Friday, November 2, 2007

Lesson Fourteen: Swarm Capture & Prevention

Hi, and welcome to another online beekeeping lesson from Long Lane Honey Bee Farms. Please feel free to submit your beekeeping questions and I will answer them in future lessons! Email me at:

I thought I'd take a break from the bee lessons today and tell you about how we removed a honeybee hive from a diesel engine yesterday. But then I decided this would make a good lesson on swarms, although the hive in the engine was not a swarm, but an active hive with comb.

I received a call on Wednesday night from a man who noticed bees coming and going out of a small hole in the oil pan of one of his Cummins Diesel engines.

Wanting to sell the engine for scrap metal, he needed the bees removed first. For most bee removals I am assisted by my father-in-law, Bill Henness of Paris, Illinois. Bill makes our bee-vac that we sell and works in our hive production as well. Our bee-vacs are wonderful. It sucks the bees into a screen cage and the air suction can be adjusted so that it does not injure the bee. Then the cage can be pulled out of the vac so that the bees can be transported safely to their new location.

At 8:00 a.m., Bill and I met the man and his father, the owner of the engine and the unwanted bees. He used a sledge hammer to break open the aluminum oil pan, and sure enough, there the bees were, on a cold November morning, clustered together over their comb.

We take a lot of calls like this, almost one per day in the spring and early summer when swarms are more common. You will too, when people learn that you are a beekeeper. Since it was around 40 degrees, the bees were very calm and on the comb. I started sucking them into the cage, peeling back the comb and revealing more bees along the way. Finally after about an hour, I had removed all the comb and captured all the bees. And as part of the course, we spend the next half hour answering honeybee questions.

This was the wrong time to remove a hive. There was only about 2 lbs of bees and they had very little honey in their comb. But the engine had to go for scrap the next day. It is normally best to remove a hive in the Spring, so they can have time to build up their new home with comb and gather enough nectar throughout the year to carry them through winter. This hive could never get ready for winter now. So, I combined them with another hive.

On site, back at the engine, I tested the hive for American Foul Brood, sacbrood and chalk brood and saw no signs. I inspected many bees for mites and found none. No deformed wings, so that's why I decided to add them to one of my other hives.

When combining bees like this, it is best to place a piece of newspaper between the two different sets of bees. Otherwise, they will fight each other because the main hive will view the new bees as robbers. But by placing a newspaper barrier between the bees with a few holes in it, the bees will eat through the paper and by time they meet, they will live happily ever after (or at least for 30 days, the normal lifespan of a worker bee).

Swarms are easier to capture than removing an existing hive. Swarms usually have no comb, and are just a huge pile of bees hanging from a tree, car bumper, fence post, bird house or as in this picture, a porch on a beautiful house. A swarm is the natural way hives multiply. This happens predominately in late April, May and throughout the month of June.

In our bee yards it's RED ALERT during the months of May and June. We try to capture our own swarms. Swarms are not aggressive; they usually don't sting because they are full of honey for their journey and they have no honey or brood in a comb to protect. They are simply out shopping for a new house.

When I experimented with Russian queens, I found that they have a greater propensity to swarm. In fact, I had one hive swarm several times in two days. Sound impossible? A swarm is when the old queen leaves with half the hive. However, after the main swarm, there can be "afterswarms." This is when virgin queens swarm with smaller amounts of bees from the hive.

You might be wondering why a swarm would hang from a tree, and just sit there doing nothing. The main reason is that the scouts are out, looking for a nice place to make their final home. That's the beekeeper's tricky job, to capture the swarm before the scouts return and to make sure the scouts cannot find the newly captured hive.

It is common for a beekeeper to capture a swarm by shaking the swarm into a hive, and then leave the hive below the tree until dark. The problem is, the scouts can find their hive, enter it, convince the swarm there is a better place, and soon they will leave the hive. So, capture and move it once they are all in.

In this picture, notice the swarm hanging just above the deep hive body sitting on a bottom board? Now, all I do is give the branch a hard shake and all the bees and queen drop in the box. If they don't? Just do it again, only harder!

Keeping a swarm in their new hive box is tricky too. Here's what I do. I save drawn comb just for the capture. Drawn comb is another best friend of a beekeeper. Swarms will stay better if there is drawn comb, and a lot better if you can add a frame of brood from another hive. I spray the foundation with sugar water too. What bee would leave a sugar coated comb? I also restrict the opening down to only a small, small opening where only one or two bees can get through at a time. It's hard to swarm again if everyone has to go single file through the door. Keep it this way for at least 24 hours. My son will keep his captured swarm hives completely closed the rest of the day, and through the night.

Some tips on capturing a swarm:

1) When you get a call, ask good questions. Ask how large the swarm is, by having the caller compare it to a soft ball size, foot ball size, bowling ball size or beach ball size. This will help you know what to take. Also, ask how high the swarm is off the ground.
2) Have equipment ready like a fireman. You'll need a spare hive! Please don't call us and ask us to send you a hive in 2 hours! Have an extra one on hand. It's an extra expense, but you save by not having to buy bees! You'll also need sugar water to spray the new frames. Have the sugar water already mixed and in a spray bottle. You'll also need ropes to possibly tie off limbs, a nice limb saw, gloves because some tree sap is sticky when you cut the limbs and a secure way to tie down the hive box you are transporting home. You don't want the hive bouncing apart in the back of your truck, only to find all the bees are gone when you get home with your captured swarm. I keep my swarm supplies in a big army ammo container so that I can grab it and run. I also keep my ladder in my truck from late April through May. It takes too long to load it and strap it down.
3) Warn Bystanders. The home owner or bystanders will gather to watch. Although swarms are not aggressive and usually do not sting, they are bees with stingers. I always warn bystanders to back away or watch from their car or bedroom window. Your work will most certainly draw a crowd.
4) Be Careful. Don't try to climb the highest tree or put yourself in danger. Some swarms are way up in the tops of trees. The most dangerous aspect of swarm capture is the climb! Be careful!
5) Work fast, but not hurried. The bees are waiting for scouts to take them to a better home. Or the queen may have become too tired on their way to the better home and they may just be taking a break, a quick break!
6) Retrieval. Shake, cut or vac? You'll have to make important decisions once you see how the swarm is positioned. You'll have to decide whether to climb into the tree, or use a ladder or you may be fortunate enough to simply have the swarm at waist level. Then, you'll have to decide if you can shake the branch or cut it. If the swarm will fall directly into the box without having to fall through other branches, then by all means shake! If not, and they are on a small branch, cut the branch and carry it down to the box. This is really dangerous and takes a lot of balance and strength. Some swarms can be very heavy. This is where your ropes come in handy. Before cutting someone else's tree, ask permission. Explain the size of the branch so they will not be surprised when their beautifully shaped tree now looks like the cookie monster took a bite out of it.

When swarms are on buildings, cars and permanent structures, you have to use a bee-vac. You will never scrape them all off or get the queen. I've tried! It's like pushing a chain uphill. But, with a bee-vac, you simply vacuum them safely into a cage. A bee-vac is the second most important tool to the beekeeper, second to the hive tool, in my opinion.
7) Place the captured swarm box in its new location ASAP. Though you must allow adequate time for the swarm to work its way into the box, you must move it to its new location as soon as possible. There is a good chance that the swarm has a plan, a planned place to go. You've got your work cut out to disrupt that and convince them to go where you want them to go and to stay.
8) The white sheet approach. Using a white sheet works! It seems to help the bees notice the dark entrance to the hive box you are using. I rarely use a white sheet. Once I removed a swarm from garden. I placed a hive box on the ground very close to the hive. They began walking in. It took around 30 minutes for the swarm to finally walk into the hive, and at the end of the 30 minutes, I observed the queen walking in.
How to prevent swarms in your own hives
Swarm prevention is vital for a good honey production year. Swarming is a natural instinctive behavior and is how a mature hive multiplies into two hives. Attempting to prevent a swarm is a challenge, and sometimes after doing everything to prevent a swarm, they still swarm. If a hive swarms and 50% of the hive leaves, then it will unlikely be able to produce a good honey crop that same year due to the reduction in bees. If you are fortunate enough to capture the swarm, the good news is that you now have two hives, but the bad news is, neither will provide a honey crop that year. You can usually place the swarm back into the hive it came from, and the swarming instinct will have been satisfied.

So, the best honey crop comes from operating a hive slightly below the swarm congested level, while preventing a swarm.
Congestion vs. Crowded --you need open cells!
Many beekeepers have been taught to provide more space in the hive to prevent swarms but this is only partially true. Placing a super of undrawn foundation on the hive will not help if you've waited too long. Hives swarm because of congestion and overcrowding and more so from congestion. Congestion means that there is incoming nectar and pollen in large quantities, and the queen is laying well, thus there are not enough empty cells to accommodate the need. This is why undrawn foundation (more space) does not always help. They need drawn comb with open cells, not just more space. Sometimes, you can pull out a frame or two of brood from the brood nest area and add two frames of either drawn or undrawn foundation, and this might be a temporary solution. But by this time, you may have waited too long.
Remove swarm queen cells. The obvious swarm sign is the presence of queen swarm cells. These queen cells are called swarm cells because the are usually located on the lower section of a frame in the brood chamber. You can tilt back a deep hive body and look for these swarm queen cells hanging from the bottom of the frames. Another type of queen cell is the superseding queen cell, which is located higher up on the drawn comb. A superseding queen cell means that the old queen is being replaced because she is not productive or injured or dead. Leave these superseding cells alone! The bees know what they are doing, and why they need this replacement. But, if you want to try and prevent swarms, remove the swarm queen cells from the bottom of the frames.
What do queen cells look like? They are shaped like peanuts and hang out either from the foundation, as with superseding cells, or they hang from the bottom of a frame, as with swarm cells. They are about the size of the first joint on your little finger.
I usually save the cells in a mason jar with air holes in the lid, keeping them in a warm spot in the house, just in case I need a queen. I also have several small hives (nucs) that I store these queens in. It's cheaper than buying queens. Sometimes, I'll have two or three jars full of queen cells on the kitchen table. I'll wake up and while eating breakfast, watch a queen emerge, then take her to her nuc box using a queen cage, slow introduction method.
In closing, I've got to tell you about my swarm capture stocking cap! I got the idea from reading what Langstroth did in his bee yards. He would hang dark woolly items from trees, so that a swarm would light where he had placed the item, instead of high up in the tree. I use a black stocking cap, fill it full of cloth, and hand them around my bee yards. It may not work every time, but when it does, it sure makes the capture much easier. To the bee, the dark, swarm shaped stocking cap looks like the place where other bees have landed.
In our next lesson, I'll explain how to split or divide a hive in the Spring to prevent swarming as well.
Here at Long Lane Honey Bee Farms, we enjoy providing these free online beekeeping lessons to all who wish to learn more about keeping bees. We are a family operated business that has a passion to see more people enjoy the art of keeping bees. We also believe that to offset the dwindling honeybee population, that more people need to start keeping bees. Feel free to contact us at: 217-427-2678.

We manufacture all hive parts, and we also carry a complete line of everything you need in keeping bees.

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See you next time!

David & Sheri Burns
Long Lane Honey Bee Farms