Yesterday a reader wrote, “You make it sound easy to catch a swarm of bees . . . Is it?” The answer depends on where it lands.
When a European swarm first leaves a hive—whether it is an absconding swarm or a reproductive swarm—it usually lands somewhere nearby. It seems that the colony regroups while the scout bees go out and try to find a suitable location for their new home. This new location is probably going to be some distance away from the first—nature’s way of assuring the density of bees is not too great in any one place, or to assure future mixing of the gene pool.
If you are lucky enough to find this first re-grouping of bees, and it is not too far up, it is fairly easy to catch. The bees are not defending honey stores, not defending brood, and not defending a home so they are relatively docile. You can take a wooden box or a cardboard box and set it under the bees, clip off the branch where they cling, and lay it in the box. A few will fly around, but most will stay together. Quickly cover the box and take it to a hive.
Other people lay a sheet on the ground and place a box on its side on top of the sheet. Once the bees are cut down they will quickly go for cover in the box, but only on a warm and sunny day. If the swarm is on a fence or hanging on an eave, you can slide your hive tool between the swarm and the structure and the bees will drop with a heavy thud into a waiting box.
Although you don’t have to actually find her, you need to make sure you have the queen. You can tell if she’s there by the way the bees behave. Some bees will fly around in a small cloud during all the confusion but, given some time, they will settle down and form a new cluster around her.
After bees swarm they will stay in the temporary cluster anywhere from 15 minutes to several days. Three years ago I had a swarm land high up in a bigleaf maple. I had to use binoculars to see it, so there was no way I was going to catch it. Just after the bees settled into a tight cluster the weather changed. It rained, and blew, and rained some more. I watched that cluster thrash around on a branch for six days of wind and rain. I was sure it would die. On the seventh day, the sun came out. By the time I checked the bees were gone. I later learned that a state employee had seen a swarm that very day at a nature preserve about a quarter mile from my house. I hope they made it—I’ve never seen such perseverance.
Hiving a swarm that has already started a new home is more difficult, but if you find one that recently left its hive and isn’t too high up, you have a good chance of scooping it up with little trouble.