Once you have your hive set up, along with some basic protective equipment, you need some honey bees! The two most common sources for bees to be installed into top bar hives are swarms and packages. Here we'll discuss the benefits and the process of obtaining a swarm for your top bar hive or Warre hive.
Swarms are our preferred method of populating hives. Swarms are the natural method by which honey bees reproduce, and are thus excited to start building comb within their new home. Swarms are also local to the area, and while the opinions vary, we have had the greatest success with feral swarms from our area in Portland, Oregon. Many believe that feral colonies that are living successfully without human interaction and treatment fare better than their counterparts trucked across the country in packages.
Swarms are generally issued out of the hive between spring and early summer, and it is at this time that you can most easily acquire them. Join a local swarm list and beekeeping club, and inform your friends and family that you are interested in catching swarms. Before long your phone may be ringing off the hook on a warm spring day when swarm season begins!
Most commonly swarms will land between 1-20 feet off the ground on a tree branch within 50-100 feet of their hive. At this point they will wait patiently as the scout bees search the area for a new home suitable for the swarm to move into. This process usually takes between 1 hour and 3 days, and it is during this waiting period where you will get "free" bees!
Once you get the call, grab a box in which to put the bees, a light colored bed sheet or tarp, a bee brush and some pruning shears. If nothing else is available, cardboard file boxes that accountants use work well. Once you arrive at the location, you need to ascertain whether it's safe to get the bees. Within arm's reach from ground level is ideal. If a ladder is required, use your best judgment to decide whether it's safe to catch the bees in the box and come back down the ladder. Be warned: The allure of free honey bees can easily cause you to test your limits in ways that you otherwise wouldn't. There are other swarms out there, and risking your life to catch a swarm isn't worth it!
First, we usually recommend wearing a suit and gloves while catching swarms, as you never know when you'll make a mistake or when the bees may become agitated, and doing so on a ladder isn't the right time to find out!
Once you're ready to capture the swarm, lay out the sheet below the swarm. This will be useful later. Place the box under the swarm. If the swarm looks like it will fit nicely into the box, go ahead and give the branch a couple quick shakes. This should cause the majority of the bees to fall into the box. If the swarm is clearly too large or spread out to easily fit in the box, you may want to cut a couple of the branches off (If possible) and set them in the box prior to shaking the largest clump. This will minimize the number of bees falling on the ground.
Often the bees will decide that a fence, wall, mailbox or other structure is preferable to a tree branch. For the beekeeper, this usually makes for a more tedious swarm catch. Regardless of what they're on, it is our goal to remove them as quickly and safely as possible without continually disrupting the clump, as this will just cause them to take to the air and mock your efforts. If you have a spray bottle and some water or sugar water available, this will help the process.
As with the tree branch removals, lay out the sheet below the swarm as best you can. If they are hanging from a fence or a wall, begin by misting the clump a few times with water/sugar water (if available), as this will make it harder for them to take flight. Find the largest part of the clump, set the box directly below and gently brush the clump downward into the box. Then proceed to brush the remaining bees into the box until the majority are no longer on the wall.
Once the bees have been shaken into the box, set it as close as possible to where the clump was hanging. If this is on the ground, the box should be resting on top of sheet you laid out earlier. This will allow the returning scouts, as well as those that may have fallen during the shaking to more easily find their new home. By using the sheet it makes it easier to spot stragglers, and easier for the bees to move into the box.
Gently set the top on the box, leaving some room at one end for the bees to come and go. If you're using an actual nucleus box or hive, you can begin setting all but one of the end bars inside so that the bees have a dark cavity to hang in.
We'll now monitor for a few minutes to see whether the bees are remaining in the box or moving back to the branch. If the queen is in the box the stragglers on the branch will thin out as soon as they realize their queen has abandoned them. If, however, she is still on the branch, you will watch in amazement as thousands of bees begin pouring out of the box and back up to where they were before you disturbed them. If this happens, don't be alarmed! Wait a few minutes until they are resting comfortable on the branch (wall, fence or other structure) and go through the process again until they stay in the box.
After some time the activity should thin out as the majority of the bees are in the box. If you are at a remote location and can't stay until after dusk, you're going to end up leaving many of the scouts and other stragglers behind. At this point you'll want to close up the box entirely so that it is ready for transport to its final destination.
If the bees are going to remain in the box for an extended period (longer than an hour) and the day is relatively warm, I usually poke many holes in the box so that there is some ventilation. On my nuc boxes I incorporate screened holes so that they don't overheat/suffocate. I also tape down the bars or the roof of the box so that they don't shift during transport. Once it's sealed up nicely I throw it in my trunk or back seat and take them home to be installed in a hive!
If they are in a cardboard/non-permanent box, you'll need to transfer them into a hive on the same day. You'll need a more permanent home available for the bees. If you don't have a permanent home available, you'll need to quickly throw one together or buy one! Otherwise your swarm catch was for not...
A lot of top bar beekeepers make nucleus boxes that fit their full-size top bar hives. This is what we do, too. They accommodate 7 bars and have an entrance and will work as a home for a week to a couple months during the spring. This allows you to easily store extra swarms to be installed in full-size hives, replace dead or weak colonies, or to sell or give away.
We highly recommend reading the following books to learn more about capturing swarms and baiting hives: