How to Use a Swarm Box (or a Swarm Trap)

Here’s a short narrated video that explains how I use a swarm box to catch swarms that would normally get away. (A transcript of the narration can found below the video. And that’s the last time I read from a script. It sounds like the stilted narration from an instructional video by Troy McClure)

This is a swarm box. Like everything in beekeeping, it’s got more than one name. Some call it a swarm trap. I call it a swarm box because it’s shaped like a box. It’s made from old plywood and it’s wide and deep enough to hold six standard deep Langstroth frames. (I could get more specific and talk about the volume of space measured in litres and all that jazz, but catching swarms doesn’t have to be the exact science that some officious beekeepers make it out to be.) The box has a 2-inch or 5cm hole drilled near the bottom corner. The hole is covered with half-inch mesh.

A 6-frame plywood swarm box (or swarm trap) with a 2-inch mesh-covered lower entrance.

The 6 frames contain old drawn comb, which includes at least one frame of drone comb. Scout bees are apparently more attracted to drone comb.

The top of the box is screwed in place and can be removed by taking the screws out. Duct tape works too.

Commercial swarm lures can be used to attract honey bees to the box. I use lemongrass oil that’s often sold as a so-called essential oil, a perfume that’s concentrated in oil form. Some people soak up their swarm lure in a cotton ball and stick it in a plastic bag that they shove inside the box. Honestly, I think some people like to complicate things so they can show off. I just smear a few drops of lemongrass oil around the entrance whenever I think of it. I don’t think I used any kind of oil to attract the bees to this box.

Some people place the box high off the ground, sometimes up in a tree. Good for them, but I’ve never done that. I set my swarm boxes two or three feet off the ground in an open but shaded area. Again, it’s entirely possible to make this more complicated than it has to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with putting a swarm box up in a tree. But it’s not the end of the world if it’s not up in a tree.

According to certain books, and according to my own experience, swarms, when they exit a hive, seem to fly towards the sun, which means, in the Northern Hemisphere, the best place to set up a swarm box is south of the hive, or south-ish anyway. I can’t remember the reason for this, but it seems to add up. From what I’ve seen, when my bees fly out to forage, they always begin their flights by flying towards the sun.

This particular swarm box was from last summer and I set it up around the beginning of July. I would walk past the box whenever I was done with the bees for the day, to see if any bees were poking around inside the box, flying in and out of the 2-inch hole in the corner of it. Scout bees behave differently than regular honey bees. Regular honey bees aren’t too interested in empty cavities like a swarm box or a gas barbecue or a rotted hole in the eves of your house. They don’t usually poke their heads into anything like that unless they’re looking for a new place to live.

About two weeks after I set up this swarm box, I began to notice some bees flying around the box, curious about it. Then near the end of July, as I was leaving one day, I saw a good number of bees flying in and out of the hole in the swarm box. That’s what you’re seeing in this video.

So to recap, I caught a swarm in a box made of old plywood that contained 6 frames of old drawn comb, including at least one frame of drone comb, the kind of comb that’s full of big fat cells. The box was a couple feet off the ground in an open but shaded spot. I didn’t use swarm lure or lemongrass oil to attract the swarm (though neither of those hurt). (I forgot to mention that the swarm box is usually placed about 30 metre or more south of the beehives. That’s about 100 feet away.)

The swarm came from one of my own colonies. Boo. I found frames with several queen cups on the bottom in one of my hives two weeks before it swarmed. I don’t get alarmed by queen cups. I don’t go mad and destroy them when I find them. But a few days later I saw even more queen cups on the bottom of the frames. ROWS of queen cups. And now I know, when I see rows of queen cups, not just a few scattered here and there (which is normal), but a large number of them, especially on the bottom of the frames where the big swarm cells usually hang out, then it’s time to knock back that colony. Split the hive in half. Both halves have open brood and I let the half without the queen create a new queen. Just something to kill that swarming instinct.

But I got complacent and I let the bees do what bees do, and they swarmed. But at least I caught the swarm and re-hived the bees and let them make a whole new colony. Which means I didn’t get much, if any, honey from the original colony, but at least I didn’t lose all my bees.

Thus ends my story of last summer’s swarm. As for this summer, I don’t want to talk about it yet.

P.S. #1: I just noticed there’s a typo in the video, but if nobody else notices it, I’ll just let it go.

P.S. #2: If I lived on Waterford Bridge Road, or in what some call the Waterford Valley, I would set up one of these swarm boxes pronto. If there’s any place in St. John’s that has perfect conditions for honey bees, that’s the place. More to the point, a popular farmer nearby imported their bees from Western Australia about 5 years ago and since then people in the Waterford Valley have been finding honey bee swarms every summer, many of those swarms having established themselves as colonies in the walls of older houses. Coincidence? Maybe. But swarming colonies are definitely in that area. So if anyone is looking for some free honey bees in St. John’s, set up a swarm box around Waterford Bridge Road. It’s hard to say no to free bees.