At one time all swarms were what I call “natural swarms”, that is they were genuine attempts by the parent colony to increase colony numbers. Most books and advice are based on this and in the past it was very easy to hive swarms and manage them. It has become more difficult, with failure being common. For the purposes of this page I will ignore hunger and mating swarms.
Naturally, prime (first) swarms are headed by fertile queens, casts (second and subsequent swarms) have one or more virgin queens. In the past if a swarm or cast was hived, it would build up on its own, rarely needing any attention for the rest of the season, apart from the odd inspection. Fertile queens would always start laying within a day or so and virgin queens would get mated and be laying within 10-14 days. It was very rare there would be any queen failure, but that is only to be expected, as that was their only means of colony reproduction.
Unfortunately since the turn of the 21st century I have observed the character of many swarms has changed. There are still the natural swarms, but there are many that aren’t natural. Mainly as a result of the queen problems that many beekeepers are now having, there are swarms with failing queens and prime swarms with virgin queens.
All beekeepers need to be aware there are likely to be these problems, look for them and deal with them. I often hear that a swarm is queenless, but I doubt if it is. It probably has a failed queen in it that has gone off lay. All you need do is to to remove her give it another queen.
When taking a swarm, have a close look at it. If it looks healthy, then you should be O.K., but so many look sick and may need treating.
Apart from the above there are two main perceived problems with taking in stray swarms and hiving them, often to the point where beekeepers, especially beginners are strongly advised not to. These are:-
You don’t know where they have come from, so they may be bad tempered or have come from someone who has recently bought an imported queen, so the swarm may result in a colony that is not best suited to our climate. In both cases the answer is simple. Give the swarm a short time to establish. If it is good, then keep it, otherwise requeen it. I requeen the vast majority of swarms that I collect because they are worse bees than my own, but I still have the bees, so it’s worth the effort of collecting and hiving them.
There is a chance the swarm has come from a colony that is infected with foul brood. In over 50 years of beekeeping and dealing with or knowing about many hundreds, if not thousands of swarms, I have only known of one that had foul brood, so it is a very low risk.
As these “problems” are so easy to deal with I always advise taking swarms, especially by beginners, as there is so much to learn.
If you know the hive a swarm has come from and it is free of foul brood, then it is O.K. to hive it on comb, but if you collect it from an unknown source I think it is worth taking precautions.
A swarm takes a supply of nectar/honey with them. If this is infected with foul brood, they will store it in comb if that is what they are hived on, so keeping the infection going in the new colony. To greatly reduce the chances of infection I advise hiving a swarm on foundation and not feeding for at least 3-4 days. I rarely find swarms need feeding anyway, so I don’t do it.
An added precaution is to hive a stray swarm some distance from your existing colonies, especially if you do hive it on comb. If there is a problem with foul brood there is less chance of infecting other colonies. When it is shown to be clear it can be moved.
There is much advice on hiving swarms, but I rarely have the problems that others seem to have. The most common problem is absconding, which is easy to overcome. Here is what I do:-
Set up the hive with a full number of frames, either comb if you know where the swarm came from, or foundation if you don’t. Put it in the shade, not in full sun. Use a solid floor and close the entrance down, otherwise it seems the bees think they may not be able to defend the hive. I always set the hive where ley lines cross, but don’t worry about that unless you are able to detect them.
Put a board against the front of the hive, sloping up towards the entrance.
If you have already clipped and marked the queen then dump the swarm anywhere on the board. If you haven’t clipped and marked her, then dump them on the bottom of the board, so you have more chance of spotting her. Dump some bees at the entrance, so they call the others when they have found “home”.
Clip and mark the queen if she is fertile and drop her back on the swarm, obviously not if she is virgin.
Allow the swarm to enter the hive. Leave it if the queen is clipped and marked, otherwise put a queen includer under the brood box. Leave it there for no more than 3 days, otherwise it will brush much of the incoming pollen off the legs of foragers and it will prevent drones or the queen leaving.
The swarm should settle down now. Even if it decides to abscond (this rarely happens with me) with a clipped queen, you will find it close to the hive, probably on the front or underneath, so you haven’t lost it.
You will have probably noticed this is much easier than the advice that is often given. Even books going back over 100 years often advocate hiving in the evening. Why? There is no need to if you do what I suggest. I hive swarms at any time of the day, often as many as three in a day, where I have collected them in the same skep and hived them quickly, so I can collect another.