You Can Get Proactive and Put Yourself Around as a Swarm Catcher

When I began keeping bees at the turn of the century, the choice of hive here from the UK was National or WBC or, if you had larger ambitions, Commercial. The Langstroth was considered as unnecessarily American and anything made from straw was merely quaint at best, and at worst, a disaster waiting to happen. Now, less than 20 years after, we also possess the Warré, the horizontal top bar hive, the Lazutin, the ZEST along with other deep boxes, also for straw lovers, a few interesting variants on the skep. This has generated two new problems for the beginner: which hive to start with and the best way to convince bees into it.

In these days it was simple: the National was the go-to alternative because of its ubiquity. Those who enjoyed the expression of this WBC and weren’t put off by the extra work could still utilize the very same frames, albeit fewer of them. You paid around #25 for an overwintered nuc and roughly twice that to get a hive and in a flash, you were a new beekeeper.

Somehow, in an intervening couple of years, prices of nucs doubled and doubled again, and again, and costs of this woodenware also increased, such that there is presently a significant price to beginning in beekeeping. If you go down the conventional route: you can anticipate putting down around #500 for a hive with bees and basic apparel.

If you take the road less traveled and construct your very own top bar hive – horizontal or vertical – you can certainly save money on hardware, but now you have another problem: how to put bees into your hive, provided that a standard 5-frame nuc will not fit into your own odd-shaped box, and suitable nucs are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Once I began to teach beginners about top bar hives, we utilized a somewhat brutal technique that we called”crop and chop”, which entailed performing drastic and irreversible surgery on the paints and frames of a standard nuc to force it to match the trapezoidal type of a flat top bar hive. It worked reasonably well, but required a bee-proof covering over and about the de-framed bars and was significantly messy if there was a full-frame of brood to manage. A much better method needed to be discovered.

My regular advice was and still is – when you can, start with a swarm. Ideally, start with baiting a swarm directly into your hive, since this provides strong evidence that by opting to be there, they believe it high on their list of ideal homes and they are more likely to thrive than not. Swarms can be drawn to hives by baiting them with a few empty combs from a different (healthy) hive, rubbing wax and propolis around the woodwork, and by adding a few drops of my Magic Swarm Bait, which comprises one part geranium essential oil into two components lemongrass oil.

The fantastic thing about swarm baiting is that you can establish several boxes that are really only tiny hives – 10-12 pubs is fantastic for a TBH lure box – and set them in several different locations to multiply your chances of success. The not-so-great issue is that you’re relying on bees discovering that your boxes, which can be very likely in an area comprising a fair number of beekeepers, but progressively less probable the further you are away from civilization. If you’re more than just a couple of miles from different beehives or wild-living colonies, then your odds diminish exponentially (I guess that it follows the inverse square law: chances are inversely proportional to the square of this distance from the nearest apiary).

You can get proactive and put yourself around as a swarm catcher, which may produce a better outcome, providing you do not mind dealing with multiple inquiries about bumblebees under sheds, hoverflies masquerading as bees, and actual honeybees that have taken up residence in chimneys, attics, and walls. Not to mention wasps and hornets. With luck, at least once per season, you will be provided a football-sized, prime swarm, hanging out of the horizontal branch of an apple tree, handily at shoulder height. This is actually the one to put in in your flat top bar hive, by pouring it into the box as if it had been liquid, or operating it up a slope into your Warré. These bees are in excellent condition for you off to a fantastic start: filled with honey and excitement, they’ll get busy construction combs and all you want to do is watch in awe.

But supposing the season is passing you by and no more swarm has emerged. You desperately need to begin, and you’re looking at ads for nucs, which you guess are led by an imported queen. Or maybe a friend has bees in their National, which are looking like they’ve swarmed ambitions. How do you get bees out of frames to high bars without breaking through wood and brood? Is it possible?

Luckily, it is not only possible but quite simple to perform.

To get a standard’ top bar hive (using 17″ bars) you require temporary access to – or ownership of a National hive brood box comprising 5-8 good frames of bees and brood, with or without honey. This can be a nuc which you’ve purchased and placed into a full-size brood box, or it might be a friend’s hive that they don’t mind you playing with. (I must say that this operation can also be performed as explained using Langstroth or any other type of frame hive, provided the pubs in your TBH are the same length as the ones in the frame hive.)

The System is as follows:

Set the busy hive (the one containing your nucleus plus extra frames) in the specific place where your top bar hive will later stand, with its entrance facing in the path chosen to be likely to annoy you or your acquaintances.

Separate frames comprising brood into pairs and put a leading bar between each pair, restoring spacing into normal. (This is the reason why you start with less than a complete complement of eyeglasses )

Leave for 7-10 days, then carefully assess the pubs for combs. The bees will have attracted straight comb on each bar, into that the queen would have laid eggs, some of which may have grown to the pupal phase already. You may well discover the queen one of those new combs.

On a bright afternoon, proceed the occupied hive several paces in any convenient way, and place the TBH in its former place. You will notice returning foragers coming house, looking puzzled that their home has changed shape, but fast finding the new entry.

Gently move the newly-drawn top bar combs, with adhering bees, and place them side by side in the TBH, checking to see if the queen is about one of them. If she is, well and good. If not, then you need to locate her move her to the new hive, taking care that she doesn’t take flight.

Today you need to shake about half the bees in the frame hive into the TBH, including several bars on both sides of those already there. Place follower planks and close up.

Close to the frame, after incorporating new frames to fill the openings made by taking away the very best bars.

Now you’ve got a queen-right colony at your top bar hive, with foragers bringing in meals as if nothing has happened, along with a queenless colony at the National, with the tools to make themselves a brand new queen (check they have eggs and newly-emerged creatures ). Unless there is a leak on, I recommend you feed both colonies in this stage: one wants to construct comb, while another wants to draw make a queen.

The principle we’re exploiting here is that the ability of bees to go back to the exact point in space where they understand their house to be or to have been if they left to look for food. This can be used to move bees from any hive to some other, given the new box can be substituted for the aged. The additional measure of persuading them to construct appropriately movable combs in advance of the move makes the procedure simpler but is not essential. You might want to balance the populations in new and old colonies, which is where your decision for a beekeeper comes in to play.

Moving a colony out of frames into a Warré could be carried out by similar means, but you’d have to make some special eyeglasses and blank off the regions on either side, to prevent the comb from being constructed where it will not fit. An easier method – particularly throughout the build-up period – is to set the National brood box on top of a Warré box, with a plywood’mask’ between to reduce the aperture to 250mm and division boards in the National to prevent sideways expansion. The entrance should be below the lower box. Comb-builders will get active to allow down expansion, and if you put at least two boxes beneath the first, it is possible to leave the National in place until it becomes back-filled using honey. Down it, as the arrangement is inherently top-heavy.

A general principle that I found the hard way is it is no use placing a vacant box even one that contains starter strips of foundation – over an occupied hive. More likely than not, they will refuse to begin from the top and work down as you might expect, but will instead build up paints upward, and in all manner of uneven shapes – from the tops of the frames at the lower box. The resulting mess will take you some time and likely much cursing to deal with. Read about safely remove bees.

It may have happened to you that this procedure also has the effect of producing a nearly Varroa-free new colony because most of the mites will be sealed to brood cells in the framework hive. (You can work out for yourself how this could be accommodated as a mite control technique.) Conversely, it follows that you may be storing up a parasite problem on your framework hive, which might require dealing with before it becomes serious. The 3week period without a fresh brood will, nevertheless, play in your favor, because the mites have a diminishing number of brood cells to occupy and will be exposed to simple bio-mechanical treatments, including powdered sugar, as well as to the grooming task of the bees.