Collecting a Swarm

Bee Health March 19, 2010 Print Friendly and PDF

What is a swarm? Swarming is the natural mode of reproduction for a honey bee colony in spring. Swarming is induced as bees increase their population size and require more space. A swarm usually consists of the old queen (sometimes a new one) and 50 to 60 percent of the worker bees in the swarming colony. Workers preparing to swarm engorge themselves on honey and force the old queen out of the hive. Changing weather conditions from cool and rainy to warm and sunny seem to stimulate the natural urge of bees to swarm.

Bees on exposed comb.

Most swarms leave the colony in good weather between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., fly to a nearby tree or bush and land on a limb. Immediately after landing and for the next 24 to 36 hours, the bees are very docile; they are interested in swarming, not in defending their colony. Scout bees come out of the cluster of the swarm and search the local area for a protected location for the colony. The scout bees communicate the information to the swarm and a “decision” is made, whereupon the bees leave the branch and proceed to their new location. After arriving at the new location, or rarely if the swarming bees have failed to find a location (see photo at right), the bees start to build wax comb and the queen lays eggs to start a new brood nest. After brood production commences, the new colony will become defensive of its new home.

Preparing for a “Swarm Call” As a beekeeper you may be contacted by neighbors, businesses and the county Extension office as early as the month of March to go out and collect a swarm. This request is a “swarm call.” Collecting a swarm can be exciting, fun and a good way to start a new colony with less expense. However, you must be prepared to go and get the swarm at a moment’s notice, because the swarm may depart quickly, not “waiting” for you to get ready. You may want to give your name and phone number to your county Extension office so that your name can be put on a list of beekeepers who are willing to retrieve swarms.

A swarm in a pine tree.

• Anticipate the call by finding a container to hold the swarm (a cardboard box will do, but a hive body with bottom and top works better); prepare sugar syrup (1:1 sugar/water) in a squirt bottle; collect smoker, fuel and matches, a strap to hold lid/top on container, bee veil and a ladder.

• When the person calls announcing he or she needs someone to retrieve a swarm, you should tell the caller not to disturb the swarm or spray it with water, soap or pesticide.

• The caller may be excited or even alarmed. Calm the caller by explaining what is happening and that swarming honey bees are not defensive or dangerous unless disturbed.

• Explain that a swarm will usually move from the original location within 24 to 48 hours; therefore, if a beekeeper is not available to collect the bees from a homeowner’s property, the bees will normally leave without causing a problem.

• Ask questions to improve your chance of success in collecting the swarm. Questions to Ask about Swarms:

1. Are these really honey bees? Ask them what the “cluster looks like.” You do not want yellowjackets or hornets. Has anyone disturbed the cluster?

2. Get permission from the landowner/homeowner to collect the swarm from his or her property.

3. Be sure to write down the name, address and phone number, including work number of the homeowner or someone who will be on site.

4. Ask for directions of how to find the swarm location, including where on the property.

5. How long have the bees been there?

6. How high off the ground are they? Will you need a ladder?

7. How big is the swarm (beach ball, football size, etc.)?

8. Ask the caller if it’s all right (or acceptable) if you snip a branch of the tree or bush holding the swarm.

A swarm that's easy to collect!

How to Collect a Swarm – This Is the Fun Part! Let’s start with an “ideal swarm” example to start with. This swarm has formed in a small tree, 5 feet above level ground in a fenced yard. The homeowner reports the swarm has been there only 20 minutes.

• Place the whole cluster of bees, including the queen, directly into an empty hive body or nucleus (smaller version). This way frames can be gradually added to this “colony” and there is no need to shift the bees into a hive later. Some beekeepers like to lay the cluster down on a sheet in front of the hive and let the bees walk into the hive on their own. This is your choice.

• Mist the hanging cluster of bees lightly as well as the inside surfaces of the hive body and frames (those that can fit in easily with the swarm) with 1:1 sugar: water syrup.

• If the bees are clustered on a low branch, snip it and carefully lower the branch and bees into the hive.

• If it’s not possible to cut the branch, then place the hive body below and surrounding the bottom of the cluster, if possible. Then shake the branch to dislodge the bees into the hive body. If shaking isn’t an option, then gently brush or scoop the bees with a gloved hand down into the hive body.

• Add frames gradually to the middle area to fill the box as bees move up onto frame surfaces.

• Carefully look on the branch for a missed queen and scoop any clusters gently into the box.

• Crack the lid on the box for a few minutes to allow stragglers to find the new colony. You may need to leave the new colony in this location overnight if many bees are flying around. In other situations everything happens quickly and you can put them in and leave within a few minutes. This may depend, in part, on how long the swarm has been in this location. Attach the top to the hive body and secure window screen in the entrance with staples to keep bees inside while providing ventilation. Strap the unit together and move it to the new location. You will need to modify this method to fit your unique situation. Not all swarms cluster this close to the ground on an easy-to-reach branch. You will need to decide if the swarm is too high or on a structure that is out of reach for safe retrieval. We have collected swarms from interesting places such as vehicles, grocery shopping carts, mailboxes, statues and from eaves of buildings.

Source: Skinner, Parkman, Studer, and Williams. 2004. Beekeeping in Tennessee. University of Tennessee Extension PB1745. 43p.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.