If you read my previous beekeeping posts, you probably noticed that I took on the challenge of reducing the cost of beekeeping for beginners. I’ve wanted bees for a long time but I simply didn’t have $800 to set up a couple hives to start with.
We talked about the difference between the common Langstroth hives to the less common top-bar hives in this post, then I showed you how I built my somewhat experimental hive from a barrel for under $50 in this post. We also went over 61 plants that will attract the bees to your yard and garden.
In the beginning, my plan was to simply purchase a package of bees from the local supplier and install it in the hive, but after writing all those posts and really getting into the “reduced-cost-beekeeping” thing, it only made sense to see if there was a way to get my bees for free.
So I decided that instead of buying a package, I would set my new hive in the field as a bait hive and see if I could manage to catch a swarm of bees
I really wanted free bees but I knew that there is a big chance that my hive won’t catch anything because it’s lower than it supposed to be (more on that in a minute) and because I don’t think any of my neighbors are beekeepers. This means that the bees will have to come from a distance which can happen but I am not sure how likely it is.
Meanwhile, I did everything that I could do to attract them. I planted an acre of crimson clover mixed with buckwheat and a honeybee wildflower mix. It supposed to be a haven for bees when all this is in bloom.
The funny thing was, that after I set up the trap hive, the local beekeepers club contacted me to ask if I wanted to host a once-a-month 4-H beekeeping club for young kids. This 4-H club will be all about beekeeping and it will come with two established hives, the bees, and all the equipment to run them. Heck, yes! Of course I want to do that!
So it seems as if I will get my free bees somehow but it will still be very cool to learn how to trap bee swarms.
let’s start from the beginning…
What is a Bee Swarm?
Almost every spring, when the bees are at their honey production peak the hive will swarm.
If the colony is strong and the hive is getting too crowded, the worker bees will build a queen cell and start raising a new queen.
You can see the queen cell in the picture above at the center of the lower part of the frame. It is round and large.
When you open your hive and see a queen cell (or more than one sometimes), it means your bees are getting ready to swarm.
This is the bees means of reproduction. Instead of one colony, there will be two after swarming which means more room for laying eggs and hatching new babies. The old queen will leave the hive with a bunch of worker bees and the rest of the bees that are left behind will work on raising a new queen for their hive.
This may happen more than once in a season but generally swarming season is from March to June. The hive might swarm later in the season but the swarms are small and most likely will not have enough time to collect enough nectar and make enough honey to see them through the winter.
Obviously, you don’t want to lose your bees. This means you have two options, the first is to divide the hive before the bees swarm (we will talk about this in a different post) and prevent the swarming manually, and the second is to catch the swarm.
The Process of Swarming…
A few days before the new queen hatches, a large number of bees (around 60% of the colony) together with the old queen will form a cluster and leave the colony.
They don’t fly far from the hive at first, they will most likely cluster on a nearby tree. Once they form the cluster on the tree they will now send scouts all over to find the best location for the new hive.
This means that they will stay in this cluster for a little while until the scouts find a suitable new hive. At this point, if you didn’t manually divide your hive and your bees have swarmed, you have the chance of catching the swarm by shaking the branch they clustered on and dropping the bees into a new hive.
But what if you can’t catch them? What if they settled very high in the tree? What if you were at work when they decided to swarm and fly away?
This is where our trap hive comes in. We want to give the swarming bees an attractive place to build the new hive. If we set the trap hive just right they might end up choosing it as their new home.
A trap hive might help you keep your bees if you already have a few hives, but it might also help you catch a swarm of wild bees or someone else’s swarm. In other words, free bees.
How to Set Up a Trap Hive…
A trap hive is a box of about 40 liters. If you keep bees with Langstroth equipment you can simply use one of your deep boxes. Otherwise, it can be a wooden box or even a cardboard box but just take into consideration that it will get wet in rain.
If you use one of your deep boxes you’ll have to make sure you use a hive lid to close it.
The entrance to the hive can be either a hole in the box (some say the circle attracts bees) or a little rectangular opening. Either way, it should be rather small, about two square inches.
Next, you have to make sure you can hang the box. Naturally, the bees with gather on a tree branch when swarming. It’s said that hanging your trap box 15 feet up the tree is ideal, however, this might be hard for some people and it’s not easy to manage so six to seven feet should be good enough.
In this trap box that you see above, there is simply a piece of wood with a hole in it. The beekeeper who uses it simply nails a large galvanized nail into the tree and hangs the box on it, it then the box rests against the tree.
Choose a location for your trap box that is at least a 100 feet from your existing hives on the edge of the woods in partial shade.
If you don’t have your own apiary yet and you want to catch bees, it will be best to find a location that you know has hives nearby. For example, if you drive through a neighborhood and notice hives ask one of the neighbors if you can place a trap box on their tree. Or maybe you have a friend who lives close by and will let you place a trap hive in their yard.
Take into consideration that bees travel a five miles radios around their hive, so even if you are not sure if there are hives around you the scouts that the bees send after swarming might still find your trap hive.
So now that we have the outside done we want to make sure that the inside is inviting for the bees.
Bees are not very picky, all they are looking for is a hollow space for their new hive. But there are a few things we can do to make it even a little more appealing to them.
The first thing is to place a few frames with some comb in them. If you are using the Langstroth method of beekeeping and you already have bees for a couple of years, you probably have some old comb that you can use.
10 frames fit in a deep Langstroth box but don’t fill the whole box with frames, just place seven or so frames inside to keep some of the space hollow.
If you don’t have frames with comb drawn on them, use frames with foundation.
The second thing, and the most important one, is to attract the bees to the box by scent.
You can purchase queen bee pheromone from a beekeeping supplier or you can use lemongrass essential oil.
Add a few drops to a small piece of paper, fabric, or a q-tip, place it in a small ziplock bag (leave the baggie open) and drop it inside the trap box.
If you use the commercial queen pheromone, follow the instruction that comes with it. If you use lemongrass oil renew the oil every two weeks.
OK, let’s recap…
1. A 40 litter wooden box (can be a deep Langstroth box) with a lid to keep water out.
2. A way to hang it on a tree.
3. Place a few frames inside with drawn comb on them or a foundation if you have them.
4. Use queen pheromone or lemongrass oil to attract the bees.
5. Hang it on a tree six to seven feet off the ground on the edge of the woods in partial shade.
6. Most trappers leave their trap hives on the tree from early March to late June.
What to Do With a Swarm…
If you see a bee here and a bee there buzzing around your trap, those are probably scouts.
But if you come out to check on your trap one day and see a whole lot of bees around and inside the box then, congratulations! You caught a swarm.
If you use Langstroth equipment and made your trap from a deep box, you can simply use this box to create a new hive. But if you want to keep using this box for trapping then you will have to move the frames with the bees to another hive box.
If you use another method of beekeeping like a top-bar hive, for example, you will have to install the swarm in your hive in the same way as you will do when you install a bee package that you buy from a supplier.
You can then hang your hive on the tree again and wait for another swarm.
How I Set Up My Hive as a Trap…
I shared with you in another post how I built my top-bar hive from half a plastic barrel. I decided to go ahead and use it as a trap since I would really love some free bees.
But I faced a few challenges… First, I am not sure if any of my neighbors have bees. I see bees buzzing around, they come to my garden all the time, but I am not sure how far they are coming from.
Anyway, I planted an acre of crimson clover, buckwheat, and a pollinator flower mix so I am sure they will find my farm and hopefully in the process they will find the hive too.
First order of the day was to place the hive. I thought that it would be hard to move this hive and that I would need one more person to do it, but I found out that the wheelbarrow fits right into the side of the hive, under the barrel and that it’s then very easy to lay the hive on the wheelbarrow.
You should place a bee hive in full sun close to a water source. On the other hand, a trap hive is better placed in half shade on the edge of the trees. I decided that I prefer to not need to move this hive again when there are bees in it so I went with placing it in full sun. It’s not ideal for a trap hive but I feel as if it’s the best I could do.
I ended up setting it right on the edge of the acre of clover that I’ve planted. My hope is that the bees that come to the field will find the hive.
I made sure it was leveled…
And I also made sure that there was enough space between the hive to the field so I can mow the grass and that the tractor won’t bother the bees too much when I till the field.
It happened that the location I chose is close to the driveway so I made sure to place the hive in a way that the entrance is facing away from the driveway.
Next, I used my doTERRA Lemongrass oil to bait the hive. I placed a couple of drops on a couple of q-tips, placed them in the small ziplock bag…
And dropped it in the bottom of the hive, leaving the bag open.
I originally set up a feeder at the bottom of the hive. It was a plastic bin with a 1:1 sugar water solution. I thought that it might be another thing that will attract the bees, but later when I consulted an experienced bee trapper he said that I better remove it because it attracts other insects like ants and wasps that can actually make it not that attractive for the bees.
So I ended up removing the feeder.
I placed my bars back on…
And then the hive lid.
Here it is standing on the edge of the field.
It has been a couple of weeks now and I don’t have any bees yet. I think there isn’t much bee activity in my area yet because we had a very cool spring.
I left my hive in the field just as you see it and left it while I was away to visit my family in Israel for a few weeks. I know it will get warmer while I am away and the crimson and wild flowers will start taking off so maybe I’ll have bees when I come back. It will be an awesome surprise.
This whole thing is an experiment for me. It was great to learn from the experts the right way of setting a trap hive and my plan for the future, once I have a couple of established hives, is to hang a few trap boxes around the farm, but for now I really wanted to see if I can make this happen with what I’ve got.
I think this hive is very attractive, there is beeswax on the underside of the to bars and there is a lot of room for a happy colony inside. I am just hoping that the bees agree with me!