While swarm traps baited with lemongrass oil and pheromone lures are a great way to passively capture swarms, there will be times when a friend or relative calls to tell you of a swarm in his or her backyard, and also times when your own bees will swarm. Beekeeping is so much fun, that most beekeepers won't want to pass up an opportunity to get a free colony! When you are faced with a large swarm just there for the taking, there are only two things that you need to have in order to hive them; the knowledge to capture them and a hive to put them in. Once you've captured a swarm and have them in a box, a bucket or whatever...that's not the time to start looking to purchase a hive to put them in! As a beekeeper, it is always a good idea to have an empty hive on hand, or at the very least, a couple of empty hive bodies and some pieces of plywood to use as a temporary home for any swarm that you may acquire.
How difficult it is to capture a swarm depends almost solely on where the swarm is located. Swarms often gather on low hanging tree branches or in other places where they are easy to collect. But sometimes they are high in a tree or tucked back somewhere that makes it difficult or impossible to manipulate them. A swarm that will be difficult and/or dangerous to capture is probably best left alone. If you have a few traps in the area, you're likely to catch them anyway, so it's usually just best to wish them well and step back from the challenge. The world certainly won't be worse off for your allowing the bees fly away to do their own thing!
Catching swarms is fun and exciting, especially when there are people watching because they often see you as being almost superhuman! Remember that swarming bees do not have a home and are therefore usually very docile. Although it's certainly possible to get stung while capturing a swarm, it mostly only happens if you drop or otherwise mishandle them.
People call us sometimes and are concerned that their bees may be in the process of swarming. Usually, what they're seeing is actually orienting, which is when young, newly emerged bees come out of the hive for the first time. It usually happens in the afternoon hours on nice days and lasts for about an hour or so. Although orienting is an easily seen burst of activity and can become quite intense (especially after several days of rainy weather), it isn't nearly as intense as swarming. What I usually tell folks is "If and when your bees swarm...you'll know it. There won't be any question". A swarm looks like a "tornado" of tens of thousands of bees, often 50 or 60 feet wide and the same in height. It can be easily seen (and often heard) from hundreds of feet away, before all the bees settle down and land in a big cluster. There are no hard and fast rules that dictate exactly how this will happen; how long they'll be in the air, where or on what they'll land, or how long they'll stay there. Sometimes they'll land the first time on a tree 50 feet away and stay there for three days. Other times, they'll land back on the hive the first time, then, ten minutes later, fly to a tree 40 feet away, and then be gone without a trace the next morning. What they do is their will...not ours, and that reality is worth considering if you're tempted to drive to a swarm call that's 30 miles away.
Let's take a look at a typical swarm capture; a small swarm from our own apiary that was quickly captured and hived. Although this is pretty much the ideal scenario, it is not uncommon that swarms are this easy to deal with.
When this particular swarm occurred, the bees circled the hive for some time, before settling down and landing back on the front of it. After several minutes, they clustered under the hive's landing board.
If you look closely at the photo to the left, you'll see that the bees are moving to a branch of the pine tree on the left. Several bees at a time left the cluster on the hive and joined the cluster in the tree. As the cluster on the hive got smaller, the cluster in the tree got larger, until all of the bees were in the tree. The total time that elapsed from when the hive began to swarm, until they were all in the tree, was about 2 hours. Soon after, we started preparing to capture them.
The first thing we needed to do was get an empty hive body and a floor, and set them up on a stand. We used a hive body that didn't have top bars in it, in order to make the installation easy. The top bars can be installed later, or the box can simply be replaced with a box that has top bars after the bees are settled in. We used a paper towel to rub a dab of lemongrass oil into one wall of this box, which you can see in the photo above. This is to make the bees more comfortable in their new home, but it's important not to overdo it. A little goes a long way. As for the upper hive body, we used one that we had removed from the bottom of a hive the previous fall. It had a few empty combs in it when it was removed, and we stored it indoors for the winter in order to protect it from pests. This is a great thing to have when setting up a new hive, whether you're installing a swarm or packaged bees, because it makes the bees feel more comfortable and gives them a big head start on getting established. If you don't have a box like this on hand, just make sure that your upper hive body has 8 top bars with waxed comb guides installed in it.
IMPORTANT: Always wear protective clothing, including a veil, when attempting to capture a swarm! Gloves are not usually needed, and wearing them may impair your ability to do delicate operations. Still, keep your gloves with you in case you need them.
After assessing the situation, we can see that this is going to be an "easy" capture, mostly because the main branch that is supporting the bees is small enough that it can easily be removed with a pair of limb pruners. Removing the branch is usually the easiest way to get a swarm out of a tree. If you want to leave the branch on the tree, you'll need to get a container of some kind under the bees, before shaking the branch vigorously to knock them into it. When you're removing a swarm from a tree by snipping off the branch that they're on, there is one very important consideration. The bees must be isolated to only one branch, which is quite often not the case. Even though the swarm is usually supported by only one branch, there are often parts of other branches (and often even grass and weeds) that are intertwined with the swarm cluster. Time must be taken to carefully study the cluster and the area surrounding it, and to carefully cut away anything that will interfere with the removal. If the main branch is cut and removed before the swarm is isolated to only that branch, the cluster will pull apart and many (or even most) of the bees will fall to the ground. That is the last thing that you want to have happen!
After you've isolated the swarm to one branch, you're ready to use the pruners to remove the branch and capture the swarm. Remember that a large swarm could weigh 5-7 lbs.. Before you cut the branch, you need to grasp it firmly, directly above the swarm (tree trunk side). Lift the branch in order to take most of the weight off of it so that the part of the branch that is going to remain, won't come springing upward as soon as you make the cut! Any sudden movement like that needs to be avoided, as it won't take much to shake the bees loose from the branch that they're on. Tighten up the muscles in your arm just before you make the cut, so that you are prepared to support the weight of the swarm, again, because any sudden movement could shake them loose!
If you need to transport the swarm to another location in order to hive it, you'll need to place it, branch and all, into a five gallon bucket with a lid that has lots of small air holes in it. Don't shake the bees off of the branch at this point, because lots of bees will instantly take to the air and you won't be able to take them with you. Oftentimes, all someone can come up with to put the swarm into is a cardboard box. If you must put the swarm in a cardboard box, use duct tape to tape down the flaps at the bottom, inside of the box. Otherwise, a lot of bees will get under the flaps during transport and cause you trouble when you try to pour them into the hive. Close up the top of the box, but not so tight that the bees can't get air. Be aware that several of the bees are likely to get out of a cardboard box during transport, which can be a big problem if you're transporting them in anything other than a pickup truck!
In this case, this swarm was in our own bee yard and we simply had to carefully carry the branch over to the hive that we'd set up earlier, about 50 feet away. Basically, all that needs to happen is that the bulk of the bees, which will include the queen 99.9% of the time, need to be shaken into the hive, and then the hive closed up as quickly as possible. We already have the screen and quilt sitting on top of our upper hive body, which is on the ground right next to where we are working.
To get most of the bees into the hive, employ a method that we call "drop and stop". Simply hold whatever object the bees are clinging to a few feet over the hive body, allow your arm to fall and then stop it very suddenly. This causes the swarm to release and drop into the hive. When you do this, 95+% of the bees will fall into the hive. Then, quickly and vigorously shake as many of the rest of the bees as you can off of the branch and into the hive. Working quickly, use your bee brush to get any bees out of the way (off the top edges of the hive box) and then close up the hive by installing the upper hive body which, as we said, already has the screen and quilt on it. All that is left to do at this point is install the roof. There will undoubtedly be a few bees still clinging to the branch. Simply prop it up near the hive entrance so that they'll (hopefully) find their way in.
Remember that your lower hive body has no top bars in it, which is something you'll have to remedy. You don't need to be concerned with it for at least several days. The easiest thing to do is to have another hive body with top bars already in it, and make a simple exchange.