Categories: Articles, Resource managementPublished On: 6th March 2023

Beekeeping part 8: How to obtain bees

By 9 min read

swarming

Swarming is a natural way for bees to form a new colony. (Source: Pixabay)

by Tisha Steyn

Anew beekeeper can buy or catch a swarm of bees. Buying is the easy option, but with a bit of practice, you can capture a swarm that is on the move for free.

But be careful, do not attempt any of these capture actions without having at least some prior experience or preferably training with an experienced person. Also, make sure to wear protective gear, or at least a hat, veil and gloves. “More people die from bee stings annually than snake bites,” says John Moodie of Honeywood Farm, who has been a beekeeper for more than half a century.

He strongly advises that you must ensure that the bees pose no threat to anybody in the vicinity, nor yourself. Remember, if you are living in South Africa, you must register as a beekeeper with the Department of Agriculture.

Women in protective clothing tend the beehives in an
apiary. (Source: Pixabay)

Buying a swarm

The easiest way to get a swarm of bees is to buy it from an existing beekeeper. Before you buy, peek inside the hive to ensure the bees are in good condition and acting like healthy, active bees. Also, make sure that the frames are wired correctly to prevent the bees from criss-cross building the comb. Keeping a clean, clear, stable structure will make your bees happy so they will build correctly on each frame allowing you to inspect frames for honey, the queen’s laying patterns, and disease.

Smoking

Before handling bees, it is necessary to produce smoke to calm them down. A bee smoker is used to puff smoke into the hive. The smoker consists of a fire chamber, which is filled with flammable material such as pine needles that will produce smoke when lit, and the bellow that will get a puff of smoke from the nozzle, which can be directed to where the smoke is needed. Keep in mind that bees usually move upward, so smoking must be directed at the side you want the bees to move away from, that is the bottom of the hive. Bees release a pheromone from the Nasanov gland near the sting to orientate the other bees where to go. The Koschevnikov gland releases the alarm pheromone, which warns the bees that there may be danger and that they must prepare to leave the hive.

This scent not only warns the other bees of possible danger but also helps disoriented bees to get back to the hive and to mark food and water to direct other worker bees to it. It is used in addition to the intricate wiggle dance of bees. Smoking masks this alarm so the bees remain calm, allowing the beekeeper to inspect the hive. The smoke does not harm the bees, and neither does it make them sleepy.

In fact, it causes the bees to prepare to leave the hive from the perceived threat, so they eat a lot of honey to provide the necessary energy to find a new home. When their tummies are full, they are less inclined to sting.

Worker bees in a hive must be calmed down with smoke
before working with them. (Source: Pixabay)

Drumming

The drumming method is used for rehiving an existing swarm in an old box. Once the smoke has calmed the bees you can proceed to get them from the old hive to a new one. As the bees would have attached the top of the frames to the roof of the hive, it is necessary to turn the hive on its side so that you can remove the floor to gain access. Put a new hive with loose frames next to the upturned hive so that the entrance at the front is aligned with the open bottom end of the old hive.

Start rhythmically tapping on the old hive, which will soon make the bees uneasy so they will instinctively move to the open end and into the new hive. It may be necessary to smoke the bees more than once if you see them using their wings. Direct the smoke from the bottom to gently drive the bees to move to the top. Wait for all the bees as well as the queen to leave the old hive.

As soon as the whole swarm has moved into the new hive, it is necessary to place a few frames containing brood with new eggs, larvae, and young bees, as well as a frame with honey and pollen inside the new hive. To remove a swarm, combs can be cut from the old hives and fitted into some of the frames of a new hive, keeping them in place with pieces of string, sticky tape, or rubber bands. These ties can be removed as soon as the bees have reattached the combs to the frames. Placing brood in the hive will keep the bees from absconding, and provide new worker bees while the queen starts laying eggs for a new batch of larvae.

Capturing a swarm

The cheapest way of obtaining a swarm of bees is to encourage migrating bees to move into your own prepared hive. Swarming is a honeybee colony’s natural way of reproduction. In the process of swarming, which usually takes place in spring, a single colony splits into two or more distinct colonies. When a swarm emerges, it usually does not move far, but clusters on the branch of a nearby tree. The bees cluster around the queen while scout bees go find a suitable new nesting site. After a day or two, the bees follow the scouts to their new home. This is the ideal opportunity to hive a swarm. Hold a suitable container, such as a cardboard box or custom-made swarm trap just below the cluster, give the branch a quick shake, and hopefully the swarm will fall into the container.

Make sure all the bees, and especially the queen, are in the container before quickly closing the lid. Move the container with the bees to your hive. Make sure the container is well-ventilated, or else the bees might suffocate. If the bees must remain in the container for a while, it is best to place it in a cool, dark place and never in the sun as the heat can kill them. Handle the container with care so that the bees do not suffer unnecessary bumps as it will upset them.

A beekeeper wearing a protective suit, gloves and hat with veil catches
bees that settled on a branch after leaving the nest to swarm. (Source:
Pixabay)

Catch box

If you want to capture a swarm by allowing it to move into a catch box of their own free will, it is necessary to prepare a catch box and place it correctly. You can build your own catch box with scrap wood and attach it to the branch of a tree in a field or in your garden. Make sure that there are no people moving around the area, and that there are no bright lights or loud noises, such as a lawnmower. Place the box upright, facing east for sunrise.

Strap it securely to a branch and make sure the lid cannot be blown off by the wind. Clear the entrance and pathway of hanging branches or other obstructions. Tilt the box slightly forward to keep rainwater from flowing into the entrance. Use bait to invite the bees to move in by painting the hive with propolis or melted beeswax, or binding old comb to the frames. A few drops of lemon essence at the entrance of the box may also attract them. According to John, honey doesn’t work and will only be stolen by other bees. Remove the box about two weeks after a swarm has moved in and the queen has started laying eggs. The swarm will be more likely to stay then. Once there are three brood frames full of comb, the swarm is ready to be transferred to a brood box. Move the box away at night.

It is important to gain information and experience by attending a course before you attempt beekeeping. (Source: Pixabay)

Unwanted swarms

Sometimes a swarm finds a new home in a place where it is inconvenient for a home owner. On social media, one often sees a cry for help from people who need an unwanted swarm to be removed. “This is a service offered by bee-keepers – it takes time, experience and specialised equipment to perform an efficient removal operation,” says John. It needs to be done by a registered bee-keeper who has insurance if the bees should create any disturbance. It generally involves several trips so travel and time need to be considered when quoting for bee removal.

Funnel-method

In such an instance, it is best to use the funnel method to channel the bees to a hive. Close all the entrances to the place where the bees have settled. Attach a screen of mesh or any other flexible material in the shape of a funnel with the open side to the only remaining entrance. Foraging bees will have to leave the nest out of the small hole at the bottom but won’t find their way back in again. “It is unlikely that the queen will move out so you may have to kill her with the few remaining bees left behind with her,” says John.

Before buying a hive, you must look at the bees to make sure they are
healthy and active. (Source: Pixabay)

More information about the Honeywood Farm Bee Course is available at: www.honeywoodfarm.co.za

References

Anderson, R.H., Buys, B., Johannsmeier, M.F. (2014). Byeboerdery in Suid-Afrika. Department van Landbou-tegniese Dienste Bulletin no. 394, 1978. Hersiene uitgawe. Beehive Cross Combs (and how to fix and prevent them). (n.d.) Dadant. Available at: https://www.dadant. com/learn/beehive-cross-combsand-how-to-fix-and-prevent-them/   

Booysen, F. (2016) Catch boxes. Southern Beekeeping Association. Available at: https://beekeepers. co.za/catch-boxes/   

Nasanov’s gland. A Dictionary of Zoology. Encyclopedia.com. Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com

Salkeld, A. (2022) Why do beekeepers use smoke? Buddha Bee Apiary. Available at: https://www. buddhabeeapiary.com/blog/why-dobeekeepers-use-smoke

Wikipedia (2022) Swarming (honey bee) Available at: https:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swarming_ (honey_bee)

Underhill, R. (2010) Bee transfer by funnel. The peace bee farmer. Available at: https://peacebeefarm.blogspot. com/2010/05/bee-transfer-by-funnel.html  

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