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.
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!
If you take a swarm call, ask questions;
Is the swarm accessible?
How high is it off the ground?
Will I need clippers to cut foliage?
Do you have clippers and a suitable ladder?
Ask the caller to text a photo and their address and postcode then calmly assemble your equipment: box, cloth or sheet, straps, a brush is often useful 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 email@example.com
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 the 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 there are bystanders present when you’re collecting a swarm, ask them to watch from a safe distance or through a window.
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!
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 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 but, 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 24 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 couple of days.
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.
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.