I once described trapping out as a not-so-satisfactory way of removing a colony of bees from an enclosed structure or tree. Trapping requires much beekeeper input during a multi-step process. Even when things go well, a trap-out can leave a dead queen and her brood to decay, and may allow untended honey stores to ferment and drip inside walls, attracting vermin and making a horrendous mess. So why bother?
No matter how cumbersome it may be, sometimes a trap-out is the best answer to an otherwise sticky situation. If the colony is disturbing the public, frightening passersby, or intimidating children and service providers, the colony may need to be removed. But simply killing the colony may be unacceptable to the property owners, and leaving a nest inside a building or tree may attract another swarm.
The Price trap-out: a better bee trap
Several years ago, Naomi and Larry Price of Prineville, Oregon began doing trap-outs as a public service. Before beginning, they studied many different methods, outlining the pros and cons of each system. After much conjecture, they decided to use the Hogan Bee Trap as a model, but made various modifications in order to make the process more bee friendly.
When all goes according to plan, the entire colony — including the queen — will move into a new “section” of their nesting space, the one the beekeeper provides. The brood will all emerge and most, if not all, of the honey stores will be depleted from the old combs. In addition, the beekeeper will have a new queenright colony, ready to move to a new location.
Does it always work? Unfortunately, no. After trapping for a number of years, Naomi is convinced that not all colonies can be saved. She says it’s important to remember that no two colonies and no two locations are exactly alike. You need to be ready to alter any piece of equipment and any part of the procedure each time you set up a new trap.
Removing instead of harvesting
Naomi stresses that the original trap-out was designed for harvesting bees rather than removing the entire colony from its home. In a standard trap-out, the workers and drones are captured as they leave the hive, and little effort is made to recover the queen. Sadly, bees in the hive frequently starve because no food or water is coming in. In response, some young nurse bees are forced to leave the nest to begin premature foraging.
Since the standard system allows no returning foragers to access the nest, the job of removal is only partially completed, even after several weeks. Often, dead or dying bees and brood remain in the space after the beekeeper is finished, leaving an unpleasant mess for the homeowner.
With their revised system, Naomi and Larry are able to achieve the dual goals of removing the entire colony from its cavity, while keeping the bees healthy and the colony intact, queen and all. Success requires an understanding of honey bee biology and behavior. Using that knowledge, the beekeeper can minimize removal stress by selecting the best time to begin the trap-out, and can incorporate processes that use the bees’ instinctive behavior rather than brute force.
By timing the Price trap-out to coincide with swarm season, the beekeeper can take advantage of the colony’s biological imperative to reproduce, nest, and raise brood. Instead of working against the bees’ instinct, you work with it, making the process less damaging to the bees.
The removal of the colony can be divided into four phases. The amount of time required for each phase will depend on the individual situation.
Phase I: Seal all extra entrances
Wild colonies often have more than one nest entrance, but those openings may not be obvious, especially at first. It pays to spend time watching the bees come and go to see if you can detect any alternate routes into the nesting cavity. Once you find the entrances, select one that is easy to reach to be the main entrance. If it is a long narrow entrance, reduce it to about 1 or 2 inches.
The next step is crucial: all additional access points must be sealed and darkened. Construction grade plastic garbage bags can be layered around the tree or structure, then stapled in place. In addition, seams should be covered in duct tape to block light from filtering in.
If the bees detect light, they will perceive it as a potential access point and begin to dig. Persistent foragers have chewed through layers of cloth, plastic bags, and duct tape. If this happens, you can staple wire mesh over the existing layers so the bees cannot break through. To further encourage the bees to use your preferred entrance, you can spritz a repellant like Fischer’s Bee Quick over the sealed access points, and use a pheromone lure such as Swarm Commander spray near the preferred entrance.
Older trees can have fissures in the surface that open into narrow spaces beneath the bark. These openings can provide alternate exits for enterprising bees, often at unlikely heights or locations. For this reason, it’s a good idea to wait a day or two before proceeding with the trap-out. This gives the bees an opportunity to adjust to a single entrance, and it gives you a chance to survey the tree for surprise openings.
Phase II: Extend the main entrance
Once you are confident the bees have only one entrance, and they’ve had a couple days to adjust to its location, the second phase can begin. Since you are trying to get the colony to move into a different cavity (your brood box), you need to extend their main entrance away from the tree or structure to a point where you will eventually place your brood box.
The distance to the brood box will be different in each trap-out, and the setup requires careful planning. Although the entrance extension must be able to reach the new location, you want to keep it as short as possible. If the extension is too long, the bees will resist using it and attempt to build a new entrance elsewhere.
The extension itself can take many forms, but it’s usually a wooden box or a length of flexible tubing. In either case, you need to place the extension over the entrance hole and connect it to the tree or structure. The type of connection will depend on circumstances, but in every case you need to make sure the bees can’t escape at the connection point.
If the bees are in a tree, you can connect the extension with screws or ratchet straps. If the surface is irregular, as in the case of tree bark, you can staple wire mesh around the edges and seal it with duct tape. Once again, a spritz of Fischer’s Bee-Quick at the connection point, and a spray of Swarm Commander at the new entrance, can help speed the transition.
Naomi has noticed the bees are more likely to accept the extended entrance when it is parallel with the ground and dark on the inside. If necessary, wrap flexible tubing with duct tape to keep out the light. If you are using a wooden box, make sure no light seeps through the joints. Once the extension is secured in place, wait another day or two for the bees to adjust, and stay alert for signs of an alternate entrance. When guard bees begin patrolling their new extended entrance, you are well on your way to acceptance by the rest of the colony.
Every setup and every colony is different. Sometimes the bees easily accept the changes and you can start Phase II several hours after completing Phase I. But don’t push it. If the bees are resisting the change, give them plenty of time to adjust. Otherwise, they may begin working overtime to construct a new and inconvenient entrance.
Phase III: Add a brood box
When the bees are happily using their new entrance, you can begin the third phase — adding a brood box. Think of it as an architectural addition. You added a corridor leading to their front door and now you will add a new room. It’s an upgrade, of sorts. You just need to convince the bees of that.
Before going further, you must build scaffolding or a shelf that will support the new brood box. The beekeeper needs easy access to the box, and the box must be secure enough that it won’t be toppled by wind or animals. Once the scaffolding is safe and secure, you can begin work on the brood box.
Step One: First, build a small box that will fit inside the brood box. This small box needs to have an opening on each end so it acts like a vestibule — a small room leading to a much larger room. The back of the vestibule will fit over a hole in the back of the brood box where one-inch tubing from the original cavity will lead bees into the vestibule. The front of the vestibule will lead to a removable funnel.
Step Two: Drill a one-inch hole in the back of the brood box and securely fasten the vestibule over the hole. Attach the plastic funnel over the front opening of the vestibule, making sure the funnel can be easily removed.
Step Three: With the vestibule and funnel in place, mount the brood box on the scaffolding and connect the extended tree entrance to the brood box with the one-inch flexible tubing. The tubing should extend into the vestibule for about an inch to ensure it stays in place. If the tubing is clear, wrap it in duct tape to keep out light.
Step Four: You must also provide a front opening in the brood box, which can be the regular opening above a bottom board or a drilled hole. This will be the bees’ new entrance. The funnel becomes a one-way trap that allows the bees to leave the original cavity but does not allow them back in. Add several frames of drawn comb to the brood box so the bees have a convenient place to build their new home.
Step Five: Check the box after 24 hours. You should have workers actively storing pollen and nectar in their new quarters. If bees are not coming through the funnel, remove it for a day or two to let the bees adjust. Also check the inside of the funnel and vestibule for any obstruction, such as a pile of dead bees, before dropping it back in place.
Phase IV: Waiting for the queen
Leave the colony alone until you have at least two frames with bees covering both sides. At that point, you can introduce a frame of open brood (without adult bees) into the box. Once the brood is introduced, nurse bees will begin caring for the young.
Next, one of two things will happen. If all goes according to plan the old queen will leave the original hive to investigate. The theory here is that when the queen detects the scent of brood that is not her own, she will seek to discover who is laying brood in her nest. Once she goes through the funnel, she can’t go back. Instead, she will join the newly-formed nest.
Sometimes it will take a few days or a week before you have enough bees to care for a frame of brood. At other times, no brood will be necessary because the queen will have already joined the rest of her colony. Remember, the queen is not leaving her hive, she is merely checking out the new addition and behaving like a normal queen.
In the meantime, nurse bees continue to care for the brood in the original nest until it all emerges and joins the queen in the new addition. At that point the trap-out is complete.
A warning about swarms
Since trap-outs are attempted during swarm season, a swarm can happen at any time. We all know what that looks like: a tsunami of bees suddenly pours from the hive entrance in an unstoppable wave. But in a trap-out, the entrance is long and the passage narrow. If obstructions impede their way, bees can get trampled instead of going with the flow.
For this reason, Naomi stresses that connections should be kept uniformly narrow without abrupt changes in diameter where bees could become trapped. Remember, too, that bees perform better when the passageways are kept horizontal with the ground and short as possible.
All done but the clean-up
As part of the Price trap-out process, don’t forget to remove your mess, including plastic, tape, staples, and scaffolding. If the bees were in a tree, the cavity can be treated with Fischer’s Bee-Quick and then screened with wire mesh. Holes in structures should be sealed temporarily until the homeowner can make arrangements for repair.
Naomi and Larry do trap-outs free of charge, but they enlist the help of master beekeeping students or other local beekeepers during the process. For their efforts, the helpers get to see the system in action and are given the newly extracted colony. On the occasions when homeowners insist on paying for the service, they are directed to a honey bee non-profit of their choice.
Last summer, I was able to see a Price trap-out in action. A swarm had taken up residence in a beautiful old tree in the patio of a residential home in Bend, Oregon. The tree was within several feet of the back door, and although the homeowners wanted the colony removed, they didn’t want it harmed.
When I first saw it, the trunk was wrapped in plastic, the entrance extended, and the bees were calmly going about their business. In the evening, when the bees were inside, we went back and added the brood box. The next morning, moving day would begin and the bees would get a first look at their new living quarters. With any luck, there would be no bee left behind.
Honey Bee Suite