Apparently #FreeBees are a real thing! A daring attempt at capturing my first swarm using ladders, cardboard, and bedsheets… and integrating a new hive on to our homestead!
We woke up as usual on Saturday May 18th and enjoyed one of the first really warm days we’ve had this year in New England. Its been unseasonable chilly, so Brett and I wanted to be outside working in the sunshine all day. Apparently the bees felt the same thing – we saw our first swarm!
The first thing I heard was the buzzing – it was coming in the direction of the 4 beehives we already have so I didn’t think too much of it. Then I saw thousands of bees flying around the trunk of a dead tree in our front yard by the waterfall. About half of them were climbing on the trunk 15 feet off the ground, and the rest of them were flying erratically around. We’ve only been beekeeping for one year now and I had never seen anything like this before – but by the time they settled down on the tree and stopped flying around I knew… it was a swarm!
My first thought: “OH NOOOO one of my hives swarmed?!??” The swarm was on a tree about 50 feet from our regular beehives, so I assumed one of my hives had flown the coop, so to speak. I suited up and checked all 4 of our hives… and each seemed perfectly fine! I was checking for ‘missing bees’ which honestly, I probably couldn’t tell exactly, but all of the hives seemed pretty intact and normal. The 2 new hives we installed this April were happily building comb and the older 2 hives from last year looked awesome and more productive than ever. This was a new colony of bee wanderers!
Since I had never seen a swarm in real life before, I wanted to talk to the experts – I drove to Wood’s Beekeeping supply in Lincoln, RI (where we got our last 2 colonies from in April) and chatted through the process with them. Basically a swarm was free bees, and if I could catch them then I could keep them and give them a new home. All I would have to do is climb 15 feet up a ladder, place a cardboard box at the base of the tree, brush the bees into a cardboard box, make sure the queen was in the box so the swarm would follow her, and then transfer all bees to a hive.
Capture the swarm, they said… it will be fun, they said. In hindsight: EASIER SAID THAN DONE.
But I have a really nice ventilated suit, I don’t mind heights, and they had swarm kits ready for purchase at the store…. so…. what the heck!? I decided to go for it! I bought the swarm kit (and home honey supers for our other hives) and headed on home to suit up and get that swarm!
Let me be honest here- I REALLY didn’t expect it to work. Like at all. I bought the swarm kit because it had a deep hive body (which I totally needed for one of our new hives later in the season) so I knew it was get used. But I wanted to TRY for the swarm. And I had no expectations about my abilities to actually capture it.
When I got home, I told Brett of my aaamazing plan to capture the bees into a new hive, and I was so excited and ready to get it done. I ran to grab the cardboard box, some sugar water spray, and brought my equipment over to where the swarm was. Then I looked up. The bees were SO HIGH on the tree – 15 feet doesn’t seem too high, but when you’re about to climb a rickety ladder and anger a colony of thousands of bees…? That started to scare me. But I was so excited to try my first swarm capture (and let’s be real I already spent the money on the new hive) and if it didn’t work out well at least I tried.
It seemed like a win-win situation – these bees were looking for a hive and I wanted give them a new home and add on to our apiary! I went for it.
I suited up and Brett secured the ladder below the swarm – the bees were super docile at this point, none were flying around and they were just clustered around the tree trunk. I took my cardboard box and secured it against a branch about 12 feet down from the swarm, so when I brushed them, they would fall into the box. Easy peasy bee-sy.
The swarm was SO beautiful and amazing to see close-up! Thousands and thousands of bees were huddled and moving in a wave-like pattern around the tree, and it was awesome how calm they were. The swarm was wrapped around the tree trunk and some branches were in the way, so it was a little trickier than I thought it would be to ‘just brush them off’ as I was instructed. But I started brushing anyway!
The first brush was one of the scaaaariest things I’ve done in my life- I tried to separate as many of them as I could from the tree without hurting them. About a hundred bees fell into my box as planned… but since it was such a long drop down to the box, most of them took flight before falling and started to fly all around me. And tried to sting me. Luckily I have an awesome bee suit which I haven’t been stung through, so I tried not to panic too much. I could feel them pushing against my suit and for some reason it really smelled like bananas- I found out later that banana smell is a real scent from a type of bee pheromone. I brushed again and again hoping more bees would get into that cardboard box. It didn’t take long for me to realize the box was too far down for them to fall in to, and to actually capture the swarm I would need to bring the box up to their level so when they were brushed off the tree, they would land in the box.
I climbed down the ladder, got my cardboard box, and climbed back up with the box balancing on my shoulder. I (mustered all my courage at actually doing this again!) reached up and with a huge sweeping motion, brushed as much of the swarm as I could into the hive. The box was on my shoulder so I couldn’t see inside, but I could the weight of some bees going into the box and could feel them in there buzzing and vibrating – it felt like I got a good amount of them. I reached to do another sweep and-
I got stung.
Owwwww! A bee got me on my knuckles through my leather gloves, and thats when I decided maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. Being 15 feet high on a ladder, trying to re-house a swarm of bees, with nothing but a little beekeeping suit. If one could sting me through the suit, then more could! I was D O N E. I climbed down very carefully carrying the cardboard box full of the swarm on my shoulder as I decended. When I got down to the ground, I finally got to look in the box and saw that I had gotten quite a good number of bees in there – maybe about 20% of the swarm! Way better than I was expecting. I was hoping that the queen was in there, so the other bees would fly down to her. The only thing to do was wait and see.
I was pretty much tapped out at this point- if I didn’t get the queen in the box then that was it – I tried, had a good run, and was pretty proud I attempted this swarm capture at all. I sat to watch the cardboard box, and noticed something fascinating… more and more bees were flying down into it! I ran to tell Brett, and when we came back even more were in there! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing… the swarm was actually moving into my box!
After about 30 minutes, they were almost all in the box. I went to go get the swarm hive and put it in a nice sunny location by our other hives. I took out 4 frames, so I could shake the bees from the cardboard box into the new hive and give them some space to get settled. Just like installing a normal package of bees… except this was way crazier than normal 🙂
I gave them a few gentle shakes, and when I was confident I got most of the bees in the cardboard box, I picked it up (it was quite heavy!) and carried it 50 feet, through a stream, over to the new hive box. I angled the cardboard box towards the new hive and gave it a good shake. About half the bees landed in the hive and began exploring it. I waited 5 minutes for the activity to settle down, and gave it another shake. Almost all of the bees were now in the new hive! I set down the cardboard box by the hive entrance, and placed a bed sheet which acted as a ramp between the cardboard box and the hive entrance, that way any stragglers still in the cardboard box could climb up into their new hive.
The bees seemed happy with the hive – they were going in between the frames and exploring. It was the home they were looking for! It also probably helped that I sprayed the heck out of the new frames with sugar water 🙂 When the majority of the bees were in the hive, I gently placed the hive top on, and put in an entrance feeder to give them easy access to some food, and hoped they stayed the night and wouldn’t swarm again. Fingers crossed! I woke the next morning and ran down to the hive: they were there and they were buzzing around, going in and out of the entrances!
I caught a fricken swarm of bees, I was able to give these bees a new home, and WHAAAAT we just got a free 5th hive!
For an amateur beekeeper, I still can’t believe my first attempt at capturing a swarm actually worked! It was a truly awesome experience to see that docile swarm follow the queen and turn into our 5th hive.
2 Week Update! May 31
Our swarm is still happy in its new hive and has been there for 2 weeks. I got a CRAZY amount of bees in there – like 3 times more than buying a new colony from the store. I’d say probably 25-30 thousand bees, if not more!
Since there were so many bees in that tiny hive, I didn’t want them to get too crowded and swarm again. I ordered another new deep hive body last week, painted it our signature yellow color, and added it to the top of the hive. They now have 2 deeps and are happily filling them in! I have a honey super ready for when they start filling both deeps with comb 🙂
Each time I go down the drive I can see them flying around, and going in and out of the entrance – its so rewarding to be able to have caught the swarm. Our other 4 colonies are going strong, they are all drinking lots of sugar from their feeders, and things are really starting to bloom around here. A very successful and fun summer of beekeeping so far – and much much sweeter with our new swarm of #FreeBees.
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