Swarms are an amazing site to see. The cloud of bees in the air can seem as large as a house and the sound is unmistakable. One of the greatest pleasures in beekeeping is catching a swarm. They are fascinating to watch and after all, it represents a free hive of bees. Of course you have to catch them first and there’s nothing quite so rewarding as the successful collection of a swarm.
Swarms can be the bane of a beekeeper too! Numbers in a hive can build quickly in the spring and before you know it the bees are short on room and have decided to swarm. Once they make up their minds it’s what they want to do there is little you can do to prevent it and when they go you will usually be left with less than half the bees you had to begin with.
So let’s talk about swarms, both the blessing and the bane of beekeeping.
If you have a bee yard chances are that one way or the other you’re going to see a swarm. Swarms don’t usually travel very far from the originating hive. Fifty to one hundred yards is probably typical, though I know they can travel further than that. I think the reason you will begin to see swarms once you have established your hives is the pheromones coming from the queens in your hives. It seems to me it just has to work as an attractant.
So what do you do if you find a swarm in your yard? I know that vacuums are becoming popular for collecting swarms, but I’m pretty old school (that’s about the only thing in beekeeping I’m old school about) and still like collecting bees with my own hands.
When you find the swarm, see if the branch they are on is small enough to clip off. If so you simply hold the branch over your nuc box and give it a sharp rap to dislodge the bees. If you got the queen in the box you will almost immediately begin to see bees at the opening to the nuc fanning their wings. They are sending out the pheromone for the rest of the bees to scent and saying come home the queen is here. It’s really quite the treat to watch the bee’s line up across the front of the box to fan and is the sure signal of success for the bee keep hoping to collect the swarm.
But what if you can’t get to the swarm? It happens. The swarm is too high up or maybe it’s buried deep inside a bush that’s too thick for you to be able to collect the hive from. In this case you will want to set out your nuc box with a couple drops of lemon grass oil inside. The bees are drawn to this and the scout bees that are out on patrol looking for a new home for the queen to move into will smell the lemon grass and return to the swarm to tell everyone they have found a beautiful new castle for the queen. It’s not perfect and doesn’t always work but it can be quite successful.
So be sure to keep some lemon grass oil around. I’ve already caught one swarm this year using this method. The swarm was on the trunk of an evergreen tree thick with foliage. After four attempts to brush the swarm into a box I gave up for the night and set out the nuc box with lemon grass oil. The bees were still in the tree in the morning and so I went about doing my chores and mowing the lawn. After mowing the lawn, about one in the afternoon, I decided to check on the swarm and low and behold there were no bees in the tree. There weren’t even many flying around the nuc box and I wasn’t sure where they had gone so imagine my surprise when I lifted the lid. Boom! There they were, all moved in. It doesn’t get any easier!
But what if it’s your own hive that’s preparing to swarm? What can you do? Losing a hive to a swarm not only costs you your bees but pretty well guarantees you will harvest no honey from that hive until next year. What to do? First off you want to make sure there is still a queen in the hive. Sometimes the queen dies or simply takes off and the only place the bees have to raise queens is exactly where you would normally find queen cells. Once you know the queen is still in the hive you need to proceed with an “artificial swarm” otherwise, one way or the other the hive is going to swarm. You can make more space and continue to destroy the queen cells but at some point you will miss one and the hive will swarm.
So here’s what to do. Find the queen and move the frame the queen is on to a new hive. Find a frame of brood and move it to the new hive in addition to a frame of stores. Now shake a frame of bees into the new hive (maybe two shakes of bees depending on how you feel about the numbers) and close the hive up. Presto! You have just completed an artificial swarm. You do not need to move the hive far away if you have done the above procedure sometime in the afternoon when the field bees are out collecting. The field bees will return to the original hive. The bees you moved and shook in to the new hive will be mostly nurse bees and will stay in the new hive.
When the queen cells in the original hive begin to hatch, they hatch into a queenless hive and there is no reason for the new queen to leave. Nothing in beekeeping is foolproof, but this is your surest approach to saving a hive from swarming. (if you want, you could even split the original hive in two, assuming there are enough queen cells and brood to make up two new hives.)
In this way you have saved your original hive from swarming, even given it a “brood break” in the process (a brood break is the best way to control mites there is) and gotten a new hive out of the deal to boot!