How to catch a swarm – advice from an expert beekeeper, Roger Patterson

A few weeks ago I listened into a zoom talk all about swarms by Roger Patterson. I last heard Roger speak in person almost a decade ago, back in 2012, when his talk was “Improve your bees and beekeeping – simply”. I think he’s one of the most well known beekeepers here, as he does so many talks and is very active in the beekeeping community. He has also written a book, called ‘Beekeeping – A Practical Guide’ (2012).

Roger began by saying that swarms have changed:

Pre 1990s, they used to be reliable:

– Large prime swarms had fertile queens (unless there had been a beekeeper error)
– You could chuck it in a hive
– No need to feed
– Add 1-2 supers if early in the season, 1 if later
– Leave it alone
– Often gave you a honey crop

But now:

  • Can be as they’re supposed to be
  • But more often find large swarms have a virgin or fail queen
  • Lots of small swarms with a failing fertile queen
  • Fertile queens often soon fail, supersede or disappear
  • They then swarm on emergency or supersedure cells
  • Quite a lot riddled with varroa

I was interested in this as I had a lot of queen problems myself after doing splits or capturing swarms. Like Roger says, often the new queens seem to disappear.

Roger then went on to talk about good swarms – these he thought:

  • Have a mix of ages
  • Far more young bees than usually thought
  • Fertile queens lay within a day of the swarm settling into their new home

He is a fan of swarms and thinks they make a great learning experience for beginners.

About being a swarm collector

Most associations have a list of swarm collectors, which may be managed by a local swarm co-ordinator. This is not an easy job, as all the calls come at once. If you go on the list, it is a service to the general public. Please commit yourself for the summer (not just collect enough swarms for yourself). You also need to be competent.

Before going on the swarm collection list, you should fully understand the swarming process and have experience collecting swarms. Also learn about wasps, hornets, bumblebees, solitary bees, hover flies (all the things that are public mistakes for honey bees). You are dealing with non-beekeepers. They may need patience and understanding, but most are on our side.

Have kits ready x2

Smoker, fuel, matches/lighter, hive tool, several queen cages, clipping/marking kit, secateurs, spare veil for onlookers, bee proof container (eg skep, or poly nuc, or tough cardboard box). You also need a sack, cloth or sheet. Make sure it hasn’t got a hole and is breathable. Some old, dry brood comb can also be helpful, as a swarm in a thick hedge will often climb onto an old brood comb.

When the call comes

  • Ask where the person lives
  • How long have the bees been there?
  • Did you see them arrive? (If yes – good sign)
  • Where are they? (Avoid cavity walls or in the ground. Bird boxes are likely to be bumbled)
  • What size – football, rugby or tennis ball?
  • How high? Relate to something like a window or gutter
  • Ask if any other beekeepers have been called, and if one lives nearby
  • Is a ladder needed – and have they got one?
  • Give them your mobile number and ask them to call if the swarm leaves
  • Take their number

When you arrive

People who have found a swarm can be very different. Some are frightened or allergic. Some get too close. They can be helpful, difficult and everything is in-between. We are ambassadors – diplomacy may be needed! Don’t cause damage. Leave everything tidy and say thank you.

If the location is too difficult to collect from, say so. Be calm – you may have lots of observers – but it’s not a bomb disposal! Check your BBKA insurance, make sure you know what you are covered for.

Hiving a swarm from an unknown source

  • Hive on foundation
  • Don’t feed for 4 days (just in case they come from a colony with foul brood. If you hive on foundation the foul brood is used up out of their system as part of the wax making process. However Roger has only come across one swarm that had foul brood).
  • You can put a queen excluder under the brood box to stop the queen leaving, but the downside is that it can get clogged up with drones and if the swarm has a virgin queen she then can’t get out to mate.

Building up a swarm

  • Let it build up naturally
  • Only feed if necessary – Roger hasn’t been in about 40 years
  • Inspect regularly
  • Re-queen if needed

Thanks Roger for a great talk. As you can see, he covered a lot! I didn’t get notes for all of it. What do you think, have swarms changed since you started beekeeping? Is there anything you do differently when collecting/looking after a swarm?

The swarms
One of my swarms, 2018

About Emily Scott

I am a UK beekeeper who has recently moved from London to windswept, wet Cornwall. I first started keeping bees in the Ealing Beekeepers Association’s local apiary in 2008, when I created this blog as a record for myself of my various beekeeping related disasters and – hopefully! – future successes.

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