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!
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Step 1: Materials, the Great Debate: Plywood Versus Cedar
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!
Step 2: Why Catch Swarms or Sub Divide Colonies?
It is no coincidence, but I just happen to live in one of the most remote parts of the British Empire - A tiny island in the middle of the Irish sea called Ynys Mon. Here, we have the original strain of the British black bee which dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years into history. Since then, the rest of Britain and the world at large has been infiltrated by Italian bees and other sub species and for a long time it was thought that the native British bee was lost altogether into the dark hole of extinction.
Since the island is actually in Wales, the bees here have been renamed the 'Welsh Black Bee' and given their own latin name: Apis melifera melifera, which, in the scientific world, is a bit like being given a knighthood by the queen.
Also, in some part due to the 'effectiveness' of our local beekeeping association, we have very little disease here as beekeepers are strongly dissuaded from bringing bees to the island from the Outside. All in all, it's a perfect place for breeding bees and protecting and proliferating the native species.
Apart from the emotional reasons, why should we protect these bees? There are a number of very good reasons, including:
- The bees are 'locally adapted', which, in genetic terms, means they are adapted to the climate. For example, it rains here quite a lot and these bees can fly in the rain!
- Bees and other pollinators are, in general, under threat from the increasingly cheap and powerful insecticides being used. I remember 40 years ago the house being invaded by a huge diversity of moths in the summer, attracted by the lights. Now, we only get one single species - the one that eats our clothes.
- The local honey that is produced almost certainly has medicinal value.
- Education, including demonstrating to farmers how destructive their pesticides are. Pesticides destroy most insects and also small animals living in the soil important for 'organic' cultivation.
Step 3: Building the Boxes
These boxes are very easy to make and don't require particularly good woodworking skills. Even if the parts are not cut accurately, they will still go together and produce a slightly wonky but fully functional box.
Here's a few important tips to make life easier:
- Use a waterproof expanding glue like Gorilla Glue which sticks pretty much everything, including your fingers, and fills all the gaps created due to bad measurement/cutting.
- Get the proper nails. If you don't have a nail gun, use proper beekeeper's 3/4" gimp pins - They are long enough to hold in your fingers easily and will not split the plywood at all.
- Use the 3D drawings to assemble the parts.
- Build the boxes in the Winter. Allow at least 6 weeks for the paint to dry before using the boxes for bees.
Step 4: The Design
The boxes are designed for 6 'National Brood Frames', which is a type of frame very commonly used in the UK and available in flat pack form from most beekeeper's suppliers. Also, they have space above and below and to the sides of the frames where the bees can move about freely between the frames. In technical beekeeper's language this is called 'Bee-space'.
When the box is built, the frames sit on a solid looking ledge, as seen in the photo above. It is important not to leave this feature out as it stops the bees from expanding their comb construction towards the two ends of the box. Just resting the frames on wooden lugs will result in disaster as the frames will then be stuck in place. We need to be able to remove the frames so that they can be relocated in bigger hives at a later stage.
The 'solid' ledge is actually hollow and so a piece of plastic tube is inserted into the hole to prevent bees from entering the hollow space. Do not leave out this feature, as the queen, and other bees, might hide in there and be lost to the beekeeper.
It is important that the boxes have 'feet' as this stops them from getting wet and mouldy when positioned on their stands later in the year.
The boxes have what are called 'Open Mesh Floors' which provide ventilation and help reduce infestations of varroa mites. When in transport, the entrances can be completely closed down without fear of suffocating the bees. Make sure that the lids are totally secure with straps or duck tape when in a vehicle.
A 'Feeder Eek' is included, which houses 2 plastic 4 pint feeders. This is optional, but feeding a swarm with some sugar syrup is a really good idea to ensure their survival.
Step 5: Tools and Materials
- Nail gun (optional)
- Electric drill
- Jig saw
- Circular saw
- Hole saw cutter diameter 35mm
- Tape measure
- Set square
- Marker pen
- Thin latex glothes
- Dust mask
- PVC pipe outside diameter 36mm
- 5mm plywood
- Waterproof expanding wood glue
- Gloss non drip one coat exterior paint
- Fine mesh sheet
- 3/4" beekeeper's Gimp pins
- Circular entrances
Step 6: Cutting List
|Floor||445 x 238 x 5|
|Crown board||445 x 238 x 5|
|Sides||445 x 238 x 5|
|Front and back||228 x 238 x 5|
|Roof||475 x 268 x 5|
|Inside||228 x 213 x 5|
|Inside||228 x 26 x 5|
|50 x 50 x 11|
230 x 153 x 2
|Roof trims||12 x 12 x 475|
12 x 12 x 244
|Sides||445 x 100 x 5|
|Front and Back||228 x 100 x 5|
|Corner support squares||12 x 12 x 100|
NB. Most of the components will come from lengths of plywood cut 238mm wide. Often, when you buy 6mm plywood in the UK it is actually 5mm. Also, unless using laser cutting, the machine cutting the plywood will have a tolerance of + or – 1mm so actual specified sizes may need to be 1mm larger.
All dimensions are in mm.
Step 7: Proceedure
- Once your have cut all the parts to size, we can start assembling the plywood parts. This part is incredibly easy and great fun. Just use the 3D sketches above as a guide.
- Glue all the edges that contact with each other and use the gimp pins to hold the assembly in place. If some of the pins go in wonky, just remove them after the glue has dried.
- Using the holesaw, drill the entrance hole using the entrance disc as a template so it goes at the right height.
- Cut the PVC pipe to slightly over length and then cut a slit in it lengthwise so that it can spring into place inside the wooden hole. A bit of expanding glue in the slit will help.
- Turn the box upside down and apply dabs of glue to attach the mesh on the outside. Use a weight to keep the mesh pressed down. The photo above shows the painted mesh once in place. Don't forget the feet!
- Sand everything down, wearing a suitable dust mask.
- Paint the outside of the box and lid and leave for at least 6 weeks to dry and all fumes to have vanished.
- Attach the rotary doorways when the paint is dry. These have a central screw around which it rotates.
- Assemble the frames and foundation. If the box is to be used as a catch or bait hive then one old frame from another disease free beehive should be used to act as a lure (see photo).
Step 8: Final
Now the boxes are left for the rest of the Winter to lose their paint fumes, neatly stacked up and protected against invasion by rats and mice.
In the Spring, the boxes go out on stands made with fence posts alongside south facing hawthorn hedges as seen in the photograph above. The hawthorn flowers are a very strong attractant during the swarming season and almost guarantee success.
If you build one of these boxes, get some old comb from a local beekeeper and set it up in your back garden, you might just catch a swarm of bees!
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