Swarm collecting tips from Tamsin Harris

This week I listened to a great talk for the West Cornwall Beekeepers Association by their member Tamsin Harris, who is a very experienced commercial worker. She came across as a practical person with a quick, dry sense of humour. The idea behind the talk was that more swarm collectors were needed, so the association was hoping for people to be encouraged to volunteer.

Here are some of Tamsin’s tips:

  • Put up bait hives. She does 15-20 a year, using a four or five frame nuc box. It should be watertight with a small entrance, and preferably old, so they smell of previous bee inhabitants. She has also used new nuc boxes before but added melted wax rubbed round the insides of the box. Add a frame of old comb if you have one. Some spots seem popular each year – anywhere you know you’ve collected a swarm in the past is a good bet. Keep checking the bait hives regularly in swarm season.
  • Feral colonies don’t tend to swarm as early. They haven’t been fed over winter as the managed colonies often are, so they take longer to build up.
  • When you’ve volunteered to be a swarm collector and the bee phone rings, the first question to ask is: “how long have they been there?”. This tells Tamsin just how quickly he has to get there.
  • The second question is: “how accessible are they?” She has found people don’t judge height well and you can usually double what they tell you! Once you get there, risk assessing the situation. You have to be prepared to tell people that the situation is not safe for you and you can’t collect the bees. Tamsin bears in mind that “If I fall, I break”. We only have one body and it’s not worth putting yourself at risk.
  • You need lots of equipment ready. Tamsin takes with her: straw skeptical; sheets; waterspray; secateurs; long handled loppers; a supermarket shopping basket for keeping things contained; a cardboard box (for swarms clustered on the side of buildings or cars, she finds a box easier to get underneath than a skeptic); ropes; telescopic ladders. She added that common sense is one of the biggest things you need with you!
  • For inaccessible swarms, the best thing to do is put a bait hive underneath.
  • Ask the permission of the member of the public whose garden it is before cutting any hedges or bushes etc to collect a swarm.
  • Put a sheet on the ground and then gently invert the skeptic or box you have collected the bees in over the sheet. Prop it up slightly with something like a brick or branch so that bees can come and go.
  • Once the swarm is collected, if it is in a busy area, you need to keep the bees away from people as much as possible. Tape condoning off an area or warning signs might be needed. However, you also have to put the swarm somewhere not too far from where they live, but also safe for the general public.
  • You can’t just take the swarm off immediately, as any bees off foraging or scouting for a new home then return and hang about for 2-3 days. They fly around looking for their lost swarm mates and become a nuisance. To make sure all the bees have been collected, you need to return it in the evening. You can explain to the public that bees go to bed at bedtime.
  • When Tamsin returns to collect the bees, he ties up the sheet they were placed very carefully over the skepticism or box they are in. She has a hive net she puts over the sheet too, just to make sure none gets out in the car.
  • Her favorite part is hiving the swarm and watching the bees walk into their new home. She described the roar of their wings as such a pleasure – a beautiful way to end an evening.
  • She talked a bit about the scenario when bees have been living in a building for a while (for example, in a roof or loft) and the home owners want them removed. She said the kit you need is “immense” and the job is “so, so messy”. It’s one of those where if you start, you can’t stop. Mayhem, bees everywhere, and the size of the colony could be 12-14 brood combs deep. She warned us that although these jobs are rewarding, they are not something for beginner swarm collectors to attempt alone. Always take someone more experienced with you. She added that once bees are established in a chimney you have to persuade people to put a jumper on and not use the fire!
  • If you want to get experience as a swarm collector, buddy up with existing swarm collectors and ask for help when they get a call. You can look at the BBKA bbka.org.uk/swarm search to find the nearest collector to you (see Step 3: Find a local swarm collector)
  • There was some fun discussing afterwards of times swarms had been collected from post boxes. Another member recommended smearing garlic inside to put swarms off, and someone else wondered if they had ever had any complaints afterwards about letters smelling bad! There’s a lovely photo here of Tamsin collecting a swarm from a letter box: https://penzancefarmersmarket.wordpress.com/producers/bee-special/ (3rd photo down)
Swarm on wall
This was a nice easy one to collect.
Trying to tempt a swarm down with a bait hive back in 2019. Can you see it up there?

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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