Swarming is a bit of a dirty word in the bee world, after all, swarming is the last thing you want to occur in your hive – but what is a swarm trap and how do you use them?
Put simply, a swarm trap is a container designed to attract a swarm of bees. The bees make their home in the container temporarily, allowing you to catch them. You then have new bees, which you can integrate into your apiary.
When you catch swarming bees, you are getting free bees to an extent. There are some surprising benefits to this, beyond it being cost-effective. Of course, catching swarming bees requires a swarm trap.
Why Do Bees Swarm?
Bees swarm for two basic reasons. The first is overcrowding. Bees have an ideal number of bees for the amount of space in the hive. If there are too many bees for the amount of space provided, the bees will swarm. Half the bees will leave the hive, which gives the remaining bees plenty of space.
The other reason bees swarm is because the queen is old, sick, or weak. When the queen weakens, the amount of pheromones she produces drops. These pheromones are a signal that all is well within the hive, and the bees should remain where they are.
If the pheromone levels drop, it signals a problem. The bees will then swarm, just as they would with overcrowding.
This is likely because the signal is the same for both issues. If the hive is overcrowded, the queen’s pheromones are diluted due to the number and compaction of the bees. If the queen becomes weak or sick, the pheromones also decrease.
The bees are programmed to swarm when the queen’s pheromones drop, regardless of the reason for the drop.
If they swarm, half the bees will leave the hive, along with the queen. The remaining bees will raise a new queen before the swarm occurs. This allows the bees to split into two separate colonies.
Building a Swarm Trap
You can build a swarm trap from scratch. For this you’ll need a saw, plywood, wood glue, and finishing nails. If you want to cut down on the construction, you can use an old hive box.
You can use a 42-liter, 10-frame Langstroth deep hive box, or an 8-frame deep box, which is 35.5 liters. The 8 frame box has the advantage of being easier to handle, and it requires fewer frames than the Langstroth box.
If you happen to have old or slightly damaged hive boxes, you can use them to create your swarm traps. This has the added advantage of having scents, wax, and propolis inside, which will make it more attractive to swarms.
In this case, you’ll only need to create a cover, top, and hanging platform. You’ll modify the box to create an entrance as well.
You can paint the box if you wish. This doesn’t really matter to the bees, but it will help the trap last longer in the elements. A well-built trap can last for years with proper care.
Bees do not like red and black, so it’s best to avoid these colors. If you are concerned about theft or vandalism, you may want to paint the traps in camouflage to help disguise them.
Buying a Swarm Trap
If you don’t have the time or tools to build your own swarm trap, they can be purchased on Amazon or Etsy. They are a bit more expensive than building your own, but many people find it well worth it.
There are two basic types of swarm traps you can purchase. The first, and least expensive, is a trap made from wood pulp or cardboard. These will likely only be good for one year, which makes them more expensive in the long term.
The other issue with this type of swarm trap is that it doesn’t house transferable frames. This makes transferring the bees to your hive more difficult. You’ll need to cut the comb and transfer it to your frame with rubber bands.
The other type can be made from wood or plastic. They typically come with frames. The frames are prepared with foundation, beeswax coating, and lure. This can be a good option if you don’t have old hive boxes to convert.
When to Place a Swarm Trap
Bees typically swarm during the late spring or early summer. However, the climate in your area makes a big difference. Swarming can occur as early as February in Florida. In New York, swarming typically occurs between May 15th and June 15th.
The best way to get a better idea of when bees will swarm in your area is to talk to other beekeepers. You can also monitor swarms for a year or two to get a concrete idea of when you can expect a swarm.
It’s most common for bees to swarm in the morning or afternoon on clear days. However, they can swarm at any time of day.
Obviously, you’ll want to place swarm traps before bees begin swarming. However, the traps do take a little effort to maintain, so you don’t want to place them too early. It’s best to place swarm traps in early spring when you notice your bees becoming more active.
Keep in mind that the swarm will need time to create stores for winter. This can be problematic if you trap them late in the year, particularly in cooler climates with harsh winters.
Baiting a Swarm Trap
There are a few aspects to baiting a swarm trap. You’ll want to make the trap as attractive as possible to bees. The scout bees will inspect the trap, and decide if it’s a suitable home for the colony.
You don’t need a full complement of frames in your swarm box. In fact, providing a little open space can make it more inviting to the bees. However, without a full-frame box, the frames may be unstable or move around.
You’ll want some foundation, but not too much. If the frames are fully filled with foundation, it makes the trap seem less spacious. It’s similar to a house. When you see a home with minimal furnishings, it looks very spacious. If the same space is crowded with furniture and knick-knacks, the space appears much smaller.
It’s best to place a strip of foundation to provide the bees with a starting point. This is all you need.
Just like foundation, bees need some comb. Again, you don’t want to overcrowd the trap, either. It’s best to provide two partial frames or one full frame of comb. If you choose a full-frame of comb, put it in the very back row of the trap. This helps give the trap a more spacious appearance.
Darker and older brood comb seems to work the best for attracting bees.
However, adding comb isn’t always a good idea. If pests like wax moths are common in your area, an unattended comb may become infested with them.
You can help prevent wax moths by freezing the comb prior to use. If there are any wax larvae in the comb, they will die during the freezing process. You can use a freezer for this purpose, or simply allow the comb to winter outside in freezing temperatures.
You’ll need a lure for your swarm trap as well. This is what initially attracts the bees to your trap. Without a good lure, the best trap set-up is essentially pointless. The perfect home for bees does little good if you don’t entice them to check it out!
There are a few options when it comes to lures. Packaged swarm lures are the most expensive option. You’ll need one lure per swarm trap. However, these lures last for one month. If you don’t plan to visit your swarm trap weekly, this may be the best option.
Lemongrass Essential Oil
Lemongrass essential oil is the simplest and least expensive lure. You’ll simply need some pure lemongrass essential oil. It mimics the Nasonov pheromones, which are attractive to worker bees.
Lemongrass oil can be found in most major retailers, and it’s readily available online. It’s popular for aromatherapy, so it’s very easy to find.
Swarm Lure Oils and Sprays
Swarm lure oils and sprays come in two basic types. The first contains lemongrass essential oil, with other oils blended into the formula as well. Swarm Commander is the most popular in this category.
The other type contains synthetic Nasonov pheromones. It may also feature essential oils or other natural scents, but synthetic pheromone is the main attractant ingredient.
There’s lots of praise for both types of lures. It really comes down to your preference.
Tips for Using Lure
If you choose to use an oil, spray, or gel lure, you’ll need to reapply once a week. The smell will dissipate and weaken over time, making it less effective without reapplication.
You can use a cotton swab or a cotton makeup remover pad. Apply the attractant onto the cotton, and place it into the trap. You can also spay inside the cover and the opening. Don’t overdo it. You want the bees to smell the attractant, not be overpowered by it.
Where to Place a Swarm Trap
Where to place your swarm trap is also important. To have the best chance of attracting bees, you’ll need to choose the right location.
Technically, the best place for a swarm trap is 15 feet off the ground. However, attempting to retrieve the hive full of bees at 15 feet in the air likely isn’t your idea of a good time.
Unless you are comfortable using a ladder or have another method to boost you into the air, place the trap 6 to 8 feet off the ground. This is high enough for the bees, without being too high for you.
Bees are more likely to be attracted to a hive if it’s on or near a navigation line. Navigation lines include streams or canals, roads, tree lines, fence lines, and power lines. Essentially anything that creates a line the bees can follow is ideal.
Place the trap near a water source. This includes streams, ponds, and lakes. Place the swarm trap with the opening facing south. You’ll also want to hang it in a shaded or partially shaded area.
Moving Bees Out of the Swarm Trap
Of course, the ultimate goal for catching bees in a swarm trap is to move them out of the trap. It’s best to check your traps every 1 to 2 weeks. You don’t want to leave the bees in the trap for an extended period of time, so timing is important.
Two weeks is enough time to allow them to develop some brood, which should keep them there. If you leave them longer, the trap will get very heavy. The bees will also become very attached to their current location, which makes a move harder for them.
Once you’ve moved them to the area of the permanent hive, you may choose to leave the entrance open so they can familiarize themselves with it. You can also leave the entrance closed for up to 24 hours, to allow the bees time to settle down after the trip.
Give them about a day with the door open, and then move the frames into the permanent hive.
Final Thoughts on Swarm Traps
Swarm traps are less expensive than purchasing bee packets. It also allows you to get bees with good genetics. The bees that you catch will be bees that do well in your local area.
Swarm traps do require some work and effort, but it’s well worth it. It’s also highly enjoyable to catch your own swarm and incorporate it into your apiary.