Catching a swarm is one of my favorite parts of beekeeping. Even though my phone rings off the hook in spring with live bee removal requests, I still feel a thrill when someone calls about a swarm. Most beekeepers love to catch swarms because they are docile and easy to remove. But, even the most experienced beekeeper can run into trouble when they aren’t properly prepared. I have found that asking the right questions before going out to catch a swarm will save time and trouble.
1. How long have the bees been there?
This is the most important question to ask when someone calls you about a swarm. The general public refers to any grouping of bees as a swarm, but in the beekeeping world, only a newly arrived colony meets the criteria for the name. If the bees have been in one location longer than a week, they will have built some comb. Once the bees build comb, they are no longer a swarm and they are more challenging to remove. It not only takes skill to remove an established colony, it also takes certain tools and materials. You will need rubber bands or string to attach the combs in your frames, for example. You may also need a bigger hive or a container for leaky honey. Established colonies are also going to be more defensive than a swarm would be. Removing an established colony is not something a new beekeeper is normally equipped to do by themselves, especially on the fly! I used to be caught off guard all the time when I first started removing bees. I would show up expecting a swarm and find an extremely large colony ensconced in a wall. You can usually avoid being surprised by this situation by asking the question above, but beware, many people will tell you when they first noticed the bees and this isn’t necessarily on the same day that they landed. Some people coexist with bees in their yard for months before realizing they are there. If you are experienced with bee removal, come prepared for both scenarios. If you are new, be ready to walk away if the situation is over your head. An established colony of bees is not going anywhere. Give yourself time to find help, to research and to acquire the proper equipment before taking on the challenge.
2. What are the bees in?
Before going out to catch your swarm, try to get a detailed description of where they are. This may affect what you bring with you to do that job. I often ask: What are the bees in? Are they hanging from a tree or are they inside of something? If the bees are hanging from a tree, you may only need your box and your bee suit, but you may also need plant clippers or a ladder. Be sure to ask how high up they are and how deep in the bush or tree they are! If they are inside of something, find out how big the cavity is and what it’s made of. You may need to bring tools to take it apart or cut it open. Be wary of swarms that have moved inside of a cavity, there is a good chance they have been there longer than your caller has realized and may be an established colony.
3. How big are they?
This is an important question because it will help you determine how big of a box you need. I like to bring nuc boxes for swarm retrieval because they are easier to carry and lift, but if the swarm is big, you may need a full-size hive box. This question can also reveal that your caller is actually calling about a wasp nest (a common mistake). Honey bee swarms are usually larger than a football, while wasp nests are typically smaller. I like to use sports equipment analogies to help people describe the size of what they are seeing. Is the group of bees the size of a softball, football or basketball?
4. Can you send me a picture?
These days, most everyone has a camera on their cell phone. I always ask them to send a picture of their swarm because it sometimes reveals vital information. Maybe the swarm is hanging from a tree that is on a steep slope, for example. You will need a plan for how to secure your ladder. Maybe the swarm is spread out on the ground, a sign that something might be wrong with it. They could be poisoned or without a queen. A photo is also a good way to make sure you are not wasting your time on a misidentified wasp nest.
5. Have you done anything to the swarm?
Unfortunately, homeowners sometimes attempt to get rid of the bees themselves before they call a beekeeper. Often they spray swarms with water in an attempt to get them to leave. This usually has the reverse affect. The poor, soggy bees end up crawling all over the ground, unable to fly. This, too, can result in a dead or damaged queen and it may be more challenging to get the bees to gather in your box. You may want to bring a swarm attractant with you to do that swarm catch. Worse, the homeowners may have sprayed the swarm with poison. If this is the case, I often refuse to come out at all. A poisoned swarm is unlikely to survive.
No mater what situations you encounter this spring, remember to have fun! Something that is much easier to do when you are properly prepared for the task at hand.