How To Capture A Honeybee Swarm
Why do honeybees swarm?
While individual honeybees are reproduced through mating and egg laying, swarming is how whole colonies reproduce themselves.
During the spring and early summer the population of a hive can quickly rise. Bees want and need more room to grow and make comb for additional brood-rearing, pollen and honey storage. At the same time, after two or three years, the aging queen bee’s production of a type of pheromone is reduced. This reduction in the queen’s pheromone production stimulates the worker bees to produce special peanut-shaped queen cells (also called “swarm cells”) to replace the current queen.
She's Got the Urge For Goin'
Although we’re used to thinking that a hive has only one queen bee, there is a brief period when the newly emerged queen and the old queen are both present in the hive. This is after the new queen hatches, undertakes her mating flight with many drones from neighboring colonies and returns to the hive. As the new queen begins to lay eggs and ramps-up her production of pheromone, she supplants the old queen and establishes her queendom.
Meanwhile, the old queen gathers approximately half of the worker bees—up to 25,000—around her. The bees gorge on honey and then leave the hive in a swarm. This usually happens around mid-day in the warmth of the late spring or early summer.
When the bees leave the hive they organize themselves into a living, breathing ball with the queen bee at the center of this mass. Typically, they take up temporary residence on a nearby bush, tree limb, fence post or the side of a building. Even though swarms have often been the subject of horror movies, in reality they are not aggressive. In fact, the temperament of swarming bees is often quite placid. Remember, that having just gorged on honey before they set-off, they aren’t hungry. Not only that, in this state, they have no hive or young brood to protect and they are reassured by the pheromone-scent produced by the queen at the center of the swarm.
As the cluster settles scout bees go off to find the swarm a new, permanent home. Clusters of bees usually stay put from between 15 minutes to several days. It depends on the weather and how long it takes for the scout bees to find a new home.
Beekeeper's Window of Opportunity
Now is the time for beekeepers to capture a swarm—before the scout bees return and the bees dissipate and fly off to their new home. Beekeepers are usually keen to capture swarms to replace their winter losses, strengthen weak hives or build new ones.
If a swarm is located high in a tree or in some inaccessible place, it’s often best to leave it. However, some beekeepers have had good luck knocking high-reaching swarms into a “bee bucket” at the end of a long pole.
Capturing a Swarm Using a Bee Bucket
Capturing a Swarm
If you can reach the swarm from the ground, be as gentle as possible when you remove it. You can either cut the branch holding the bees and lay that into a breathable container (like a pillowcase or a cardboard box) or lay it directly onto the top of a new hive box. However, if for some reason you can’t or don’t want to cut the branch, give it a few sharp, forceful shakes. This will dislodge the bees and they’ll fall from the branch into your container as they do in these photos of a swarm I saw in an apple orchard in central Pennsylvania this spring.
A sharp shake on the branch and the bees fall into the box...
Home Sweet Home
If you've successfully captured your swarm into a hive box, as shown in the photos above, you’re done. Your bees are home!
If you've captured the bees in a bee bucket, pillowcase or cardboard box, just pour or gently dump them onto a new hive. You can even remove a few frames from the box to make it easier for them to pour in. If you were successful in capturing the queen with the swarm, the rest of the bees will readily adopt your new hive as their home, sweet home!