Swarm Catching for Newbies

A swarm catcher in our backyard orchard.

The hive-swarming season is upon us, and in an effort to support natural bee genetic adaptation (and save money!), we are hoping to populate nearly all of our hives via swarms. This week we resurrected bee equipment from the basement freezer, ran an inventory of our boxes, frames, and bars, and set up two “swarm catchers”.

So what’s a swarm catcher? Take one bee box, fill it with the smelliest, most well-used comb you’ve got, add a little lemongrass oil on the end of a Q-tip (or a commercially produced synthetic pheromone packet), and wait for a swarm to move in.

Everyone’s seen illustrations of an angry swarm of bees chasing after some poor soul. In reality, swarms are generally quite mellow. The bees have gorged on honey to prepare them for the journey, and they’re intent on taking care of the queen and finding a new home. While the swarm waits, often clinging to a tree branch, scout bees search for a good place to call home.

And then, through some magic of bee pheromone communication and butt-wiggling, the swarm agrees on one location and moves en masse to their new hive. I don’t use the word “agrees” lightly. I’m keen to check out a new book by Dr. Thomas Seeley, of Cornell University. Seeley’s book, Honeybee Democracy, explores the fascinating and complex ways in which bees communicate and make group decisions. I continue to be amazed by the intricacy of honey bee social structure and behavior.

Setting up lures

So far we’ve set up two swarm lures. The first is in our backyard “orchard,” future site of a chicken coop for the fast-growing girls. The second swarm catcher is about eight feet off the ground on our neighbors’ wisteria trellis. We picked up some lemongrass oil from the store, wetted the ends of Q-tips , and placed these across the frames at the back of the hive. Supposedly, the lemongrass scent is similar to queen bee pheromones, thus enticing scout bees to give a favorable report of the location.

You can just make out the swarm catcher perched on this trellis. As always, click on the picture for a closer look.

This swarm catcher is ready to go, with a "magic" Q-tip visible on the right side of the frames.

Over the past two weekends, we’ve gone on field trips to six potential hive-hosting gardens, and we plan to set up swarm catchers soon in many of them. The only problem is our lack of equipment. We spent hours counting and re-counting our boxes, frames, bars, and wax foundation sheets and poring over our Mann Lake beekeeping supply catalogue.

Kelly placed the order yesterday morning and was initially told that we would need a forklift on site to receive it. She informed the operator that this is a private suburban residence without access to forklifts. Sheesh. I hadn’t realized that ordering supplies for half a dozen hives was such an involved process. Fortunately, it sounds as though they are willing to deliver sans forklift.

Top-bar hive takes on the world

We went out in the garden tonight and looked up with a flashlight into our top-bar hive through its screened bottom. We were wowed by the number of bees. We estimate that the population has tripled since the last time we looked at night, several weeks ago. The bees have drawn new white comb from the top-bars we added, and they are entirely covering the other combs, so that the whole inside of the hive looks like a huge ball of bees.

The next warm day we have, we’ll open the hive and take out the divider board that has been limiting the bees to the right-hand side. We are also considering the possibility of splitting the hive as spring progresses if the bees don’t beat us to it by swarming.

2 Responses to Swarm Catching for Newbies

  1. Just after we’d moved into our current house I was sitting with the landlady in the breezeway, staring out at this vast expanse of lawn, missing my vine-covered pergola when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a huge swarm of bees flew past, like an airborne school of fish! They hovered for a minute then zipped around the corner of the house and headed across the street to a wooded area. I had never seen a swarm like that and I had nothing to offer them then, but I think of them often, hoping they found a comfortable place nearby and that the squash blossoms, borage, sunflowers, yarrow and herbs I’ve put in since then might make up for my past lack of hospitality!

    • I love that image of a swarm being like a flying school of fish! I have yet to actually see a swarm on the move. The one I retrieved from a tree last year was swaddling a branch by the time I came upon it. Wherever your swarm ended up, I’m sure that they (and all their cousins) have discovered your garden offerings.

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