Beekeepers both anticipate and dread spring. While it’s the time for their bees to become active again, it’s also the time to make new colony purchases and lose bees to swarming.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however. There are multiple ways to get bees to move into new hives, including attractants or natural products such as lemongrass.
Read on to discover how to identify and swarms and how to attract bees to your empty hive.
What is Swarming?
Swarming is a natural occurrence when half, or all, of a bee colony decide to find a new hive. Characterized by the large amounts of bees clustered together, swarms gather together at a temporary place outside the hive until scout bees find a new home for them.
Swarming occurs when a hive is becoming overpopulated or has uninhabitable conditions.
When the reason is caused by overpopulation, half the bee population with queen leaves in search of a new hive to populate.
When uninhabitable conditions cause the swarm, the whole colony leaves together to find a new home.
How do I Find a Swarm?
While bee swarms are easy to identify, they aren’t always easy to find.
Look close to the mother hive.
If you already have hives, it’s much easier. Swarms usually don’t stray too far from their previous home as they try to conserve energy for the big move. So, if you feel like one of your hives is becoming crowded, begin looking around your hives during the right season for a swarm.
Look at the right time of year.
Swarms take place in spring so that the colony can produce enough supplies in their new hive for winter storage. Depending on the region, this usually takes place sometime between February – June.
Look for identifiable features.
Swarms usually have identifiable features that make them easier to find. First, as mentioned previously, they won’t be too far away from their mother colony. Second, they will usually swarm an open, dry, and safe area. This includes:
- Tree or shrub branches
- Open ground
- Building faces
Contact local resources.
Locating a swarm is exponentially harder if you don’t already have hives. One way to make it easier is by reaching out to local groups that may find one for you. Here are the best groups to give your contact information to:
- Local firefighters. Although usually not experienced with bees, local firefighters are often called to help with swarms around people’s homes.
- Local beekeeping club/beekeeping association. As local beekeeping groups are best-suited for handling these situations and giving advice on catching swarms, giving them your contact info is a great idea.
- Inform family and friends. Many people get swarms around their property during the spring and look for easy, cheap ways to get rid of them. Giving them to you is an excellent option!
Three Ways to Acquire Swarming Colony
Once you have established how to find a swarm, now is the time to plan what to do once you find one. It’s best to have a set plan and practice before acquiring a swarm. Although swarming bees are in their most docile phase, going in ignorant and unpracticed can leave you and the bees hurt.
The three best ways to acquire a swarm are:
- Catching the bee swarm.
- Attracting bees to a new hive naturally.
- Using attractants to attract bees to the new hive.
Catching a Bee Swarm
Nowadays, there are many online tutorials on how to catch swarming bees. Catching bee swarms can be quite rewarding and fun with the proper knowledge and tools.
- Bee brush
- Queen trap
- Pruning shear
- Lemongrass oil (an attractant)
- Light-colored tarp or sheet
- Protective gear, including bee suit, bee mask/veil, and leather gloves
- Breathable box
Steps to Catch a Swarm
- Put protective gear on. The first step when handling bees is to always put your protective gear on. Although some beekeepers wear little to no protective gear with their bees, doing so requires a lot of learning about the bee’s demeanor. Experienced beekeepers always wear gear when working with new bees.
- Spread a light-colored tarp or sheet on the ground and place the box on top of it. Make sure these are close to the swarm and in an easily accessible area.
- Try to locate the queen. If you locate, trap, and move the queen first, your job becomes a whole lot easier. Bees go where their queen goes, so they will slowly follow once she goes into the box.
- Gently move bees into the box. By grabbing clusters and/or using the bee brush, slowly move bees into the box. If you have already moved the queen, you only need to move a couple of handfuls of bees. From there, they will finish the migration.
- Close the box and leave entryways open for any stragglers. Some of the colony will inevitably be left out, especially given that the scout bees are actively looking for another home. If you leave holes for them to enter, they can join their colony.
- Leave the box until sundown. Make sure you’ve left your box in a safe, dry location and leave it there until dusk so any stragglers can find their way back.
- Close the box at night time. Once all bees are in the box, you can secure it. Use either tape, or a mesh swam bag to ensure bees won’t get out during the transfer.
- Transport swarm to a preferred location. There are many tips for transport, so read our other article on how to transport bees.
- Move swarm from box to new hive before morning. As commonly known, bees are busy workers and like to get a move on things. So, if you move the colony before morning, they will likely start to get to work preparing the hive the very next day.
Attracting Bees to a New Hive Naturally
Attracting bees to a new hive naturally doesn’t have high chances of success, as bees often need persuasion for populating a new hive. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! Follow these tips to attract a swarm to a new hive naturally.
- Lemongrass essential oil. Lemongrass smells like a queen, so worker bees are naturally attracted to it.
- Bait hive.
- Old frame(s) from a healthy hive.
Steps to Attract Bees to a New Hive Naturally
- Place bait hive in an ideal location. If your bait hive is in a swampy area with no flowers, bees will definitely not be attracted to it. However, if you place the hive in a high, dry area with afternoon shade, the hive is much more likely to attract bees. This location doesn’t have to be permanent, but at least somewhere the bees can live for a month or two.
In addition, placing the hive far enough from the old one will also increase the chances of the colony populating the new hive. The general idea is that the bait hive should be at least 650-1000 ft away from the active beehive.
- Put a solid floor on the bottom of the bait hive. While open mesh floors have become more popular to respond to the varroa mite problem, they aren’t a good idea for a bait hive. Bait hives should be as secure and “cozy” as possible, so bees can smell lemongrass and feel homey in the hive.
Once bees have been in the hive for a month or two, the solid floor can be replaced with an open mesh floor if needed.
- Rub lemongrass on the inside of the hive. As mentioned previously, lemongrass is a natural attractant for bees as its scent mirrors the scent of a queen bee.
- Place 1-2 old frames from an active beehive inside the bait hive. Bees are much more attracted to already-used hives as it proves their worth. Placing old frames in the hive will trick bees into believing someone was in there previously.
- Plant pollinator-friendly plants around the hive. To increase the likelihood of bees populating the hive, plant pollinator-friendly flowers around the hive. Great ideas for flowers include bee balm, purple coneflower, black-eyed susans, white wild indigo, marsh blazing star, and wrinkleleaf goldenrod. Plant flowers about 300 feet away from the empty hive, so that forager bees and scout bees can locate the new hive and communicate the opportunity to other colony members
- Wait. It takes a lot of time for bee scouts to inspect hives and other bees to swarm to new hives. Usually, it will take several weeks to months for new colonies to populate the bait hive.
Attracting Bees into Hive with Attractants
Aside from actively catching a swarming colony, using attractants is the easiest way to persuade bees to populate a new hive. Follow the steps below for the easiest, indirect way to obtain a new bee colony.
- Lemongrass oil
- Lemon balm
- Synthetic pheromones
- Bait hive.
- Old frame(s) from a healthy hive.
Steps to Attract Bees to a New Hive with Attractants
- Follow the steps above. All of the steps included in the natural method should be used in this method as well. The only difference between the two is that this one contains synthetic attractants to persuade the colony to populate the new hive.
- Rub beehive with beeswax, lemon balm, and lemongrass oil. Queen bees smell like lemon, and worker bees always follow the queen. If they believe a really smelly queen lives in the bait hive, they are very likely to populate it.
In addition, beeswax tricks bees into believing that a previous colony lived in the hive – something they really like for a prospective hive. Mixing the beeswax with lemon balm or lemongrass oil is the best technique.
- Rub inside of the hive with synthetic pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals that convey messages. Queen bees use pheromones to communicate several different messages to their colony. Rubbing pheromones inside the hive is another way to convince bees that the hive was previously occupied, thus making it more attractive. Synthetic pheromones can be purchased online or at a local beekeeping supply shop.
The New Colony has Moved into Hive, Now What?
Once you set up a bait hive, you should regularly check it to:
- Make sure other critters haven’t set up shop in the hive. Common invaders include ants, birds, and rodents.
- See if you’ve successfully attracted a new colony of bees.
Once bees have populated the new hive, certain protocols ensure they will stay.
Orient the bees.
Once a colony has set up inside the hive, you must make sure they successfully orient themselves to the new area. They are likely to try and return to their previous hive if you don’t. Common ways of orienting bees are:
- Block the entrance with local plants so that bees can enter in and out but need to crawl around plants first.
- Paint pattern near the entrance. You can paint a multicolored pattern near the entrance on the outside of the hive. Using greens, blues, and purples is probably best as bees are most attracted to these colors. The pattern acts as a unique landing pad for bees, orienting them to their new home. This is especially useful if you have multiple hives in the same area.
- Close entrance for a day. Especially if you catch a swarm, closing the entrance (while giving them supplemental food) allows bees to acclimate to the new smells of the area. Once released, they are much more likely to return to the hive.
Close entrance off to intruders.
Put burlap or other breathable material over the hive. Bees are in a vulnerable place when populating a new hive. They are simultaneously trying to create new broods, produce food for the colony, and build a winter food supply for the hive.
If other bees begin to steal honey or supplies from the hive, it may set the new colony up for failure. Placing a breathable fabric over the hive allows the bees to come and go, but dissuades other colonies and invaders from coming in.
Keep the hive in the same location.
While it may be tempting to move the hive to a better location, doing so will lead to your bees leaving the hive. Keep the hive in the same location for at least a month so that the bees build enough supplies to want to stay. From there, your bees are much less likely to swarm if you move the hive to a different location.
Wait to inspect the hive.
As stated above, bees are in a very vulnerable place while populating a new hive. If multiple inspections are performed soon after they move in, they are likely to move out. Especially if the bees are new to you, they will see you as a predator. Multiple visits from a predator is a great reason for bees to pack up and move again.
Wait at least 2-3 weeks until your first hive inspection to ensure bees feel confident and secure in their new home.
Purchasing new bee colonies can be a hassle and expensive, especially for new beekeepers. That is why many beekeepers are migrating towards capturing swarms as a way to populate their beehives.
While capturing a swarm can be intimidating, it’s by far the easiest way to get a new colony in your hive. However, you can also attract bees to your hive through natural and synthetic means. Following the steps above will make the process easy and smooth.