How to Hive a Swarm
How to Hive a Swarm
There is nothing more satisfying to the beekeeper than to get a call on a warm, still day in early summer about a swarm. If it can be caught it will provide the opportunity to start a new colony; it might even produce some honey before the end of the season.
Swarming is a natural phenomenon and, if left unattended, most colonies will issue two, three or more swarms in a season. It is nature’s way of making increase and, as with every manipulation by the beekeeper, the skill in catching a swarm is in replicating nature.
Bees are obliging creatures. A swarm will often settle on a branch or a bush not far from the ground; once I was called to one that was conveniently hanging from the handle of a wheel barrow. The bees – up to 20,000 of them – make an egg-shaped cluster. It is actually hollow with the old queen, forced out of the colony by her own daughters, running around inside. The cluster will remain for only a few hours while scouts search for a hollow tree or some other dark, dry space in which to build a new colony. These conditions can be replicated by an old box such as a 12-bottle wine case, which I have used many times for catching swarms.
The technique is to spread a white sheet on the ground under the cluster, then give a sharp knock to the branch so that the bees fall in a heap onto the sheet. Immediately, the box should be inverted over the heap with one edge propped up by about an inch with a stick or some other object. As one might expect, this action causes a great commotion and a fearsome buzzing, but the bees are not usually aggressive. Within half an hour all the bees will have found their way into the box, attracted by the queen’s pheromones, and there will be a peaceful silence. Leave them undisturbed until the cool of the evening.
In the meantime, prepare the hive for its new occupants. It should consist of a single brood chamber fully equipped with foundation and – most important – a board sloping from ground level up to the hive entrance. And it should be in its permanent position: moving hives containing bees needs special preparation and should be avoided at this stage.
In the evening go back to the box and lift it very gently, still inverted. Carry it away, not forgetting to take the white sheet with you. I have transported several swarms in the back of my car, still in the inverted box. I have even carried a huge one the length of my village. I invited someone who asked what I was doing to bend down and look into the box. He was astonished to see the dark mass of bees hanging inside. In this situation they replicate the cluster again, with the queen in the middle.
When you get to the hive, spread the white sheet over the sloping board, making sure it goes right up to the hive entrance but does not block it. Then, holding the inverted box over the sheet, give it a sharp knock. The cluster will collapse onto the sheet with much buzzing but not much flying if the temperature has dropped sufficiently.
After a short while some of the bees will drift up the slope and into the hive, attracted by the smell of wax. Soon that drift becomes a rush and, if you are lucky, you can see the queen running over the backs of her workers in her determination to get into the hive. Within half an hour there is not a bee to be seen, just a contented humming from inside the hive.
Next morning the bees will behave as if they have always been there. However, you may notice them turn to face the hive as they locate its position before leaving for their first foraging flight.
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