Catching bees is a great way of starting a new hive and bait hives are a great way of catching bees. These pointers may be of some help if you have not done this before. But, we would urge you to have an experienced beekeeper with you the first few times you do it if you have not done it before. Also, join a beekeepers association.
Bees swarm. That is what they do to procreate. Colonies split and one group heads out to start a new colony in another area not too far away. For beekeepers, this can be a nuisance because they sometimes lose bees and therefore have smaller crops of honey as a result. But on the other hand, they can also grow the number of colonies by catching swarms that did not come from their own hives.
In Ireland swarming season starts around the middle of May and continues to the middle of July. There will sometimes be swarms after July, but they are not common. It is always a good idea to be prepared in advance. Depending on how many swarms you want to catch you will need to put out extra bait hives. Put out more than you think you will need. You can always take them down when you have caught enough swarms. Some years there are a lot of swarms and some years there are only a few. There may be years when people in your village will just keep calling asking you to remove swarms from their gardens and other years you will rely on your bait hives.
What is a bait hive?
A bait hive is a box or hive that have been strategically placed and treated to make it attractive to swarms looking for a new home. So what do you do to make it attractive to bees?
- Make the box about the size of a hive brood box or a little bigger. Early season swarms tend to be bigger so they will need more space. Second swarms later in the season may be happy with a nuc.
- Put about three frames with old comb in the box. Bees like the smell of the old come and they will think that another colony had occupied the box previously and therefore assume that they had approved it at some point. Don’t fill the box with comb or they may not realise that it is as big as it is. Empty space gives them the impression that there is room to grow their numbers.
- An old brood box is ideal as it will have a strong bee scent. But close the floor. Modern hives have a mesh floor. Bees do not always appreciate the benefits of this design so it is best to cover the floor with a sheet of plywood or something similar before placing it.
Make a note of where you have placed all of your bait hives. It is easy to forget where they are. Also, don’t forget to get permission from the landowner before you place them. It is just good manners.
What to do when a swarm moves into your Bait Hive
First, make sure that there is a swarm in the box. Observation should be enough. No need to open it. Sometimes when a swarm is about the move in or has narrowed down their choice to two or three locations, there will be a lot of scouting activity and you may well think that they have already moved in. If you are sure that they have moved in, leave them in it for about a week before you move them. If you move them too soon they may kill the queen or abscond when moved to a new location.
Moving them is quite easy after that. Come back late in the evening when all the foragers are back and close it up. Plug the entrance with a bit of sponge or similar and tape the lid and floor together so that the bees don’t escape in your vehicle. Having a few loose bees in one’s car can be a terrifying prospect for beginner beekeepers, but they rarely attack when in a car. All they want to do is get out of the car and spend their time trying to get through the window. If you are worried that they might escape, wear your bee suit, but make sure that you have all-around vision and that it does not restrict your safe driving in any way.
If you have used a hive bottom, i.e. hive floor, brood box and lid, you can just place them where they will live. Give them an hour to settle down and then open the box. If it is dark they may not be interested in coming out. The next day you will see them all doing orientation flights to adjust to their new surroundings. Open the box and gently but quickly add the rest of the frames and foundation to fill the box. If you don’t do this they will build on your crown board or if you don’t use one, they will build onto the underside of the roof.
I am separating swarm collection and colony removal here for clarity.
Swarm collection is relatively easy. It usually involves going to someone’s garden and shaking a swarm of bees into a box and bringing them to their new home. Sounds simple, right? But of course, it is not always that easy. Sometimes they are about fifteen feet up in a tree or on the side of a building. What then?
That is up to you. Just because you turned up all kitted out and ready for action does not mean that you are under any obligation to put yourself at risk to retrieve the swarm wherever it is. That said, we will continue.
Recommended equipment for swarm collection:
- Beesuit – In general swarms are gentle and do not sting. There are several possible reasons for this none of which have solid proof to back them up. But we recommend that you assume that they will sting even though you will often see beekeepers handling swarms barehanded without any issues. Bad weather or the prospect of bad weather can make bees cranky.
- A Water Mister – You can use this to spray the swarm if there is a possibility that they may leave before you are ready to move them into your box. They will be too busy drying themselves to think of flying off.
- A Bee Brush – They may need encouragement. A bee brush can gently encourage them in the right direction.
- Smoker, fuel, lighter – Beekeepers use smoke to pacify bees and to encourage them to move in a certain direction. They tend not to like the smoke because it interferes with their ability to smell the pheromones that control much of their behaviours, so they settle down until the smoke is gone and they have clarity again.
- Blanket – A blanket is useful when capturing a swarm. You can generally shake bees into a box and when the queen goes in the rest will follow. But, sometimes the swarm is above rough ground. When this happens you can spread the blanket on the ground and put the box on it. There is then less danger of losing the queen or worse, stepping on here.
- Duct Tape – You will want to seal the box to ensure that there are no escapees. Don’t block the entrance directly with the tape. Tape something to the entrance e.g. paper or a rag or sponge. If you just put the tape over the entrance you will have quite a few bee’s heads stuck to it before you get home. But do tape the hive parts together or they may slide when you take a sharp turn or hit a bump in the road. A ratchet strap is good for strapping the hive together too. BUT MAKE SURE THAT THERE IS ADEQUATE VENTILATION or you may arrive home with much fewer bees than you left with.
- The Box – You have to put them in something. A hive body is the best option since they will be living in it and it will save you from moving them again when you get them home. Make sure that you have enough frames to fill the box. The bees will need something to hang onto. If you don’t use frames of foundation, they will be piled up on top of each other for the duration of the trip home.
Swarms usually stay on the spot for a day or two, but they may just stay for an hour or two. When you have been called to a swarm, you do not always know how long they were there. So you have to be quick or all your efforts may be in vain.
The first thing to do when you get to a swarm is talk to the owner of the property. It may not have been them who called you. Get their permission to enter their property and remove the swarm if they did not call you. If the swarm’s location is not immediately obvious, ask to be guided to it.
Have a good look around. The swarm may not be a swarm at all but an established colony that is bearding. There is a huge difference between the two. There will be no shake and go with an established swarm. At this point, you need to decide whether you want to continue with the project. See colony removal below.
Swarms can leave at the drop of a hat. What sparks the sudden departure is not always clear, but you may have arrived just before they were leaving anyway.
So, the first thing to do is put on your bee suit and spray the swarm with your mister. Some beekeepers use sugar water, but really you could just end up with a big sticky mess. Bees need water to wash off the sugar water and on a warm day the sugar water will be thickening by the minute as it dries out and will very likely harm the bees you are trying to save.
Then organise your box and blanket if necessary put your brush in your pocket in case you need it. Make sure that anyone not wearing a bee suit is not nearby or at least not within easy reach by the bees, just in case. And bend the branch towards the box and shake. Some beekeepers like to cut the branch and put it in the box, but that is usually unnecessary if you can get a good shake right above the box. They should fall right in. Some of course will fly and you will have dozens of bees around you, hence the bee suit. But if you got the queen into the box and you surely did, they will soon follow her into the box. Some will go back to the branch because there will still be the scent of the queen on the branch attracting them to it.
Put the lid on the box and leave it where it is. Any stragglers should start heading into the box. Occasionally the swarm will not take to it. Possibly because they had already made or were close to a decision about a location when you arrived. They may return to their branch. If this happens, you can put them back in the box and seal the box before they can leave again. When you get them home leave them in the box for a couple of days if the weather is not too hot. Make sure to spray them well with your mister while sealed in there. During this time they will likely start to build come and feel committed to the box. It is unusual at this point, but they may still leave when you open the box or shortly after.
Open the box late in the evening or dusk and they should be calm. They will all be out doing their orientation flights in the morning and settle in then. Everyone Happy.
A colony removal or a hive removal involves removing an established colony. They are often in a wall of a building or a roof. Removals like this will involve some damage to the structure that they are in. Therefore before you start at all, you need to have a clear agreement between you and the property owner about how much damage you can do and who is going to do the repairs and who is going to pay for the repairs.
You may choose to continue even though there is a lot of work involved in the project, but charge the homeowner. This is not unreasonable given the work involved and all you will get out of it is a colony of bees that may or may not survive the removal or after that may not live through the winter after you fed them and housed them at your own expense.
If there is any doubt about ownership or responsibility or cover etc., walk away. It is not worth the grief that can follow a project like that.
Any colony that requires a long ladder is too dangerous and should never be tackled alone and should be left to those who are best equipped to deal with them. Usually not a beekeeper.
Hive removals are hard work. You need to watch out for the queen while you work. If you miss the queen, who will try her best to avoid capture, or accidentally kill her you will have to either buy a new one if you don’t already have a spare or the colony will not survive the removal. You will then have to remove every scrap of comb and if possible fill the location with some inorganic material that cannot be easily chewed out by a new colony that wants to move in next year attracted by the scent of the previous occupants and try to seal access points too if possible.
Hopefully, you will have the help of a builder when working on this, but quite often the owner/occupier does not want to pay and called a beekeeper only because they have heard that they will work for free. You can’t really blame the owner either because this is an unanticipated expense that they did not ask for.