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  • Writer's pictureNona Spillers

What is Swarm Catching?

Last season we caught 25 swarms. Have you ever referred to something as a freebie? Well, swarms are FREE BEES. We also think they thrive because their genetics have adapted to our environment.

Swarming is a colony’s natural way to perpetuate their genetics.  When a colony is healthy enough and environmental conditions provide ample food for a new colony to survive, they will swarm.  This process begins when the workers select several 1-3 days old eggs and begin feeding them extra royal jelly.  This allows the reproductive organs of a queen to develop.  Once the larvae has grown to a certain size, they form a peanut shaped cell around it to accommodate the larger size of a queen bee.

Once the a new queen bee emerges, the existing queen takes a large group of bees (sometimes half the colony) and moves to a new home. Because queens cannot fly long distances, they generally make a rest stop or two.  That is often on the branch of a tree.

Bees prefer to live in the hollowed out trunk of a tree…but since that habitat is dwindling due to climate and development, they sometimes choose inappropriate locations such as water meter boxes or spaces inside homes or garages accessible by a small crack or entrance.

Swarming is a natural occurrence for healthy hives.  Sometimes bees swarm when they have filled up their existing home.  As beekeepers it’s important that we watch space carefully during growth seasons.  And even then, sometimes our colonies will go into swarm mode.  When that happens there are several courses of action…but a great bit of insurance is to place one or more swarm boxes in “good real estate areas” around your apiary so if you miss a swarm you have a chance to catch it.

Thomas Seeley researched and wrote the definitive book on honey bee swarms, Honey Bee Democracy.  Through his extensive work he learned that scout bees, the real estate agents of a colony look for a safe enclosed space of about 40 liters.

John builds swarm boxes to those specifications.  We’ve had immense success when they are placed head height in a location with heavy shade and near a water source.  Bees also like to live where bees have lived - so we often place a piece of old beeswax inside the box.  During swarm season we also swipe a few drops of lemongrass essential oil across the front of the box which acts as an attractant.

Boxes can be mounted to trees or set atop sturdy structures.  You will see bee activity outside the boxes - these are scout bees shopping for their new home.  You’ll know you have a new tenant when you see bees with pollen on their legs entering the box.

Once you’ve seen evidence that a colony has moved in, we like to give them a few days to a week to get settled.  In this time they will begin building comb and the queen will lay eggs to grow the colony.

Swarms are in comb building mode…you will be amazed at how quickly they can fill up a frame or box.

Once established you can transfer the swarm into a regular hive box.  If the comb has surpassed normal frame dimensions, it can be cut to fit and secured to frames using rubber bands.

New honeycomb is beautiful and almost white in color.  At the center of the plate of comb on the right is capped brood - those are larvae that are developing into baby bees.  On the left you can see some faint color, that is pollen being stored.  It is the bees protein and is mixed with nectar to make bee bread which is fed to larvae as they develop.

One the bees have secured this comb to the frames, they will chew the rubber bands off and drag them out of the hive.

Despite all that has been written, I’ve never met a bee who has read a book!

This colony decided they would make their home in the open air on this lovey peach tree branch in Leander.

We know they have decided to stay because they are building comb.

Normally swarms are very docile because they don’t have a home to defend.  They are wholly focused on protecting their queen.

I was lucky enough to help the homeowner move this colony into a hive box.  She had always wanted to keep bees.  I think the universe works this way!

And some colonies color outside the swarm box.  This colony deemed our swarm box worthy - but decided to build underneath it!  The same process is used - albeit the removal of the comb is a bit more challenging.

We think of these as X game swarms.  They like to keep us on our toes!

Spring is predominantly the time for swarms.  They can happen as early as mid February and throughout the Spring flow.

Fall swarms are common but are not usually as large as Spring swarms.

It’s best to have boxes up as soon as the last freeze / frost has occurred.

Beyond being healthy and able, there are other reasons colonies swarm.  If a colony has an intense pest problem they may choose to leave an infected hive for new digs. They may also relocate if their home becomes damaged.

Reasons to swarm catch vary by beekeeper.

Providing safe homes for swarms can insure the health of honey bee colonies as natural homes are dwindling.

Swarm boxes help protect the investment you have in existing hives should they swarm unexpectedly.

Bees that have bred naturally tend to be adapted to their climate and thrive health wise.  They are more resistant to mites and other pests.  We also find them to be vigorous honey producers.

Purchased nucs costing $350+ means that each swarm caught has incredible value - and is an affordable way to expand an apiary.

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