The expression “the third time is a charm” didn’t hold much truth (or humor) for Atlanta beekeeper Curt Barrett on a recent spring weekend. He captured the first two swarms of honeybees, but when the third one appeared, he didn’t have an available hive to put them in. So he called his friend and fellow beekeeper Linda Tillman and offered the swarm to her.
She didn’t need to be asked twice. Tillman gets so excited about helping to capture swarms that she keeps her beekeeping gear in her car in the spring — prime time for honeybees to swarm.
Tillman found Barrett’s swarm about 16 feet off the ground in a China fir tree in his side yard. After about five tries she was able to capture it in a method she and Barrett have dubbed “Bee Catching: Iwo Jima Style.” This is a method, which Tillman said she has only had to use several times, whereby a long painter’s extender pole is inserted into the mouth of a large commercial-type water jug with its bottom cut open. The jug is positioned under the swarm and tapped against a branch until the swarm falls into the jug.
Barrett and Tillman came up with the name because the pole and jug are heavy and can become super flexible. Sometimes it can bend at such an awkward angle when they are teaming up on catching swarms they look like the five Marines and the Navy corpsman planting the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, Barrett said with a chuckle. (Tillman describes capturing Barrett’s bees in her Linda’s Bees blog.)
Catching a swarm of bees is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced beekeepers. If you are thinking about getting into beekeeping, are a new beekeeper or a homeowner who has been unnerved by the sight of thousand of bees swarming in your yard, here’s a guide to help you understand when and why bees swarm, what to do if you see this spectacle of nature, and how to capture the swarm.
When bees swarm
Spring is the prime time for honeybees to swarm. Bees seem to be programmed to swarm when their colony is no longer in its first year of existence, unless the beekeeper actively manages the hive to try to prevent it. A colony can swarm multiple times. The first swarm is considered the "prime swarm," which is when the old queen leaves the hive and swarms with thousands of her offspring.
Why bees swarm
To understand why bees swarm, it helps to understand that current research indicates there are two organisms in bees, the bees themselves as individual organisms and the hive as a superorganism, Tillman says.
Bees swarm because the colony gets too large to maintain itself efficiently. Oddly enough, the process of the expanding colony actually begins in the fall when the colony decreases its size as a way to survive the winter. The male bees (drones) get the boot as cold weather approaches because their only role is to mate with the queen and produce more bees. The colony doesn’t need more bees during the winter because it will be tough enough for the 10,000 to 20,000 remaining female bees to keep the queen warm and have enough to eat during the cold months.
When spring arrives, the queen starts producing more bees, including males. As the number of bees in the colony increases, there is minimized dispersal of the queen’s pheromone. This might enhance the conditions for swarming, according to Tillman, because the bees can become less attached to the queen.
“A hive that has lived through the winter and has begun building up the number of bees for gathering honey in the spring has an evolutionary urge to split into two,” says Tillman. “It’s the bees’ way of perpetuating the species. So the hive as a whole splits into two with the worker bees forcing the old queen to leave with half of the hive. Queen cells remain behind to make a new queen for the bees still in the hive. This process takes several weeks during which the old hive is without a queen.”
The old queen and half the colony have to leave the hive in a swarm before a new queen emerges because there can only be one queen in a colony.
Swarms that occur after the prime swarm are called an “after swarm.” The second and subsequent swarms typically happen when there are unmated new queens who leave with the swarm. Once beekeepers capture these swarms and get them into hives, they hope that the new queen will quickly begin laying new worker bees to create a new colony. She will not mate until the swarm reaches its new location.
Why the swarm forms a clump
The queen is not the strongest of flyers, and needs to rest soon after leaving the hive. Often that’s in a tree but could be on a structure such as a post or a fence. The workers quickly gather around her forming the clump. Scout bees will leave the clump to look for a new place for the colony to live.
What to do if you see a swarm
If you see a swarm of bees in your yard, try to determine if the swarm is honeybees, which are about a half-inch long and are orange and brown. A honeybee swarm generally will look like a big oblong brown ball.
Swarms typically are not dangerous, but you should still try to make your determination from a safe distance. The bees’ goal isn’t to attack people or pets. They are focused on finding a new home as fast as possible. They generally can do that pretty quickly, sometimes even within a day. The bees don’t want to be in a tree or on another structure any more than homeowners want them there.
If you see a swarm in your yard and are not experienced in capturing a swarm, call a local beekeeping association. If you can’t find contact information for one, contact the American Beekeeping Federation in Atlanta (404-760-2875, firstname.lastname@example.org), tell them you have a swarm of honeybees in your yard and ask if they can help you find a beekeeper to capture the swarm.
Always ask a beekeeper if they charge a fee to remove a swarm. Many are happy to do it for free, but it’s best to ask in advance to avoid surprises for all involved. If you can’t find a beekeeper, you might try to find a local farmer as they sometimes keep hives or may know a beekeeper who doesn’t belong to a beekeeping club.
What you shouldn’t do is spray the swarm with an insecticide to try and kill the bees or throw objects at it to encourage the bees to move on. Honeybees are in serious decline, and aggravating a swarm of bees unnecessarily can have unwanted and avoidable consequences.
With a little prep and the right supplies, you can remove a swarm. (Photo: Linda Tillman)
How to remove a swarm
Removing a swarm can be unnerving unless you are an experienced beekeeper. For new beekeepers or those considering getting into beekeeping here is an at-a-glance look at how to capture a swarm:
1. Have material ready before attempting to remove the swarm. Materials should include: a container to catch the swarm (this could be a box, a commercial type water jug with the bottom removed without the pole or, if the bees are really high in a tree, the commercial type water jug and attached pole that Barrett and Tillman use in their Bee-wo Jima method); a hive or a box to transport the bees to their new home placed on a sheet so if some of the bees miss the hive or box when you transfer them from the capture vessel they would still be accessible; a sheet on the ground under the swarm in case some of the bees fall to the ground they will be accessible at the capture site; bungee cords under the box or hive to secure it during the drive to the new home; and a piece of screen to block the entrance to the hive to prevent the bees from leaving (if you are putting them in a hive at the capture site).
2. Position the capture vessel under the swarm and try to knock the swarm into it. Be aware that if the swarm is high and you are using a long, flexible pole this can be tricky — especially if you have to maneuver the device through tree branches. The pole and the jug can also get heavy quickly, Barrett advises. Whatever capture vessel you use, it is critical in capturing the swarm that you also capture the queen.
3. When the swarm is in the capture container, transfer the swarm to the hive or the transfer box. This is where the sheets come in handy because bees that have missed the capture container or the hive or transfer box can be shaken off the sheets and reunited with the swarm.
4. Close the hive or container box, secure it with the bungee cord and, with the screen over the opening of the hive if that’s what you are using, drive the bees to where you will be keeping them.
5. With the hive in place, remove the screen from the opening or, if you put the bees in a container when you captured them, pour the bees into a hive and close it up.
6. Did you get the queen? You’ll know shortly. If the queen isn’t in the hive the bees will leave and swarm again. Hopefully this doesn’t happen. If it does, you’ll need to repeat the process. If the bees stay, you’ll be rewarded in a few months with plenty of sweet-tasting honey — which should take the sting out of any too-close encounters you might have experienced when you captured the swarm.
Photos: Linda Tillman