Swarms - Care & Feeding
By: Kim Townsend
Master Beekeeper, Master Gardener - Owner and Chief Bee Wranger at Texas Swarm Troopers
Though hard to imagine, would you believe that there are actually folks who have never seen a swarm of bees in “real” life? Sad, but true! Fortunately for us, when we became beekeepers the odds of coming across at least one swarm in our lifetime increased substantially over those of a so-called “normal” person. And, let’s face it, Beekeepers are far from normal… but, in a good way!
Collectively, we possess incredible abilities or (dare I say) almost superpowers!
What, with our unwavering craving for adventure – an uncanny knack for turning white suits to brown and yellow in a mere 0.5 seconds, and a strange penchant for matching wits with (and/or attempting to predict the behavior of) thousands of disgruntled, flying, stinging insects…why, they’re almost “super” powers! Yes, we are indeed a breed apart from “average,” to say the least!
Let’s say that you’ve not only seen a swarm, but you had the wherewithal to successfully catch it, too. BRAVO!!
First, make sure to cover the container of bees with a screen, lid, cloth, etc., so they can’t fly away but can still get air.
Put the container in the shade or out of the direct, hot sun, and give them a little mist of water to cool them off and provide some hydration, but don’t overdo it. An adjustable spray bottle works great for this.
Assuming you caught the bees because you want to expand your apiary, the next decisions are the same you’d be making whether bringing home bees, kittens, puppies, fish, cows, or a new baby. Where will you put them? and What do they want to eat? In all of the above scenarios, may I caution you against:
- A) letting any these living creatures sleep in your own bed (bees tend to hog the covers, anyway ) or
- B) feeding them human food (fish, in particular, often complain that lasagna gives them indigestion). True story ~
So, how do you go about caring for and feeding “this glob” of cute little bees?
The first thing to determine is the approximate size of swarm. Was it as big as a softball? Volleyball? Basketball? The Death Star from Star Wars?
Let’s pretend for a moment that you managed to collect a volleyball-sized swarm of bees. Congratulations! That’s a good number of bees of course, but here’s the thing - You want to be very careful about choosing their new home, as you risk losing them if it’s not the right fit for them.
Goldilocks was the gal from Waxahachie charged with breaking and entering… but, I digress...
Anyway, the recurring theme in her exploration of the three bears’ home was that in her quest to find things that were just right for her size, she kept using stuff that was either too soft or too hard, too big or too small, and so on. Like Goldilocks, your bees will soon let you know if the home you’ve chosen for them is too big, too small, too dirty, stinky, or if they can’t easily connect to the Wi-Fi. If their house is too tiny, they’ll feel overcrowded and may swarm again. If it’s too large, they won’t be able to adequately guard the entrance(s) from pests and predators. It may only take a few minutes, an hour or two, or a couple of days, but if they’re not completely satisfied with the new home you’ve provided, trust me –They will leave! Their ingratitude is heart-wrenching, but not unexpected, as they are rather persnickety when it comes to technology, you know.
That said, what size of bee box shall you place this volley-ball sized glob of bees? A 10-frame deep? An 8-frame shallow? How about a 3-frame medium Nuc? Part of what will determine what you put them in is based on what kind of equipment you have available. Note to self: It’s always a good idea to ask yourself these questions before collecting a swarm – Just saying…
Personally, I’d recommend using a 5-frame deep Nuc for this swarm, but would also suggest having a 10-frame deep at the ready, just in case they need to expand in a few weeks.
Now that we know which container to use, we need two key things in place prior to adding the bees – food and brood.
Why? Well, the food part is easy…
Typically, we all want to eat something after traveling and, trust me, bees get hungry too! Swarming is kind of a big deal for them, and they expend lots of energy in the process, not to mention the high number of calories burned as they fly around looking at condo after condo. So, we want to provide them with a tasty snack to make them feel right at home; but where, oh where, shall we procure the food? Uber Eats? Instead of looking for a “honey-on-the-go” app, grab your bee suit, the Nuc box, a couple of frames with drawn comb (if you have them), and head out to your bee yard.
Once there, open one of your strongest hives, remove a frame of food (honey and pollen) and replace it with one of those with drawn-comb foundation. Place the newly obtained frame of food in your Nuc box and close the lid to discourage other bees from smelling it and robbing the honey. While you’ve still got the strong hive box open, look in the brood box for a frame containing both capped and uncapped larvae. Take it out, hold it over the box and shake the bees off making certain to not take the queen.
Then add it to your Nuc box.
Next, replace this frame with one of the drawn-comb frames. Close up the strong hive and cover the Nuc box.
At this point, you have a 5-frame Nuc box with only two frames inside (one food and one brood). If they’re handy, get three additional frames (with foundation), but don’t put them in the Nuc box… yet.
The next step is to get the Nuc set up wherever it is you’ll want the new hive to be located. And once it’s in the right spot, you’re ready for the bees!
Take the lid off of the Nuc box and spread the two frames apart (one on each side) – leaving the center area open. Tap the container of bees on the ground to knock them off the walls/sides; quickly remove the cover and pour the bees into your Nuc box!
They’ll likely be reluctant to leave the container, so you may need to rinse, lather and repeat the process a couple of times.
Bees will be excitedly flying everywhere, but don’t worry – This is called their “orientation flight.”
They need this time to explore their new habitat and will eventually settle down. Once they’re acclimated to finding their new home, the queen, and where all the bathrooms are located, gently slide the brood and food frames together in the center of the box and install the remaining frames in the remaining space (always watching to make sure you don’t squish the queen)!
Give them 10 to 15 minutes to figure out where they live, then close the lid - except for an inch or two… allowing them to continue adjusting to the fresh sights and smells. After another 10 – 15 minutes, completely close up the lid and prepare to leave them alone for several days, but not before giving them one last treat. Personally, I forego tossing them a pizza and instead, either provide them some sugar syrup via a pint or quart jar in a Boardman feeder, or maybe even use an in-hive frame feeder.
One of the last things I do before exiting the bee yard is to offer a prayer of thanks for the bees, and to ask the Lord to bless them, help them stay alive, survive and thrive here.
Finally, I whisper, “Welcome home, little bees!” to these cute, fuzzy little creatures who bring me so much joy.
Then, I remove the stingers.