Swarm con’Trap’tion

I honestly have no idea how it came about, but I’ve had a passing interest over the past few years in beekeeping, of all things. My grandfather picked up beekeeping as one of his many hobbies during his retirement, but I made sure to stay well away from the hives and bees in general in my youth. However, as a (supposed) adult, apiculture poses an intriguing yet approachable bit of urban ecology – I have no need for a source of honey, but harvesting beeswax might be interesting. Perhaps having a bee hive is just a more grownup version of an ant farm? At any rate, I was surprised to find that a number of my friends also had such an interest, but nobody was really willing to take the plunge on their own. The kick in the butt came via my sister (a PhD in bugology entomology), who gave me a nucleus hive for Christmas!

A ready-made colony of bees was perfect for a bunch of neophytes, but learning about beekeeping had also led to a lot of information on getting your bees for free. Namely, using a bait hive or swarm trap. Having several hives (so that everyone could have at least one hive of their own to tend) seemed like a good goal, since we had no idea what our success rate would be in keeping the little critters alive over the winter, to say nothing of actually attempting to harvest honey or wax from them. Plus, the mere thought of capturing wild bees was just plain appealing and intriguing.

After finding a few plans online for swarm traps, I asked my Dad if he might be able to build a trap or two for us. My father is not an engineer. No, he is an over-engineer, and his instinctive design capabilities are something that I hope to someday emulate. A favorite childhood memory was spending an afternoon in the basement with him at the table saw, as he built a wooden marble run toy for me and my sister. What struck me (and still does) is that he worked entirely without plans, only perhaps a few scribbled key dimensions, building and designing entirely on the fly. So when I know that I need something out of the ordinary with a great deal of latitude in execution, I mention it to my Dad. As I am assured that the end result will be glorious. (side note: my father is named on at least two United States patents. I have none. Just because I have a piece of paper saying I have an engineering degree doesn’t amount to squat, which is why I call my Dad whenever I have no idea what I’m doing and need an adult)

A few weeks later, Dad had constructed not one, but two luxury accommodations for Apis mellifera and a system for elevating and lowering said domicile. Not only that, but he had done his own research on ideal swarm trap locations, and selected two specific trees on his farmland as targets to place them.

The system consists of a length of steel strut channel serving as a linear track with a pulley at the top, with a carriage constructed of angle iron that slides in the strut channel. The strut channel is attached to a pair of carefully bent steel bars that act as ‘feet’ against the tree trunk over which ratchet straps can be fastened.

Plop the swarm trap onto the carriage, hoist it skyward, then insert a long steel rod into the channel to lock the carriage in place. Mom provided wood frames with wax foundation, and I sprayed a little bit of Swarm Commander into the swarm trap as well. I honestly wasn’t expecting much, figuring it would just be neat if we could capture some bees for a second hive. As it turned out, we wound up with all the bees we could handle!

By mid-May a colony had taken up residence in one of the traps, and on a cooler evening after sunset in early June I closed up the entrance and took the trap into the basement for 72 hours to let the bees ‘reset’ their home location.

Afterwards, I placed the swarm trap on top of their new hive (with a big yummy feeder full of sugar syrup next to it), opened the entrance, and a flood of bees erupted, delighted to be free once again. We let them adjust to their new location for a few days before transplanting the frames from the swarm trap into the hive. When we did so, we were absolutely amazed at how much comb the bees had built off the bottoms of the frames – they were literally dripping with nectar.

This was just the first swarm captured, and by early July we had an additional one. By late July, we had yet a third. At this point we had collectively spent over a thousand dollars on Apimaye hives (which we absolutely love and would highly recommend to any others interested in tending their own herd of flying livestock), so we decided that we had reached ‘peak bee’ for the season and took down the swarm traps to make sure we didn’t have to house any more of the little guys. At least if our hives don’t overwinter well, we know that we have a sure-fire method to get more.

This is our current bee yard, graciously hosted on my uncle’s land underneath a line of pine trees for protection, adjacent to a creek for a water source, and a wide variety of nearby farmland and wildflower areas to harvest from. These bees are utterly spoiled. Mom felt that the queens should have a name, and being Italian honeybees, we did indeed select appropriate names for them (which admittedly does make things easier when describing which hive you’re speaking of).

I’m not entirely certain of how it transpired, but the ‘killer bees’ motif of the Wu-Tang Clan entered the group chat at one point, and this lineup of the ‘Wu-Tang Hive’ (which you are advised not to mess with) was the result:

  • Method Mite
  • Ol’ Dirty Beestard
  • RZzzzA
  • Pollenface Killah
  • Hexagon
  • GZzzzA
  • Cappanecta
  • Insectah Deck
  • Mastah Stinga
  • B-God

Anyhow, as we slip into late October, it’s now time to start prepping for winter. I think I’ll take the medium super off of Francesca’s hive (as they haven’t been paying it much attention), and we’ll have to see how Bianca and Giulia’s hives are faring and if they seem strong enough to overwinter. With luck, we’ll have some strong, healthy bees come next spring and we can actually attempt to harvest some honey and wax next year!