Saturday, February 13, 2016

SWARM TRAPS by beekeeper Jack

EDITOR'S NOTE: At the last club meeting there was a discussion on trapping swarms.  To provide this information to club members that could not attend, beekeeper Jack agreed to write a short article on swarm trapping.  Thank you, Jack

Swarm Traps

To begin with, I want to make it clear that we are not referring to catching a swarm hanging on a limb. 

The swarm trap is a box/hive that is sitting in a tree waiting for a swarm to come along and move in.  As with many things, that is an over simplification of how, when, where and how much. 

With the increasing price of package bees and the problem of obtaining them nowadays, the swarm trap has become a very useful tool that every backyard or sideline beekeeper should consider.  Not only that, but it’s fun and adds to the hobby in more ways than one.

There are a couple of types of swarm traps that are sold, one being the cone that looks like a large flower pot with a hole in the bottom.  While this can and does serve as a swarm trap, it has one large disadvantage.   When a swarm takes up residence in one of these units, they do what all swarms want to do and that is to make wax.  Current regulations state that all hives must have removable frames.  Thus you have to cut those combs from the inside of the trap and transfer them to  frames, to be placed in a Langstroth  or top bar hive.  Anyone that has removed a swarm from a house etc. will tell you that this is not a good way to introduce yourself to a colony that has just called the swarm trap their new home.

Now, on to a little psychology of the honey bee. 

To coin a phrase “bee’s do two things, they make bees and honey”.  When the word has gone out in the hive and the process of swarming has begun, unless steps are taken, this hive is going to do its own style of split – the swarm.  At the time of swarming this group of bees has no idea where it’s going to go, except out.  Often the swarm goes not far from the apiary and will alight in a tree or some other structure.

Within this mass of bees we have the mature forager bees.  Their main job to that point has been to bring in nectar and pollen from the area.  Can you imagine the area that they have covered in a 2-3 mile radius of the hive ?  Well,  after swarming many of them have a new job, and that is to be a scout and find a suitable place to establish a new home. (UPDATE - The most recent edition of American Bee Journal reports that only 10% of the scouts were foragers – not sure what the previous job was of the other 90%).  Hundreds will fly out looking, checking every nook and cranny and going back to places that they have been before in their travels.   When they find a place that interests them, they will fly around it, walk on it, smell it, and check it out.  Not just one scout, but many.  When they find a place that looks good, they will go back to the swarm, and like most democracies, take a vote.  Majority wins !

Over simplification, you bet.  But you get the picture.

I give you this information, so you can understand the process the honey bees go through.  They are a complex insect and with a little understanding, will allow you to follow some of the steps that I am going to show you on the mechanics of swarm catching.  I don’t profess to be an expert, but have had success catching swarms.

Swarms like a certain amount of room.  Totaling filling the bait trap with frames should be avoided, so the bees will think there is room to grow.  I use all 5 frame nucs for my swarm traps.  One deep and one medium.   My traps are hand made boxes with simple lap joints in the corners; not dove tail joints like in most factory built boxes.  Therefore most amateur carpenters have the necessary skills to make one.  

NOTE: Although this picture shows the deep on the bottom and medium on top, I will be building future traps with the medium on the bottom and deep on top.

                                 Entrance disc; also showing screen (hardware cloth) on the inside

The entrance hole can be in front or on the side.  I like to position the hole on the bottom, since bees like to build comb from the top down.  The open space on the bottom is also an attractant, since a swarm is looking for a certain amount of space.  So I place the deep frames in the upper medium box.  They extend down into the deep box, but leave the open void.  

                                            Here you can see the big void below the frame.

I put in two old drawn brood frames, plus 3 open frames with wax or starter strips.  
Inline image
Ventilation is important, especially when you close the front cover (disc) to move a captured swarm to a new area.  I put two 1" diameter holes on the back of the trap.   I cover both the ventilation and entrance holes with screen to keep out unwanted critters.    The screen on the entrance holes is placed on the inside of the box in order to not block movement of the entrance disk.   NOTE: The screen on the entrance hole is 1/4 inch hardware cloth, which bees can easily pass through.  The screen on the back must be smaller; such as house screen or 8 wires per inch screen.  Otherwise the bees will use the ventilation hole as another entrance/exit. 

A bracket in the back is useful if you are hanging the trap from a limb or on the side of something.

I’m using regular hive staples to join the two supers, but you can use lathe and dry wall screws just as well.

This year I will be reversing the deep and the medium supers. With the present system,  I have to remove the frames of bees and transfer them to my regular deep or another nuc.  By putting the deep on top with the frames, you can just remove the medium and put a nuc cover and a nuc bottom board on the  nuc deep and let them set up their new home.  No need to transfer frames or disturb the bees at all.  As the colony grows, you just add another deep or transfer them to a regular brood chamber.  You can then transfer whenever you want.   You will be surprised how fast a five frame nuc grows.

The medium super on the bottom will provide space that the scouts are looking for.   The entrance hole  can be in front or on the side.  The hole in the entrance is a 1” hole with ½” hardware screen on the inside to keep out the unwanted visitors, such as birds, squirrels etc.  I also put a rotating disk over the entrance hole, which can be closed at night after a swarm is caught or went transporting.

You should put the bait boxes out the beginning of May, just before the flowering crab, apple and plumb trees start to blossom.   Many of the experts will say that the hive needs to be at least 10 feet in the air. I have not found that you need them that high.  I use a step ladder to place the swarm trap, usually in the crook of the tree.  Safety is a concern.  Remember that if you catch a swarm, you also have to take it down, and now it will be heavier than when you put it up there.

Place the opening of the hive to the south or east.  Placement can be along fence lines, or in the flowering trees themselves.

 I use a product called “Swarm Commander”.  This is a commercial product that smells like lemon grass and has a blend of oils that supposedly emulates the nasonov (come hither) pheromone.  Many of the commercial company’s also sell queen lore or lemon grass essential oil which also works well.  The smell of the old drawn brood comb also acts as an attractant.

A word of caution on scenting a swarm trap.  Don’t over-due it.  With the product swarm commander, just use a couple squirts.  Lemon grass can also act as a deterrent if used in excess.

I usually re-bait once a week and watch for activity.  On any given day there are usually a few bees checking it out.  When they are serious about finding a new home, there will be dozens of scout bees looking your swarm trap over.  When they make that final move, your trap will be covered in bees and the entrance will look like bees are being poured into the hive.  It’s quite the sight!

The real plus side to this type of trap is – if you only occasionally check on the trap,  and the bees move in, don’t worry about it. They have plenty of room to start their new hive and you can move them on your time line.

The bees that you are catching are survivor bees that have gone through a winter.  They are bees that were from an established local hive or a feral colony.  Local package bees are $135 for three pounds.  The swarm that you are catching is at least three pounds and hasn’t had to ride from California.

Have fun and happy trapping!

Grandpa Jack’s Bees

EDITOR's NOTE: If you have any questions for "Grandpa Jack" please enter them as comments to this article.  I will pass them on and get you answers.


Gerard Schubert said...

Thanks Jack. Due to your sharing about this topic at the meeting I am inspired to attempt to trap swarms this May/June. I have 2 sites lined up thus far. And thanks for taking the time to write this article.

I'm currently reading Honeybee Democracy by Tom Seely which is dedicated to the dynamics of swarming. Intriguing. Between that and The Buzz about Bees I have learned that we are dealing with a very sophisticated creature. I'm not so sure that I'm keeping bees or that they're just agreeing to stay.

Fred Ransome said...

If you to YouTube and do a search for "honeybee swarm trap" you will find many videos showing use of box type and the pot type swarm traps.

Jodi said...

Great article dad!! Your bees are lucky to have you watching over them, and my boys are lucky to have a beekeeping grandpa!