CATCHING A PRIMARY SWARM
This rough guide will focus solely on what happens after a swarm leaves the building…
We can divide swarms into two main types. A primary swarm usually contains the mated queen from the colony, she has been dieted to enable flight but will start laying again within days of being rehomed. A secondary swarm tends to be smaller and will often contain a virgin queen, these can be as small as a couple of handfuls of bees. A hive may produce multiple virgin swarms in fickle weather. To keep things brief here though, we will assume a primary swarm with a mated queen…
The bees in a swarm have filled their honey stomachs prior to leaving the parent colony, they exit the hive and mill around waiting for the queen to leave the hive and settle somewhere nearby. Once she has landed, they cluster in a dense ball, often a single mass, but sometimes broken up over two or three branches. From this cluster scout bees come and go, looking for new accommodation to relocate to, such as a hollow tree or a small hole allowing access to a wall cavity.
A swarm can be gathered after it has clustered, ideally by offering up a sack or box under the mass of bees and giving them a nudge to dislodge them from their perch. These are the swarms that dreams are made of… in reality they will often gather in those hard to reach places, high branches, spikey bushes and generally inaccessible areas!
If you are able to snag part of the swarm, place the box with the door open on the ground. If the queen is in your part of the swarm, the bees will pheromone to call the others to join them. You may even see them ‘trooping’ like soldiers towards the new barracks. Preferably when the hive is tucked up for the night it can be relocated to its new place, the usual rules for moving a hive don’t apply in this case as the bees seem to accept the need to reorientate themselves.
As a swarm-collecting beekeeper we must be inventive, well-prepared and willing to take risks but also ready to cut losses. As appealing as a free colony of bees may seem, they are never worth damaging yourself for. Beware the unstable ladder! In spring we never know when the phone will ring to inform you, the beekeeper, that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (or hanging in a fruit tree).
Be prepared, keep a swarm box on hand. This could be a nuc box or a full single, but please, please ALWAYS use foundation when the swarm is not from your own hives to minimize disease risk.
BORING BIT - An AFB infected swarm can transport spores in the honey they are carrying. If they are housed on comb they can deposit this infected honey which can then be fed to larvae and propagate the disease. If they are put on to foundation they will consume the honey they are carrying to produce wax for combing and minimize the risk of spreading the disease to developing larvae.
Once happily housed on foundation the colony will work double time to comb frames and build stores. After they have settled, a quiet look through to assess your newfound treasure can be really useful. A visual check for varroa is a good idea, as this may have contributed to them leaving the last place.
As they become a fully functional colony with a territory, check their behaviour and that the brood is healthy and strong.
A ‘swarm queen’ does not necessarily need to be replaced, there are a range of reasons for a swarm – swarming is not a sign that the queen was in any way defective, quite the opposite; she would have been killed and superseded if that was the case. So give her a chance and see how she goes…