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Catching a Swarm



  When bees swarm the queen and up to half the colony leave the hive and settle at a temporary location nearby. It can be in a hedge, on the branch of a tree, on a fence or wherever the queen alights. The swarm may remain there for just a brief time or as long as a couple of days whilst scout bees search for a new home. This is the time to catch the swarm. Once it's established in a permanent home removal usually becomes much more difficult and won't be considered here. When you set off to catch a swarm you should take the following things with you:

o A large, strong cardboard box. (About the same volume as a brood box.)

o An old bed sheet, table cloth or something similar.

o 5 bricks or other weights.

o Secateurs.

o A sharp knife.

o A pruning saw.

o Some string.

o A bee brush.

o Protective clothing.

o A smoker, fuel and matches.

You may also need a ladder. If someone else has called you out, try to discover before you set off whether you're likely to need a ladder and, if so, whether you can borrow one nearby.

Once you've located the swarm you must assess the situation. Before starting ensure that it's been settled for some time. It should be quite quiet with bees tunnelling in and out of the cluster. There will also be some flying bees both coming and going. You should work out what method you intend to use to catch the swarm. You may be fortunate with the whole swarm hanging from a single branch at a convenient height. Usually things are more complicated. If the swarm is high up or, for some other reason, inaccessible you should consider carefully whether to attempt to catch it at all. It's not worth breaking your neck for a swarm of bees.

Sometimes, if the swarm is in a bush or tree it may be necessary to remove some of the branches. This will be described in more detail later.

If this is the case make sure the owner understands and has given his or her permission. Place the sheet on the ground near to the swarm. Put a brick on each corner to prevent it blowing about in the wind. Put the fifth brick in the middle. This will be used later to prop up the box. Bees that have just swarmed are usually remarkably good tempered but it's still very advisable to wear protective clothing, particularly if you need to use a ladder. Let's consider the easiest situation first. The swarm's hanging from a flexible branch with no other obstructions nearby. All you need to do is hold the box underneath the swarm, as close as possible, and give the branch a sharp jerk followed by a few vigorous shakes. Most of the bees should fall in but, if a fair number remain, you can follow up with the bee brush. However, don't waste too much time on this. All you're trying to do is get the queen and the majority of bees into the box. The rest will follow later.

An alternative is to smoke the remaining bees heavily to make them fly, after which they'll probably be attracted to the rest of the bees already in the box. If the branch is too rigid or the swarm's hanging from a fence or building you can just use the brush but, if there's sufficient space, a better method is to support the box, opening downwards, as close as possible above the swarm. Bees have an instinct to move upwards into the dark. If you start them off by applying a little smoke they should all move up quite quickly. Otherwise you can encourage them by taking a handful of bees and throwing them into the box first.

If the swarm is in dense vegetation you may have to gently cut some of it away to give yourself sufficient room to get the box in place. Sometimes the pieces you remove will be covered with bees. They can just be shaken off into the box. There are many other possibilities, fortunately most of them rare. Swarms can choose the most inconvenient places to settle. The best advice in these circumstances is just to use your own initiative. You may have to perform one of the above manoeuvres well above ground level, such as up a ladder or standing on a branch in a tree. If so, take particular care.

The first time you catch a swarm you'll be surprised just how heavy it is as it drops into the box. There are about 8000 bees to a kilogram (3500 to a pound). A swarm can weigh as much as 5kg (10lb). You really need three arms: one to support the box, one to shake or brush the bees and one to hold on. If, like me, you're only endowed with two arms you'll have to find some other way! Often you can hold the box between your body and another branch or, maybe, use one of your knees.

Once the bees are in the box, take it down, gently turn it over so that the opening is downwards and put it in the middle of the sheet with one side propped up on the brick to provide an entrance. Now stand back and watch for a while. What you should see is the worker bees near the entrance start fanning. That is, they'll be standing, head down, wings working and with a small white spot called the Nasonov gland exposed on the last dorsal segment of the abdomen. The scent from this gland will attract the remaining bees that you didn't collect. Within half an hour most of them should have joined the bees in the box. However, if you didn't manage to secure the queen, it won't happen. Instead, the bees will all go back to the original site of the swarm or wherever the queen has ended up. In this case you'll have to wait until the cluster reforms and settles down again before making another attempt.

If possible it's best to leave the box until the evening before removing it because, by that time, all the bees will have stopped flying. In the mean time, if the weather is hot, you should try to arrange that the box is shaded from direct sun. When you're ready gently remove the supporting brick and lower the edge of the box to the ground. Take away the other bricks and gather the four corners of the sheet up above the box. Finally, tie some string around the sheet to make a sort of sack preventing any bees from escaping. The box can then be moved just by lifting the "sack". The last thing that needs to be discussed is hiving the swarm. You don't have to do it immediately. The swarm can be left in the box overnight, for example, but if so, you should undo the sheet and prop up the edge of the box to provide ventilation. You'll also find the bees quickly start to build comb in the box so I'd recommend you don't leave them for more than a day.

The traditional way to hive a swarm is to put a running in board down in front of the new hive to act as a ramp up to the entrance. The hive should be fitted with foundation and a roof so that it's dark inside. Supers are not needed. Place the box, wrapped in its sheet, at the end of the ramp. Open up the sheet and spread it out over the board up to the entrance, weighting it down with bricks. Then shake the bees out of the box onto the sheet in front of the hive entrance. Before long some of them will find the entrance and start fanning, attracting the rest into the hive. This is a very pretty sight and well worth watching. Keep your eyes open and you may well see the queen going in along with the rest of the bees. This method of hiving is quite slow. It may take several hours for all the bees to enter. There is also a quick method. Just take all the frames out of the hive, put in an entrance block and dump the whole box full of bees into the empty brood chamber by inverting it over the top and giving it a few sharp jerks. (There are bound to be a number of bees left in the box. Don't worry. Just leave it on its side near the entrance and they'll find their own way home.) Next, put the frames back. Don't push them down. Just place them on top of the pile of bees and they'll gradually sink down under their own weight with a little assistance on your part to ensure they settle onto the runners properly.

Once all the frames are in place put on the inner cover and roof and remove the entrance block (which was only fitted to avoid the possibility of the queen falling out of the entrance when the bees were shaken in). A few final points. If possible, I would always hive a swarm on foundation rather than old comb. This is because a swarm makes such a good job of drawing it out. There's a lot to be said for feeding a swarm as soon as you've hived it to get it off to a good start. 5 litres (1gal) of strong syrup should be enough unless the weather's very bad. Finally, swarms are normally fairly healthy but, once established, you should inspect and, if necessary, treat for the usual parasites and diseases. İMalcolm Roe 1996


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