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Setting Up Bait Hives to Lure Swarms

Winter losses of bees have been high this year and a lot of colonies that are left are small in numbers and beekeepers will be concentrating on building them up and refilling empty hives leaving a severe shortage of bees to go around .

No matter how good beekeepers are at swarm control, we all lose swarms from time to time. Each year a huge proportion of swarms are lost completely because beekeepers have offered them nothing to take up residence in and they then fly off to distance places. With bait hives what we are doing is stacking the odds in our favour by creating the most attractive location, with the most desirable conditions that bees would want for setting up a new home. This will not encourage hives in the area to swarm but serves only to provide a safe home for bees that has already decided to reproduce and split. Swarm luring with bait hives can be a way to get started in beekeeping. It isn’t the easiest way but its worth the extra effort. Besides, if it works, who doesn’t like free bees.

Swarm TrapSafety First! Location has everything to do with luring a swarm and the essential part is putting the bait hive in the right place. Ideally the bait hive should be in full sun and between 9 to 15 feet off the ground at the flying height of foraging and scout bees and with an entrance that is facing south and has no flight obstruction. This height naturally get them far enough up off the ground and away from most predators like badgers, rats and mice. Fifteen feet might be the most ideal height, but wherever the hives are placed they will need to be taken down and working on a ladder 15 feet off the ground while balancing a hive full of bees, wearing gloves and a bee suit and trying to keep in contact with a ladder can be a nervous experience and there is no swarm worth getting injured over.

While positioning a bait hive 9 to 15 feet off the ground produces the best results, placing it within arms reach will work nearly as good. Place the bait hive as high as you can while still being able to take it down safely. I have caught swarms at 15 feet but I’ve also caught them 18 inches off the ground. Most of my bait hives are on flat garage roofs or low pitched sheds. Some beekeepers just don’t manage their swarm control very well and every year there are hot spots for swarming and I could get a dozen calls from concerned householders about scout bees that are checking out the air vents, cavities, attics, front porch canopies and sheds in that area. If we all had bait hives out then it would stop all this inconvenience to the general public. Once bees have swarmed and have flown away from a beekeepers apiary, then they are lost to that beekeeper and it’s a lot better off for them to go into a bait hive than into the roof of a neighbours house. A swarm might be a prize to a beekeeper but it’s a very intimidating pest to your neighbour.

Bait hive size: Size matters when it comes to choosing your bait hive. Hives will be sending out their Scout bees (surveyors and architects) to check out all the local cavities for several weeks before they actually swarm. They are looking for a cavity that will be large enough to allow them to move into and expand into a full size colony.

A prime swarms preference is a cavity of about 40 litres (a little larger than a National brood box), well up off the ground, with a small entrance which can be easily defended. Entrance size should be near the bottom of the hive and about 2 to 3 inches in length which is small enough for the bees to defend. Don’t have your entrance wide open, with the entrance block removed.

For second and subsequent swarms that are issued from the same colony, then a Nucleus size Box will do just fine. The problem is, you don’t know the potential size of the swarm that is checking out your bait hive and if you don’t offer them enough space then they may pass up your bait hive for another home. I have had scout bees intensely checking out a nuc box on my garden shed and then the activity ceases but started up again a week later and had a small swarm (cast) arrive soon after. This meant that the main or prime swarm with the old queen turned down the nuc because it was too small but was an acceptable size for secondary smaller swarms or casts.

How many traps and what distance? Having several swarm traps out increases your odds so put as many traps out as possible. Empty hives that are sitting idle in your shed won’t catch anything there. Get them out outside and put some old frames into them before the swarming season. Swarms do not generally move very far from their parent colonies and the average distance is about ½ mile (800m). The waggle dance is a unique figure-eight dance of the honeybee and it is performed by workers so that they can give their colony information about the direction and distance to the best nectar, pollen, water sources, or too potential new hive locations in their area. Bees can’t give a precise signal for anything under a hundred metres and the waggle dance will just convey that the attraction is just in the general area, so its a lot easier for them to pin point a bait hive that is placed well outside your apiary. I put one bait hive in my apiary and then place another’s out about 100 hundred metres or more away. Watching bee activity increase at the entrance of the bait hive in my apiary is a good indicator of swarming activity.

Swarm Lures: You need to bait your traps as effectively as you can and the key is the attractant. Virtually every action taken by bees within and outside the colony is based upon pheromones, so swarming and bait hives are no different.

Used Hive Equipment: To try and ensure that the scout bees will pick your bait hive, you will need every attraction at your disposal to enhance the attention of the scout bees and the best things that attracts bees is used hive materials, especially used brood combs. Used equipment has absorbs the smell of it’s previous tenants therefore making it an excellent natural attractant. Old brood frames produce good results, but be especially careful of the source of your old comb as it can introduce disease to a new colony. A brood box or nucleus that has been well used is good. Try not to use open mesh floor but use the oldest solid floor and pre used crown boards that you have, in fact pre used everything is best. In the absence of used brood comb, foundation has some attractiveness and is clearly better than nothing. But used in conjunction with another pheromone it greatly increases your odds as bees have a distinct preference for pheromones and the more the better.

How many Frames should I place in my bait hive: If your bait hive is somewhere that is monitored regularly like the roof of your garden shed then space is everything. Place no more than 5 spaced out frames in a full hive or 3 frames in a nucleus Box. One central and one near each edge. All the time we are trying to give the scouts the illusion that there is enough space for the colony to grow to their fill potential. If it is in an out apiary and you will not be back for over a week then place 2 used brood frames near front of the box and fill up the rest of the hive with frames of foundation and then place an empty super underneath as this also give them the feeling that they have enough space that they can expand into and prevents the swarm from filling out wild uneven comb in the empty space in-between the frames.

Commercial Pheromone lures: There are commercial swarm lures available and some have had extremely good success. Most commercial lures attempt to copy the Queens pheromone which is a natural attractant to honeybee scouts looking for a new home and is somewhat of a Lemony fragrance. These Pheromone swarm lures can be purchased from most bee supply companies and come in a small Plastic tube which slowly releases their vapours. Google, swarm lures and you will see what is available.

Lemon Grass Oil: Pheromone scent lures can get expensive and when setting out several traps combined with the fact that as time goes by the scents start to diminish. If your new to beekeeping and do not have access to old comb, then another option that has good results is using Lemon Grass Oil which can be purchased at most health stores. When using Lemon Grass Oil only a small amount is needed as it is strongly scented and it can be refreshed from time to time. You only need a few drops per bait hive so a small bottle lasts several years. I use a ear cleaning cotton Q Tip to dab the oil inside the hive. A drop inside the entrance will make it more inviting and another couple of drops directly onto top of the frames. Three or four drops at the most and then place the q-tip at the back of the box and it can be repeated every couple of weeks. Some people put 4 or 5 drops of lemon grass oil on a piece of paper towel, and put it in a Ziplock bag with several small holes on one side of the bag and place it on the floor of the trap, hole side up. The use of Lemon Grass Oil combined with Old Dark Comb is an extremely good attractant.

Scout bees and swarms arriving: If the bait hive is positioned where it can be observed it can be very entertaining and rewarding to watch the different types of scout bee behaviour at the entrance and to know what is behind it. For weeks before a colony is going to swarm, scout bees will have been checking out all the available cavities in the local area and this could be up to a dozen sites or more. Most of the scout bee activity at the bait hives will be between 11 and 5 in the day and the activity will diminish as the day gets later. At first there will only be a few bees entering, exiting and hanging around the outside. These are the first of the scout bees assessing their potential new home. They are the surveyors and architects and are measuring up the interior before reporting back to the parent hive with their waggle dance. Their enthusiasm is then transmitted to other bees that will also visit the site. Such is the activity in the parent hive that sometimes you will see a forager with pollen on it legs checking out your bait hive on its way home. They will then start selecting and rejecting potential sites until they come to a decision on their final choice. This is done by gradually ignoring the scout bees that are preferring their waggle dance for a location that is not suitable, or by actually head butting the performing dancer to get her to stop.

As swarming looms nearer in the parent hive, activity will be increasing at the entrance of your bait hive. If the number of scout bees rises to about 50 at any one time, then your bait hive has made it to the final selection. You will often see scout bees getting overexcited and actually giving a waggle dance on the front of the bait hive to other scout bees. When you see this level of activity, you can be fairly sure that a swarm is about to arrive in the next 24 hours. If you see a lot of activity at the entrance one day and none the following day, then your potential swarm has either picked a more suitable home, or a beekeeper have managed to get their swarm control done in the nick of time. Some times you will observe competing scout bees from different hives fighting at the entrance of the bait hive, meaning you could set up a second bait hive not to far away from the first. When the swarm arrives there will be tens of thousands of bees swirling around in the air and it can be a very intimidating experience for your neighbours.

From a swarm arriving to all the bees having entered the bait hive is about 20 minutes or less and if nobody was around you would know no difference. If you have not seen the swarm arrive and are unsure whether or not it is just a lot of scout bees, then watch for a steady stream of bees coming and going at the entrance and a good indication is bees flying straight in with pollen on their legs. If you are keeping the bees in the same area then you will need to move them straight away. I have moved them within minutes of all the bees entering the bait hive, but the best time to move your bait hive is in the cool of the evening after the bees have stopped flying or first thing in the morning before they have started flying again. Build it and they will come.

Credit: Keith Pierce