Catching swarms of honey bees has to be one of the most exciting and fascinating events of the year. I say 'event' as it tends to happen mostly in the month of May in the UK. Last year, 2015, we caught 9 such swarms and increased our own hive number from 5 to 12. Many of the swarms came from one or two of our own hives that we had dedicated to the actual production of natural swarms.
The boxes needed to actually catch swarms are quite different in design to normal hives and need to be lightweight and easily secured for transportation. Plywood is the ideal material to use. Quite often, these boxes need to be moved to another site 3 miles away or more and it's absolutely vital that the bees don't escape into the car. The boxes are also used for creating an artificial 'Nucleus' colony.
During the peak of the swarm season I will check the hedgerows for swarms maybe four times a day. Once, I was working out in a field and I could hear a swarm approaching - it passed by overhead, went past the neighbour's open bathroom window and 'landed' on the branch of a small apple tree, with me running in hot pursuit! Another time I was approaching the apiary and a swarm of bees was congregating above it. Once the correct bees were out of the hive, they all set off at high speed across the fields and out of sight to cluster again in a more remote location.
Allowing some our bees to swarm and trying to catch them again is one of the most natural ways of 'Making increase', or in other words, increasing the number of colonies in the apiary. Another way is to sub divide by with an artificial split and create what is called a 'Nucleus' which is basically frames taken from another colony with an abundance of healthy brood, eggs, stores and actual bees, except the queen. A new queen will be produced by the nurse worker bees from eggs on the frames. The natural swarm is however better and the bees have an amazing knack for selecting exactly the right number of foraging bees, nurse bees, drones and queens to go with them on their intrepid flight into the unknown.
This is a perfect project for the dark Winter months and whatever we want to do - an artificial split or collect natural swarms - these boxes are the business!
There is only one thing for sure about beekeeping - no two beekeepers will ever agree on any one thing. There's an old saying: "Ask two beekeepers the same question and you'll get three different answers".
There is always a lot of debate about which materials are suitable for making bee hives, nucleus boxes and catch hives. Some long respected professional beekeepers in my local beekeeping association have been quite happily using plywood painted with oil based paints for decades, although they do prefer western red cedar given the choice. I build all our own plywood boxes in the Winter, which gives a good 4 months for the paint to dry and any residual fumes to be completely gone. One of our most productive colonies is housed in a big plywood box painted with an oil based paint and is now designated as our main producer of swarms.
The great thing about plywood is that it is cheap and easy to work with and, due to it's inherent strength, hives can be made out of very thin sections, using much less weight of wood. A strong hive can be made with 5mm plywood compared with 16mm western red cedar, which is the 'traditional' material. The important thing with plywood is to protect it from the rain, either with really good paint or even polythene film or sheet. 5mm plywood does, however, have poor insulation properties so all our hives are protected with 'Bee Cosies' during the Winter, which also protect them against the rain.
At the end of the day, especially with catch hives, if the bees don't like it, they won't choose it as a home.
Another thing that would be really great is if all the parts could be laser cut and some engraving burnt out on the side panels. Oh for a laser cutter, or someone who has got one big enough in the UK? Actually, the H-Series 20x12 laser cutter would be perfect for this job - just the right size. I do hope I win the competition - We must have a laser cutter to help protect the bees!