The first time I heard about a swarm vac I thought the idea ridiculous, lazy, and possibly harmful to the bees, but I kept hearing about them so obviously other beekeepers didn’t share my scepticism.
After many lengthy, and sometimes dangerous epics, whilst trying to collect swarms in the usual ways, and often taking all day just to collect one, I decided to explore the idea, and to test my negative assumptions by building my own swarm vac from bits and pieces I had laying around, and things I could scrounge or re-cycle.
Why use a swarm vac at all?
If you get the perfect swarm, 4 or 5 feet off the ground, free hanging, on private property, not near passers-by, and on level ground, then you don’t need a swarm vac., it’s easier and faster to drop them into a box, or a skep, in the traditional way.
The prefect swarm!
Dangling in a ‘tear drop’ shape, within easy reach, just above the ground. If only they were all like this?
But if the swarm is in the middle of a hawthorn hedge, a bramble patch, in a spikey gooseberry bush, on a public road or footpath, wrapped around an electrified fence post surrounded by nettles, plastered all over a wall, or close to the ground, or on the ground, dangling from a branch over a big drop, or between a shed and a wall, then a swarm vac comes in very handy.
It’s hard work recovering a swarm from inside a hawthorn hedge!
I live in a steep sided valley, the sides of which are often tree covered, and so collecting swarms can involve precarious climbs up trees, in wellies and a bee suit. Alternatively it involves carefully, and tediously, cutting holes in hedges or brambles whilst midges eat me. Luckily I have been a climber, and a caver, so have lots of kit to keep myself reasonably safe aloft, but trees don’t seem to be as strong as they used to be when I was 11, and it’s a lot of hard work by yourself, and not much fun.
I have spent hours trying to sweep swarms into skeps from awkward places, hoping I have the queen, only to discover 30 minutes later, when the bees start to leave the skep, and return to their original awkward position, that the queen was still in the remaining tiny cluster, or that there were two virgin queens. The only thing to do is have another go, wait 30 minutes, have another go, wait, then another, and wait. Hours stood in the baking sun, or in the rain, in wellies and a bee suit, staring at a basket, and with bemused passers by pointing at you, and sometime shouting ‘hilarious’ comments. The bees get more and more fed up, and so do I.
In these situations the swarm vac can save you hours and hours, days even, and its less stressful on the bees than all that shaking, smoking, hedge clipping, brushing, cajoling, multiple failed attempts, and cursing.
On a fence post (electrified) and surrounded by nettles
On a tree stump, inches above the ground, surrounded by vegetation
This swarm was completely wrapped around a young apple tree and just centi-metres from the ground. How do you drop this into a skep?
It took all day to get this swarm into a hive and was one of the events which caused me to take a second look at swarm vacs.
Short video of awkward apple tree swarm = 26 seconds
Traditional method still much used today
This is me romantically spending all day using a skep, pre-swarm vac.
Research on existing swarm vacs.
I discovered from other swarm vac. users, on the internet, that if a gentle suction was used, the bees suffered no harm, no more harm then dropping them into a skep, or into a box twice. I initially thought this a dubious claim, but I went on to prove this for myself with my own swarm vac.
There are always a few casualties when collecting swarms, but it’s difficult to assess how many when using traditional methods however, using the swarm vac you see the casualties on the mesh floor and, amazingly the count has been zero a few times. Normally its 2 or 3 bees per swarm, depending on the swarm size.
Other people’s swarm vacs – general design
The first swarm vacs I saw on the internet were purpose built 12v vacuum devices and the bees would still need dropping, from a box (the vac body), into a hive later. This double handling was cleverly reduced, by one bloke in the U.S. who made a standard 5 frame nuc into the vac body of his swarm sucker, so that the bees went directly into a hive.
I liked his idea but went one further and built the vac around standard national hive parts so the body of my vac is a national brood box, (or a national super if you prefer). I did this for the following reasons:
– Single handling: the brood box will be their final new home
– Some swarms are bigger than a nuc.
The basic design of a ‘National’ size swarm vac is as follows.
All components are ‘National’ size i.e. 46cm x 46cm wide so that they sit neatly on top of one another.
There are four basic components, two are standard pieces of hive equipment, and two which can be made according to your own design using my descriptions and diagram as a rough guide.
The four main components of the body of the swarm vac are:
1 – Fan box (at the bottom)
2 – Hive floor (sloping mesh)
3 – Brood box (standard)
4 – Crownboard (standard)
This is a 3D diagram of the basic components of a swarm vac.
1 – Fan box
The fan box is at the base of the equipment and its purpose is to safely mount the fan which creates suction through the mesh floor above, and to house the 12v electrics which supply it.
A mesh covered air outlet is required and is shown on the diagram above as being on the side of the fan box however my outlet is in the base plate (simply because I had something which would do, a crown board with multiple holes in it, part of a job lot at a bee auction). Mesh is desirable to stop bees entering the fan box when the fan is switched off. Remember the suction close to the swarm also captures the swarm/queen smell which then ejects through the air outlet and can therefore temporarily attract returning bees.
A power inlet (plug) for the fan is also required.
The fan I used is an efficient, low energy, 12v motorcycle radiator cooling fan, mounted horizontally.
Fan box: note foam strips (black) to seal the boxes, to make the joins airtight
Open fan box showing fan mounting and air exit holes
optional: My fan box is also fitted with a 12v power outlet for:
– a plug in volt meter so that I can keep an eye on the battery charge
– a plug in 12v solar panel for on the job re-charging
A cheap 12v voltage indicator
2 – Sloping Mesh Floor
Although built to ‘national’ size this isn’t a standard national floor because it has a circular entrance (for the suction hose), and a sloping mesh bottom. In all of the swarm vac examples I had seen elsewhere the hose inlet was in the top of the vaccum body (or nuc box), often through the feeder hole of a crown board, and simply for convenience. This top entry meant the bees experienced maximum vertical impact upon arrival, hitting the floor, or the top of the frames at speed. My sideways base entry, and sloping mesh floor, provides a much gentler, sideways, rolling arrival, and the slope on the mesh encourages the bees to crawl upwards and away, onto the welcoming frames above
Special sloping mesh floor
A bees eye view of the sloping floor (from the entrance)
This reverse view shows the slope angles, and fan below
3 – Standard ‘National’ brood box.
A standard brood box goes on top of the modified floor, (which is of national floor dimensions).
A standard brood box, with frames, goes onto the special floor
4 – Standard ‘National’ Crownboard
A solid crownboard is more air tight but most have feeder holes in them so I made a simple plug to cover the hole. A standard hole cover might slide off in moving vehicle, so I made one which cannot.
A crown board feeder hole cover was modified so that it doesn’t slip off during transit
I like to use a transparent crownboard so that I can see what’s going on, but also to attract the newly captured bees upwards towards the frames. I have found that occasionally some bees try to get out the same way they came in, but by providing light above they are lured upwards to it, and run around there until the queen arrives, rather than try and get back to her the way they came. Remember that the vac is carrying her scent into the box via the hose inlet until she arrives. A transparent crown board is by no means essential and I have managed perfectly well with solid wooden ones, but it is interesting to see what’s going on inside.
The complete swarm vac – It’s basically a hive and a battery
5 – Power source – battery and solar panel
I use a small (dimensions?) 12v, 35Ah battery which is good for 3 average swarms before it needs a recharge. It’s a small battery, which is normally attached to my 6 kva generator in winter, but I could have used an even smaller motorcycle battery instead. I have a solar panel which can re-charge the battery whilst in use though in reality I have never been that desperately low on power, or far away from a mains charger. I also have a small 12v transformer so that I can plug into the mains (if available), which I have never used, but I thought might be good if ever I had to remove a large established colony from a loft or roof space. I keep meaning to make a small battery box so that I can carry the battery on my shoulder, or haul it into a loft with a rope. It’s on my ‘to do’ list.
12v battery, power plug, volt meter, and on/off switch
6 – Hose
I use a hose from a full sized mains operated vac which was destined for the tip, and it works fine. The hardest thing is to modify the floor entrance to accept the hose end fitting and if I’d been a bit sharper I would have taken the hose plate from the vac as well, screwed it to the floor, and saved myself a lot of bother. You need the largest diameter you can get, so the bees don’t block it. Commercially made 12v vacs always have small diameter hoses which are unsuitable.
Poly Nuc Conversion Plate
I also made a conversion plate so that a poly nuc. can be used for a small swarm, rather than a full brood box. The self-adhesive foam tape makes a good seal with the poly nuc base.
The poly nuc. conversion plate, rather a grand title for a piece of wood with a hole in it
The plate sits on top of the floor, and the foam tape creates a good seal
The poly nuc. sits on the plate. The entrance to the poly nuc. had to be modified to accept the larger diameter hose connection however, I had a poly nuc. which had already been helpfully partly modified by rodents anyway.
Air tight seals
The upper surface areas, where the non standard components meet, are sealed with self adhesive foam tape, to create air tight joins, and the boxes are held together using hinges, clips and a short cargo strap.
It would have been easy to add tension clips to the base, and to a dedicated brood box, to make a rigid construction, but I wanted to be flexible in my approach, to be able to use any brood box to hand, and so the cargo strap is ideal, not just for keeping everything securely bound during transit, but also for creating pressure between the components for an air tight seal. I can use any of my brood boxes or anyone else’s (if the bees are intended for them).
This flexibility also gives me the option of collecting more than one swarm per day as I can lift the captured swarm onto a standard floor once I am sure the queen is inside, thus releasing the special floor for capturing a second swarm.
The full kit – components held together with a cargo strap
The advantages of my swarm vac over traditional swarm collection methods are:
No double handling/dropping, the brood box is their final home.
The bees immediately find themselves on bee ready frames, (I usually provide some drawn comb), and so they can start settling in without delay, before they even get to their new site
It utilises standard ‘National’ hive parts enabling you to collect more than one swarm per day, by simply switching the floor. The brood box lifts off onto a standard floor leaving the special sloping vac floor free for another lucky swarm.
Considerably less wobbling about on step ladders, plastic chairs, picnic tables, wall tops, etc.
A much reduced need to trim branches, cut holes in hedges, fight through brambles, or decimate gardens or allotments.
Quick, clean, easy (It usually takes about 30 minutes for an average swarm, if there are no complications e.g. two virgin queens).
Multiple virgin queen swarms are not a problem, they all go in the box, rather than splitting into two happy clusters, one in the box, one outside. (See Swarm Vac video below for an example of two virgin queens).
Tetchy bees end up safely inside before they do any harm. They leap at the hose end as it approaches, and get sucked inside where they can be as bad tempered (and bewildered) as they like.
– Weight of 12v battery
– In your bee suit you look like a ghost buster
The swarm vac in use
To use the vac you need to make gentle ‘dabs’ into the bees, slightly from below them. You cannot simply hoover them up because their tendency to cluster will cause them to cluster in your hose pipe. They are incredibly stubborn and tenacious. The aim is to get them to arrive in the brood box in small groups so that they move upwards, away from the entrance (and the annoying wind) before the next group arrives.
Once you have begun the process you should continue until the queen is in the box. If you stop half way bees may try to get back to the queen via the hose tube.
Swarm vac about to be used in a field – the small cast swarm is on the fence post behind
Removing a swarm wrapped around an upright of a ‘dead’ hedge
Video of swarm vac and how to use –
The fan (which I got for free from a biker mate) turned out, luckily, to be perfect for the job. Some swarm vac. users extend the hose with long pipe extensions so they don’t have to do any climbing. If I were to do this then I would need a more powerful fan to overcome the additional resistance created by the length of a long tube. Mine is perfect for the length of tube I use (size isn’t everything). Using a more powerful fan would necessitate the need for a controller to ensure I was still using minimum, but effective suction when the extensions were not in use. This will be my next modification, if I ever get around to it, but I’m pretty happy with the ways things are for now. Swarms which are high in dodgy trees can be tempted down with bait hives, a slower but safer process, and involving no effort at all. (There’s and article on using bait hives on this website, with supporting videos of swarms arriving at bait hives).
So if you have some basic DIY skills you can create your own swarm vac. Condemned supers, or spare ekes, would be ideal for converting into a fan box, or into the modified sloping mesh floor. If you like catching swarms then it’s worth considering.
Do you already have a swarm vac?
Share your learning, or send me some pictures and I’ll post them here with mine. I’d love to hear about your swarm collecting.
Are you interested in swarms?
To read an article, and watch videos about setting up and using bait hives click here!