Before honeybees became domesticated—in the sense that moveable hives were created and colony development was managed by beekeepers—people gathered honey by finding it in the wild. As beekeeping started to develop, the only way to garner a colony was to find a hive to carry home, or to capture a swarm. There are pictures throughout history depicting the act of seeking out and catching a swarm of bees. But how do you “catch” a swarm of bees? Here are a few things to consider when thinking about bee swarms.
The best way to catch a swarm is to prevent it from happening. Bee colonies naturally divide within a year or two when the colony grows too large and the queen gets old. Many experienced beekeepers regularly divide their colonies and introduce new queens as needed. Making this part of your apiary management can help you avoid loss. If a regular division plan isn’t for you, then preparation can help. Have a new hive ready and nearby. If you examine your brood and notice new queen cells, then there is a good chance your bees are getting ready to swarm. If you have a hive ready, and can identify the old queen, it is possible to transfer the swarm before it takes flight. Where the queen goes, the rest of the swarm will follow.
In the northern hemisphere swarming usually takes place in the early spring. Some beekeepers prepare for this with bait boxes/hives. These are specially designed hives placed in high places, often trees, and scented with bee bait to attract the scout bees sent out to look for a new home. Bait hives comes in a variety of designs, but the key to a good bait hive is accessibility. If a swarm chooses your hive, you want to be able to access it and bring it back to your apiary. You also need to consider that fully gorged bees can draw out comb very quickly, so a bait hive with removable frames can help you avoid a block of comb that is hard to move.
If your bees swarm, they usually don’t go more than 300 yards from their original hive in the first flight. They will usually alight en masse in a tree or bush. Somewhere in the center of what literally looks like a clump of bees, you will find the queen. The key here is to capture them before they decide to move on to a more permanent location.
Remember, bees gorge themselves with honey before the big flight. So once they settle on something, they are actually pretty calm and just waiting to hear from the scout bees where they are headed next. This is a good time to capture them, but you should still wear protective gear. How you capture them can take on several different forms. If the swarm is easily within reach, the simplest method is to drop them into a deep super or a nuc box with the bottom board attached. Shaking them into the box can be effective. Once the queen is in the box, the rest will follow. You can then put the cover on, close the entrance, and carry them back to your apiary. If a box isn’t handy, any container will do. Some people use a bag or cardboard box, which is perfectly fine, if you don’t have too far to travel.
Tanging or drumming the bees
In the early colonial times, the practice of tanging the bees was used to attract a swarm. This was considered so effective as a tool that laws were created to prevent beekeepers from stealing the bees of a neighboring keeper. So what is tanging? It is also called drumming the bees and involves hitting a large metal pan or drum with a stick or some other wood utensil. The theory is that the noise creates a vibration that attracts and calms the bees, making it possible to bring them into your colony. Some people still swear by this method, while other say it has not been effective. There currently isn’t any empirical data about this method, so at best, you can just try it and see if it works for you.
If you catch up to a bee swarm after weather has been bad and they haven’t been able to forage, then you are going to want to take some precautions. These bees will most likely be out of food, often referred to as a dry swarm, and a bit defensive. You might want to give them a few hours to forage and replenish their food level before trying a capture, or consider a bee vacuum. Beekeepers that deal with wild swarms and swarms that have moved into inconvenient places, like the siding of your house, often use bee vacuums to reduce damage and avoid angry bees.
There is nothing like catching your first swarm with someone more experienced right beside you. Your local bee club or extension service could connect you with a specialist that is willing to step you through the process. Many beekeepers enjoy sharing their knowledge and helping new beekeepers grow, all you have to do is ask.
DANE, E. (2015). Catching Swarms Means Free Bees. Countryside & Small Stock Journal, 99(6), 68-69.
GRASSELLI, M. M. (2009). Tanging the Bees: A Curious Apiarian Practice in a Drawing by Claude Simpol. Master Drawings, 47(4), 443-446.