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Nine Easy Steps to Catching Bee Swarms

Nine Easy Steps to Catching Swarms

Catching swarms can be lots of fun and even seems to be a great way to get some free bees! But any experienced beekeeper will tell you that there is no such thing as free bees. Swarms often don’t stay in the box you put them in. After you drive 30 minutes, catch them, install them, and then watch them fly away the next day, you’ll understand that free is never really free when it comes to bees. Plus, you don’t know the genetics of the swarm—if they are going to be aggressive, unable to resist disease, good honey producers, and so on. All that being said, there is nothing wrong with giving it a shot! I just wouldn’t recommend capturing a swarm as a strategy to obtain bees for the first time.

Nine Easy Steps to Catching Bee Swarms

If you do get that call from a friend or neighbor that they have a swarm, here is how to capture it and hopefully keep it:

  1. Ask some questions. Where is the swarm located? On the side of a house? It’s probably already moving into the house, and it becomes a structural bee removal. Is it on a tree or bush? How high up? Is the ground level? If it’s not easily accessible, it’s wise not to risk falling off an extension ladder for a swarm that may not stay anyway. How large is it? The size of a baseball? It’s not worth your time. The size of a soccer ball or basketball? That’s a nice-sized average swarm. The size of two basketballs? Better bring some extra boxes!
  2. Pack up your gear and head out quickly. Swarms may not stay in place for long! Remember, they are looking for a new home. Take a spray bottle of clean water, a ladder if needed, your protective gear (old swarms can be aggressive), a container to bring them back to your beeyard (a nuc box or two with some empty frames inside or any container that is large and well ventilated), and a bee brush.
  3. When you arrive, encourage curious homeowners to stay far away in case the swarm is defensive. It typically won’t be if it’s only been there a day or so. But if it has been there for a number of days, all bets are off. Spray the swarm generously with water. It’s OK if they are dripping wet. The bees inside the cluster will still be completely dry and will fly when you shake or brush them into your container. Tip: If you can, cut the branch the bees are clustered on and proceed to step 4.
  4. Quickly and firmly shake or brush the bees into your container, and close the lid. If you captured the vast majority of them in your container on the first try, then you are good to go as long as you also got the queen. If lots fell outside your container or hundreds flew into the air, you can let them reform, spray them again, jolt your container, open the lid, spray the bees inside your container to keep them from flying, and shake or brush the reformed cluster back into your container. You will inevitably leave a hundred or so bees. Tip: The "container" can be a hive box, saving you a step at the end.
  5. Once you get your swarm home, get your hive ready. I use a deep box, ideally with some comb already in it. In a perfect world, pull a frame of eggs and larvae from an existing hive, shake the bees off, and put it in the center of your new hive. This will drastically increase the odds of the swarm’s staying. Frame of brood or not, pull the center three or four frames out of the hive to create plenty of space for the new bees as you dump them in.
  6. Firmly jar the container your swarm is in to knock the bees to the floor of the container. Quickly open the lid and spray them with water again. Five to six sprays should be enough to keep them from flying but not drench them.
  7. Dump the swarm into your new hive, jarring the container as needed to knock all the bees into the new hive. Bees are pretty tough, so you won’t hurt them by knocking the container against the new hive to knock all the bees out.
  8. Gently replace the frames that you pulled out of the middle, and push all the frames tightly together. You may have to wait a few minutes for the bees to move to make this possible. There will typically be lots of bees in the air at this point, but they should drift back to the new hive if the queen bee is inside. Again, a frame of brood can really help draw them into the hive and keep them there.
  9. Once you’ve replaced the frames and pushed them tightly together, feed the hive. A new swarm can draw out comb incredibly quickly, but they will need lots of food to make that happen. Feeding them as much 1:1 sugar water as they can drink for a few weeks will work wonders when it comes to drawing out comb. See “When to Add Another Box.” Giving the swarm a frame of uncapped brood from another hive can greatly increase the odds they will stay! Keep in mind that it’s not at all uncommon for a swarm to decide not to stay. However, feeding, giving them some drawn comb, and giving them a frame of brood can all help encourage them to stay.
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