bee stories

How sparkling clean are your bait hives?

Beekeepers have dozens of rules about what honey bees like or don’t like, and what honey bees need or don’t need. Many of these rules seem logical in human terms, at least superficially. But problems arise because honey bees don’t know about these rules and, in truth, they don’t give a rip.

Humans talk to one another as if they know all about bees, but they never actually talk to the bees. This is unfortunate, because we humans assume honey bees will like the same things we like, an idea that gets everyone discombobulated.

Housing is a personal thing

Take housing, for example. This past spring I set up eight swarm traps. I had fewer colonies than normal, so I had lots of empty equipment laying around. I set up three flower-pot shaped swarm traps in trees and established five empty hives as bait hives.

To do this, I put a bottom board on a hive stand, inserted the varroa drawer, and added a deep brood box with ten drawn frames—used but in reasonably good condition. I added an inner cover, an entrance reducer, and a lid. Lastly, I spritzed the entrance with Swarm Commander and walked away.

Some years the bees choose the tree traps, some years the bait hives. About half are in the sun and the rest are in the shade. And while some are twelve feet up, others are at ground level. I like to give them choices.

The conventional wisdom for swarms

Now, conventional wisdom says bait hives must be a certain height, face south or southeast, get direct sun and so on. I find none of this is true. After years of trapping swarms, the bees’ selection of bait hives appears random from my perspective except for one detail: sun exposure. In all my beekeeping years, I’ve never had a swarm select a hive in direct sun.

That seems to surprise people but, if you think about it, bees in nature are fond of tree cavities. Tree cavities—no surprise—are found in trees. Those trees have leaves that make shade and therefore most tree cavities are shaded. So dah. Put your traps in the shade if you want to catch honey bees.

Late in March, I set up as many bait hives as I had equipment for, except one. One empty hive was in deep, dark shade. The frames—two boxes of mediums—were covered with thick mold that reeked, and the combs were darker than I like for re-use. I glanced inside then closed it up, making a mental note to tear down that hive, bleach the interior, replace the frames, and paint the outside. In short, it needed a complete overhaul. Later.

Taking the bait hive

In late April, as I was preparing to travel for a few days, I noticed dozens of scouts on the bait hive behind my house. I know a bevy of scouts doesn’t mean anything except there’s probably a swarm in the area. They check many places, so the simple presence of scouts doesn’t promise anything.

After I left town, my husband never texted me with a swarm update, so I knew the scouts ultimately rejected that location. I forgot about the whole incident until I checked my hives a few days after returning home. Then, much to my astonishment, I found a huge colony. I actually heard it before I saw it, and the sound drew me to that disgusting heap of mold and mildew in the deep shade of the damp hill.

The swarm had rejected the gorgeously clean, sweet smelling, well-kept, color-coordinated hive that basked in the sunshine, in favor of a dark trash heap. What is with them?

Sharing the space

I allowed the new colony to establish itself a few more days before doing an inspection. I figured I could probably pull out some of those frames and replace them with newer ones. Once I gathered equipment, tools, and replacement parts, I went to work.

But the surprises just kept coming. Beginning on one end, I went through the frames. The mold was nearly gone, and the hive already smelled more like bee than mold. The colony was enormous and seemed to be flourishing. But when I got to the final frames, I freaked.

The spaces between frames eight and nine, nine and ten, and ten and the sidewall were stuffed with a fluffy green mouse nest. It was all lovingly fashioned from forest mosses that were still fresh and pliable. At that point I pulled off the top box only to find it was a double-decker! A two-story, triple frame mouse condo! And did the bees care? Not one iota. Bees on the right seven-and-a-half frames, mice on the left.

Bait hives are personal

The nest was massive. Even after I tossed the frames, I was left with many fistfuls of loose moss. I kept thinking, “What does this tell you?” All those adages about mold and mice, sun and shade, old and new, dark and light—none of it means anything. Just because we wouldn’t chose a dark, dank, moldy domicile teeming with rodents and reeking of mold doesn’t mean that bees think the same way.

It’s been three months now. The colony is quite busy and packing away a crop of honey. The bees have a gentle disposition and play well with others. You would never guess they are the newcomers. Sometimes it’s not what we don’t know that stymies us, but what we think we know that just ain’t so.*

Honey Bee Suite

A not-so-lovely bait hive: it's not perfect, but it's home.

A not-so-lovely bait hive: it’s not perfect, but it’s home.

*That’s a quote, I think. No clue where it came from.

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.


  • That quote is usually attributed to Twain, with no apparent justification, and occasionally to Will Rogers. A stronger contender is Josh Billings, who I admit I never heard of.

  • You might be thinking of “It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So.” See

    I’ve never set out bait hives – just not emotionally ready for some reason. This year I had a small top bar hive (2 feet) with old comb sitting on a picnic table in mostly full sun. A swarm moved in. I have been moving it 2-3 feet every week or so for a while now to eventually get it in my apiary. I hope to have it there by September.

  • Sometimes even in the Sun!
    Hey Rusty..this spring I had about 5 westerns with frames stacked up on an upside down lid (to keep the mice out) and a telescoping lid on top. Full, big sun! There was a few frames with bits of honey in the corners that had been getting robbed out for weeks, but I noticed one day a much higher level of activity. Upon inspection, sure enough a swarm had moved in…the telescoping cove had some offsets in the corner for moisture control on the inside and gave the girls just enough to get in…there were no other entrances available to them…and a little like your story, 3 other double deeps that had been cleaned up and waiting for captured swarms…they do what they want and sometimes we just aren’t listening!…..thanks for all you do!

  • Hi Rusty,

    Do you protect your swarm traps from bears like you would a full hive? Especially the ones at ground level? I built some off a design from “Brink’s Bees” on YouTube. I used a couple dark wax drawn frames in them along with swarm lure. I have only set out one in a tree because I can check on it every day but I worry about the others. Thanks!

    • Jessica,

      I don’t protect my hives or my traps from bears. I know I should—we certainly see enough bears—but it’s just too complicated on the steep embankments where my hives are.

  • I like reading about your traps. What are the flower pot traps? I always read 9′ up in a tree is idea. Every year I set up 2-3 swarm traps in old nucs or brood boxes with used frames. I buy the pheremone packs and nail them to the inside of the lid, put the traps on other properties in the shade, some in part sun. I also rub them all over with lemon balm. I have attracted no swarms. Should I just keep trying or should I vary my options like you do? Just wondering.

  • Hi Rusty, Thank you for this Awesome website. I am in my seventies and have 2 colonies, both double deep, and am finding them very heavy and hard to move for mite treatment and inspections. I am thinking about changing to a single deep (bottom) and 2 medium boxes for brood, but I am not sure how or when to make the changes. It seems like it will be complicated with the different size frames, brood, and bee food in the removed deeps. I am new to bee keeping and don’t have any extra built up foundation / frames for the mediums, only new stuff. I have considered the long hive style, but I have a lot invested in the 3 hives ( one is empty, new ) plus extra stuff ( feeders ) in the garage. Any suggestions on if, how, and when to attempt this? I appreciate any advice given. thank you, David H.

  • Hi Rusty,

    First, I LOVE your site and you are my “go to” for anything I’m trying to research. I google whatever term I’m studying concatenated with “honey bee suite” to see what you say about the subject as my first stop.

    Here, I am wondering if there is a bit of a misunderstanding about this research about what bees generally prefer when choosing a home. “Prefer” as I understand it means the characteristics bees more often choose vs. ALWAYS choose. I’m a big reader of Dr. Thomas Seeley also, who I believe is the primary researcher on this topic and has written about it extensively in his “Honey Bee Democracy” book. He has a new really interesting book out, by the way called “The Lives of Bees.” But in “Honey Bee Democracy” he even explains that in different iterations of his trials, bees do choose homes that are different than the preferred and for reasons that are sometimes understood and sometimes not.

    In my humble opinion, the way we design swarm traps and/or bait hives (40 liter cavity size, 2 square inch entrance, older comb, 12ish feet up in the air, in the shade, etc. etc.) is simply the most LIKELY to be chosen by the bees. I too have had bees take up residence in boxes that are not to this specification and I’ve had boxes that were to specs that the bees simply rejected year after year for whatever reason. But in general, I do find the specs to be what the bees “prefer.” For example, I caught 6 swarms this year using 3 traps designed to Seeley’s specification. My neighbor did about the same, put out 4 traps I helped him design to the Seeley specs and he caught 5 swarms.

    I guess I just offer this…. if we’re going to take the time to put out a box or 2 to catch bees, we increase our chances if we build it using the best research available on what bees tend to pick (not always but usually) when left up to their own to pick a new home.

    Finally, on the mold point… I did some interesting research on this as I inherited 600 frames of old comb and I was trying to figure out what to do with it all. I learned that in nature, bees re-occupy the old nests of vacated bees in bee trees. Bees have therefore evolved to efficiently clean up old comb of mold, wax moth debris (which have a fascinating function in cleaning out disease from old comb). It’s also probably why they can co-exist/deal pretty well with other creatures that naturally live in forests and trees (ants, roaches, mice). I really do like the idea of asking the question, “What do bees living in the wild in bee trees do?” and then going from there with my approach to beekeeping.

    Anyway, my ideas for your consideration. I do adore you, your methods and philosophy on beekeeping. I want to be more like you! You are an inspiration and have helped so many beekeepers like me. Thank you for all you do and I’m interested in your ideas here!


  • Swarms always appear just before one goes on vacation or while on vacation, ha ha. I had some very experienced French beekeepers tell me swarms will normally go downhill from where they bivouac. I set up my traps down range from my apiary and caught a nice big fat swarm in a shady location this past spring. Have you ever heard of swarms preferring to go downhill rather than flying uphill?

  • Here in Sydney, Australia, we are not allowed to use old brood comb in a bait hive (State Dept of Agriculture rule). I agree with this, as any comb I leave unprotected quickly attracts wax moths, who ruin the comb when they burrow through to get the protein from old brood cocoons. Foundation is less susceptible.

    You don’t have wax moth problems in the US?

  • Laura Knapp – Maybe you are using too much scent. I’ve read a few drops of lemon grass oil on a q-tip or cotton ball, put into an open plastic bag is all you need. In an open plastic bag to slow down how quickly the scent will go away. Refresh it every 3 or 4 weeks.

    Good Luck!

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