Using Bait Hives To Capture A Swarm of Bees
There’s no down side to setting up a bait hive!
But how do you set one up?
What is a bait hive?
A ‘bait hive’ is a standard unoccupied hive, of any design, deliberately set up by a beekeeper, to attract local, homeless swarms. It’s a way of increasing the number of your colonies with very little effort, and without even having to put on your bee suit.
Why use a bait hive?
I used to collect swarms in the traditional way, with a skep, or a box, no matter where they were, so keen was I for more bees. This involved climbing trees and buildings, wobbling around on borrowed ladders, cutting through hedges or brambles, and generally getting into all sorts of trouble. Scratched, midge bitten and sweaty was the normal state of affairs. Rarely were swarms dangling at head height above flat ground. Even when they were easy to get to they were often wrapped around something awkward, and had to be brushed off trees, fence posts, etc., or ‘encouraged’ for hours up into a skep.
Catching a swarm the traditional way – brushing a swarm, from a tree trunk, into a skep, and hoping you get the queen first time.
I am reminded of the time I was hanging by one arm from a tall Birch tree, in a bee suit and wellies, on a hot summers day, and a skep in my free hand. A double decker bus went by slowly on the road, which ran past the tree, the upstairs passengers level with me, and staring in disbelief. I tried to pretend it was the most normal thing in the world. I think I got away with it. It was occasions like that which persuaded me to give bait hives another chance.
Below are a couple of pictures of homeless bees hoping to get their foot on the property ladder.
A swarm wrapped around a fence post about 20 metres from the hive, surrounded by nettles, and the fence was electrified. Why is it never easy?
A decent sized swarm arrives high in a tree on a flimsy branch, and sways around in a light wind.
As a result of encountering many swarms in awkward places I had tried setting up a couple of bait hives before, but without success, because I didn’t have them set up properly. After a little bit of experimentation, I now very successfully employ bait hives. I still like to go and catch swarms but there is a special feeling when a hive, which was unoccupied, is suddenly full of life, without making any effort at all. Free bees!
When to set up a bait hive
Bait hives can be set up at the start of the swarming season and left out. They need no maintenance, although it is wise to open them now and again to make sure nothing else has made its home in there. Wasps and rodents are your main culprits here.
Below is a picture of a new wasps nest attached to a foundation free frame in an empty hive, caught just in time.
Watch out for squatters!
Where to set up a bait hive
If you want to set up a bait hive, to catch your own swarming bees, then it must be at least 200 metres away from the hive or wild colony they came from.
I have bait hives set up in friends’ gardens, and in the past I have set them up in yards, and on shed roofs when I knew there were unattended colonies near by. I do this partly as a public service, so that bees don’t end up occupying lofts and garages, but mainly because I like free bees. I once put one on top of a disused burger van in a yard, after spotting scout bees, and got the swarm. I moved it the same evening. They were known as the ‘Burger Bees’ from that day on.
This temporary bait hive was set up in a yard when scout bees were spotted. I didn’t even have a spare lid. It was perched on top of an old filing cabinet and a thin car seat cover was draped over the waterproof cover so an arriving swarm would have something to climb. Huge numbers of scout bees investigated this hive for days, then suddenly stopped coming. You win some, you lose some!
There is a theory that you cannot set up a bait hive in an apiary, that bees will not come to it. This, in my experience, is not the case, and I usually attract 2 swarms per year to empty hives in apiaries (watch a huge swarm arriving in my apiary in ‘Bait Hive’ video B below). Swarm takeovers will take place with weak colonies in apiaries, solving a re-queening problem for you. I love it when this happens as it saves me a lot of work.
A huge swarm arrives at a bait hive in an apiary. See: Bait Hive Swarm – video B (below) for the full story.
How to set up a bait hive
1 – The equipment
I now use very old kit for outlying bait hives, withdrawn from regular service, close to being condemned, good for summer use only, and as soon as a swarm occupies it I immediately transfer the bees to better kit, and reset the bait hive with the old kit. This gives old kit a slightly extended life span and once the hive has had a swarm in it then the smell of the swarm will naturally attract scout bees. Within my apiaries I set up bait hives with good kit so that I also have hives ready to receive a swarm caught in the traditional way, without any faffing, or alternatively to receive an artificial swarm during an inspection.
2 – Setting up a scout bee indicator
However you may not have enough kit to leave hives all over the place, like I do. So instead place an old, or used piece of kit where you can see it, outside your living room window perhaps. An old brood box will do nicely, but a cardboard box with beeswax, or old brood comb inside it will do just as well. Watch out for scout bees hovering around it. Their arrival will tell you that a swarm is nearby and looking for a new home. As soon as you spot scout bees you should spring into action, and set up a bait hive.
3 – The irresistible brood comb.
I discovered that the single biggest factor for success was the addition of brood comb to a bait hive. Just one frame will do it. The scout bees will find this very attractive and rate your hive much more highly than if you just had foundation, or white drawn comb.
4 – Where to put the brood comb
Some swarms will begin to build in the middle of the brood box, and nearly all the manuals lead us to believe that this is normal for all bees. Not around here! Local bees will nearly always start 2 or 3 frames from one end (usually the down wind end, but not always) and build towards the centre. When you set up a bait hive you must present it in a way the local bees like, so when I set up a bait hive I always put the frame of brood comb on the second frame position. If I have two frames of brood comb they will be put in frame position 2 and 3, next to one another. I have hives in another location where they do indeed begin building in the middle and so I place the brood comb in the middle when I set up a bait hive in that apiary. So if your bees build from the middle then place the frame of brood comb in the middle of the bait hive.
A small cast swarm arrived at my empty Top Bar hive quite late in the season.
You can see the section of old, dark, brood comb at the far end, left deliberately to attract a swarm. The white stuff they built themselves in a very short time.
Using foundation free frames
A new swarm has an obsessive need to create new comb so this is perfect if you are trying to convert to foundation free frames.
I use foundation free frames, but not exclusively (for reasons discussed in my ‘Foundation Free Frames’ article on this web site), so the frame nearest the brood frame will always be with foundation, and the one following that will be foundation free. Then I alternate foundation with no foundation. Drawing foundation free frames takes longer and so I make use of a swarms comb drawing obsession to get at least a couple completed.
Late swarms have enough to do to just to make it for winter so I don’t then use foundation free frames but give them foundation filled or clean, drawn comb.If you are interested in using foundation free frames in your own hives there is an article on this web site which will tell you how.
Bait hive tips
Your chances of attracting a swarm are increased by the following:
– Use equipment previously occupied by bees.
– Sufficient space for the swarm (a brood and a half for big, early swarms)
– A small-ish entrance hole, preferably circular if you can.
– Ideally sited in a high place
– Contains brood comb
– Brood comb placed where they expect to find it.
warning : Do not put frames of stores into a bait hive as surrounding colonies will rob it out, and then their feeding frenzy may spread and trigger robbing from your other hives.
Scout bees – before the swarm arrives
Scout bees will leave the swarm as soon as it settles, shortly after it has left the hive. If a scout bee finds somewhere suitable it will return to the swarm and waggle dance the location to others, who will then leave the swarm and go for a look. More and more bees will go to and from this potential new home until it is accepted, or rejected. Several locations may be scouted simultaneously.
Scout bees explore everything and particularly investigate anything which smells of bees, or of bees wax. I was once called to a house where hundreds of dying bees were found on the window ledges. It was an old house, an old Co-op shop, and an air brick on the outside wall led directly into a pantry cupboard which, during refurbishment, was being used to store ornaments, including a pair of beeswax candles. The bees got into the cupboard, via the airbrick, attracted by the wax, then tried to leave via the strongest light source, which were the windows.
Scout bees fly sideways, and from side to side, hovering, moving slowly across flat surfaces, scanning every inch, and pointing towards the thing they are investigating. They will occasionally rapidly zig-zag, particularly in front of anything that might be an entrance, just in case the place is occupied by bees or wasps. They investigate thoroughly and are particularly drawn to holes, or dark patches or dark knots in wood (which resemble holes). Sometimes they can arrive in large numbers quite suddenly.
Swarms usually occur between about 10.30 and 15.00 (3pm) so if scout bees arrive between those hours it means there is a new swarm near by, but scout bees from swarms that have been hanging around for a while may arrive at any time, and I have had them investigating a bait hive, in large numbers, at 04.30 in the morning during mid summer, a bait hive they subsequently rejected (in favour of a local chimney).
If a swarm is interested in your bait hive the number of scout bees will steadily increase, as they waggle dance the news to others, who also come for a look, but it can take days for a swarm to make up their mind. Sometimes there are so many scout bees coming and going that the hive looks like it’s already occupied.
Short Video (19 seconds) of swarm waggle dance:
Scout bees from a swarm are attracted by the smell of beeswax and will lead a swarm to occupy a hive with just foundation in the frames, but they may also ignore it if they know of a better place. The addition of one or two drawn brood frames will make the hive irresistible to the scout bees, and later to the queen. Without this drawn brood comb your chances of attracting a swarm are much reduced.
Sometimes the scout bees will suddenly disappear indicating that the swarm has selected another site, or that another beekeeper has captured the swarm.
The spectacle which is the arrival of the swarm
An arriving swarm can take hours to fully occupy a bait hive, depending on how big the swarm is, and how far it has travelled, and I have some which took three hours to arrive (see Bait Hive video B below). I have had others which took minutes. Remember that many of the bees are young, and some will be flying for the first time. All will be carrying a full load of honey, perhaps 4 days worth. Some bees will stop for a rest and catch up later, sometimes hours later, using the scent of the swarm as a locator.
The queen may tire on her journey (this may only be her second flight in her life, the first being when she mated) and touch down here and there, perhaps on a branch, leaving her scent, and then clusters of bees may temporarily form there, thinking the queen has landed. Swarming bees have a strong desire to cluster. It takes them a while to realise the queen isn’t there (10-20 minutes), and then they’ll go and look for her. I call these ‘confusion clusters’.
These bees will turn up later, usually as individuals, but occasionally as an unexpected surge of bees.
When a swarm arrives there may be exhausted bees temporarily covering everything, but they aren’t usually interested in stinging, so it’s usually safe to walk around amongst them without protection, and to get in close to take photographs. After a brief rest they will all take flight again and follow the swarm. The smell of a swarm is heavy. The sound of its arrival is incredible (see video A below).
A stinging swarm is rare and can often be an indicator of starvation.
Exhausted swarm bees resting for a few minutes on my young fennel and broad beans, just yards from their final destination (a bait hive on top of my allotment shed). They have obviously come quite a distance.
Swarms vary in size and quality. The first swarm from a hive is known as a ‘prime’ swarm. It will usually be the biggest and will include a mated and proven queen. These are the best to catch, early in the season, because they are strong, and also because once the queen is in the hive she can begin laying almost immediately and there’s no need for her to leave again.
A parent hive may then, when the new queens are hatching, ‘throw off a cast’ (swarm again, a secondary swarm), but this time with a newly hatched, unmated queen, and sometimes with more than one queen. These swarms are less desirable as they are usually smaller but also take longer to get established as the new queen has to leave the colony to be mated (with drones from another hive) before she can start laying, a process which takes a few days, and with no guarantee of success. She might not come back from mating, or she may not mate properly. It’s a risky business.
Swarms will sometimes take over the hive of a queenless, weak colony, without any fighting, though I have witnessed one takeover which was resisted, resulting in hundreds of dead bees outside the hive.
The first swarm ever to arrive in one of my hives, before I’d got the hang of bait hives, actually moved into a hive with only a few hundred bees left, and without any fighting. I was amazed at the time because I didn’t know this could happen. I was heartbroken when all the bees, including the original occupants, left 24 hours later and went into a tree about 30 metres away on the other side of the river. I was just about to get my swarm catching kit together when they came back to the hive, after an hour in the tree, and stayed. All’s well that ends well but this beekeeping lark can be a roller coaster ride at times.
Fading colonies are a problem, a sad problem, and I always hope for a takeover to reinvigorate the hive, and to give the remaining bees purpose. It’s a very quick and effective solution to re-queening an established hive. I get roughly one of these takeovers per year, on average, and they are always welcome as they move into a fully developed hive, full of drawn comb and stores, and save me a lot of work. They turn a sad hive into a happy one.
What to do with a newly arrived swarm
When a swarm moves into their new home they will be obsessed, for a few days, with drawing new comb, and with repairing old comb, so always make use of this instinct to get new comb quickly, a very valuable resource.
II always give them more space as soon as possible, a super above the brood box, but I know others have different theories. I follow this method because it’s easier (and therefore faster) to draw new comb above the brood cluster rather than to one side, because its warmer there and so the wax is easier to work. In order to build colony numbers the queen must have comb to lay her eggs in and the faster they make comb available to her the more successful they will be. Putting a super above a brood box, without a queen excluder between is known as a ‘brood and a half’ system.
The queen doesn’t usually lay eggs in the brood super initially but it gives the workers a quickly prepared storage area for new, wet stores, leaving the cells in the brood frames free for eggs. Eventually the queen will move upwards to make use of the warm comb above the main brood area but by then the colony will be well established and would have started moving sideways drawing comb in both the brood box and in the brood super.
So even with a moderate swarm I will add a brood super early on. With larger swarms I will add a brood super, a queen excluder, and a second super. Again the rising warmth of the brood area makes the drawing of comb easier and the ripening of wet stores faster. They can then move sideways when bee numbers have increased, when the new generations of brood hatch.
Feeding a new swarm with sugar syrup?
It is common practice to ‘stimulate’ the drawing of comb by feeding a new swarm colony with gallons of syrup. I don’t feed my bees syrup at all and so perhaps think more about what is easier for the bees.
I mentioned other theories above. There are beekeepers who will not add the first super until the new colony has drawn 6 or 7 frames in the brood box. I used to do this but sometimes you can wait for weeks for this to happen as they can only move sideways, onto cold frames, when bee numbers are sufficient to do so. I don’t see the point of imposing this artificial limitation on the bees, and make frames available above instead. The choice is then theirs. Some move sideways, most move up.
Feeding syrup sometimes makes the problem worse, as all available cells are quickly filled with stores, much faster than they can create new cells, and leaving little room for the queen to lay her eggs. Making new bees is a priority for a strong colony.
Also, as soon as you put syrup out the wasps will come, and constantly harass your bees as they are capable of smelling sugar from quite a distance and they find it irresistible.
So I don’t use syrup and I put a super above the brood box as soon as I can, but you do what you like. The choice is yours.
That’s what’s interesting about beekeeping.. If you ask three beekeepers for their opinion you will end up with four different solutions, theirs, and then yours. I don’t present my opinions as being the final word, and I would encourage you to explore all theories. What works well in one place may not work well elsewhere, but my methods work well for me here, for now. Discovering what works is, for me, part of the fun of beekeeping.
What to do with the swarm once it has established itself?
A large prime swarm can be left to get on with things. I do a quick check a week or so after they arrive to make sure the queen is laying, and then I leave them alone. In theory they could swarm again in 6 weeks but I have never personally experienced this, but if you live somewhere warmer than the Pennines then perhaps the season may be long enough for them to do so.
Cast (secondary) swarms need to be left for longer, to give the virgin queen time to mate, and to prepare herself for laying. A couple of weeks is usually enough. If she isn’t laying by then you are faced with a decision, to wait a bit longer, or to merge them with a colony which has a queen, or give them a queen or eggs from elsewhere, etc.
Once established beekeepers will sometimes merge a cast swarm with a larger established colony, or merge two or more casts together to make a viable colony, especially if they come late in the season and have little chance of collecting sufficient stores for winter. As I don’t use syrup then these are good options for me to ensure a strong colony, with plenty of stores, before winter.
So if you want more bees, and have some spare equipment, then you have nothing to lose by putting your kit out somewhere as a bait hive. If nothing turns up, and you end up catching a swarm by traditional methods anyway, then at least you know there is a hive already set up and waiting for them. No panic required (theoretically).
There’s no down side to setting up a bait hive!
Bait hive videos:
Below are some more videos I made of bees arriving at two of my bait hives.
Bait Hive Video A – A swarm arriving at a bait hive on top of my allotment shed >
Bait Hive Video B – A huge swarm arriving at a bait hive in my apiary. See if you can spot the queen arriving >