For the past couple of years, I’ve been waiting patiently to film the perfect swarm collection.
By ‘perfect’ I mean a massive swarm dangling, seemingly precariously, from a stout branch, at head-height unencumbered by foliage or prickles where the beekeeper simply comes along, places a box under the cluster, runs a hand between branch and bees and the whole lot drops into the box with a satisfying thud. It’s not like that in real life.
More typically, the bees will have settled unreachably at the top of a bendy fir tree ten metres off the ground (invariably, the caller will have told you they’re ten feet off the ground and that they have a suitable ladder available) or they’ll be lodged between a wall and a chain link fence or wrapped around a bramble bush or a coil of barbed wire. One thing’s for sure, no two swarm collections are the same and your technique will need adapting to fit the circumstances. Never attempt to collect a swarm which is too high up or dangerous to reach. You’ll need both hands to collect the swarm which means you won’t be able to hold onto the ladder.
Make sure you have the permission of the land or property owner before attempting to collect the swarm.
Here’s some clips of a swarm collection and hiving on 29 June 2022. Ritchie received a call from a neighbour who reported that a swarm had arrived in her garden. Excited to collect his first swarm, he called Lisa, who swung into action to help. Watch to see how the pair of them got on.
Collecting (taking) a swarm
Louise says about collecting swarms; take a deep breath, plan, amend your plan and execute! When you arrive at the location of the swarm, assess whether you’ll be able to brush the bees straight into your stout cardboard box, skep or nuc. If you cannot, you may need to hold the container above the swarm and smoke the bees up into your container.
If you take a swarm call, ask questions;
Is the swarm accessible? Only collect a swarm if it’s safe for you to do so.
How high is it off the ground?
Will I need clippers to cut foliage? Remember to ask the property owner’s permission before cutting foliage.
Do you have clippers and a suitable ladder?
Other useful equipment includes a bee brush, smoker and fuel (you probably won’t need it) a water spray container filled with water (lightly spray to calm the swarm once it’s in the collection container), a plastic cup or similar; if the bees are in an inaccessible place, you may need to scoop them into the container cup by cup.
Ask the caller to text a photo and their address and postcode then calmly assemble your equipment: box, cloth or sheet, straps, brush and anything else your conversation with the caller suggests you might need. Swarm collectors
If you’ve passed your basic assessment and want to be added to the BBKA’s swarm collection list, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The table cloth (or sheet) is to make it easier to see the bees on the ground. It can also be used to wrap the box when the collection has been completed and secured with straps. I usually arrange the straps in a cross shape on the ground before spreading out the sheet on top of that.
On this occasion, Lisa brushed the bees from the tree into a cardboard box. During the collection process, bees will invariably be disturbed and many of them will be in the air again. It’s important to ensure these flying bees have the opportunity to rejoin the others and provided the queen is in the box, the flying bees will soon find their way in there too.
This time though, Lisa decided not to upturn the box and instead, closed the flaps and partially covered the box with the table cloth. Very soon, all the flying bees and those still in the tree found their way into the box suggesting the queen was present.
If you’re collecting the swarm directly into a nuc. Remove the frames to make more space. Once the bees are safely in the box, the frames may be gently replaced. If you put the frames in carefully, they will initially rest on the mound of bees at the bottom of the box. Gradually, the bees will crawl up onto the frames which will settle into position. Lightly spaying the swarm with water will help the bees settle.
If you see bees running over the surface of the swarm, vibrating their wings and bodies (it’s called buzz running), it means they’re getting ready to fly to their new home. If the swarm was collected less than three miles from where it’s to be hived, make sure you place a queen excluder between the floor and brood box. It should be removed a few days after when you see eggs or brood in your new colony.
If there are bystanders present when you’re collecting a swarm, ask them to watch from a safe distance or through a window.
* Do not attempt to take a swarm which is too high up or would be dangerous to retrieve.
* Glean as much information about the swarm as possible before you leave home. Gather all required equipment before setting off. Sometimes it’s possible to collect the swarm directly in a nuc, saving time on hiving later.
If you don’t know the origin of the swarm (and beekeepers very rarely do) hive it away from your other bees to prevent drifting. There’s a clear link between swarms and the spread of diseases.
Once the queen is laying and the colony is established, your new bees can be fully inspected to check on their health. They should be checked for health again six weeks (two brood cycles) later but there’s no harm in keeping them in isolation for longer. Some diseases (European foulbrood is one) take much longer to show symptoms and some very cautious beekeepers will keep their swarms isolated for up to two years.
If you’re new to beekeeping, go out with an experienced swarm collector first. You’ll quickly pick up the basic techniques and see how different each swarm collection is.
Hiving a swarm
Although most swarms are collected in the afternoon, it’s usually better to wait until dusk before hiving them. This is because sometimes, when hived in the afternoon, the bees decide they don’t like their new home and quickly leave or ‘abscond’ as we say. The ingratitude! If you have collected the swarm directly into a nuc, keep the nuc closed in a cool location for 48 hours before siting it and opening the entrance.
When setting up a hive for your new bees, it’s a good idea to place the table cloth in front of the hive to make it easier to see the bees. We usually tuck in the edge of the cloth between the hive floor and landing board to create a slope to make it easier for the bees to walk up.
There are two basic ways to hive the bees. You can remove most of the frames from the middle of the receiving brood box, hold the box containing the swarm directly over the hive, sharply bang the bottom of the box and most of the bees will fall into the hive. The box used to collect the swarm may still contain a few bees and can be placed on the cloth in front of the hive to allow the bees to make their way inside. Here’s a clip from a hiving in June 2022 which shows this method.
The advantage of this method is it’s quick but be careful, if the cardboard box is bigger than the footprint of the hive, you run the risk that some of the bees (including the all important queen) may fall to the ground outside the hive. You’ll likely come back the following morning only to find the bees clustered under your hive!
The other method (as shown in the following clip), is to simply tip the bees onto the cloth in front of the hive.
Tipping the bees onto a sheet offers an opportunity to study your new bees close up and sometimes to spot the queen as she makes her way in. On this occasion, she wasn’t seen.
By now, it was getting late (it was actually much darker than it appears on the video) and Lisa was keen to hurry things on a bit; she was desperate for a cup of tea! Ritchie used a plastic pot to carefully scoop up some bees which he placed in the open hive; thanks to my rubbish filming, you’ll just have to take my word for this!
Almost as soon as the bees in the pot were deposited in the hive, those on the sheet started to make their way in. For me, seeing the bees march into the hive is one of the most miraculous and rewarding parts of beekeeping.
The following clip clearly shows some of the bees sending out a signal to the others. What they are doing is dispersing the Nasinov pheromone by lifting their little bottoms in the air and vigorously fanning their wings. The pheromone is released from glands at the tip of their abdomens and helps the others find the entrance to the hive.
In all, the hiving took 57 minutes from the start until the last of the stragglers had made her way in. Lisa put in an entrance block (to reduced the size of the opening) but later changed her mind. After dark, she went back to the hive and closed in the bees completely for 48 hours. This was as a precaution against the bees absconding. The idea is, the longer the bees are in the hive, the more they’ll invest in their new home; building comb etc. making it less likely that they’ll leave.
Some beekeepers place a queen excluder between the floor and brood box for the same reason but if you try this, make sure you remember to remove it after a few days when eggs or brood can be seen in your new hive.
In preparation for swarming, bees will have stored in their honey crops, sufficient food to last them about three days. Placing a feeder with a light syrup on the hive will help the bees to draw-out their new comb however, it is recommended that you delay feeding for three days to allow the bees to use up the food they brought with them. This is to prevent the bees from storing food that may be infected with pathogens.
It’s further recommended that the hive containing the swarm is placed far enough away from your other bees to prevent drifting. Again, this is in case the bees from the swarm are infected in some way.
Two days after hiving, the bees were active, seemingly happy in their new home. You can see some of them flying backwards, facing the entrance while others seem to be studying the back of the hive. This is all part of their orientation process.
After three days, it’s a good idea to feed syrup to your new colony. This will help them draw out the foundation in their new home. You can use syrup which is made up from 1kg sugar to 1 litre of water.
If you’ve put a queen excluder in place between floor and brood box, remove it when you see eggs or brood in the colony. If you’ve hived a cast (secondary) swarm, the queen excluder can not be left in place for more than 72 hours as the virgin queen inside will need to get out to mate.
In case you haven’t seen a swarm in progress, here’s a video taken by Richard Skinner at our Swanmore apiary on 23 June.