One of the most exhilarating parts of beekeeping is catching a swarm. Few things compare to the thrill, and then the satisfaction, of catching a swarm of bees for the season. Of course, as with all big expectations, it can sometimes be disappointing or even downright frustrating to lose a swarm. In beekeeper terms, it’s known as absconding.
Absconding is when the swarm abandons the home you’ve tried to provide for them, even if they seemingly settled into it at first. It’s definitely unpredictable — but there are some things you can do to prevent your newly caught swarm from leaving the hive. Here are seven helpful tips to get you started:
1. Make sure there’s enough room
Think of it as moving into a new home. If you’ve got a big family, you need to make sure that you have enough space for everyone. Now apply that to a swarm, that can have over 10,000 bees! Now, most bee swarms aren’t massive, usually around the size of a football. For those, one full-size box should be adequate for them.
However, you might encounter a bigger, more massive swarm at times. It’s exciting to see bigger swarms, so make sure you provide more boxes! Large colonies may even require two full-sized boxes, so put it out as soon as possible to avoid losing the large swarm. We recommend wooden over cardboard boxes, as bees tend to settle into the latter less.
2. Do not disturb them too early
One common error many new beekeepers make is to check in on new swarms way too quickly. It’s understandable, given the excitement of catching a brand new swarm, but it’s one of the pitfalls that cause swarms to abscond.
Instead, it’s good practice to wait for the bees to invest in the hive box first with comb and brood, before inspecting or rearranging anything. A good gauge is to wait for about a week before making any new changes.
3. Give them a choice
Experienced beekeepers will tell you that a new swarm is more likely to stay in your hive box if they feel like they chose it, rather than being forced into it. Of course, just sitting back and not doing anything won’t get you the swarm you want — so here’s how you can do it.
For starters, refrain from placing the swarm straight in the box. Instead, put them near the opening or the entrance of the box, just close enough to enter easily, but not entirely encapsulated in it yet.
With some luck, the bees will enter the box on their own, seeking the safety and stability of the sturdy box. Not only do you get a box full of bees, but you also make them feel like it was their choice, increasing the likelihood of the swarm staying put.
4. Attract them with comb or brood
Now, this method requires that you already have some resources from a previous hive, but it’s an almost surefire way to keep the swarm in. For starters, you can try giving them an empty comb to make the box look much more attractive.
Alternatively, an even better option is to add a frame of pre-existing open brood, perhaps from another colony. These contain lots of appealing pheromones and the new swarm is likely to adopt it as their own, taking care of it with its own adult nurse bees.
Needless to say, you’ll need more than one colony at once, so consider having at least two hives. Not only will you be able to transfer resources as and when needed, but you’ll also have a better chance of having at least one surviving swarm at the end of the year.
5. Be careful with the bees
This may seem like a given when handling bees, but you’d be surprised at how seemingly small movements can drive off an entire swarm. This is especially crucial at the beginning stages of transferring a swarm to a box and can mean the difference between having a busy box and an empty one for the season.
A protip is to avoid shaking or vacuuming them, as these can be deemed traumatic to the colony. Instead, use a scooping method to gently transfer them into the box. You don’t even have to scoop all of them in — just a majority, and the rest will go streaming in on their own.
6. Only move bees at night
Logically speaking, moving bees at night is a smart move, because that way you don’t leave any bee behind. This is in comparison to moving them in the day, where some bees are still out flying and gathering nectar.
On top of that, however, the darkness of the night reduces the stress of moving by a lot. For some reason, moving them in daylight seems to irritate them more and increases the chances of them absconding.
7. Offer them a used box
Naturally, bees would rather stay where other bees have stayed before, so offering them a used box is much more attractive to them. For one, there’s the scent of propolis and beeswax leftover from the previous colony, which will encourage the new swarm to stay in the box.
On the other hand, a new box doesn’t contain any of these scents or pheromones, so it takes much more for the swarm to settle in as readily.
You’ve probably noticed by now that all the tips have to do with simple persuasion rather than coercing the bees to enter and stay in the box. That’s not by chance, as persuasion is usually deemed much more ethical in nature. That said, if you feel that there is a need for coercion, you can opt for strategies like caging the queen or locking the swarm in the box.
All in all, preventing a new swarm from absconding is simple if you keep these things in mind. Take care of the swarm, be gentle and make your hive box as appealing as possible and the swarm should be yours for the season.