The concept of swarm trapping is simple enough. Honeybees swarm as a way of reproducing the colony, the bee superorganism. When pollen and nectar flows are high the bee population in the colony explodes. When space gets tight the colony begins preparations to split. Nurse bees begin rearing a new queen that will take over the existing home while the veteran queen and colony make plans to change their address. In preparation for the swarm, the colony sends out scouts to locate potential hive locations, up to ten days in advance of the swarm. Usually this entails searching around the forest for a tree with an empty cavity large enough to sustain a hive and secure enough to prevent leaking or honey theft. Modern research has identified some of the characteristics preferred by the scouts including a south facing entrance of 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter, a cavity size of 30 to 40 liters, and a location that is mostly shaded but easily visible. Existing drawn comb and the scent of occupation by a previous colony are other key attractions. This last bit is one reason that homes, barns, sheds or trees that have had earlier bee colonies removed often attract new swarms. The survival rate of unmanaged swarms is low and the production of honeycomb consumes tremendous resources that can't be stored away for winter reserves. The colony recognizes the value of preexisting comb and will happily leverage the "renovations" of prior residents.
A wise beekeeper can use this knowledge of the instinctive preferences of bees to create a near ideal home for the emerging swarm. Standard 10 frame and 8 frame deep Langstroth hive equipment with a fixed base, secure lid and adapted entrance easily meet the desired cavity depth. Many beekeepers will rotate their older equipment out of the bee yard and give it a new life for swarm trapping. A few frames of drawn comb can be tucked into the trap to convince them that this new home is complete with a recent master bedroom remodel. Finally you need a little bait. Most beekeepers today will use commercial swarm lures or lemon grass oil to attract the scouts. Apparently these compounds imitate the pheromones of a queen bee. Prior generations of beekeepers used peach tree leaves much the same. Again the concept is simple. Provide the bees an ideal home, wait for them to back up the moving van, then transport the trap back to your bee yard location. Sounds simple enough.
Well, Sunday we thought we were going into the beekeeping business. We had scout bee activity on all three of the swarm traps we borrowed from our mentor in the local bee club. One of the traps was literally "buzzing" with activity. There were bees wrestling and fighting just inside the entrance and on the front of the box. They would fall to the grass, separate, then return to the box. Some of them were obviously dying in the process. A quick internet search seemed to indicate that multiple colonies were interested in this particular trap and were arguing about which swarm was going to get the lease on that hot Manhattan apartment. It felt like watching an episode of Bee House Hunters; would they choose trap 1, trap 2 or trap 3. The YouTube video below shows a brief clip of their activity around the busiest trap.
Monday evening I returned to this trap fully expecting to fire up the smoker and transport our new farm hands back to the bee yard. But alas, my trap was un-sprung. No bees had taken up residence in the trap with no sign of bee activity in the area. I only had a few dead bee carcasses on the grass and video from my phone to convince me that it was not a dream.
We're visiting the traps frequently in case the swarms have been awaiting the arrival of those new young queens, but so far we're the ones left waiting. It turns out that catching bees is about like catching fish. We had a few nibbles and one strong bite, but for now nothing to bring home. The swarm season lasts until early July here in Ohio so that trap may spring yet. I can still dream of what may bee...