Spring is often when bees will swarm, so here's a guide to why bees swarm and how to catch one.
What Is Bee Swarming?
Beekeepers today now try to control their hives and not let them swarm.
Some may ask, "what IS swarming?". Very simply; a new colony of bees have been formed. Most often the old queen will leave with her worker bees and search out a new 'home' when a new queen is born within the colony. There is never room enough in any house for 2 Queen Bees! So, one has to go.
If there has been enough food stores over winter and then early on in spring, a new brood will hatch and the old hive becomes too small for all the bees. When the bees are almost ready to leave the old hive they will send out 'scouts' to look for a new home before they all leave. These scouts will lead the new swarm to their new home.
This can be a sign to watch for if you want to 'catch' your swarm. Another sign they are wanting to leave may be bees hanging out on the front of the hive (this also happens when the weather is very hot).
When Do Bees Swarm?
You can look for swarms in early spring. We have them usually beginning of early May (we have had them swarm as early as the last of April). We are located in Western North Carolina.
You can look for them to swarm on hot/muggy days. Most of ours start swarming anywhere from 11:00-3:00pm.
The bees will fill up on honey for their travels and can survive for up to 3 days on these stores. This means if the swarm is to survive, it needs to find a place on their own or need to be 'caught' by the beekeeper. The bees are usually calm and pretty harmless when they are filled up on honey stores.
How To Catch A Swarm
To 'catch' a swarm may not be easy in the beginning to someone who has not tried it before or seen someone else catch one.
When you realize the bees are coming out to swarm and not just 'working' hard you can try to 'settle' them. Now, I know there will be beekeepers that will read this and say..."no, that is just an old wives' tale". Well, I say, this is something we have always done and it works for us! When the air becomes thick with bees you can get a metal pan and spoon and start banging on it...this helps to 'settle' the swarm into one place instead of them leaving. If they leave your sight it will be harder to follow them and try to collect them when they DO settle somewhere else. You can also have another empty hive set up somewhere near the old hive and sometimes they will move themselves into the hive. You can rub peach or apple leaves inside the empty hive to entice the scouts.
Bees in top bar with observation window
When the bees have all settled into a ball, now is the time to collect them into a hive box. Hopefully the swarm will have settled low enough to get the box under it where you can brush them into the box. Sometimes if they settle on a limb you will have to cut that off and then shake that over the hive box (make sure the top is removed and you can take a few frames out as well when you are brushing or shaking the bees). You can replace the lid when the bees start going in. You can tell if the queen has gone in as the other bees will start 'bowing' to her as they're going in. If you did not get the queen to go in the other bees will not stay long. We have had them settle on vines on the ground, on fence posts, in berry bushes and brambles!
My husband, Alan, and I come from beekeeping families, so, we tend to stick to the 'old fashioned' ways.
Alan harvesting honey
Alan with his bees
We don't medicate or use chemicals on our farm.We use herbs (especially thyme and rosemary) that the bees can get to and 'work' and medicate themselves. We don't use artificial foundation in the frames...we let the bees make their own comb. We don't use an extractor; we use a 'straining' method and the honey is NOT heated. Therefore, it is called 'unpasteurized' and raw. We leave a full super of honey on each hive for winter and we DON'T feed sugar water.
Swarming is a natural process and we try to make our 'beekeeping' as natural as possible!
Farmer and homesteader, Susan Tipton-Fox writes and teaches at The Mushroom Hut @ Fox Farms, a CSA farm in Burnsville, North Carolina. She teaches at Mayland Community College, presents on-farm workshops and tries to keep the knowledge and culture of the Appalachian Mountains and her Native American roots alive and thriving by seed saving, crafts, canning/preserving, making cheese (using goats’ milk), growing and grinding corn, making soap and much more.