One of our favourite beekeeping activities is catching swarms of bees in a swarm trap. Learning how to catch bees in a swarm trap is both handy and good fun.
Trapping bee swarms is not only easy, it’s a little bit addictive!
Just like fishing or placing out crab nets, the thrill of catching wild bees can be enjoyable as well as profitable, for amateurs and commercial beekeepers alike.
First, we will address what a swarm trap is.
A swarm trap patiently awaiting its future residents.
What is a swarm trap?
A swarm trap is a baited hive box that is used to attract swarms of bees into occupying the box. This can be achieved by making the box appealing to bees by way of size, structure, scent and location.
The basic idea of a swarm trap is that when bees decide to swarm, they will hopefully find the swarm trap and establish a new beehive in there.
What is a swarm trap made of?
A swarm trap is typically made of timber, but a number of different materials can be used such as styrofoam, plastic, metal or even fabric.
Generally, the best swarm traps will simply be just plain old timber hive boxes.
In this box will be a scented lure and standard beehive frames.
There are a number of criteria that will determine the likelihood of success of a swarm trap. We’ll cover these a little further on below.
Why do beekeepers use swarm traps
There are a number of reasons why you may want to catch bees in a swarm trap:
- Catch your first bee colony for your new beehive
- Add additional beehives to your apiary
- To reduce losses from your own hives swarming
- Prevent bees from nesting in known bee swarm areas.
We will now cover these reasons in a little more detail, before moving onto an explanation of how to set up and use a swarm trap.
Swarm trapping your first bee colony
So you’ve just bought a new hive and all the equipment to manage a beehive. Now you just need some bees to occupy your hive.
You could go out and buy a nucleus colony and install these into your beehive. This is a great way of getting your first bees, albeit it comes with a price tag.
You could also go and find a swarm of bees somewhere in the wild and collect them yourself. While this method of acquiring bees is free, it may be a daunting task for someone who has never handled bees before. You can read more about collecting swarms here.
It is entirely up to you how you go about getting your first bees, but we can tell you that swarm trapping is certainly an easy and satisfying way of going about it!
The pros of swarm trapping your first bees:
- Costs very little. You already have the hardware and equipment, all you need to buy is the lure.
- No need to move the bees. By placing the swarm trap in the spot you want to permanently keep the bees, you don’t have to worry about moving the bees again.
- The bees arrive when they are ready. Bees are clever, and will typically only swarm when the conditions suit them
- Can get more bees than what you would with a nucleus colony. Some bee swarms are massive, and you can end up with a colony that fills a full 8 or 10 frame brood box straight away.
The cons of swarm trapping your first bees:
- May not be successful. Like any kind of trapping, it will only be successful if the bees are in the area. No bees swarming in your area, or if you don’t set up the trap properly, you won’t get any bees at all.
- Might only get a small swarm. You may end up with a small or weak colony that never prospers.
- Limited to seasonal availability. In most places, bees do not swarm all year round. For many people, having to wait months before your bees arrive may become frustrating.
Adding additional bees to your apiary by swarm trapping
Beekeepers can employ swarm traps in order to catch wild bees and grow the size of their apiary. Swarms can also be an excellent way of replacing any colonies that a beekeeper may have lost over Winter or due to colony collapse.
There are a number of pros and cons for existing beekeepers to consider when choosing to use swarm traps.
Swarm trap advantages for established beekeepers:
- Easy way to boost hive numbers. With lots of traps around, a beekeeper can quickly grow their apiary size with swarms that they catch.
- Time-saving. Arguably less time taken compared to catching swarm clusters.
- Beekeepers can choose when to take the bees. Unlike with catching swarm clusters, a beekeeper can leave the bees in the trap for an extended period of time before moving them.
- It’s easier and uses fewer resources than making splits. There is no need to take bees or resources from your established beehives in order to have a new beehive.
Disadvantages of swarm trapping for existing beekeepers:
- Disease risk. Catching wild bees comes with the risk of bringing diseases or pests to your apiary. This risk can be mitigated by quarantining, but it is worth noting.
- Can end up with too many bees. Not really a problem for most, unless you don’t have anywhere to put them.
- Fuels addictive personalities. It’s hard to know when to stop!
Swarm traps to prevent bee colony loss
As beekeepers, one of our primary tasks is to prevent our beehives from swarming. This can be achieved by tending to our hives at the required intervals and by following good beekeeping practices.
Bees will be bees though, and sometimes as beekeepers, we get things wrong and a hive will swarm on us.
In order to prevent losing that colony of bees to the wild, it can be handy for a beekeeper to place swarm traps proximal to their own apiaries.
This can help to ensure that any of their own hives that do in fact end up swarming, can be easily recaptured and remain with the beekeeper.
Swarm traps to prevent bee swarms in certain areas
Unlike lightning, bees often will strike the same locations when they decide to swarm. For a multitude of reasons, bees will often, year after year, end up nesting in the same spots.
This can be frustrating for property owners or businesses that have to pay to have these bee swarms removed each year.
One way that beekeepers can assist the community is by placing swarm traps in these known swarm ‘hot spots’.
Instead of nesting in some furniture, wall cavity, machinery or somewhere annoying, the bees will often choose to move into the swarm trap instead. The beekeeper can then easily take the bees away and set them up somewhere else where they can be useful.
How to set up and use a swarm trap to catch bees
There is any number of ways that you can make and employ a swarm trap to catch bees.
What we will cover here is what works for us here in Perth, Western Australia.
While not everything will be the same for all regions, many of the basic principles will apply, as our Apis Mellifera bees will all tend to behave quite similarly.
How to catch bees in a swarm trap
- Assemble a solid box of approximately 40 Litres internal volume. This can be an 8 or 10 frame beehive box, or two stacked 5 frame nuc boxes, or a custom-designed swarm box of your own dimensions.
- Install frames into the beehive box. The type of frame you use does not matter. Just ensure you have some kind of removable frame for the bees to start working on when they arrive.
- Add a scented lure to the trap. This scented lure is best ‘dabbed’ around the inside of the hive, the entrance and on the frames inside the hive. Do not add too much, use just enough so that you can smell it. Too much scent may make bees avoid the trap.
- Ensure the trap is secure. Make sure the lid and base are firmly attached and that there is minimal chance of light or water ingress.
- Place the trap in the field. Find a safe place to put your swarm trap. Up in trees or somewhere high is great if you have a way of securing the trap safely. You can do this, or simply place the trap somewhere convenient to you.
- Watch and observe. At first, you’ll often find bees start checking out your trap straight away. It is common to confuse this scout bee traffic as meaning a colony has moved in. A sure sign that your trap has been successful is when there are lots of bees coming into the hive with pollen. Scout bees do not carry pollen. The fact that bees are coming into the hive with pollen is a key indicator that the trap is now an active beehive! (If the trap has not been successful, it may be necessary to re-bait the hive. Simply put some more scent around the hive every couple of weeks, or whenever is convenient for you).
- Move the bees. So you’ve caught a swarm, congratulations. It is ideal to leave the bees in the trap alone for a couple of weeks. This is just so that they can get established and start raising some brood. When you are ready simply move the beehive to where ever you would like.
That’s the guts of it!
If you follow those basic steps, you’ll be able to catch swarms.
Not all traps will be successful, yet some will catch several swarms in the same spot in a single season.
We find that the best swarm traps are ones that have been previously used.
Read on to find out more about what makes a successful swarm trap…
Factors to consider when making and using swarm traps
Size, shape and structure of the swarm traps
The size of a swarm trap will have some bearing on the success of a swarm trap. When we say the size of the swarm trap, we mean the overall internal volume of the swarm trap box.
The general rule is that:
You can catch small swarms in a big trap, but you won’t catch big swarms in a small trap.
What this saying suggests is that you are better off making your swarm traps a bit bigger, as you’ll have more chance of catching a larger swarm.
There has been quite a bit of research go into assessing the optimal size for a swarm trap box, with the ideal size being approximately 40 Litres.
You can catch swarms of bees with boxes smaller and larger this, in a volume range of about 20 Litres up to 100 Litres, however, somewhere around the 40 Litre mark is a good size to aim for.
Conveniently, the ideal size for a swarm trap is about the size of a 10 frame, full depth brood box which equates to about 43 Litres.
An 8 frame hive box made into a swarm trap.
We have caught plenty of swarms in 5 frame nucleus boxes before, however, we find our best success comes when using either extended depth 5 frame boxes or by simply using old 8 or 10 frame bee boxes. We mostly use 8 frame boxes as that’s what we have the most of. Anything in that roughly 40 Litre capacity size will work fine though.
As for the shape of the swarm trap, we have not found it to matter a great deal. A square or rectangular box will work fine, as will any top bar hive or any other random hive design. Bees may have some preferences, but they are not all that fussy.
Another important factor of a successful swarm trap is that they should be structurally secure and provide a nice dark space.
In essence, you want to make sure that there is very little light coming in or potential for rain to enter the box. Ensure the lid and base create a nice tight seal that makes the inside of the box present as being a nice warm and secure space for bees to move into.
There is some science behind what makes the ideal entrance hole for the swarm trap. We’ve found that a simple 25-30mm hole has worked fine, as has a standard hive opening, being a horizontal slit about 10mm high, by 150mm wide.
Scent to use for attracting bee swarms
While you can catch a swarm of bees by simply placing an empty box out, the success of the traps is improved by using a lure.
The aim of this lure is to entice scout bees into noticing the trap in the first place and then to reassure them that it is a bee-friendly space.
This can be done by imitating the smell of a queen bee’s pheromones, and the smell of a well used beehive.
Ideal scents to encourage bee swarms to occupy your swarm trap include:
- Lemongrass oil
- Old brood comb
- Queen tincture
- Artificial pheromones
We’ll expand on those now
Lemongrass oil for attracting bee swarms
Lemongrass oil (LGO) is a great swarm attractant as it is cheap, readily available and works very well. We’ve had great success with using LGO for attracting swarms and can highly recommend it.
The reason that lemongrass oil is so effective is that it imitates the smell of a queen bees pheromone. Scout bees are able to pick up on this smell from a long-distance away. This draws them in to check out the swarm trap.
In order to use LGO in a swarm trap, you can simply dab a little around the entrance and on the frames inside. Then, just leave a cotton bud soaked in LGO on the inside of the trap. Sometimes less is more. You really only need to apply a small amount of this in order for bees to smell it.
Propolis use in swarm traps
Propolis is the sticky brown substance found in used beehives and its presence is a great attractant.
Propolis can be used in swarm traps as it makes the trap smell more ‘bee-friendly’. Propolis is used extensively throughout beehives, so the presence of propolis in a swarm trap is thought to make the swarm more appealing to bees.
To apply propolis to a swarm trap, simply collect propolis from another beehive and press it into the wooden surfaces on the inside of the swarm trap. Placing a little propolis around the entrance may also help scout bees smell the propolis from a distance.
Wax for swarm traps
As you no doubt know already, wax is used extensively inside a beehive. The presence of a little bit of wax inside a swarm trap can, like propolis, help make the box smell more like home for the bees.
A little bit of wax foundation or wax coating on plastic frames can help make your swarm trap more successful.
Old brood comb used in swarm traps
Old brood comb is a very effective swarm lure as it does an excellent job of making the hive smell bee-friendly. The old comb has all the scents that scout bees are familiar with, and this old brood comb really does enhance the success of swarm traps.
That said, the use of old brood comb in swarm traps is quite controversial, primarily due to concerns about disease risk.
In fact, in many areas around the world, it is illegal to use old brood comb as an attractant in a swarm trap.
The reason it is a risk to biosecurity is that the old comb can harbour diseases and other pests that bees who visit the trap may end up taking back to their own hive and spreading.
Before using this method, look up relevant regulations for your area to determine whether you are allowed to use it or not.
A queen tincture is essentially a mix of old queens dissolved in an alcohol solution. This tincture can be used to attract swarms as scout bees pick up on the smell of the old queen pheromones and are drawn to the area.
Many beekeepers have had great success with making their own tinctures from old queens. It seems a fitting way to recycle the old girls, rather than just disposing of them.
Artificial swarm lures
There are several artificial swarm lures on the market. They all purport to replicate the smell of queen pheromones and hence claim they will entice swarms as a result.
Opinions do vary as to the effectiveness of these artificial swarm lures, however, some of the more well-known brand name lures are becoming quite popular.
Shop around, read reviews and decide for yourself if the artificial lures are worth the extra price tag.
Placement and location of the swarm traps
Another key determining factor is the swarm trap placement.
Research suggests that the ideal height for a swarm trap is about 2.5m off the ground or higher. This concept is in line with the theory that bees prefer an elevated position so they can avoid predators such as bears.
For quite some time we spent a lot of effort in getting our swarm traps as high as possible. We have since reverted to putting the hives in positions that are physically convenient for us. We have not noticed any significant reduction in swarm trap success since doing this.
It is one thing to place an empty hive box 4m up a tree, but it’s another thing to try lower that same hive back to the ground when it is full of bees and honey!
We now lack both the upper body strength and the desire to be placing swarm traps up in trees so high these days, so we just place them at head height or where ever is convenient for us.
Once you’ve dropped a full swarm trap from 4 metres up a tree while recovering it at night time, your appetite for chasing the marginal success gains that the extra couple of metres up a tree may get you, disappears pretty quickly!
Frames to use in a swarm trap
We have experimented with various frame types in swarm traps. We have not found any particular frame set up to be more successful than others, but there are a few key points to consider:
- If using foundationless frames, ensure that the swarm trap sits level. This is to ensure that the bees build their honeycomb nice and straight. If the hive is sitting on an angle, then the honeycomb will be built vertical and you will end up with a big bunch of messy cross-comb. Not ideal, especially when it comes time to transfer the bees to a new hive box.
- Plastic frames will need to be wax coated. While bees may end up building perfectly fine comb directly onto new plastic foundation, often they won’t. You can simply apply a little bit of wax to your combs and the bees will do a much better job of drawing the frames out.
- Never place a swarm trap out without frames. If you place an empty hive box out with scent and do not place frames in it, when bees do decide to move in, you’ll end up with a big mess on your hands. Frames make it much easier to remove the bees from the swarm trap later on. Don’t be tempted to put frameless traps out, it’s not worth it.
The actual science behind precisely how and why bees choose a new hive location is fascinating. We won’t pretend to understand it entirely. Even experts on the matter only manage to hypothesise as to why bee swarms choose certain swarm traps over others. If you’re interested to learn more about swarms and their behaviour, Dr Thomas Seeley has some very interesting literature you can get stuck into.
If you have any questions about how to catch a swarm of bees, feel free to ask below.
Hopefully, this article has given you a good insight into the art of swarm trapping and how to catch either your own bees or to collect some from the wild (or a neighbours hive!)
Good luck with your swarm trapping, and let us know below how you go with it or pass on any tips that may help others.