When swarm season comes, you never know when you’ll get the call for bee rescue and there’s no worse feeling than missing the opportunity to catch a swarm because it left before you arrived. That’s why I always keep a swarm catching kit in my car! Read on to find out what to include in your own kit so you never miss a swarm catch again.
A Nuc Box
The most important item in your swarm catching kit is a container to put the bees in. This can be a cardboard box or a bucket with a lid, but my favorite option is a nuc box. When you place a swarm of bees directly into a nuc box, they can begin building on the frames right away and can be left undisturbed for a week while they establish themselves. If you use a bucket, the bees will need to be transferred to a proper hive once you get them home and this extra stress can sometimes prompt them to leave altogether. Nuc boxes are also light-weight and take up less room in your car than a full-sized hive would. The only downside of using a nuc box is that it’s sometimes not big enough to accommodate large swarms.
A Bee Suit
Although swarms are often docile and can be handled without a suit, it’s best to wear one when catching a swarm. You never know how a swarm will behave and some of them are unexpectedly defensive. Swarms in public places also tend to draw an audience, among them children. You wouldn’t want curious kids to think that it’s OK to handle a swarm without protective clothing, in the event that they come across one again.
An Entrance Blocker
After you’ve caught your swarm, you’ll need some way to close them up. When using a nuc or full-size hive, I prefer to duct tape a piece of screen or a block of wood over the entrance, but in a pinch, I have sealed the entrance by stuffing in a rag or a crumpled up piece of newspaper. If you are using a bucket or a cardboard box, you’ll need to seal in the bees with a bucket lid or tape. Read more about how to move a beehive here.
Swarms often land on bushes and trees. When they are on a singular branch, it’s great to be able to clip it and carry them to your box that way. At other times, you may need to trim foliage in order to better access the swarm.
Duct tape is always useful to a beekeeper for one reason or another. I use it to seal cardboard boxes and to hold entrance blockers in place, but I have also used it to tape warning signs up so people know a bee removal is in progress. When the bees are out of reach, I have created many a swarm-catching apparatus with duct tape, often taping a bucket to a broom handle or some such combination.
Although it’s not necessary for catching a swarm, it can be helpful to have an attractant scent such as lemon grass oil or swarm commander to place at the entrance of your nuc box after catching the swarm so that foragers find it more easily. I have learned to be cautious with these scents, if you apply too much sometimes it has the reverse effect and the bees will abscond. I typically just set the bottle at the entrance instead of actually applying it and that is enough.
A repellant is also not necessary for catching a swarm, but it can speed up the process and make some situations easier. I often use it to deter foragers from gathering in the original location of the swarm after transferring the cluster to my box.
A Frame of Comb
Swarms will be more enthusiastic about accepting their new home if you can offer them some empty comb. I like to save frames of empty comb for this exact reason and I keep a frame in my nuc box if I have one available.
A White Sheet
If there is a chance that bees will fall on the ground during a swarm catch it’s a good idea to lay a white sheet under them. This often makes it easier for them to crawl into your box and you will also be able to see them better. Some beekeepers like to drape the sheet like a ramp from the entrance and purposely dump the swarm onto the sheet and let them march into the box on their own.
It’s nice to have warning signs, caution tape or some such tool to use during a swarm catch, especially if you plan to leave the bees until dark for pick-up. I carry large sandwich boards that I had painted for this purpose, but you could also design and print out more simplistic signs or a roll of caution tape which would take up less space in your car.
Many beekeepers like to spritz swarm clusters with water before attempting to transfer them to their nuc box. This reduces the number of bees that will try to fly. I don’t often do this, but it is useful in some situations.
I rarely use a smoker when catching a swarm. During a swarm catch the bees need to communicate with each other using scent to find their new location (inside your nuc box). Using your smoker will actually disrupt this process, but when used strategically sometimes the smoker can be used to herd bees more quickly into the box. Typically, I only use this technique if I return at sundown and the bees are not all in the nuc box yet.
Most of us don’t have the kind of vehicles that make it easy to carry a ladder around, so this is not really a practical item for your swarm kit. I myself drive a Prius and don’t carry one, but I do sometimes need a ladder for swarm removal work. Not to worry though, you can borrow one. Most homeowners have a ladder on hand and if not, ask one of the neighbors. I always rely on the kindness of strangers during swarm catches!
The Thrill of Swarm Catching
Nothing gets me excited like an unexpected swarm catch. I once encountered a swarm while I was driving home from teaching a beekeeping class as it moved through a residential intersection. The cloud of bees was roughly the size of a car and it moved comically down the center of the street, almost as if it was pretending to be one. I drove behind it for several block before it turned off the road and began to cluster in a tree. These are the times when you’ll be patting yourself on the back for making a swarm catching kit! I gleefully grabbed my cardboard nuc box and bee suit from the back of my car and made the catch. Want to hear more stories from my beekeeping adventures? Check out my new book Queenspotting!