Collecting a Bee Swarm

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"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.

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    21 Discussions

    Very clear and interesting instructable! I want to mention that bumble bees swarm too. No honey, but important to the environment. I imagine relocation is pretty much the same?

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    I am not aware of this, bumble bees do not swarm as far as I know! However the "tree Bumblebee" (Bombus hypnorum) exhibits behaviour whereby males "swarm" outside other nests in the hope of mating with a virgin queen.

    As hinted upon above, honeybees swarm when they spit the colony in two. Since they do not hibernate they make honey to take them through the winter and have a flying start in the spring with a large population in the hive. They then send out (usually) a single queen, flying bees and a fertile queen as a package to start a new colony. In the old hive, a new queen will emerge and "take over" the original hive. This has a low failure rate but is expensive.

    Bumblebees and wasps take a different approach. They produce a lot of queens late in the year. They mate, put on fat and then find a place to hibernate. In the spring they emerge, find a nest site and begin a colony from scratch. This is why in the spring you see huge bumble bees (queens) and then tiny ones (the initial brood is malnourished since the queen has to do all the work on her own!). This shotgun approach has a high failure rate, but is low cost in terms of expended energy.

    Some hornets, e.g. the Asian Hornet (vespa velutina) will move the nest from a low position to one that is high in a tree. I do not know if "swarming" occurs or if this is a piecemeal operation.

    BTW, bumble bees do make tiny amounts of honey, it is not stored, but used almost immediately, and the cells or pots are usually haphazard in construction, unlike the very organized comb of honeybees.

    Bumblebee nests can be moved, but ask a qualified person to do this. The best advice is leave alone and work around them since the nest will be active for only a short section of the season, and they cause no harm.

    I hope that helps.

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    Thanks for all the info, but this post is from many years ago. I found a nice bee keeper to take my colony since I have a small yard and my family wasn’t happy sharing with so many bees :-)

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    That's a great shame. You seemed to have a very good handle on things. I was born into bee keeping! It was an old post (flagged up in an email yesterday) but you gotta keep spreading the word! :)
    Yes, boy scans everything from the microscopic to buildings to industrial plant to road systems. I've seen some preliminary bee images that he took and they are astonishing.

    Have a great one!

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    Vyger

    4 years ago on Introduction

    I know that bee keepers use special entrances to their hives that prevent the queen from leaving. The workes can pass through with no trouble but she is bigger and will not fit. So they prevent the hives from swarming by keeping the queens captive. Does this practice perhaps help cause the shortage of active hives? Since they cannot split off and form new colonies at will does this not keep the numbers in the wild down? Is the vigor of an older hive less since they cannot renew themselves by splitting? I know for a beekeeper its a numbers game. The more bees that have to be replaced (because of some leaving with the queen) the less resources they can devote to honey production and the productivity of the hive drops (in terms of what we get from them). But having a little less honey at the expense of making more colinies would appear to be a smart thing.

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    AlphaOmega1Vyger

    Reply 18 days ago

    "But having a little less honey at the expense of making more colinies would appear to be a smart thing."

    If you are a bee keeper, check out Snelgroving techniques for swarm control and colony increase.
    His books are a bit heavy going and so many people don't understand what he's doing or how to use his system. But if you break it down it's not only simple and effective, but cheap on equipment too since you only need a Snelgrove board, a brood box (or modified super) and frames. Whereas most techniques require a a floor, roof, stand, crown-board etc. too.
    You can even run a two queen colony if you're keen! ;)

    PM me by all means. I'll help if I can.

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    AlphaOmega1Vyger

    Reply 18 days ago

    This is an interesting question, and all that you say is true.
    As Norah has said, one should use swarm prevention techniques, and at the same time, queen management.

    * Using a Queen Excluder [Qx] to manage swarming is lazy and not very smart.
    * Not only does swarming remove about 60% of the bees (most of the flying bees) and deplete stocks, and so removing the workforce, it also causes an ongoing population crash due to the new queen not beginning to lay for about a week. Even then she will not be in full production for some time.
    * You are also preventing drones from flying. Reducing genetic diversity in the area and possibly killing the hive due to blocked entrances (dead and stuck drones)
    * You may end up with no queen or a drone layer. Queens will fight, workers will also intercede by balling and tearing down queen cells. If a virgin queen is left, how will she escape the hive to mate?

    I may advise using a Qx
    * If you were say going on holiday - but you have done your inspection first! - and remove (and inspect) immediately on your return. And then only if you have touchy neighbours etc.
    * If you have just installed a swarm and have a history of swarms absconding. This is best only done with primary swarms. (You may have a mating swarm or a cast with an unmated queen) AND don't feed swarms. You are just refuelling them for a move if they don't like the hive! If you must, then wait a few days until the queen is laying.

    Feral colonies, to my mind are very important! They provide a local genetic pool that is tuned to the local conditions, and provides a buffer of potential colonies in the form of swarms. Some will wail and gnash their teeth when they hear of a feral colony, citing them to be disease carrying etc. and a danger to their hives. And I have to agree that in the Americas, where Africanised bees are prevalent, they are a potential problem.
    But lets put this in context: Bees have been on the planet for millions of years longer than man and have done pretty well without bee keepers in that time. So all the BS about EFB, AFB etc. is just that in my opinion.
    The biggest problem that bees have, is man trying to make things better!

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    Jobar007Vyger

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    The only times that bee keepers use excluders is to keep the queen out of honey supers (near the tops of the hives). I suppose you could put it in between the entrance and the first super, but I know of no keepers that do that. That might prevent swarms, but then your new queen would be the one to abscond the hive (since she isn't gravid yet and can bypass any excluder) with the swarm. It wouldn't really work because she is nearly the same size as workers when she isn't gravid.

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    VygerJobar007

    Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

    I wounder if what I read was about specifically keeping certain breeds of bees from spreading, like the africianized ones. I guess that would make more sense in terms of controling the queens ability to leave.

    This is fascinating, the swarm still looks terrifying to me, but given my lack of bee suit it's probably best it stayed that way. I love that they're actually just looking for a home, not being menacing. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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    A swarm in the air is an amazing sight and sound! If caught up in one, relax and enjoy it! No arm flapping and certainly no blowing! Move away slowly and then ask someone to check that bees have not used you as a rest stop. moving a finger toward a bee will usually cause it to fly away.

    The mechanics of swarming and all that happens is truly amazing!

    I wear a veil when collecting swarms because
    * It shows people that "I'm in charge". Someone with knowledge is dealing with the swarm.
    * Swarms are very well camouflaged when they are in their bivouac and so it indicates to passers-by that there are bees in the area (see below).
    * It prevents stings when driving after collecting (see below), since the bees are removed with the veil.

    Bees are at their most docile when swarming and can be handled without being stung, as opposed to opening a hive (and I have a lot to say about that!) when the bees are defending their home.
    Most people (general public) who are unlucky enough to be stung by a honey bee (which is rare) are usually the victim of accidental contact. If you crush or roll a bee that has landed on you, then it will react when roughed up! It has no idea that you are just scared or didn't see it!

    Bees have no interest in humans! Often you are a bit of moving scenery that they have bumped into, or you have grabbed hold of them by accident!
    Africanised bees are little different to "normal" honeybees, the venom is no stronger, they are just psychotic! :) Their propensity defend is ramped up to deal with threats that they find in Africa and so they go out of their way to defend the hive. Much of the sensationalism out there is just that!

    If you are anaphylactic never approach a swarm or hive and ensure that you always carry your epi-pen. Having said that, I am aware of anaphylactic bee keepers.

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    StanzinT

    4 years ago on Introduction

    Hello norahbelle,

    I am from ladakh, india. I want to keep bumble bee in green house for pollination. Can you please guide me how can i do so.I am thinking of collecting bees by my self. Is it necessary to have a queen bee for forming a colony.? or can be done by collecting drone and workers? In ladakh i am helpless because no body has knowledge of these. I will appreciate your knowledge

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    AlphaOmega1StanzinT

    Reply 18 days ago

    Bumblebee colonies used in VERY LARGE commercial greenhouses are usually purchased in a cardboard hive. I understand that those used in U.K. greenhouses come from Holland (correction please).
    However...
    * The climate in a small (non commercial) greenhouse will fluctuate so much that the bees will probably die.
    * A non commercial greenhouse will probably not provide enough pollen and nectar to support a colony, and so they will die.
    * Yes, you need the queen to maintain the colony.
    * Polination is carried out by many species of insects (all in decline) not just bees, Try leaving your greenhouse doors and windows open. My own crops seem to set without problems.
    * Please do not attempt to take bees from the wild

    If you have a commercial greenhouse, them I would look at the trade publication and websites.

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    AlphaOmega1

    18 days ago on Step 6

    I was expecting nonsense - This is very good! Top marks!
    Obviously not something a casual passer-by should undertake ;)
    I'd like to make a few comments/reiterate if I may.
    * Your swarm box - great! I have a very nice wooden one - but.... I hardly ever use it. It has too much ventilation, bees like the outside of the mesh as much as the inside of the box! (I intend making cover plates...)
    * I normally use a card-board box (5 ream paper box, wine case etc. is about the right size) - I use these because they work and I can give away swarms WITHOUT the need to exchange any equipment.
    * Tape the inside of your box (gaffer/duct tape) to prevent the queen being trapped/crushed and repair holes BEFORE you start, ensuring that there are no sticky surfaces exposed.
    * Hole at the top? meh, bees like to run up hill! Try this next time. Sheet the area under the swarm. Knock most of the swarm into the box. INVERT the box on the sheet and lift one corner with a rock (etc.), place in shade if possible. If you have the queen, job done.
    * Totally agree about messing about, brushing, spraying etc. If the original group of bees is not running around after 10mins (they have lost contact with the queen), shake remaining bees into another box/skep and "throw" onto the sheet in front of the box. This usually also increases "fanning".
    * Leave and collect around dusk. Either add the lid to the bottom, tape up, or secure the sheet. Gently transport :)
    * Personally I throw the swarm onto a ramp at the front of a hive rather than opening. It's easier and less bees are crushed (could be the queen!)
    * As you have mentioned, NEVER put yourself at risk, and feel free to walk away from a swarm. I would never attempt to disturb the fabric of a building, let someone with insurance do that!
    * To Home Owners. If you have bees in your building and they are above head height, they will hardly be noticed and will not cause damage - enjoy your lodgers! :)
    * No two swarm collections are the same. I usually try to get novices to help me for the experience - you can only explain so much.
    * One last thing that many beekeepers over-look. Prevention is better than cure! Use swarm prevention methods (I like Snelgrove). Keep your honey and bees, and stop annoying the neighbours! :D

    Keep up the great work :)
    And to everyone else.... We need bees! If you see a swarm, report it to a club, a council or even the police, but don't call a pest disposal company, some are unethical and will kill them if they can get paid! Bee keepers will usually remove the swarm for free, but will enjoy a cool drink and a donation for fuel as a token of your appreciation.

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    JM1999

    4 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, how many people out there thought bees lived in boxes!

    Good job on the 'ible, I like the plastic chair :)

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    Norahbelle

    4 years ago on Introduction

    Many beekeepers manage their hives to reduce swarms. When a colony swarms they take a lot of honey with them as fuel to build their new home. On the plus side, when a hive swarms, usually the old queen goes a a new queen is left behind. Swarms may also reduce mite populations. I'm happy as long as I have enough honey for the year and for gifts.

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    poonkira

    4 years ago

    I have always wanted my own local honey helps keep pollen allergies down