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Bee my Guest

By David Moncrieff
Australian Bee Journal (August 2012)

So you have got your beekeeping hobby in hand and you’re ready for another hive or two. There are many options; split, unwanted hives, buy bees, or collect a swarm. All good options. Then there is the cunning way; let the bees come to you, it’s quick, it’s simple and it might work. Besides you have nothing to lose. Just set up a bait hive and take the chance that a passing swarm will become your guest. The tricky part is that the bees make the decision. To make this way successful you have got to help scouts bees find your bait hive and then even more importantly help scout bees convince the swarm that your bait hive should be their new home. All you need to do is think like a bee and have some luck. Naturally you will need to deploy your bait hive in an area where there are hives or feral colonies during the usual swarming season usually from September to December. A past history of swarms in the locality is a good indication of future opportunity.

It’s a bit like a real estate deal. To the bees it all about finding a cavity with a suitable location, volume, entrance, snugness, odour and then consensus amongst the scout bees that you’re offering the best available home in the area. Many beekeepers and academics have studied the art and science of bait hive or swarm traps. There is even a modest amount of agreement on some of the essentials. Volume seems to be important – but snug four frame to eight frame boxes are about right. Adding a visible entrance of say 100 by 15 mm and a shaded position will get you in the game. Sounds familiar? Yes, you can use any spare nucs or standard hive or slap a box together out of bit and pieces to match these dimensions. Place the bait hive at a convenient height of a meter or two – there is no need for tree top circus acts with ropes and ladders.

What about odour? This is the most critical ingredient to up your chances of bagging a swarm. Bees are drawn to bee and hive odours. For example Nasonov pheromone secreted from glands on the bee’s abdomen was identified over 100 years ago as an attractant to other bees. The very least you should do is add an old dark comb into the bait hive. The general smell of a well used hive is also enticing or you could use commercial swarm lures (which consists of synthetically produced Nasonov pheromone and has citral as a main in ingredient). A DIY approach is to use Lemongrass essential oil as it just happens to contain a similar cluster of chemical compounds (mainly Citral) as Nasonov pheromone. Just add a few drops Lemongrass oil inside the bait hive every few weeks.

To keep the transfer to your permanent hive a quick and straightforward task only use standard frames in the bait hive as you use in your bee yard. Odd shaped boxes or pots and other wacky ideas that lead to chaotic comb building might start out as a spiritual experience but it will end in tears. If you can move the bait hive, with the newly captured swarm, to the spot you intend to keep them that same evening all the better. The new swarm can then be left to settle in and establish brood before transferring them to the permanent hive.

In the 2011-2012 season I set up three bait stations in our backyard at Upwey and caught one swarm. The bait hives were a mix of used nucs and newly modified plywood crates like the green hive in the photo. All had old dark comb and a few drops of Lemongrass oil added. Scout bees visited every bait hive so we can assume the each bait hive was tempting enough to be found. The second step is converting the door stop look into the decision by the swarm to take up residence. As shown in photo 1 the bees at the entrance to the white nuc hive are scouts. Scout bees visited this bait hive over several days; initially just the odd scout came and went but over a couple days they turned up in force and even stayed in the hive overnight. It looked like a certainly for a swarm – however no swarm occupied this hive. Note these bees in the photo were just walking around and in and out of the hive and flying around the hive exploring the hive and the location. The green seven frame bait hive in photo 2 was located 50 metres from the white bait hive, about a metre off the ground. The scout bees investigated this hive over a day or so and then a swarm just rushed in. The bees seen on the landing board are heads down and tails up pumping out Nasonov pheromone to attract stragglers from the swarm. As you can see in the photo drones are also present, another sure sign of a swarm is in residence as drones do not scout.

Bait hives are useful in a number of ways. Bait hives serve as a monitoring tool to let you know what is happening in the bee world. If scout bees start examining the bait hive, be alert for swarming in your bees or those in your neighbourhood. Well prepared bait hives stand a good chance of diverting feral swarms from taking up a position in someone’s chimney or wall or importantly not taking up valuable tree hollows or nest boxes that are rightly there for the native wildlife. Such community minded services, might earn more local Councils support for beekeepers in urban areas.

Now is a good time to make your decision on deploying a bait hive or two for this coming season. Many beekeepers and especially new beekeepers are eager to get a hive or two so even if you do not want them it will be easy to give or sell them to a fellow beekeeper. Go on then, see if you have the knack, and invite the bees to be your guests.

Scout bees
Arrived swarm
Photo 1: Scouts bees in large numbers - but no result.
Photo 2: Newly arrived swarm. Note the presence of drones and Nasonov fanning workers.
Last update 3-Mar-2017
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