Making Your Own Bait Hives
Now that you’re finished with your winter of building and repairing supers, brood boxes and frames, think about the possibility of building bait hives in preparation for the May/ June swarm season.
A bait hive is a swarm-catching box. I have captured some nice swarms in boxes set in trees, and it seems easier than answering a swarm call, which may come at an inconvenient time.
When you are looking over your equipment this spring, you may find a brood box or three that just don’t seem good enough to use for your hives anymore. Don’t throw them on the burn pile! I have found that swarms which are looking for a home like these old boxes best. After trial and error, and then reading the “Bait Hives” bulletin from Cornell Cooperative Extension (search at ecommons. cornell.edu), I’ve learned that an old brood box, with a tightly attached bottom and top works best. The size of a deep box is about the size swarms prefer, according to the bulletin. If you screw down the top, it is secure for travelling and still easy to remove the screws later to get the bees out. The entrance should be a hole drilled into the front, and covered with hardware cloth, or with a nail driven near it and bent across (this stops mice from moving in).
The old bee home scent is the “bait” — meant to attract the scout bees from a hive about to swarm. You can put a few pieces of dark comb in the bottom if you want, but don’t put lots of it, nor any frames. That will just attract wax moths, and your box won’t have any bees to keep out the moths. I’ve had pheromone lures, which are supposed to attract swarms, but have never caught a swarm in a bait hive with lures. My success has always been with empty brood boxes.
To choose a spot for your bait hive, look for a spot about eight feet off the ground, shaded partly, but with a clear flight path to the entrance. I have set a hive in the main crotch of a large white pine, and also attached it directly to a tree trunk, both with success catching swarms. For the second method, attach a board vertically to the back of your box so that it extends past the top and bottom (shown). This board gets nailed and/or tied to the tree trunk. Make sure everything is secure. I once had a bait hive catch a swarm, and I came back at dusk to take it down, and it had fallen to the ground during the day! It was tough getting those bees home; some had arrived after their new home had fallen and still wanted to go to the spot on the trunk where it should have been. They were clustered there, all forlorn, while the inhabitants of the box on the ground were quite angry.
Bait hives should be placed early in the spring, by tax day if possible. After that, check often. You don’t want them to start building comb in there. When you catch a swarm, pour it into an empty brood box, with frames, preferably one frame of which with brood from another hive. This ensures that the new swarm will not leave. If you don’t know its origin, it is best to isolate a new swarm from your home yard by about three miles, until you have determined that the bees are not diseased.
Unanticipated Swarm Calls
Life would be so much easier if all swarms collected themselves in beekeepers’ bait hives, but when they don’t, picking up unexpected swarms is still a fun sideline of beekeeping.
Usually a swarm clusters on a branch of a bush or tree. If it is low, it is a simple matter to cut the branch and put it, and the swarm, gently in a box or bucket. Or you might shake the branch sharply once to drop the bees off into your container instead (but always provide something in your container for the bees to hang from/crawl on).
If a swarm is on a pole or deep in a bush, it is difficult to capture. I have tried unsuccessfully to use a frame of brood to lure them into a box. Some swarms just can’t be collected. Those that are higher than a ladder or those that put you in danger should be ignored. They will almost always fly off within a few days.
Unfortunately, a honeybee swarm sometimes flies off to make its new home inside of a wall. Removing this colony is not the easy pick-up typical of true swarms. With bees in a wall or ceiling, the structure must be partially taken apart, and all comb and bees completely removed. This is a job for a beekeeper who has experience with taking bees out of structures. These bees have a home and resources to defend, and will do so, unlike the usually gentle swarms dangling from branch tips.
In any case, honeybees always need ventilation, so don’t neglect providing that for the bees during the ride home. Once back at the beeyard, have a brood chamber, bottom board and cover ready to create your new hive. Dennis VanEngelsdorp recommends hiving swarms on foundation only, no drawn comb. Swarms are often from unknown sources and may be carrying AFB spores in the honey brought from their old hive via their crop (honey stomach). Having no drawn comb available in which to immediately store that honey, the bees are instead forced to digest it. Digesting the honey kills any AFB spores, which cannot live in the bees’ digestive tracts.
Normally, beekeepers don’t charge anything for swarm pickups, but if the grateful homeowner really wants to give something, you might suggest that they donate $25 to your club.
When you receive a swarm call, remember to ask these questions:
What does it look like?
The caller may begin to describe a papery ball shaped nest…this of course is a wasp or hornet nest, and is not the province of a beekeeper. A swarm might be described as dark, quiet ball (or oval, or mat) of bees.
How long has it been there?
If the caller saw it arrive, accuracy is possible, but often nobody knows when a swarm quietly landed in the yard. Swarms should be collected as soon as possible after they have landed, for if a swarm stays put for more than a day or so, due to rainy weather for example, they may become cross.
How big is the swarm?
Ask the caller to compare it to a basketball or a grapefruit, etc. Anything smaller than a volleyball is probably too small to become a viable colony for you. You might let the caller know the swarm will depart soon, and not pick it up. It’s your choice! Small swarms may be combined, however. After some foundation is drawn out, drawn brood combs with honey and pollen will help them build up for winter.
How high is it?
People are notoriously bad at estimating height, so ask the person to compare it to knee height, head height, as high as the first floor ceiling, etc.
For more information or to refer a caller to the MSBA swarm-removal resource: mainebeekeepers.org/beekeeping-resources/honey-bee-swarm-removal