A lot of homesteaders and do-it-yourselfers are getting into beekeeping these days – and why not? There are lots of benefits, from the ultimate taste in local honey to better crop production through pollination; plus working a hive can be a surprisingly effective stress reliever. Then you have the numerous by-products associated with beeswax, propolis and more. Like most hobbies, however, there are startup costs to consider.
You can expect to spend as much as $500 to get started with one hive; less if you are thrifty and have some do-it-yourself chops. About half of that $500 estimate is safety equipment and tools, so a second hive, which many experienced beekeepers recommend, will add another $250 to $300 per hive. The bees themselves will cost $100 to $150 a colony.
Suppose there was a way you could get your bees for free? I’m not talking about inheriting established hives, which can also mean inheriting problems like parasites and diseases. No, I’m talking about catching honeybee swarms.
Honeybee colonies reproduce by swarming. When a colony runs out of room in its hive, it will split in two, each with its own queen. A colony that’s strong enough to swarm is a sign of good health and vigor.
Swarming season can begin as early as March in the Deep South, and usually starts in mid-May across the northern states. It continues through June and into July, although July swarms often cannot establish themselves in time to survive the coming winter. An old saw claims: “A swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon, but a swarm in July ain’t worth a fly.”
July and even August swarms are still worth catching – if you’re prepared to give them a little more attention. Use a nucleus hive instead of a full-size hive. Give them a head start by feeding syrup and providing them with drawn comb instead of plain foundation, or feed them syrup through the winter.
Before leaving, the bees gorge themselves on honey to hold them over while they establish themselves in a new hive. Typically, the old queen will leave the hive with half of the workers and drones following her, while the virgin queen, who will stay in the hive, prepares for her mating flight.
The swarming queen flies a short distance from the hive before settling on a resting spot. Her followers will cluster around her in a roughly basketball-sized mass. Sentries will head out in search of a new home, on a mission that can last an hour to a few days. This is typically when you spot “wild” hives nestled in trees.
When you see those wild hives in the trees on your property, that’s your opportunity for free bees. You just need to provide them with a desirable new home.
How you catch your swarm depends a lot on where it settles. A swarm can settle on a tree branch, inside a bush, on the side of a building, and just about anywhere else. Beekeepers sometimes provide a landing spot by planting a small sacrificial tree in their bee yard, giving swarms a place to settle, and the beekeeper a chance to catch them.
The trick to catching a swarm is being ready. When I kept bees as a teenager, I always tried to keep an empty hive on hand, ready to catch a swarm at a moment’s notice. This can be difficult to manage in the peak of swarm season. A large empty box can work in a pinch, but you’ll still need to get your bees moved into a hive within a day of catching them.
Capturing the swarm
Approaching a swirling, buzzing mass of honeybees may seem like a terrible idea, but at this moment they are at their most mellow frame of mind. They’re full of honey, surrounding their queen, and have no hive or brood to defend. You can safely scoop up a handful of bees in your hands if you want to. That’s not to say a bee won’t sting you if you crush it; they will still defend themselves if you hurt them.
The key to catching a swarm lies in catching the queen. Wherever she goes, they’ll follow. And she’s somewhere in the center of that swarm cluster.
Don your complete beekeeping safety suit first. Spread a drop cloth on the ground under the swarm, and position the container either directly beneath the cluster or just uphill from it. Some people prefer to drop the cluster directly into the container, while others say bees that walk into a hive will never leave it. If the swarm settled within a few feet of the ground, this step is easy. Sometimes they’ll settle on a branch 15 feet in the air. I’ve caught swarms resting at those heights – and lost swarms at the same height – but you lose 100 percent of the swarms you don’t try to catch.
There are several ways to get the bees into your container. The simplest way is to give the branch a sharp jerk or two, knocking the cluster free. If you can’t reach the branch, toss a weighted rope over it. You may need to make a few pitches until the weight catches securely – don’t try tugging until it does. The surest way is to cut the branch free below the cluster, carefully lowering the cluster into place. For bees settled in a bush, prune out branches until you can move the cluster where you want them. Clearly, none of these methods work if the bees have settled on a wall. In that case, use a hand brush with soft bristles to gently sweep them where you want them to go.
Settling the bees
Once you’ve placed the bees where you want them, either in the hive or box or in front of it, sit back and watch what they do. If they hang around the box with their abdomens in the air, fanning their wings, they like the new home you’ve offered them, and the queen is in residence within. That fanning action is the bees sending out pheromones, scent messages calling the rest of the swarm in. However, if they fly out of the container and cluster around the branch, you know you missed the queen and need to try again, after they’ve had some time to regroup. Keep in mind, with each unsuccessful attempt, the bees will be a little more anxious and irritated, and more likely to sting.
Once you’re sure they’ve accepted their new home, give them some time to settle in. After dusk, go back and close the container and move them to your bee yard. If you used a hive, this part is simple: Install the inner cover (hole covered with No. 8 hardware cloth), tack hardware cloth across the entrance to seal the bees inside, and strap the whole thing together with a ratcheting load strap. Using hardware cloth over the entrance and lid allows the bees to breathe. It’s ready to transport to your yard now. Once there, set it on its base, remove the strap and finally, the entrance block.
A temporarily boxed colony requires a little more attention. Close the lid of the box, and tape the flaps shut. You may want to gently poke some ventilation holes in the box, if you didn’t think of it before you caught the swarm. Wrap the drop cloth around the whole thing, and it’s ready to move. Once you get it to the bee yard, gently shake or brush the bees into the waiting hive body, making sure you get the queen into the hive.
Allow your colony a few weeks to set up shop in their new hive before you inspect them. Caught early enough in the season, and given a good nectar flow, they should have plenty of time to establish the hive and store up enough honey for winter. Be prepared to feed them sugar syrup, just in case they need a boost.
A helping hand
Knowing how to catch a swarm is all well and good, but how, you may ask, do you find a swarm to catch? It’s a fair question, and rather than relying on blind luck, the answer is networking.
Get people to call you to handle their “bee problem.” Think like a panicked homeowner facing a honeybee invasion, an event that must seem like a plague of biblical proportion. You want to be the person they call, so volunteer as a swarm catcher. Consider these possibilities: your county agricultural extension office, the area police departments, local beekeepers, or even Craigslist notifications (www.craigslist.org).
Most of your swarm calls will come from suburban settings, bees settling in hedges, front yard trees, even garage walls and jungle gyms. Be prepared to do public relations work, educating people, especially kids, about honeybee swarms and soothing fears of “killer” bees. Even though you know the situation is under control, the homeowner might be less assured.
Explain what’s going on, and what you’re going to do. Let them know the bees aren’t aggressive. Do not cut any branches without the homeowner’s permission, no matter how much easier it would make your job. If they show interest, offer to let them watch you, from what they think is a safe distance.
Rolling the genetic dice
When you consider the amount of effort that goes into breeding honeybees, swarm catching may seem like a risky business. A lot of swarms come from wild colonies, and unless you live near a beekeeper, you will have no idea from where they came.
Breathe easy. Except under extremely unusual circumstances, a colony will only swarm if it is strong, healthy and has outgrown its hive. Plus, wild colonies often possess genetic traits bred bees do not, giving them new tools to fight off local pests and diseases. Wild genetics may even hold the key to overcoming Colony Collapse Disorder – that infamous condition emptying hives by the thousands across the country. And unless you live in the American Southwest, there is little to no risk of catching a swarm of Africanized bees – the so-called “killer bees.”
Beekeeping can be an expensive hobby to get started in, and you should never cut corners with used equipment, but with a little luck and preparation, you can get your bees for free. Keep a catching kit handy, spread the word that you catch swarms, and take advantage when the moment presents itself.
Swarm Catching Kit
Experienced swarm catchers keep a kit of supplies handy during swarming season – midspring to early summer – in order to take advantage of the short window of opportunity presented by a clustered swarm. A well-outfitted swarm kit includesthe following:
• Empty hive or nucleus body with bottom, lid and frames. Often, the bottom will be tacked into place with scrap board ends to simplify moving the occupied hive.
• No. 8 hardware cloth entrance block, with tacks.
• Ratchet straps.
• Empty large cardboard box as a backup plan.
• Drop cloth or tarp.
• Pruning saw and pruning shears.
• Whisk or dust brush.
• Light rope, approximately 25 feet long, with weighted end. Baling twine or wash line weighted with a small (1/2-pound) scrap gear works well.
• Bee veil, for yourself or anyone curious enough to want to watch. One might want to keep an entire beekeeping safety suit at the ready.
• A jar of honey or honey sticks to offer to swarm “donors.”
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Growing up, he tended several honeybee hives on his father’s farm, including a log “bee gum” which regularly generated swarms to be caught.