How to catch a swarm

By far the easiest method of populating a Warre hive or a top bar hive is to catch a swarm of honey bees and put them straight into the hive. 

  

 

It may seem like a scary prospect for a new beekeeper to catch a swarm of bees but providing a few simple precautions are taken there is little to be afraid off. 

 

What is a swarm and why do they happen?

Swarming is the natural way of reproducing for the honeybee colony.  Swarming takes place when the colony reaches its maximum potential, ie. it has plenty of bees and stores, weather is hot and the existing hive is overcrowded.  The peak time for swarming in the UK is between May and July, though swarms can occur outside these times!  When a swarm leaves a hive it takes with it about half the bees and the old queen.  In the old hive there will be several new developing queen cells, nurse bees, a few flying bees and all the developing brood.  Both the swarm and the old hive will now develop into separate colonies. 

 

A swarm, with the old queen, will come out of the old hive and cluster on a nearby branch until they are all gathered together.  The cluster of bees will then send out many scouts searching for a new home.  Once the swarm has found a suitable location the bees will move on mass towards the new site.  Before leaving the old hive the swarm bees consume a lot of honey to sustain them on their journey and allow them to start building comb immediately on arriving in their new home.  Swarms are usually very docile as they have nothing to defend, their one aim is to protect the queen at all costs, as without her they will surely fail. 

 

Catching a swarm

Catching a swarm when it is clustered on the branch of a tree is quite a simple matter.  First, of course, it is advisable to put on your protective clothing, if the swarm has been out in the rain for a few days then they can be a little more defensive because they start to get hungry!  Proceed as follows:

  • Place a large white sheet on the ground under the swarm
  • Hold the hive/skep/box under the swarm
  • Give the branch a sharp shake, until the bulk of the bees fall into the hive
  • Gently lower the hive and place it on the sheet, as close as possible to where the swarms was clustered
  • Reassemble the hive as needed (if the swarm was put straight into a TBH nuc just place all the top bars in place and put the lid on.  If caught in a Warre box place the box the right way up on a floor and cover the top.  If caught in a cardboard box or skep just invert and place on the sheet.)
  • Hang your lit smoker (if it is safe to do so!!) on the branch where the cluster was to deter bees from clustering there again.

 

To view pictures of hiving a swarm in a top bar hive please click here.

  • If all has gone well then fanning bees should be seen on the front of the hive almost straight away, this indicates that the queen is present in the new hive.  The nasanov pheromone, released by worker bees during fanning, attracts the remaining flying bees to the hive. 
  • If the queen was not caught with the cluster then the bees will likely come straight back out of the hive and join their queen.  If this happens wait about an hour for the cluster to reform and try again. 
  • Once darkness falls and the bees have stopped flying close up the hive entrances and transport the swarm to its new permanent location. 

 

It is my preference, where possible, to hive a swarm into a proper hive straight away rather then catch them in a skep and transfer them into a proper hive later.  I prefer to put them into a proper hive immediately so as to reduce the amount of disturbance to the newly hived colony - that is that is rapidly developing!  Within the few hours between hiving the swarm and taking it away at dusk the bees will already have started making new wax comb!  It is really quite incredible how fast a swarm starts to establish itself in a new home.  If you hive a swarm in a nucleus TBH (with a mesh floor) you will be able to see flakes of pure white wax, on the white sheet below the mesh floor, that the bees have dropped in their haste to build comb as quickly as possible!