get loose in the car sometimes, so I often drive home in my bee suit.
If my be yard is filled, I give the bees to fellow beekeepers. This is an important way to support the honey bee population.
Once home, and before dark, I take the box to an empty hive body in my yard. I open the box and with a brisk shake, pour the bees into their new home. Those that are still in the box, eventually follow the queen into the frames and begin setting up house.
I use a standard type of bee boxes, a Lansgsroth hive. The last photo in this step shows a friend's Top Bar hive.
Step 5: The Cycle Continues..
The suburban environment where I live has lots of springtime nectar for the new colony setting up housekeeping. If the swarm is small, or they need to build wax foundation, I will feed them sugar water to help them thrive. Mostly I leave them alone and observe then busily going about their business.
They are fascinating.
Step 6: If You See a Swarm...
Don't panic. The bees are looking for a new home and have no desire to hurt you. Stay out of their way and they will be gone in a while. If you know a local beekeeper, they will happily collect the swarm. Look for local beekeeping organizations for lists of beekeepers who are interested in getting them. In my area, the Santa Clara Bee Guild and San Mateo Bee Guild both have webpages with swarm lists.
If the bees manage to set up housekeeping in your walls, chimney or roof, call a bee removal specialist. They can retrieve the bees and usually try to relocate the colony to a beekeeper. They are also equipped to repair damage to your house.
Have fun and bee happy.